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Holy Island (Part 3)

Essentially, the genius of the Buddha, 2,500 years ago, was to work out a way to achieve this move. Long before the world wide web, even before wide-spread literacy. The ‘trap’ of the conceptual left-brain was still seen as something that needed careful escaping. The Buddha in the sutras outlining samadhi practise uses the breath in the body as the thread that leads us to the right brain.

Buddha spends much time describing the pleasurable aspects of absorbing into the breath

From a contemporary understanding you can think of the Buddha’s path as encompassing six points:

  1. safety – The impetus of the left brain obsession comes from feeling unsafe and wanting to make the world safe by conceptualising it. The prerequisite for relaxing this is recognising that you are safe. Everything on the Island is set-up to reinforce this. You’re fed and housed, there are people to look after you, there are no dangers. The trick is that you have to believe you’re safe. And the way that the Buddha ensures this is by using the breath. Long exhalations will signal to the brain that there is no danger. So the more the breath the more confidently we can feel safe.

  2. focus – the conceptual mind proliferates endlessly because it has never been told to stop. Like a parent providing a safe boundary by saying ‘no’ to a toddler. The mind actually responds well to a clear boundary too. Samadhi practice gives us permission to say ‘no’ to thinking of any stripe. During the course of the practice we can simply turn away from thought and absorb our energy into the pleasures of the breath.

  3. curiosity – the energy of consciousness is curious and the practice harnesses this by getting us to be interested in the real, here-and-now qualities of the breath. Rather than being satisfied with the ‘map’ of the conceptual mind. (“It’s the breath”) We start to explore the ‘landscape’: what’s it like right now? how is this experience? where is it?

  4. enjoyment – the quick-fire satisfactions of the the left-brain are not going to be given up unless there’s something better to go to. So the Buddha spends much time describing the pleasurable aspects of absorbing into the breath. – Blissful, rapturous, soothing are the words he describes. And when we drop into a lived-experience of the sensations of the body, this what can arise.

  5. stability – as we practice more and more we can experience longer and longer stretches in this very pleasant, unstressed, present-moment experience of ourselves and the world. The pull to the left-brain decreases. We can recognise the possibility and indeed desirability of staying in this simple right brain state. We can cultivate it off the cushion, walking by the seashore, watching the rain on the water.

  6. expansion – once we have a solid experience of this state we can use the breath to expand it energetically. We begin with the physical breath in the body. But as we work more subtly we can tune into an energetic breath that flows in and out of us. Beyond the limits of our skin, connected outwards to the world around us, to the people and creatures on the Island. This is perhaps the most startling and pleasurable part. That the experience of the here-and-now is very big. Much bigger than the left-brain can comprehend.

The expanse of time a retreat gives you allows for real organic shifts to happen

It was delicious to feel this process unfold on the island – in myself and in others. The expanse of time a retreat gives you allows for real organic shifts to happen. After all the brain is re-structuring itself over time from a stress-driven, dopamine-powered agitation. To something more expansive, steady, endorphin and oxytocin rich. I can see people’s bodies relax on the island. Spines become less rigid, people’s eyes soften and follow things. There’s less ‘glazing over’ and more alertness to each other’s presence. Colour comes back into people’s cheeks and you hear a lot of laughing, even in the midst of silent days.

Structured and repetitive as the practice is. It guides us into a more heart-centred embodied state and from that, all sorts of insights and releases can occur. Even though it is a classic sitting meditation – still, centred, absorbed in the breath. The goal of the practice is to liberate us from the dull, automatic life of a purely conceptual existence. All ‘map’ and no ‘landscape’. Of course, thoughts are important (meditation is a form of positive thought). But we become skilled at noting those redundant, mechanical thoughts that only seem to sap our energy and imprison us in a cage of anxious conceptualizing. And we chose to say ‘no’ to them and wander in the internal Island of the body. Which like the external island becomes more and more enchanted and magical each time we visit.

I’d love to know your thoughts about bliss. 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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