"...I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me..." [Deuteronomy 5:8-10]

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Brushes with Buddhism, Part 2

I lived in central London for almost six years. I mean central. I could roll out of bed and stagger across the road for cocktails in Soho or shopping in Covent Garden. I walked twenty minutes across the Thames to work each day. My corporate life was pretty good too. I didn't have to wear a suit. I hung out with z-list celebrities and could choose to answer or delegate whacked-out complaints from the public as I liked. I was circling near the top of my career path, and my exposure to assholery was surprisingly limited.

Nathan BarleyBut after a while, I was surprised to find that I wasn't happy. Most of my energy - and all my creative energy - was going into other people's work. Worse, it was work I didn't care for. I tried to make things better. I did change some things. But all in all, the corporation was happy with the gunk it was producing, and terrified it'd lose money if anything changed.

I looked for other jobs, doing similar things, making stuff I thought I might be proud of... But everywhere the corporate "thing" seemed to loom larger. If I was going to advance, it was going to be in a suit-and-tie, with increased seriousity, less levity, and a damn site less free reign.

It was time for a change.

And so, I packed up my stuff and moved back to Glasgow, where I'd spent most of my life before. Sure, I'll probably end up back on the corporate trail... But it was time to try some other things first, and to see what would stick.

But what to do first? I needed a break. I needed to get fit, to clear my head, to break bad habits, to get back the soul that London had squeezed out of - that I had let it suck away...

And so, gentle reader, I found myself heading to a Buddhist Retreat, to the Holy Island, off Arran on the West Coast of Scotland, for a week long program of meditation and yoga, booked pretty much at random and very much at the last minute.

I knew people who had been there before, as well as to Samye Ling and to Plum Village. But the Holy Island sounded quieter, smaller, more isolated and relaxed. It was a good choice.

There were around thirty of us on the course. I expected lycra-clad, po-faced new agers, all slender muscle tone and hostile to humour. Instead, they were lovely, a great mix of people and abilities. The teachers were superb. We learned various yoga styles and techniques throughout the week, and by the end I felt fit, fabulous and healthy. It cost bugger all. The food was stunning. There was no booze, no fags, no TV, no internet, and not a bad word said all week.

After my staggeringly unhealthy London lifestyle, it was a joy to get up at seven each day, to breath the morning air, to hear the seagulls and smell the sea. Everything was optional, but I tried to make the most of it. Most mornings I joined the island volunteers (some Buddhist, some not) for prayers and meditation. After breakfast, there were usually two yoga classes before the high point of everyone's day. Lunch. Did I mention the food? It was all vegetarian of course, and truly legendary. Then we'd have one or two more classes in the afternoon, and usually a talk in the evening, before soup, a walk, and an early night.

The main theme of the week was mindfulness, a central teaching in Buddhism, but now getting a lot of press as a stress-free, drug-less alternative to pretty much all of the ills, travails and horrors of modern life.

A small few of the talks were a bit new-agey for my tastes, but hey, there's wisdom everywhere if you're open to it, and I was certainly in the mode for learning lots.

A true high-point was the visit of two High Lamas to the Island. Even the long-term-island volunteers were impressed. Taking questions from all-comers, they answered in Tibetan.

"Is there truth in all religions" asked a friend.

"There is only one path" came the answer through the translator.

"So Buddhism is the only true religion?"

"Attachment to the path is not the path".

Put that on a t-shirt.

One lovely girl asked about anger she felt when reading news stories about places such as Zimbabwe and Burma.

"Anger hurts only yourself... When you are in a position to change something, you should do what you can to change it... Anger only leads to more anger..."

Another question asked whether the monks felt that there was a growing understanding of the need for peace and love worldwide. Were things getting better? The answer was just brilliant...

"In my experience, I find where loving kindness and compassion is practiced, we find more loving kindness and compassion. Where it is not, we do not".


And so, I returned to the real world, refreshed, healthier, and with a million more stories to tell :)


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