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Living Mindfully

by Lee Ronald(more info)

listed in meditation, originally published in issue 54 - July 2000

The Quaker Meeting House in Oxford is an unpretentious old building lying low-slung and mild-mannered on the wide boulevard known as St Giles. It was here that I scurried one sunny morning in October to attend a day's practical workshop on Insight Meditation. I have had an interest in personal growth work for many years, and travels in China and Sri Lanka have fuelled a burgeoning interest in Eastern thought. I am also a student, and studying full time has left me almost constantly tired and stressed; the possibility of breaking through current negativities and perhaps exploring the potential of living more fully was certainly a potent prospect.

Meditation, Enquiry, Compassion – Vipassana meditation circle, Gaia House, Devon

Meditation, Enquiry, Compassion – Vipassana meditation circle, Gaia House, Devon

The day takes place in total silence (something which initially alarmed me), but a sense of community and group cohesion is established by an emphasis on service; if you like you can sign up to help with food preparation, clear up later in the day or even ring the bell that establishes divisions between meditation practices and calls participants to lunch. At the same time, there is no pressure on anyone to become involved, above and beyond the actual meditations.

Insight meditation, also known as 'Vipassana meditation' centres around our conscious engagement with the breath. Its roots are in Buddhist teachings which have been circulating for many thousands of years, although it is only recently that they have been available in the West. It is, I was later to understand, also a very profound tool for understanding the nature of the self, an understanding that quite naturally leads to an understanding of other sentient beings, as barriers between self and others automatically dissolve. A tool for engendering radiant health, it seems to act as a bridge to the reality that Albert Einstein talked about "A human being is a part of a whole, called by us 'universe', a part limited in time and space. He (sic) experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness… our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." A major agenda indeed.

The Oxford series of Insight retreats are staffed by meditators and facilitators from Gaia House in Devon, a centre that offers retreats and courses inspired by this Buddhist tradition of mindfulness and awareness. My day retreat was led by well-known and celebrated Buddhist teacher Christopher Titmuss, a tall and lanky character with a laconic sense of humour and quiet but authoritative style of teaching. Participants learned that the day would comprise both sitting and walking meditations as well as talks and directions from Christopher. Being a beginner to meditation I felt quite shy and nervous about 'doing it right', but being amongst a group of fellow meditators (there were about 20 of us) gave me a feeling of safety and I decided to sit and observe whatever came up. Our first sitting was for 40 minutes. My mind was all over the place, but I kept pulling it back to the breath – connecting with the breath, losing it, connecting with it, losing it. Sitting cross legged I didn't feel too uncomfortable, but had accepted earlier on that I would adjust my sitting position if I did feel pain; I think this dispelled any major tension for me, and I was able to sit for the full 40 minutes. I tried to observe my mind instead of judging it, climb behind my thoughts instead of 'buying into' them. I had previously read a wonderful book by another Vipassana teacher, Jack Kornfield (A Path with Heart, Rider Books), that referred to meditation as being like training a puppy. The puppy, he admits, will run away again and again, it will pee in the corner and elude you completely, but his suggestion is that by kind discipline success will ultimately be achieved. Bringing my mind back into focus over and over, but always with kindness, is what I spent the first part of the morning trying to do.

Stretching and aching a little we then had a period of walking meditation. By walking mindfully, noticing our heel strike the ground, the sensation of our toes flexing, and an awareness of peeling one's foot from the floor as we take another step, a sense of intimate connection with the moment can occur. Despite a shower of rain some of us chose to walk in the garden. Our walking occurred there amongst a small apple sapling just fruiting, a border of the most gorgeous autumn colours and overhead birds wavering like kites It was joyful to let go of worries both past and present and accept the reality that this was all there was; a beautiful garden, the smell and feel of rain, our feet striking the path, our feet striking the grass.

Lunch was a communal affair, all participants having brought some vegetarian food to share. I had been a little concerned about spending a day in silence but at lunch I felt curiously accepting and relaxed. It was a relief to be able to eat, concentrating on the textures of the food (all of which was totally delicious) or the colours in the carpet, being gracious towards other participants but not pressurized into being social or making small talk.

The afternoon followed a similar pattern to the morning although this time my body did begin to get a little uncomfortable in meditation; I felt I had been sitting still for a long time! However, I also carried with me a sense of relaxation and calm – enjoying the peaceful ambience of the meditation room, a feeling that was very unlike the trapped pressure-cooker of tension I often find in life! I realized how my life is constantly under threat from worries over past events (if only I could have done this differently!) or conjecture surrounding the future (if that happens… Or if that happens!!). I began acknowledging that I must start focusing more on the facts, on the reality. It was surreal but also liberating to realize that nearly all my fear (that which coagulates my life force and creativity) is based not on what is happening but on total fantasies, projections of my relentlessly churning mind.

I will certainly continue practising Insight Meditation and attending retreats, convinced that this very simple but profound practice might really be able to effect change in the individual and thus in society. Just as we were leaving, agitating a little on our meditation cushions, a butterfly pirouetted across the stage where Christopher was talking. This was the beautiful reality; not our concerns about getting home, finding a bus, avoiding the rain – just this moment.

Further Information

For further information about Vipassana meditation in the UK – one day retreats, on going classes and longer retreats – please contact: Gaia House, West Ogwell, Newton Abbot, Devon TQ12 6EN. Tel: 01626 333613. email: info@gaiahouse.co.uk    web: www.gaiahouse.co.uk

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About Lee Ronald

Lee Ronald is a student of English and History of Art at Oxford Brookes University where she is currently researching a thesis on Queer Theory and Women's Writing. She is also a writer, cook, gardener and advocate of all things creative. Previously she inspired women through her series of 'Female Eye' travel seminars, held at the Commonwealth Institute in London.

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