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Holy Island (Part 2)

One of the first things we did on the Island was stand in the darkness on the bobbing, black jetty that stretches some 30 metres out into the inky sea (bright with phosphorescent plankton on that evening) and imagine how it would be to throw our addictive mobile phones into the water. Would it be horrifying? Or would there be an element of relief? The thing we all need to recognise is that left-brain activity – both the crass stimulation of Facebook and the subtle stimulation of thinking – is addictive. The left brain is hungry for novelty and for clarity. Each time it plans something or categorizes something or gets some new or colourful information then it gets a hit of dopamine. The “seeking’ part of the brain is driven largely by the neurochemistry of dopamine which underpins all our appetites and especially those addictive ones. So, it’s not just internet shopping or internet dating that is addictive. Actually, all thinking is addictive from a neurochemical and, certainly, from a Buddhist point of view.

All this addictive activity is tiring

More relevant to us as we stepped onto Holy Island: all this addictive activity is tiring. I often wish I could photograph each participant as they arrive off the boat and then take another as they get on the boat to leave a week later. Everybody arrives exhausted. It’s partly because the journey is long (and people were coming from Australia to be there) but also because this state of constant left-brain activity is the mainframe of stress. It is our constant thinking that tires us, that makes us low-grade anxious all the time. Which is where the magic of the island comes in. Over the years and centuries, there’s been work going on here with the energy of the present moment. With an appreciation of the wind on the skin, of the smell of the goats in the bracken, of watching ravens pull in their wings and spin as they dive down from the cliffs. St. Molaise in his cliff-cave woke every morning to experience God in the rocks and waves and birds, I imagine.

The currently resident-practitioners who work in the lush organic vegetable- and flower-gardens feel something in the soil, in the smell of seaweed, in the eyes of the robins that watch them work. The present moment is the place of the right hemisphere. As the Buddhist teacher, Reggie Ray says, the left hemisphere is just a fraction, maybe 5% of experience. The great billowing energy of life is in the 95% of the right hemisphere which includes the body, the heart, the senses, the energy of life and the whole environment.

Compared to the dazzling hi-impact proliferation of the world wide web, breathing is going to seem boring

To a mind addicted to the small-but-frequent dopamine hits of Google checking, facebook updating, channel surfing, the experiences of the right brain seems boring. And it’s important to recognise this. Compared to the dazzling hi-impact proliferation of the world wide web, breathing is going to seem boring. But as Chögyam Trungpa says, boredom is the key to enlightenment. If you can recognise the experiential difference between the ‘excitement’ of the left brain (constant sating of imagined lacks) and the steady, expanding pleasure of the right brain (a sense of almost infinite fullness) then you’re on your way to experiencing enlightenment. What is that slippery concept, Enlightenment? What is it that we hunger for when we come on retreat? When we travel around the world to a remote Scottish island? I think one way of conceiving of enlightenment is what Jill Taylor Bolte experienced. That blissful feeling of connection with the universe; the end of paranoid, fearful separation; and the expansive sense of intuitive knowledge about how to be and how to connect to others. It’s the heart of almost all descriptions of mystical experiences. It was certainly in my experiences in Brazil with Ayahuasca. And this is the right-brain experience of the world. Our retreat into samadhi on the island was that. A conscious turning-away from the blandishments of the left-brain (thinking, planning, worrying, doubting) and a slow, immersion into the right-brain knowing of life.

I’d love to know your thoughts about addiction. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.

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