It feels like the start of term. After our unseasonably early Summer and hot spells, the year seems to have been teased into running a month ahead of itself. The bushes are full of blackberries, which usually don’t appear until mid-September, the apples in the orchard are ready for picking, there’s definitely a tiny sniff of Autumn in the air.
And so I come back to Mindsprings after the summer break and it feels like everything is different.
The summer was full of retreats. I led a wonderful week of Earthing with Fay up on Holy Island at the beginning of July, then went straight from there to Colorado for 2 weeks studying with Reggie and then back to Sussex for our annual Art and Mindfulness retreat with Isobel at Gayles in the South Downs. I had a week in Italy where I proposed to my partner and he said yes!
Marriage and the Vajrayana. These are probably the two biggest lodestones in my experience at the moment. Making the commitment to be with one person frees up a lot of frozen anxiety (“Is he the right one? Will it be a disaster? Should I stay single?” – all these thoughts take a hike) and making a commitment to my teacher and taking the next step of practice has a similar quality of boundless, surprising relief. Followed by a dizzying sense of the landscape opening up below my feet.
It was one of the most significant retreats of my life
I went to Colorado in a fug. My practice was all over the place, I didn’t really know why I was going and I constantly had fantasies of missing the plane, of missing the bus and arriving and finding the whole thing had been cancelled.
In fact, it was one of the most significant retreats of my life. Not because it was particularly hard or intense (though it had incredible moments of intensity) but mainly because of the human contact and immersion in the gnarly contours of reality.
I’ve been practising Buddhism for more than 17 years and have been on innumerable retreats. In most of my practice time there has always been – in the wings, – a cast-iron image of what I should be like. When I was a kid it was the ‘golden boy with A grades’, as a retreatant it was ‘the golden meditator with glowing, perfect behaviour and thoughts’. Both those images require constant round-the-clock vigilance to maintain.
But the kind of practice we stepped into at Crestone (the Vajrayana) throws down an almost unbelievable challenge to this sort of phoniness. The challenge is: everything about you right now is OK without ANY need to tidy it up.
If you are pissed off or grumpy: show it
Of course, theoretically, Buddhists say this all the time: accept yourself, everything is fundamentally perfect, you are the Buddha. But here was a community where not only was this the prevalent belief but the human interactions expected, nay, demanded that you bring everything to the table. If you are pissed off or grumpy: show it. If you hate all your fellow practitioners and have zero belief in the practice: good, bring it into the open. If you secretly believe that you are better than everyone else but even deeper below that, you fear that you are nothing: excellent, offer it to the whole group.
This retreat is not like some sort of Buddhist encounter group. No one has to show up – but the atmosphere at Crestone during that retreat was somehow the softest, gentlest invitation to tolerate yourself just as you are. No cramping into an acceptable face; no tidying up your shadowy traits; no policing of your mood, your emotions or your thoughts.
“Really? Everything? I can be everything and you find that OK?” Yes, everything. And while we don’t all live in that sort of electrifyingly welcoming community all the time. We can start to bring that quality of radical drawing-out to ourselves. It’s like we become our own fierce friend, demanding that we at least start from a place of honesty about what’s going on for us.
We’re filling our days, shouting at ourselves
The benefits of living this way are ineffable. The insane-making effort of always fundamentally denying the nature of our experience (because we feel it ‘ought’ to be something different) is backbreaking. Essentially we’re filling our days, shouting at ourselves: “You’re not feeling that. You’re not experiencing this. Your mind isn’t doing that.” All-day, every day. What a dizzying relief it is to say: yes, I am feeling this, I am remembering that my mind is going to that place again, my body really does desire that thing. And then moving on from that starting space of reality.
We don’t act out every impulse and feeling. But we do begin from the truth of our experience. I’d love to know your thoughts about going on retreats. 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!