“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds” – Bob Marley
I spend my first month in India in a beautiful Zen monastery in the Western Ghats, gazing at the misty horizon and contemplating the beauty of wild flowers. I feel very far from the India most people imagine. For the small price of 500 rupees a day and an hour or two of seva – helping to keep the place tidy – you get a basic room, a beautiful garden to bathe in, a vast library to explore and to be part of a community who spend 3 hours a day sitting together in silent contemplation.
What is Zen?
Although I have been practicing meditation for a few years, I am not very familiar with Zen. Born in India but made in Japan, it has eventually migrated back to its birthplace totally transformed, like a game of Chinese whispers. A branch of Buddhism yes, but you can practice it alongside any religion, or no religion at all. Indeed our teachers here are both Zen masters and Jesuit priests. They describe the practice as coming home to yourself. It is connecting with a part of you that is not bound by time or space, and is filled with infinite compassion. A place where everything is okay, and you can come to rest in simply being. There is also an inordinate amount of bowing.
Zen focuses on the simplicity of direct experience through meditation rather than scriptures or teachings. That said, we do chant some of the key texts to the pounding of a drum. It seems to have a profound effect on me, making me shed layers and sweat into the chilled pre-dawn air. I am fulfilling the British tourist stereotype and am yet to learn a single word in Hindi, though I am learning handy Japanese phrases, such as: ‘though delusive passions and thoughts rise endlessly, I vow to turn them around’.
Another practice particular to Zen is that of the Koan. Koans are like riddles that can’t be solved with logical thinking. You have to adopt a child-like attitude of exploration and supposedly they help you see into the true nature of existence. My scientifically trained mind finds them extremely irritating with such an aggressive aversion that I am a little taken aback. Perhaps this means I need more Koans in my life? How do you stop a fire that’s burning 100,000 miles away?
Zen is in the small, everyday things
They say nature is also a great teacher, and here we are surrounded by it. I go for long walks in the forest with my woollen cloak and wooden staff; I feel like Gandalf on a magical quest for freedom. The eucalyptus trees are constantly shedding old skin and being reborn. When the rain and mist descends and the eyes are rendered useless, the leaves pervade the air with their distinctive smell and invite me to perceive the world in new ways. There is endless beauty in the array of flowers; my favourites are the bands of trumpets robed in Prussian blue and amethyst, standing royal guard at the gates while their neighbours wilt in transience.
I also have a nightly visitor to my bed chamber: a fat hairy spider the size of my palm. When I sternly return him to the garden, the milky way is dancing. A week into my stay a tropical storm sweeps through, flooring trees, blasting craters in the road and flooding our meditation space. The weather naturally moves you inwards to confront the storm within, encouraging great faith that this too (despite what Gandalf might think), shall pass.
My seva is to sweep the hallways and corridors of leaves and petals. At first it feels like a chore, but quickly becomes one of my favourite parts of the day. The gentle repetitive action slowly unravels my body from being curled up against the night’s intensely vivid dreams (a common byproduct of intense meditation). I also feel like I am tidying the hallways of my mind; taking my scattered thoughts and gently urging them into a single unified flow. I work in a deliberate and unhurried manner, the days of racing against the to do list far behind me now. All I have to do today is sweep this floor, and be kind to myself. My friend jokes that he feels calm just watching me.
Who practices Zen?
I came here to seek solitude, yet I am simmering in a global mixing pot of fascinating people who quickly become the most treasured part of my stay. The community is in a constant state of flux, confronting us with the need to let go into the impermanent nature of things. I spend most of my time with Shenaz, an artistic dancing poet from Bangalore. I have never met anyone more in love with life. Though 6 years my senior, her boundless curiosity and enthusiasm make me feel like a small child again with limitless potential. Every day she comes to show me a new delight she has found in the garden and tells me how much she adores me. She reawakens my creativity, which has been lying dormant so long that I forgot I had any. I think everyone needs a Shenaz in their life.
Then there’s Ning from Taiwan who hugs so fiercely that if you died in her embrace, you would die knowing with absolute certainty that you are loved. Amit, on his yogic odyssey around India. He is a fountain of laughter, an ephemeral reminder that you can simultaneously have serious ambition and serious fun. Naama from Israel, with her fearless beginners mind shining light on how much my perfectionism holds me back. Wolf, from the US, who’s love of zen and zombies led to the unlikely poem titled “Do zombies have Buddha nature?” Matthew, an Englishman who has been living here long enough to develop a curious Indian twang. And Pranav from Mumbai, who is fierce in his vulnerability and reminds us that we are all artists.
There’s the guy who never speaks, never smiles and just stares at you from underneath his thick kohl eyelashes like he is deeply suspicious of everything, especially you. Then there’s the guy who never speaks but always smiles, usually with his eyes closed like he is remembering a hilarious joke to which no one else is privy. Sometimes I wonder if is he’s enlightened, or if he’s just really happy about the fact that there’s peanut butter. Sometimes I wonder if there is any difference.
I sit next to various people in the meditation hall while I’m here. The clumsy man who wriggles and gurgles and fidgets. I try not to rest my awareness on his restlessness, and eventually become very fond of him. The man who is like a black hole of stillness, who on my restless days I am drawn into like an over-excited photon. The man who may have dissolved so far into emptiness that I have to open my eyes to check whether or not he is still there. The man who cannot sit cross legged for a whole meditation but refuses to sit on a chair lest it make him less of a man. During the great silence he gives me a note that says ‘your commitment and discipline towards your meditation practice inspires me, keep at it!’. It seems I have become the black hole to his sun beam.
But possibly my favourite person of all is someone who’s name I do not know and have affectionately nick-named Quasimodo. He is a cross between a puffer fish and a tank. He sports fetching combinations of army style camouflage t shirts under woolen golfing gilets tucked into Nikey tracksuit bottoms. I love everything about this outfit and wish I had one that was matching so we could make an awesome super hero team, the kind people write comic books about. (Come on Sophie, back to the meditation…).
On his first day he chants so unbelievably out of time and out of tune with such loud, unapologetic conviction, I can’t help but giggle with delight. This descends into uncontrollable, hysterical laughter. How funny that he doesnt care to conform to these arbitrary, imagined constructs. How hilarious that we attach such meaning and absoluteness to them. It is like zooming out and seeing our lives from the consciousness of another being. Aren’t these humans funny little creatures? All of my problems dissolve into small, tengentially relevant pieces in the grand puzzle of life. Everyone carrying their fair share of awkward, inconvenient pieces that make up the rich tapestry of this hilariously improbable existence.
Of course, laughter is infectious. Although I try to calm down before going into the dinner hall, soon half the diners are awash with it. How beautiful that joy is a contest-worthy opponent to the contagion of fear.
Zen meditation can create space for healing
Not every day here is all rainbows and lollipops. When you become still, things you have been running from inevitably come to greet you. During a particularly intense episode I am totally floored by an emotional bus for 48 hours. This bus takes me on a delightful grand tour of all the places I have ever felt rejected or ashamed in my life. These emotions come spilling out from the depths like a burst water pipe.
Rather than turning to my habitual responses of running into endless productivity and distraction, I perform a radical act. I sit there. I vow to stay on the bus until the emotional fuel has burned it’s way to completion. I try to hold on with as much love and kindness as I can muster. Like annoying passengers, I try to let my emotions be there without getting too close, without jumping off the bus either. Eventually, after a long, tumultuous journey, we arrive at the the final stop: the present moment. I get off the bus and leave my baggage behind. I feel like an empty hollow, and emerge from my room totally dishevelled in search of sustenance. The next day, my meditation is an open canvas. I take refuge in my empty hollow, and realise it is far from empty; it is full of all the possibility in the universe.
On a separate occasion, I am working with loving kindness meditation. This is where you bring different people to mind – yourself, a good friend, someone you disagree with – and try to hold your feelings towards them with an open, kind awareness. I regularly use visualisations to do this, and I choose my friend Padma to be the star of today’s show. In the usual mechanical way, I imagine a light bulb at the centre of my chest slowly expanding to reach Padma’s seat a few meters away.
Then a voice comes: “Ha! Don’t you know how much love you are comprised of?” The light blasts through me like a firework and fills the whole room, the whole building, the whole valley to the hilltops and beyond. The light is no longer my own and neither is my body. I can feel my arms and shoulders as a vague outline of what I habitually identify as ‘me’ but my chest and belly are a transparent window through which this love flows freely, in deep connection with the trees and waterfalls and the sky above. I bathe in this experience until the bell rings.
The reality of practicing Zen
However, the vast majority of my meditation is not like this. The rest of the time it’s a banal dance between watching my exhales and variations of: ‘I’m getting hungry I wonder what’s for dinner tonight I hope it’s not that disgusting vegetable that tastes like fish, man that stuff is gross but maybe it’s better than eating dairy because that book kept talking about how dairy products are really bad for you so maybe I should try being vegan but I don’t want to be one of those annoying preachy vegans I hope I didn’t offend that guy the other day by telling him that putting butter in his coffee was a recipe for a heart attack, he seemed quite surprised, maybe I should apologise, or maybe I need to be more confident, or more kind, or memorise more facts to prove how right I am. My nose is itchy and my back hurts isn’t this over yet? If I look at my watch sneakily then surely no one will notice. Still ten minutes left?! Man I am so ready for dinner I hope it’s not that disgusting vegetable that stuff is so gross…”
And so on. Ad infinitum.
The challenge with these endless episodes is not how boring and monotonous they are, but the tendency to slap a good dose of self-judgement and criticism on top. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say ‘I’m a rubbish meditator, my mind is too busy’, or ‘that was a terrible sit, my mind was all over the place’. It’s easy to meditate when your mind is all blissed out with love and light, but when you’re grouchy and restless? That’s when you need the practice the most, where you grow the most.
Preetam says the worst meditation is when you don’t sit down at all. He’s pretty wise for a 21 year old. It’s not like you have to switch these monologues off, but they no longer need take centre stage. In fact, when I am able to watch from backstage, or even sometimes the stalls, they often shine light on where I need to do more work: with my ego; my judgement; my jealousy; my self righteousness. It can be painful to look, but as the monk Ajahn Chah says there are two types of suffering; the type we repeat over and over again, which only leads to more suffering, and the type that comes when we stop running. This type of suffering can lead you to freedom.
Unraveling the truth
I finally decide to embark upon Koan practice. I have learnt enough to understand that most of them are variations on the teaching that everything is connected. The advice is to become the koan, though I still don’t really know what that means. Each morning, I have a (very) short interview with Master Cyril. Our conversation goes something like this:
Master: So, how do you stop a fire that’s burning 100,000 miles away?
Sophie: The fire and me are not separate. I am the fire. So I go and stand out the rain?
Mater: Try again.
Sophie: I become still?
Master: More work is needed
At this point I get frustrated and ask Shenaz for help. She says I need to become the fire. Literally.
Master: So, how will you stop the fire?
Sophie: (starts waving arms above head making whooshing and crackling sounds, this continues for a painful amount of time. Eventually, swoops hands to the floor to indicate the fire has been extinguished. Looks up at the Master to see if he thinks she has gone totally mad)
Master: (pauses, smiles) Yes.
Sophie: (sigh of relief)
Master: But what does it mean?
Sophie: Err… I clear my mind of delusive passions and anger?
Master: Next time.
Sophie: If I am the fire, there is no one to put the fire out?
Master: Yes. The fire represents anger, but it is a part of you, a part of life. You can’t make it go away. You have to accept it.
Interestingly, he doesnt say this to anyone else. He lets them do the fire dance and leave. I feel like he has looked directly into my soul and seen a lifetime of ‘women aren’t supposed to be angry’. I am being battled into extinction when instead I need kind and careful tending to. I take heed of this advice and go into the forest to throw rocks, smash sticks and howl like a wolf. A ferocious wildfire. How good it feels to fully express yourself. The fire mellows into a satisfied chuckle.
Everyday mindfulness, everyday awakenings
My time here ends with a mini-sessin. We spend three days in total silence, and up the meditation to 6 hours a day. I am secretly hoping that I will have some deep enlightening revelation to nicely wrap up my blog post, but in fact, it is all rather ordinary. Inhales and exhales; awareness and daydreams; calmness and irritation. Awakening doesn’t usually come all at once, but in little glimpses through everyday living. As the Buddha says “every moment of mindfulness is a moment of enlightenment”.
One thing I do notice is that I am increasing in volume; I can hold not just one object, but multiple objects at once. Birds chirping, breath breathing, stomach rumbling, thoughts churning. I can also hold the bigger, heavier objects with greater ease: grief; shame; despair. At the same time my capacity for joy, love and belonging is also increasing. The container does not discriminate. This mindfulness also spills out of the meditation hall, and as I eat my morning peanut butter on toast I marvel at the exquisiteness of this extraordinarily ordinary existence.