After six months in Asia, I was back in the UK for three months between December and March. The purpose of this trip home was primarily to sit the first year panel for my PhD, but I also – and this will not surprise anyone that knows me well – ended up over-committing to a hundred things including teaching, some other bits and pieces of work, taking several courses, trying to sort out some practical details of my research and the wonderfully time consuming business of trying to spend good time with all the people that I love in Edinburgh. A few weeks before I left Scotland I lost my voice for 13 days. I was, physically and emotionally, completely stressed by doing too much of all the things that I love.
During that 13 days my I had arranged to meet my friend Alison for coffee and she suggested that we go and walk the labyrinth in Edinburgh’s George Square. When I’m in Scotland in summer I walk the labyrinth regularly but I hadn’t ventured out yet this winter. That half an hour of putting one foot in front of the other and getting lost in the twists and turns of the path to and from the centre, stands out as an oasis of calm in a difficult few weeks.
I tell this story because, as a re-entry to Asia, I have just finished a 7 day Buddhist retreat led by The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay). The central practice of the retreat was mindfulness; using our breath to bring our attention back to the present moment, the only moment where we can truly be alive. And one of the key ways that we practiced mindfulness was mindful walking. Putting one foot in front of the other; breathing in and breathing out.
At the beginning I thought that I was mostly there for my PhD and I avidly took screeds of notes from the daily lectures on Buddhist Psychology (all of which will be invaluable). But I should have realised on the first day, when Thay talked about the false dualism between subjective and objective, that I was kind of missing the point. This retreat was about experiencing Buddhist Psychology, an experience that will benefit my study and my life (and that is another false dualism right there). I have intellectually understood mindfulness for some time and I have observed how many people in Buddhist cultures appear not to get angry about things that seemed to me impossible not to get angry about. Over the last week I spent hours focusing on my breath – while I was sitting, walking, eating, resting, listening and even brushing my teeth. At first it was difficult and unfamiliar, but by the end of the week, with the support of over 500 wonderful mindful people around me, I could – moment by moment – enjoy feeling my breath in my body. And as I develop that ability, I have been able to detach from my thoughts and feelings and observe them. In this depth of joy and detachment I think that I have now experienced mindfulness and calmness in my whole being rather than just in my intellect.
I am not under any illusion that I will fully maintain this ability – but even fleetingly accessing it gives me insight into a possible and completely different way of (inter)being in the world. More of that next time.
Wow – it’s difficult to find words to write about this stuff!