“I had an apartment in Cambridge that was filled with antiques and I gave very charming dinner parties. I had a Mercedes-Benz and a Triumph 500 cc motorcycle and a Cessna 172 airplane and an MG sports car and a sailboat and a bicycle. I vacationed in the Caribbean where I did scuba-diving. I was living the way a successful bachelor professor is supposed to live in the American world of ‘he who makes it.’ I wasn’t a genuine scholar, but I had gone through the whole academic trip. I had gotten my Ph.D; I was writing books… But what all this boils down to is that I was really a very good game player.”
Are you genuinely seeking greater truth in life, or merely playing the game of recognition and success? Have you ever stopped to ask yourself?
The irony of my phone case overshadowing the picture…
This is one of the reasons I do a silent meditation retreat for 10 days every year. To ask these kind of questions. Why, would I spend my only vacation in 12 months after a roller-coaster startup journey, sitting alone in meditation? I wondered as the monastery bells rang. The only ‘music’ I’d hear for 240 hours.
‘I can’t meditate. I can’t focus for even 2 minutes’. These are the words I hear from 90% of people on meditation. Meditation is an ability all humans possess. Yes, it requires practise but the practice is simple. Be with your breath. Rising. Falling. Kindly investigating thoughts as they arise.
When I was 14 I fell into a swamp in Bedfordshire. My childhood best friend, Emma, had to drag me out. I was covered head to toe in smelly mud. We walked back to her house along the high street in fits of laughter. Drivers looked on in horror at my mud and swamp dew attire. I stood outside her house. She hosed me down and we fell about laughing. That’s what meditation is like. You fall in a swamp (because your thoughts tell you, you’re a ‘this’ ‘this’ ‘this’). The meditation helps you laugh. It doesn’t matter if you smell like swamp while doing it.
I have written this account of my second 10 day silent meditation retreat aware that my words are woefully inadequate for such a task, so I have borrowed heavily from those with more meditation insights than I, to deliver in language, wisdom that can only be understood through feeling. With one hope: you open to your ability to experience each moment in limitless joy.
Before I go any further, if your goal is to avoid pain and escape suffering, do not seek higher levels of consciousness or spiritual evolution. First, you cannot achieve them without suffering, and second, insofar as you do achieve them, you are likely to be called on to serve in ways more painful to you, or at least demanding of you, than you can now imagine. Then why desire to evolve at all, you may ask?
Awakening redirects energies in a way that makes the most of your higher traits, allowing for a more purposeful life.
Rick Warren likens life to an invention that we only discover the purpose of when we are in contact with the inventor – ourselves. Meditation has helped me personally become more fearless. when we are willing to stay even a moment with uncomfortable energy, we gradually learn not to fear it. Then when we see someone in distress we’re not reluctant to breathe in the person’s suffering and send out relief. Meditation also makes doing easier.
‘It is easier to voice commitment to great causes than it was actually to make a difference to an individual human being’.
During the first day of my meditation, I kept hearing my investor, affectionately known to friends as Rags, call my name. Over and over again. A.me. A.me. Always the emphasis on the A. I seriously considered that my phone had sprang to life and he was dialing me. Something had blown up. Something was seriously wrong. The platform had been eaten hacked by North Koreans or the Philippines team had been killed in a flash flood.
‘Bloody hell. I should ring. Check everything is OK’. I was not allowed my phone. I seriously thought about escaping, I’d find a pay phone. At least then my mind would be at ease. My practice was totally blown apart by all the horrendous things that were happening at Clozer in my absence.
None of those things happened, the only reality was I destroyed my peace by imagining them.
Creativity poured from me as I became to take my armour on the second day. Pema Chodron, one of my favourite writers on spirituality likens the spiritual life to undressing your armour when you come upon a dragon.
“… we are willing to spend our life reconnecting with the quality of being continually awake. Every time we feel like taking refuge in a habitual means of escape, we take off more armor, undoing all the stuff that covers over our wisdom and our gentleness and our awake quality. We’re not trying to be something we aren’t; rather, we’re reconnecting with who we are. So when we say, “I take refuge in the Buddha,” that means I take refuge in the courage and the potential of fearlessness, of removing all the armor that covers this awakeness of mine. I am awake; I will spend my life taking this armor off. Nobody else can take it off because nobody else knows where all the little locks are, nobody else knows where it’s sewed up tight, where it’s going to take a lot of work to get that particular iron thread untied. You have to do it alone.” ‘Pema Chodron, Comfortable with Uncertainty’
I had waves of ideas pour from me and no paper to write them down. Writing is forbidden on retreat. Were the ideas part of the armour? My addiction to thinking clearly was, I thought.
We waste precious time exaggerating or romanticizing or belittling ourselves with a complacent surety that yes, that’s who we are. My ‘I ams’ feel away as I settled into practice. I thought about being preoccupied with our self-image is like being deaf and blind. It’s like coming upon a tree of singing birds while wearing earplugs.
Most of us are locked in the search for happiness through the pleasures of the senses, which is ‘low, common and unprofitable. I began to experience this powerfully day four as my eaten meditation seemed to be a prolonged dream of eating a giant haribo cherry. Sugar starved.
‘Confess your hidden faults. Approach what you find repulsive. Help those you think you cannot help. Anything you are attached to, let it go. Go to places that scare you’. Advice from her teacher to the tibetan yogini Machik Labdrön.
Exactly half-way into the retreat, suddenly something popped out of me like a broken cuckoo clock. Exposed. Wave after wave of deep loss, grief and pain hit me. Each one worse than the last. I clung to a bottle of water so tightly a blister on my finger bled. My tears engulfed me. I sipped water to stop the choking that had now become so loud, people were staring.
I cried that I did not say goodbye to my step-dad, Tom.
I cried for I wish he’d text me and ask me to research Statens. A new tablet his doctor put him on.
I cried that he would never again tell me a bizarre story about when he worked in a morgue.
I cried when I thought of him telling me I was ‘best in world’, in his Yorkshire twang. after I was on BBC World News.
I cried at memories of he and my mum’s wedding.
I cried that I’ll never see his mop of blonde hair. Or see him supping a pint. Or eating fish n chips. Or waiting for me with my mum in the passenger seat. That I’d never again buy him a cake. That the man I loved as a father was gone at 56.
I cried when on the day he died I took 60 business calls and never mentioned that he was gone.
Tears streamed down my face. Nothing to ease the edginess of the moment. No phone to call someone. No way to go running. No place to travel. Alone to unpack a solid sack of stinking dung. My first experience of death and my spiritual quagmire. After years of meditation I met death by putting more armour on. I retreated into work. I closed up. I ran away. Though I was conscious of this; I didn’t change it. I was no help to anyone. Tom included.
I felt the pain, taking work calls in hospital corridors when I should have been with my family. Guilt, shame, disgust ripped through my body. The physical pain of choosing a non-entity (Clozer) over a man who had only shown me love and kindness. A man who had provided the only stable family I’ve ever known. All my failures, real and imagined reduced me to a head bobbing just above the surface of emotional Niagara Falls. I would surely drown anytime soon.. I can only imagine what the Jews felt when the Gestapo arrived; clearly witnessing my armouring up, might be the closest I ever come.
I sat with the searing desperate clinging of never being able to make amends to someone I truly loved. This genuine heart of sadness. Five days of Meditation forced me to set down the heavy sack of dung I had ‘justifiably’ been beating myself with. I cried because that was all I could do. To accept it as it is. When we sit with discomfort without trying to fix it, when we stay present to the pain of disapproval or grief and let it soften us, healing can begin. It doesn’t look good. It doesn’t feel good. it smells like s**t. You open the bag and smell that s**t.
‘Emotionally we all have a deep-rooted aversion to impermanence. We want permanence; we expect permanence. Our natural tendency is to seek security; we believe we can find it.’ – Pema Chodron.
The next day, I woke looking like I’d gone three rounds with Mike Tyson, expecting to begin another day of heavy emotion, but the emotion evaporated. As if it was never there. True to the Buddhist truth of impermanence; the serious psychosis I thought I had experienced the day before was gone.
I took a breath. It felt like it was the first breath I’d taken since my poor heart broke in India, where I found out that Tom had only weeks left to live. I found compassion for the little me who had been unable to let go of the armour. I relaxed into death, not resisting. My misery shifted to rising, falling. Probably my mind was too over stretched to consider any other thoughts. Impermanence.
My meditation was strong. I had a vivid recollection of the time I fought a man trying to steal my phone in Bogota, Colombia. why did I risk my life for a phone? That was stupid. Then I tried to send the man love and compassion. Maybe he was a junkie desperate for his next fix or a father trying to feed his children. Maybe then I thought, I should have given the phone. That is what Buddhists call ‘Idiots compassion’. To debase yourself serves no one. I returned the compassion to myself.
There was a talk about a monk who escaped Tibet. On his way to India he was forced to swim through a frozen lake. When he got out, his clothes were so frozen he’d have cut himself if he tried to sit down. He said that discomfort is how we connect with the present moment. I was noticing how everything depends on thought.
‘Here even the various mind-pleasing blossoming flowers And attractive shining supreme golden houses Have no inherently existent maker at all. They are set up through the power of thought. Through the power of conceptuality the world is established,’. —BUDDHA
Later I observed an elderly married couple together. The man laughed at the woman. A moment so tender and caring I wondered if my observation was intrusive. Tears sprang to my eyes in a moment of pure joy – watching their silence. Their coupled silence. Feeling the total complete love held between them.
I suddenly felt sadness for myself. My days of being married to someone from 15 were numbered. Modern culture had edged me to a decision to (sofar) forego the bonds of a lifetime marriage. I felt the loss of a man I had never met. A man that wasn’t there to put my coat on or stroke my hand. I chortled at my vision of a black and white 1930’s marriage. Me in the sidecar of his motorbike. Wearing black thick rimmed goggles. My hair blown about by the wind; the only obstruction to the long and loving glances shared with my imaginary husband.
I scolded myself. ‘You. A 1930’s marriage. AS IF’.
I settled for allowing myself to believe that such deep, enraptured love is out there for me. A love so deep the God’s would be jealous. I labelled this thinking. I was in a Hollywood movie. I returned to the moment. The moment offered me deep love. No motorbike bike or Sean Connery lookalike required.
I was deep in meditation on a bench when I had a profound revelation in kindness. I felt a kindness enter my body that I’ve never felt before. There was not a soul insight, but suddenly there was a man who was walking across the field. he stopped with a friendly smile and told me his brother had seen me from their car and thought I was ill. I was shocked that out of nowhere an elderly man had walked 15 minutes to ask if I was OK. It was like a pure blinding message: yes, people are kind.
I must have looked crazy, as I wasn’t used to speaking and could barely utter ‘I am good’. He wished me all the best. I watched as he turned uphill back to when his brother was parked in the car. It took him 15 minutes to reach the carpark. I watched the whole time, my jaw hung, wondering if I had just witnessed an audience with God.
I have always believed that problems create our courage and our wisdom. I recently met a very successful guy from America who suggested I glorify suffering ‘its not needed for progress’. I thought hard on this until I heard him elucidate his ideal relationship: a non-monogamous; mathematical structure with absolutely no living together. Hmm. Was I really a pig wallowing in my trip to the slaughterhouse? Or was this guy scared?
Carl Jung said, ‘Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering. But the substitute itself ultimately becomes more painful than the legitimate suffering’. The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves. As I my experience on day five taught me.
Move out or grow in any dimension and pain as well as joy will be your reward. A full life will be full of pain. The only alternative is not to live fully or not to live at all. The more lovingly we live our lives the more risks we take.
At the closing ceremony I considered the oneness and thought of Saints like Gandhi, as the human embodiment. He had renunciated selfish motive and private goal, merging his soul being in the stream of humanity as a whole. At the closing ceremony I realised the wonderful opportunity that a human lifetime affords for spiritual practice.
When we shut off our mind, which interprets reality in symbols or speech or words, our perception again takes on the freshness of first discovery. Feeling high, like I was on LSD, I was grounded by my knowledge that we can kid ourselves for a while that we understand meditation and the teachings, but at some point we have to face it. We are tangled balls of string. Just because someone has done a lot of meditation – they are no less a tangled ball of string. The only difference: they’ve given up trying to untangle the ball.
I have always felt sure one day I’d find myself in Tibet feeding goats, chanting, oh mandi pandi hum, wearing a brown bobble hat atop my shaven head. This meditation retreat cleared me of that fantasy and many more. My route to express love has and will always be founding businesses. I felt and have always felt deep faith. Not in doctrine. in my own inner wisdom. My belief is that this inner wisdom comes from the divine. Quite how, I’ve given up on. Attempting a scholarly dissection is like fish attempting to walk. It won’t move forward.
Nirvana or lasting enlightenment or true spiritual growth can be achieved only through the persistent exercise of real love. loving is painful. This retreat showed me that problems do not go away. They must be worked through or else they remain, forever a barrier to the growth and development of the spirit
A good friend told me a story about her cousin who died very young. On his death bed she asked if he had any regrets. He said that he wished he’d lived life for himself. Psychologically many of us are still very much the children of their parents, living by hand-me-down values, motivated primarily by their parents’ approval and disapproval (even when their parents are long dead and buried), never having dared to truly take their destiny into their own hands.
Thoughts during meditation, come only as intuition or guidance, not sabotaging thoughts. This is one strong reason to meditate – you will meet yourself. Get away from all your I’s.
As my experience of taught showed me, meditation doesn’t seems very relevant when our lover leaves us, when our employee has a tantrum in the office, when we’re insulted by our boss or in my case, when someone we love dies. How do we work with our resentment when our loved one walks into the room and yells at us? How do we reconcile that frustration and humiliation with our longing to be open and compassionate and not to harm ourselves or others? Realising we’re all one makes taking the blows easier.
As you get higher up the consciousness food chain, the true size of your ego is revealed. Laugh at your own vanities. Laugh with no inhibition. And realise the external world compares not with the riches dormant within. They are within you eight now. They are within everyone you love, everyone you hate. They are all are that is real. As the Dalai Lama says ‘[with] a good human heart as well as a good human brain. With these working together, we can achieve a lot.’
I hope these words unmask meditation and what a 10-day retreat feels like.