A chance discovery of a book about Buddhism led me to a life where meditation and yoga took centre stage.
The Blessing in Disguise
My room was the smallest. And I must admit I felt a bit disappointed. We’d just graduated from university and three friends and I had decided to live together for the summer in a shared house in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
It was a huge old clapboard building, grey-painted and elegant. A garden with big mature bushes ran around the house.
We tossed a coin for the rooms. I got the tiny room on the side of the house. Just big enough for a bed. It had large windows on three sides. The fourth side was attached to the house and that wall was full of books.
It turned out they were all books on Buddhism. I had barely any concept of this, what I considered at the time to be an exotic religion. But during that long summer, where I had little to do apart from my job in a photo lab, I gradually started to pick up these books.
My first one was by the Japanese Zen master D.T. Suzuki. I don’t remember the exact book, but I do remember the sense of waking up. The feeling that here, finally, was a philosophy which matched my own unformed take on life.
What grabbed me was the emphasis on the individual. How, within each of us, we have the ability not to do away with pain, but to see it differently. I learnt that how we experience our situation is largely down to what we decide to emphasise in our thoughts.
No outside god telling us what to do. Look inwards and reflect. Take responsibility. I learnt above all that our minds are malleable. The young adult me thought this sounded just fine.
I had lost my mother when I was a toddler. We know now thanks to the work of Bowlby and others, that these early experiences can lead to feelings of low self worth and other issues such as difficulty with relationships.
I knew I carried around with me a sense of wanting things to be different. I was looking for answers.
To say I was a seeker is maybe a little of an over-statement. But I was seeking something. I wanted to know that the pervasive feeling of dissatisfaction was escapable.
It was through Buddhism that I discovered that I was not alone in wanting to find a way through that feeling, that ‘dukha’. I discovered that pain – and the desire to become free of it – is universal. It was very comforting.
Later, when I was in Bodhgaya, India, in 1999, I met a young American woman who had converted to a life as a Tibetan Buddhist nun. She had shaved her head and wore maroon robes.
We were eating a vegetarian meal laid out for the pilgrims under canvas tents while the sun set, near the platform where the Dalai Lama had been speaking that day. She told me that she decided to become a nun when she finally accepted that ‘Life is Suffering’.
Is it morbid? A Buddhist would say no. It is simply an acceptance of the way things are. And in that, there are glimpses of freedom.
The first of the Buddha’s so called Four Noble Truths state that the nature of life is dukha, sometimes translated as suffering, sometimes dissatisfaction. This can take 3 forms – the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change and the suffering of conditioning.*
The first type of suffering is the ordinary painful way in which we feel suffering as a result of being alive: birth, ageing, sickness and death are all recognisable experiences which we share.
The second type of suffering is that which comes about as a result of the constantly changing nature of life. So, when we gain nice clothes, a big house or fame, we feel satisfaction. However, that satisfaction doesn’t last. These things don’t bring us lasting happiness.
Finally, there is a type of suffering which is conditional. It comes about as a result of our ignorance (‘avidhya’)… We all know that we all seek happiness, and yet we live our lives following the very actions which lead to more suffering.
Going for Refuge
I’d come to Bodhgaya in search of an answer. I’d been working in broadcast documentary films for 15 years. It was exciting. And it was a slog. Every job ended in a sense that I could have done more.
No film I worked on matched my ideals to help change the world for the better. I’d even made several films in Tibet, about the Chinese occupation there, to large international audiences.
But nothing seemed to reduce the immense suffering I saw all around me, especially in what was then called The Third World.
I asked a teacher and friend in New York what I should do. I had recently started practising yoga and I wanted to know if I should ditch filmmaking to become a yoga teacher. Khyongla Rinpoche said, Go to Bodhgaya. Go and hear His Holiness talk.
So here I was. The morning after my chat with the young American nun, I went to the Kalachakra talks. 10,000 nuns and monks had convened on the small Indian town. I was one of a handful of westerners. The 14th Dalai Lama led us all in a ritual called Going for Refuge.
It entails committing to what are called the ‘Three Jewels’, the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) and the Sangha (your companions on the path).
A couple of hundred feet from where the Buddha gained enlightenment, I gave voice to my aspiration to gain liberation, for the benefit of all beings.
A year later, back in the UK and now pregnant, I undertook the Buddhism Certificate at Jamyang in London, under the smiling, still and wise tutorship of Geshe Tashi. At the end of the course, I could not have been more honoured when Geshe Tashi came and sat in our garden and held our baby Maia, then a one-year old.
I didn’t – and still don’t – call myself a Buddhist (I fall so far short of the definition!), but I would say I am inspired by the Buddha’s philosophy.
I began to meditate more often. 10 minutes a day, Khyongla Rinpoche once told me, was enough to reconnect, to recharge and come back to what matters.
I started to attend meditation breaks at Gaia House a retreat centre in Devon, studying under such skilfull, generous teachers as Rob Burbea, Catherine McGee and Yanai Postelnik. These retreats – I went on maybe 15 during those years – were often silent. Not a year passed in which I was not there at some point, recharging my battery.
After my sister died in 2012, I went on a retreat at Gaia House on my own for 12 days, staying silent and immersing myself in my grief. Meditation pulled me through.
My yoga training and my Buddhist meditation went hand in hand.
The first yoga teacher I stuck with over time – Vaccasin, who now runs Yogapoint in Brixton – was also a Buddhist meditation practitioner, in the Triratna tradition. His asana (yoga posture) classes felt somehow different in tone, infused with a palpable kindness.
Never did I realise that these two streams of my life would converge in a river which carries me afloat still years later. They intersect and infuse each other.
Patanjali, whose Sutras written 3000 years ago are generally considered to form the basis of modern yogic philosophy, says that freedom from suffering can be attained in a variety of ways. By:
- cultivation of the positive qualities (friendliness, compassion, joy and equanimity)
- contemplation of slow exhalation and the passive pause at its end
- becoming engrossed in an object of interest
- contemplating the luminous light within
- imagining enlighted sages of the past
- recollecting dream-filled or dreamless sleep or by
- meditating on an object conducive to steadiness**
Although Patanjali comes out of the Hindu yoga tradition, his words are echoed by the various Buddhist cultures worldwide.
Over the years, I’ve watched happily as meditation has gone from being a fringe activity to a mainstream one. Now, stripped of its Buddhist origins, it’s generally called ‘mindfulness‘.
I am grateful to teachers with the extraordinary ability to put into words the deepest teachings of the ancient Indian sages. Sharon Saltzberg is one of my all-time favourites.
I went to hear her in North London. I took Maia with me, who was about 7 at the time. Maia sat quietly at the back of the room for the afternoon, reading Harry Potter I think.
Afterwards, we went up to meet Sharon Saltzberg, who seemed happy to have had such a young audience member. I still have the book she signed for us that day***. In it, she states the benefits of meditation as she sees them. She says you will:
- stop limiting yourself,
- weather hard times better,
- discover what’s really important to you,
- have a portable energy source,
- be in touch with the best parts of yourself,
- recapture the energy you’ve wasted trying to control the uncontrollable and
- understand how to relate to change better.
There is meditation in physical yoga too, where the ‘asanas’ become a kind of meditation in movement. These are challenging times. We’re reminded by Abhijata Iyengar, granddaughter of BKS Iyengar, of the importance of sensitivity both in our practice and in our daily lives.
‘Nature has forced upon us a time when we must reflect on what we have been doing all along. If you only think about actions, you are not going to understand the responses. You don’t know what you are being called for. So look at this time as a teacher who is telling us to step back, to see what is happening and take the right step forward. Please be gentle with yourself.’ ****
Billions of Aeons
Change will not happen overnight, but by remembering ourselves, our society and our earth, we can move forwards into a world where compassion counts most.
The Dalai Lama laughs when he talks about the speed at which we generally wish to attain clarity, peace or whatever you perceive to be the benefits of meditation. There is no quick fix. The exploration is endless. He says,
‘If you really want to practice Buddha Dharma then right from the start you must make up your mind to do so until the end, regardless of whether it takes millions or billions of aeons. After all, what is the meaning of our life? In itself, it has no intrinsic meaning. However, if we use life in a positive way, then even the days and the months and the aeons become meaningful.’*
Om Mane Padme Hum
I teach a mixed Buddhist Meditation and yogic breathing (pranayama) class on Mondays.
*The Four Noble Truths, HH The Dalai Lama, Thorsons
**Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, I.33 to I.39, Thorsons
*** The Power of Meditation, Sharon Saltzberg, Hay House
****Online class, Abhijata Iyengar, 26th May, 2020