10-DAY: BUDDHIST MEDITATION RETREAT 





05.18



INTRODUCTION


May has drawn to a close and with June underway, we’ve finally been blessed with a little sunshine! Meanwhile in Nepal, I’ve been busy meditating and taking Buddhist teachings at the Kopan Monastery (that’s right folks). It seems that after talking to a few friends, “What’s the secret to happiness?” is the question on everyone’s lips, and well, you’ll be pleased to hear that the lessons I’ve learnt at Kopan should be fairly easy to implement in your daily life.


I’m sure you’ll be wondering why I decided to take retreat in a Buddhist Monastery in the first place? Let me explain. I’ve no doubt that for less advantaged citizens around the world, being born and raised in the west during the 21st century might seem a dream come true. Many of us have the relative wealth to enjoy material luxuries, the freedom to practice any religion we wish and the good fortune of making our wildest ambitions a reality. Put in a little time and effort and we millennials have the potential to live a wonderfully fulfilling life. Despite this fact however, there are still high figures of mental health disorders diagnosed each and every year in the U.K. and throughout the west.


During my travels in Asia I’ve met characters from all walks of life and I’ve been surprised to find that often, the happiest of people are those living on the fringes of destitution, carefully treading the line between living and barely surviving. I’ve also noticed that the Buddhist faith is often inextricably linked to the day-to-day lives of these people. Perhaps we can assume therefore, that having faith holds the key to happiness? With Mental Health Awareness Week not long behind us, I’ve taken the opportunity to write a bit about mindfulness, meditation and how to try and attain a happier life―according to the Mahayana school of thought.


Now, let’s discuss the first lesson I learnt at Kopan.



UNDERSTANDING OUR SUFFERING


In order to understand Buddhism and benefit from its teachings, we must first try to understand that suffering is existential. This means that our human existence is fundamentally concerned with suffering (heavy stuff).


In one way or another we will all experience suffering during life, but it’s important to remember that it’s impermanent. Mahayana Buddhism is based on the Lam Rim and the liberation from suffering. We’re all very good at distracting ourselves from suffering―by indulging in eating, drinking, shopping and social media we get some relief, and this makes us feel better about ourselves. But it’s not long before the suffering creeps back in.


It’s important to note that Buddhism isn’t an escape from reality, but a way to try to understand and end suffering altogether. But how can we do this?


  • Negativity―low self esteem, miserliness, hatred, jealousy―will always prevail in our minds if we choose to ruminate on it.


“If you are gentle with yourself, you will be gentle with others.” Ani Karin. Kopan Monastery 2018.


Negativity, a manifestation of suffering, usually arises from the six root afflictions. Desire, anger, pride, ignorance, doubt and wrong views. It’s important to establish that although the conditions of suffering may be outward, the cause is often inside. Negative afflictions obscure our mind like the clouds obscure a clear sky on an otherwise beautiful day. We create the causes of our suffering with our ever active mind, full of negative thoughts, doubts and misconceptions. We therefore are the only ones who can change the way we think and ultimately end our suffering.


A word on anger.



MANAGING OUR ANGER


  • Anger can arise from our own feelings of inferiority and underperformance.


“One person’s hatred can cause a world of war.” Unknown.


I for one know that anger often comes from a place of self resentment and from a lack of self worth. Bottling up all your negativity is nothing but a disaster waiting to happen, (trust me). If we dwell for too long on these thoughts and feelings, they quickly take control of us and we act on them, often leading us to say and do things we don’t mean. If we want to lead a happier, more fruitful life, we should try not to hold grudges and be kind to ourselves!


Now, the big one―desire.



MANAGING OUR DESIRES


I have observed that our situational circumstances have a lot to do with our afflictions, most notably desire. Nowadays, thanks to the media and advertising, we’re far too concerned with image and our material wealth. “I look fat. Perhaps if I join a gym and get fit then someone will like me… then I’ll be happy.” We react on our feelings. Feelings give rise to cravings (cravings for more pleasant feelings and for freedom from suffering). Cravings give rise to grasping (behaviours, views, objects, sense pleasures). Does this sound familiar? No doubt it does on some level. This leads me to my third lesson.


  • If we want to be happy then we need to alleviate and dispel the cause of suffering―low self esteem, feelings of miserliness, hatred, jealousy―instead of looking for short-term fixes.


“The world is nothing but a projection of our mind.” Unnamed. Kopan Monastery 2018.


Do you ever find that feeding those desires makes you more dissatisfied? Particularly if we set high expectations from attaining our desires and they don’t achieve the desired effect. “I have hundreds of likes on Instagram but I don’t feel any happier.” Besides, if we do attain a desire then a new one soon arises.


Relying on fulfilling our desires to relieve internal suffering can also inadvertently lead to unhealthy attachment―to people and objects―which culminates in resentment and anger when our negative thoughts and feelings return. This brings me to lesson number four.



MANAGING OUR JEALOUSY


  • Often our jealousy is a projection of what we think is the case.


“… and the root of all this [suffering] meets back to a mistaken awareness which perceives the nature of phenomena wrongly.” H. H. The Dalai Lama.


Essentially jealousy is not liking to see others happier than ourselves. But does this jealousy relieve our suffering? Does it impact anybody but ourselves? No―jealousy is self suffering. Perhaps seeing others with more than we have makes us jealous… seeing others with all the things that we desire―the perfect relationship, great friendships, good looks, a nice car etc. But we should all know by now that these things that other people ‘have’ are often not as they seem. Instagram would have us believe that this is their reality, but believe that those carefully edited rose tinted images are nothing but fiction.


Instead of attaining ‘things’ we should look inward and try to understand the nature of our desires, focusing instead on developing a positive state of mind. Being jealous doesn’t help us to get nearer to what we want―if anything it leads to self pity which destroys our potential to achieve. Learn to rejoice in others happiness and begin to focus on what you can do to helpyourself. Ask yourself―”Is it a person that I desire, and why do I want their love? Do I want to feel appreciated? Begin by acknowledging your kindness, intelligence, humour, tolerance and compassion and learn to love yourself. Forget about your image. Besides, I’m sure the ‘perfect’ relationship isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. This leads me to lesson number five.



MANAGING OUR PRIDE


  • We can prevent our pride from ruling our thoughts and actions by accessing our feelings first.


“It is very foolish and ignorant to retaliate with spite,/ In the hope of ending the attack of the enemy, because/ The retaliation itself only brings more suffering.” Chandrakirti.


It’s important in life not to let pride get the better of us (we are all guilty of this I’m afraid). If you give your opinion and someone says, “No, no, no, you’re wrong”―don’t let your pride get hurt. Instead of retaliating, take a second to access your feelings. Is reacting based on your feelings going to help matters or make it worse? Have you something to gain from rejecting their idea, or would you gain more from a new point of view? Most importantly, try to understand why you don’t agree―is it a valid reason or do you just love to be right? How did you learn to walk, talk and drive? Don’t forget that you owe all your knowledge to other people, so be humble.


Now this is all very well and good but you’re probably wondering how exactly Buddhism can be put into practice in our day-to-day. We can’t just read all this advice and then expect it all to just work itself out… it’s easier said than done. Now, here’s my fourth lesson.



LEARNING ABOUT MEDITATION


  • Through meditation and other practices, we can learn to have a more beneficial and positive experience of life.


Dharma―the teachings of the Buddha―can be used on a day-to-day basis to subdue the mind from disturbing thoughts. Meditation is an incredibly useful tool for this. Imagine the body is just a vehicle for the senses, and the mind does with those senses what it will. In modern day life we deal with an assault of different sights, smells and sounds all day, everyday. It can be very overwhelming at times. Our senses contact our mind and we immediately create thoughts and judgements. Meditation teaches us to disconnect from these thoughts and calm our mind.


Practicing silence also helps us to recognise our thought patterns and realise the power of our voice. If there’s too much negativity in our mind then without thinking it becomes vocal in our speech. If we want to improve our state of mind and therefore our behaviours, we must practice meditation often and with a sense of deliberation. But how do we meditate?



LEARNING TO MEDITATE


Now, I’m going to explain how to do a focus meditation for those of you that haven’t tried it before. Lesson number six…


  • Don’t do what I did and freak out if you can’t get the hang of it in the beginning, it’s not easy!


Begin with both legs crossed, each foot on the opposite thigh. (I recommend investing in a meditation cushion because you will be sitting for a long time). Sit half-on half-off the cushion to help your back and spine. Rest your right hand in your left, both hands facing palm upward thumbs touching. Imagine a string gently pulling your spine upwards. Relax the back, thighs, knees, face and mouth, with your tongue resting against the roof of your mouth. Hold the arms out slightly for good ventilation. Wear light clothing on the chest area to keep it cool, and try to keep your knees warm to reduce pain. It’s okay to flex every 5 to 10 minutes in the beginning, this helps with circulation. Don’t hold your stomach in.


Next―breathing. Breathe in and out through the nose, imagining the cool air as clear white light as it enters, and thick black clouds as you dispel the negative energy through your nose. Feel the natural rise and fall of the shoulders and the expanding and deflating of the stomach, draw the attention away from the environment around you. If you hear any sounds, acknowledge them and then let them go. Don’t form judgements about them. If it helps, focus your mind on a ball of light in your mind. Imagine it spinning gently on its axis and expanding as you inhale and exhale.


Hopefully after a few minutes you should begin to feel much calmer and less distracted by your thoughts. Now, let’s look at motivation.



MANAGING OUR MOTIVATION


  • If we act with positive or negative motivation then we will create a positive or negative action.


I’m going to address the Buddhist theory of karma―the law of cause and effect. This is a concept that I struggled with at Kopan. Whilst I believe our actions have consequences during this lifetime, I’m not sure if I believe in reincarnation. However I think there is a lot to be learnt from the basic principle. If we want to bring more positive energy to our lives, we should learn to act more positively―beginning with good intentions.


Ever heard of the law of attraction? All actions start with intention―in the mind. Any actions motivated by unwholesome intentions, such as greed, have a negative karmic consequence and lead to unhappiness. Imagine a glass of water, representing our mind. Just one drop of bad intention and it floods the mind, making it polluted and unsuitable for drinking. If we are motivated by good intentions however, then it’s likely our small kind actions will be rewarded with happiness.


Mahayana Buddhists from the Tibetan Tradition make water bowl offerings―known as yonchap―to the Buddha, and to all sentient beings, as a symbol of generosity and as an antidote to attachment. Other Tibetan Buddhist rituals and practices include doing prostrations, reciting mantras and attending ceremonies and teachings. Now I’m not religious and I don’t expect many of you reading this will feel inclined to start making offerings to the Buddha. Instead, think about the small things you can do to generate positivity in your life.



MOVING FORWARD


For me, the most obvious place to start is by finding ways to show your appreciation for the wonderful life you have. Don’t just say thank you―go out of your way to show your loved ones what they mean to you.


“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” William Arthur Ward.


Look after your body and take care of your mind. Make time for yourself, and for your friends and family. Don’t let life take over. Be aware of your impact on the planet. Look after animals and treat the environment with respect.


A few suggestions to get started?


1. Get outdoors!


Besides meditating and eating veggie momos all day, what is there to do in Nepal? Well the first thing I did when I left Kopan Monastery was to go trekking in the Himalayas! (More on this later). I can’t think of a better way to clear your mind than ambling through the beautiful outdoors with nothing but your two best mates for company! By ambling I mean ten hours a day of dramatic uphill struggle―but the feeling of achievement was nothing short of incredible.


2. Eat real food.


It’s time to start shopping in your own backyard. I think one of the fondest memories of my time in Nepal was a visit to the weekly Farmers Market in Kathmandu. My friends and I could have spent all day there―we bought ourselves a whole lot of locally made cheese, bread, cake (so good) and enjoyed fresh coffee in the sun. It was awesome. If you can grow your own fruit and veg, even better!


3. Buy organic.


During my time in Asia I’ve been blown away by how resourceful the people are with the limited materials that they have. In Northern Laos the villagers of the Khmu ethnic tribe build their houses from scratch with bamboo from the jungle. I watched an elderly man making bamboo baskets and a little boy played football with a ball made from bamboo also. Back home in the west everything is readily available made from synthetic materials and it’s just not sustainable. No matter if it’s clothes, makeup, decor or whatever… buy natural and help Mother Nature out.



MORE INFORMATION


If you’ve found anything I have to say about what I learnt at Kopan beneficial, then do think about visiting the monastery and taking part in the ‘Discovering Buddhism – 10-day Introductory Course’. I cannot recommend it enough.


If Nepal is a little too far flung for you then visit: Kopan Monastery to find out more. FPMT―Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition has hundreds of centres around the world where you can meet with other likeminded people and learn more about Mahayana Buddhism. In the U.K. alone there are currently ten centres.


Don’t worry if the religious side of things isn’t for you… for more on mindfulness and how to think, act, relate and find meaning in life: Compassion and Wisdom, 16 Guidelines and Universal Education.



FURTHER READING





CONCLUSION


Let’s finish with a few words of inspiration.


“This day is a special day/ It is yours/ Yesterday slipped away/ It cannot be filled with more meaning/ About tomorrow nothing is known/ But this day, today, is yours/ Make use of it/ Today you can make someone happy/ Today you can help another/ This day is a special day/ It is yours.” Unknown.


A big thank you to Ani Karin, Ani Katie and our knowledgeable Tibetan Lama for all of your time and teachings. Photographs by: Hannah Deakin, Andries De Schrijver, Pie Aerts and Gela Ballosch. Much thanks to you