Saturday, 31 December 2011

Holy Isle 2

Over the new year I went on retreat to Holy Island; this is day 2 of the blog I wrote while I was there...

There is something sublime about rising in darkness to go over to a converted boat house to meditate.  We trudge through the damp dark to a warm, wood-panelled room dedicated to prayer and meditation.  We sit for an hour or so and then emerge into the half-light feeling fresher, cleaner inside, clearer mentally and more at peace.

And the wonderful thing about being on retreat is that, if you desire it, you don't have to 'be' anyone.  People respect your personal space and private intention as nowhere else.  So if you want to chat, there are plenty of people to chat with, but if you choose to be silent, you will be left alone.  Nobody will think anything of it.  It is very comforting to be with people who don't need you to be anyone or to show them who you are, and who don't think anything of it if in the morning you chat away merrily, but in the afternoon you eat lunch alone and then curl up in a corner with a book.

Perhaps this freedom is quite hard for some (we're so used to using short cuts to suss people out - if you have children, what you wear, what job you do), but soon enough everyone seems to settle into just being here.


I sit through a meditation session alongside a Buddhist nun and marvel at her open face, bright eyes and cheerful, child-like demeanour.  She smiles, not to make you happy, or to demonstrate to you that she is happy, but because there is so much joy in the world that she simply can't help smiling about it.  As a child would.  I wonder when and why and how we learn to guard our joy and fascination with the world and why we seem to value seriousness over light-heartedness.  It seems to me that the serious work of life is staying light of heart.  This nun has found a way to rewind that guarding process.  We should all find a way to do that.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Retreat to Holy Isle 1

Over the new year I travelled to Holy Isle off the west coast of Scotland to stay at the retreat centre there.  This is the blog I wrote while I was there... I'll post them all here over the next few days...  Happy new year!

The distance I have travelled to be here feels like part of the retreat: I have taken a car, a plane, a bus, a ferry, another bus and a small fisherman’s boat.  It's a very long way from home. 

The island is shrouded with rainclouds when I arrive and the sky is very dark and very low; a cold, persistently heavy rain is falling and the ground is boggy underfoot.  The sea is a cold, hard grey, yet when I look out of my bedroom window later, I see that there is someone out there sailing a laser dinghy.

It is wildly beautiful here.  The island rises out of the sea, charcoal grey, green and red.  It is protected from the worst of the Atlantic by being between the isle of Arran and the mainland, but it is still lashed by strong winds and pelted with rain.  It doesn’t get very cold here; but it doesn’t get very warm either.

It’s hard not to feel a little out on a limb when you arrive.  It is very quiet; everyone is friendly, but they are strangers.  There is no escape from the island and there are none of life's usual distractions (tv, radio, internet, telephone).  But you can read and walk and meditate and practise yoga and I have done all these things today. 

To help me get my bearings and to make the most of what little light there was here before darkness fell, I walked about half a mile south towards the first of two lighthouses situated on the south of the island.  I had been told that I might get a mobile reception here and I did, so I sent a text home to let them know that I had arrived safely.  On my way back, I thought that I could pop down there every day and check my messages or perhaps make a phone call.  Then I realised that I absolutely didn't want to do this; actually, I want to switch off my phone and leave it switched off while I am here and when I get back to my room I put my ipod away too.  The world, with all its noise can wait, I am on retreat from it. 

Back in my room, I find I can hardly keep my eyes open.  It feels as though years of the noise, busyness and over-stimulation of modern life has just caught up with me and it’s all I can do to find my way down to supper.  Over spicy lentil and carrot soup and homemade bread, I find that a lot of other people have experienced this same overwhelming tiredness.

After supper some of us trudge over to the old boathouse for an hour of Chenrezig meditation, a Tibetan Buddhist compassion practice.  It’s new to me: everyone sings a very long prayer, with a break in the middle for some chanting of a mantra and then back to singing more prayers.  It’s not what I am used to and I probably prefer silent seated meditation, but it’s good to be in this warm and cosy room with such a nice group of people and to hear them sing their prayers. 

I think, on the way back to the main house through tonight’s storm, how lovely it is that there are so many different paths to peace: a path for everyone.  All you have to do is be open to the possibility of it, respect other people’s choices, and work to discover, by trial and error, by providence, or both, which is the one for you.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Recognition vs. Rejection

The notion that you are already good enough is a difficult concept to accept for everyone that I have ever met.  Different people meet this problem with different solutions…

·         I know people who don’t bother to try so that they can never be found failing;
·         I know people who work so hard, all the time, to prove themselves that they seem to have no time for learning how to understand themselves;
·         I know people who give too much, all the time, because they place everyone else’s importance above their own;
·         I know people who go around doing everything they can for everyone, because they have placed a sense of their own self-worth in being perfect for everyone else;
·         I know people who have lots of stuff, as though that will prove to the world, if not themselves, that they are succeeding, that they are good enough.  Since having lots of stuff is this society’s main indicator of success, then having lots of stuff seems to prove something.  But how many unhappy rich people do you know/have you heard of?  Clearly ‘stuff’ is not the answer.  We see evidence of that fact every day, but seem  collectively to refuse to accept its veracity;
·         I know people who need to be perfect: perfect job, everything done properly, being in the right place at the right time with the right items.  As if being in control of everything is proof of something.
The fact that it is very difficult for us to feel good enough probably stems from childhood and the way that we were brought up.  However, it is not sufficient to drop the responsibility for our lack of self-worth at the feet of our parents.  Larkin’s view

They fuck you up your mum and dad,
They do not mean to, but they do

might ring true, but it doesn’t hold the answer.  Many of us were loved and cherished by our parents and yet we still feel that we are not good enough, we still find it hard to truly love and care for ourselves.  In addition to that, anyone who is a parent knows how much they love and wish the best for their children; that we are not the first generation to have done so is self-evident.  Thus, in spite of our best intentions, each generation finds the same difficulty in finding a true and lasting sense of self-worth, no matter how loved we were as children.

The answer therefore must lie within us and not in the search for someone else to blame for our lack of self-love.
Buddha identified the cultivation of compassion and love for oneself as a crucial practice for living a loving, successful and kind life.  It was his contention that a strong sense of self-worth and self-love is necessary if we are to truly care for others.  This makes sense.  If we are living in a judgemental paradigm where what we do/say/achieve is the only measure of our self-worth, then it stands to reason that, despite our best intentions to the contrary, we judge other people in the same way instead of accepting ourselves and other people for who they are (good enough before they even get out of bed in the morning).

Thinking that you are good enough has nothing to do with complacency – you are still able to engage in life fully, to achieve and work hard and be fully committed to life when you have love for yourself.  Indeed, you may well be able to achieve more, do better, live more fully, when you are not wasting so much of your time and energy proving your worth to the world because you don’t really believe it yourself.
There is a relationship between a lack of self-love and fear.  When we believe that our real selves are not worthy of love, then we are afraid of revelation; we are afraid that if people discover who we really are, they will find us lacking and reject us.  It goes like this: if you knew who I really am inside, then you wouldn’t love me/like me/want to know me; if you knew how unsure I was about being able to do this task well, you wouldn’t respect me; if you knew how vulnerable I feel in this situation, you would laugh at me.  I suspect that a lot of this has to do with the conditioning we had as children - within our home, our extended families and at school we learnt how to be a certain way to avoid being uncomfortable.  As we grow up it is that personality that we present to the world – it gets us by, it gets us liked, it helps us to avoid pain.  Part of our spiritual path is dissociating ourselves from this personality and revealing who it is that we truly are.  For some of us, it might be the case that we have lived for so long with the personality that works for us and the people around us that when we come to look for our true self, we can’t find it; we don’t have a clue who that person is or was, or where to look for him/her.

To reveal our true self to the world can be inconvenient (everyone around us has been used to our projected personality and their habits; the true you might not fit in so well).  To reveal our true self to ourselves and then to others requires the greatest courage.  If you are rejected now, then it’s the real you that is being rejected.  How do you take this?  With courage.  This is what you say:- here I am in all my strange and wonderful glory; some people will like me and some people won’t, but I don’t need everyone to like me, because I understand that in the same way as I don’t like and want to spend time with everyone I meet, not everyone is going to feel positively about me.  BUT I can cope with some people not liking me, because I believe in myself and my own worth.  I am brave enough to let some people not like me.
It’s going to be such a relief!  You won't need to prove yourself with your humour or your intelligence or your knowledge or your capacity to get things done or your ability to bake cakes or the fact that you can run marathons or earn a lot of money or have a fast car.  You will trust that the people who love you love you for who you really are now and not because of who you could be one day, or what you can achieve, or how well you fit in, or what you have. 

So there will be no fear, because you are being authentically yourself – there is nothing for anyone to find out about you.  There will be trust, because you trust yourself and you are therefore able to trust others; when you are being honest, trust comes naturally because there is nothing hidden in you.  This is unconditional trust – nobody has to prove to you that they can be trusted, you trust them because you have nothing to hide.  And it works the other way too:- even if someone else has something to hide/something that they are afraid of, you understand that they are, without doubt, intrinsically good enough and deserving of your respect and good feelings, however they might be projecting themself to the world.
A life without fear is a good life.  Fear takes up too much time and too much energy.  When you are free of fear you sleep well, you eat well, you take care of yourself and of others, you have respect for yourself and for others; you can give without needing gratitude in return; and you can receive without needing justification.       

But it all starts with you.  It all begins with your search for your authentic self and with having the courage to reveal that person to the world without fear.  It begins with trusting yourself.  You do this by living from your centre; you constantly ask yourself is this the truth?  Is this what I really feel?  Is this the right decision for me now?  Am I being true?  Am I being authentic?  Did I give as much as I could have in that moment?  Why did I hold back from that person?
This way you get to live more, love more, feel less resentment and less anger (if you are being true to yourself, you have very little to be resentful and angry about).  Then your life becomes more about what you can do for others than what you can do for yourself.

That we know so few people living authentic, individual lives, free of society’s definitions of personal success lets you know that it is not an easy path to follow.  But it is crucial, absolutely crucial, that you begin. 

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Tantra 2 - Windows to Transcendence

Using what inspires you in the world to find the expansiveness within relies on your being able to discern between the transcendence itself and the doorway to it.

It's no good thinking that it is the sunset that makes you feel transcendent, so you must always see the sunset in order to be happy.  It's no good becoming addicted to another human being who makes you feel oneness and acceptance, so that you can experience love.  If being in church helps you to feel peace, then by all means go to the church to find that sense of stillness, but don't make the mistake of thinking that you can only find peace in that building.

We all have things we do/people we see/places we go for inspiration.  However, it is important that you don't mistake the things that inspire you to feel joy, peace and love for the reason you feel that joy, peace and love.  The potential for that feeling is constantly within you, it does not go away. Finding and doing the things that inspire it in you is a good start, the work then is to learn how to maintain it so that you can allow that joy, peace and love to imbue your whole life, not just certain parts of it.

Don't mistake the trigger for the source.  Great love is always within you and it is possible to feel great love for all things, if you try.  It is what most of the major spiritual paths are all about.  We know it's not easy by how few people we meet that are able to do it, but those people do exist.  And they do not exist because they are different or special, they exist because they have made the most of their talent for love. 

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Tantra 1 - Transcendence

The word tantra has unfortunate connotations, but in truth is one of the most beautiful explanations of the human condition and our purpose here that I have ever found.

Tantra contends that everything in this universe is nothing but consciousness, the word used to denote the common basic substance behind all ephemera, all life.  Different people call this different things (spirit, Holy Spirit, God, Divinity, grace, love, soul, heart).  Tantra calls it consciousness. 

For tantra, the human form is the highest stage of development before enlightenment (or complete merging with consciousness), for it is through being human, with our will, our intelligence and our capacity to act, that we are able to more clearly feel the consciousness within and therefore unite with it.

Tantric philosophy tells us that humans are nothing but contracted consciousness.  As water vapour is to ice, we are to consciousness.  The substance is the same, but its form is a contracted version of it.  The work of tantra yoga is to realise this fully in this lifetime.  The task is to expand outwards and to keep on expanding.  This is transcendence.  In doing this, we transcend beyond our limited sense of self (who we are, what we do, what we think, where we have been, where we are going) and dissolve the boundaries between our small body (the place in which our consciousness lives in this lifetime) and everything else that is manifest. 

The various tantric texts (from 12th Century onwards) give us many practices for finding, loving and holding on to this inherent transcendence within.  One of the simplest and most sophisticated is given in the first chapter of the Shiva Sutras:

udyamo bhairavah I.5
The inner upsurge of energy is the Supreme*
That effort, the flashing forth of active awareness that instantaneously makes universal consciousness shine, is Bhairava**

When you are walking and the sun in shining and the world is beautiful to you, you experience within yourself an upsurge of energy, a rush of joy.  This is transcendence.  When you are with a friend or lover and you feel love and connection and oneness.  This is transcendence.  When you are eating, mindfully, a delicious meal and you feel sated and content.  This is transcendence.  When you are excited by a fast car journey and you feel vibrant and alive.  This is transcendence.  When you scream on a roller-coaster and feel that rush of adrenaline and wonder.  This is transcendence.

That upsurge of consciousness/energy/love/awareness/joy is your clue; each time you feel it is one small gift of transcendence.  Your job as a yogi is to learn how to stay mindful to it so that you see it when it arises and learn how to hold on to it.  The task is to recognise that it exists within you permanently and to let it radiate from you more of the time ... all of the time.  As a yogi you comprehend that each upsurge of radiance has nothing to do with the thing that caused it, rather that whatever caused it simply opened you up to the potential that is always present within you.  The potential to be more than you are, to be united with life, to radiate with a spirit that encompasses everything with love.


*Carlos Pomeda
** Swami Lakshmanjoo

Friday, 9 December 2011


Prana is an ancient Sanskrit word that first appeared in the vedas, it is translated by Georg Feuerstein as life, or literally, breathing forth.  It is the word used in yoga philosophy for vital energy, life-force, or the pulsating energy common to all living things (similar to the concept of Qi in Chinese medicine).  The action of prana is behind all life, all thought, all movement. 

Like the energy meridiens of Chinese medicine, yogic texts speak of channels of energy within us (nadis) which convey prana around the body.  When prana runs through the nadis of the body freely, one enjoys vibrant good health; but when the nadis are congested or blocked, one experiences poor mental and physical health.  Hatha yoga works to unblock the nadis and invigorate the flow of prana in the body through the means of asana, pranayama and meditation and some kriyas (cleansing processes).  Thus, the clear-eyed radiance and vitality that we witness in many experienced yogis (or indeed, feel in ourselves after practice) is ascribed to the yogi having improved the free flow of prana through the nadis in their body. 

In addition to the purely physical aspect of prana, there is an inseparable connection between mind and prana.  As Saint Thirumoolar wrote, "wherever the mind goes, the prana follows" or conversely as Swami Satchitananda puts it, "if you regulate prana, you regulate the mind."  The control of consciousness, the ultimate aim of all yoga practice, is therefore intimately linked with the control of prana.  Desikachar writes: "The more content a person is ... the more prana is inside.  The more disturbed a person is, the more prana is dissipated and lost."  Indeed, one definition of the word yogi, is 'one whose prana is all within his body.'

It is said that prana follows attention, so by drawing our attention to our breath, or by quieting the mind through meditative practices, and by not over-burdening ourselves with external stimuli, we may experience an increase of prana within.  As Swami Satchitananda writes:

"... it is easier to control prana in a grosser manifestation than in a subtle one.  So, we first learn to control the physical body, then the movement of the breath, then the senses, and finally the mind.  It is very scientific, gradual and easy."

So you begin by learning how to conserve energy during your asana practice, this means maintaining your inner focus, resisting the urge to look around you/fiddle with your toes/lose yourself in thought while you practise.  It means controlling your breath, so that it is even and full throughout your practice.  It means breathing in and out through your nose and trying not to talk during yoga.  During your asana practice you are opening your body and working out the knots and blocks that exist within you; your aim should be to try not to lose all this positive work and increased energy by expelling it through misdirected attention.  

On a day to day, practical level, we are talking abut conserving our energy so that we can put it to good use for the things that make ourselves and those around us, well and happy.  We probably all know people who haemorrhage prana, flying off the handle at the slightest provocation, or indulging in extreme emotional states and finding themselves exhausted as a result.

When you practise yoga with regularity and dedication, you experience a growing equilibrium in mind and body and a growing capacity to meet the daily challenges of life with equanimity; to remain calm and to keep your breath long and regular even in the most trying of situations.  Your energy levels increase and you find that after your asana, pranayama or meditation practice you tend to feel energised and alive, no matter how exhausted or low you felt when you arrived at your mat.  All of these positive effects can be ascribed to the building of prana within your body and the free flow of energy throughout your body.