Meditation

Today I spent the whole day talking to teenagers about Buddhism and meditation. I had been kindly invited months ago by a mindfulness student of mine, Lindsey, who works at Steyning Grammar School in West Sussex. Her unflagging enthusiasm for her job and her students had really impressed me and I wanted to see what the school was doing - so I came in for the day talking to four or five groups of 16-18 year olds who were studying RE, ethics and/or philosophy for GCSE, A Leve and international baccalaureate.

It always does my heart good to hang out with teenagers. Even on buses I love to hear their bubbling enthusiasm for things and I am reminded of my own groping for awkward meaning at that age. To be honest, the smart, well-informed young men and women I met at Steyning were light-years ahead of the rather browbeaten underinspired boys at my Catholic Boys School, but I was happy to see such progress in the much-maligned education system. That stage of life is always so pregnant with potential. And the students I met were thoughtful and inquiring and keen to know what Buddhism offered. Which was handy, since that was my patch of knowledge.

The second thing I took from the Ajahn’s talk was: the most important actions are mental
This is is a crucial concept to get our head around when we’re pondering on why we’re always making ourselves unhappy.

Buddhism has a very central idea, which is that of karma. This is not the old Kismet idea of fixed destiny or payback. It’s a quite rational idea that things (and by things, the Buddha means bodies, moods, mind-states, as well as objects) come into being because of previously arising conditions. So, for example, my hangover is not a punishment sent from above. It is a consequence of drinking too much beer at the firework party last night. And those extra beers were, in turn, drunk because I was in a strange and alarming place on my own and needed some Dutch courage. And there we have it: a chain of karma.

Last Monday I was flying off to Lisbon to complete my last week of filming for the BBC and as I approached the departure gate at Gatwick, I was bemused to see one of my old teachers from Chithurst Monastery, Ajahn Sucitto, standing at the head of the queue, resplendent and tall in his ochre robes.

My time at Chithurst was right at the beginning of my Buddhist journey and in the interim I had rather drifted away from that school of Buddhism and the monastery - though, oddly, during a retreat up on Holy Island I found myself listening to hours and hours of Theravadan teachers, amongst them also Ajahn S.

So it was a good opening gambit to approach him and make the anjali gesture, address him as Ajahn, and tell him that only 24 hours earlier I’d been listening to him on my ipod. He seemed pleased.

During the journey and waiting for our luggage I gleaned that he was over in the Portuguese capital to speak to a new monastic group there and to give a lecture at the Uniao Budista in the City, the following day. So, once I had finished my first day’s filming, I wandered off from the team, into the night, climbed numerous flights of stairs and found myself in a top-floor apartment with about thirty others, sitting cross-legged on the floor listening to Sucitto talk.

My short-term memory is quite astute (all those years of learning ‘pieces-to-cameras’) and I managed to recall 7 significant points that he mentioned in his hour-long dhamma talk and Q&A and since they impact so precisely on a lot of the themes that arose out of our Holy Island retreat I thought I would post some thoughts on each on in turn.

The first was: The buddhist path is balancing inner and outer.

Mindsprings is not a specifically Buddhist organisation but I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the paramount debt we have to the Buddhist tradition in our work. Mindfulness, in its modern manifestation, is a direct descendent of the practice carried out by the Buddha 2556 years ago.

The Buddha met a woman whose life was made miserable by her compulsive miserliness.
He gave her a carrot and taught her to give it from her left hand to her right and back again.
In this way she became familiar with generosity.

A keen monks asks the master:
"How long will it take me to get enlightened?"
"Oh, ten years", says the Master.
"But what if I study twice as hard, meditate twice as long? How long then?"asks the student.
"Twenty years", answers the Master.

The Eight Week Course is coming.

This was a public lecture Alistair gave to the Norwich Interfaith at the Octogon Chapel, 21st November 2012 on the subject of sexuality and spirituality.

There's a list of behaviours guaranteed to piss off your friends after you come back from a retreat. Being preachy is probably right at the top of it.

Last weekend we held a new workshop at Spa Road on the subject of Anxiety.

Running new courses is quite an anxiety-provoking task, so I was a little nervous when I met all the participants for the first time. But we were in the warm and gilded splendour of the Bermondsey Shrine room with its massive coloured Buddha beaming down on us, so I felt like we were working in a positive field of energy.

Anxiety is a ubiquitous human experience. As far as we know animals don't experience it because animals don't have an on-going sense of existence-through-time. It seems human beings are the only ones who have the capability to imagine ourselves in the past and the future. This is, of course, the most amazing thing. It allows us to plan ahead and build St. Paul's Cathedral and it allows us to think back and remember the beauty of the Renaissance. However, the sense of time has its down sides.

Animals seem to exist in a state of present moment awareness. They don't as far as we know, have a sense that in the future they will die. They live for the moment. Humans, in contrast, have the ability to project that fatal and terminal event, death, quite vividly. We also are able to plan to avoid it. And we remember the events of the past equally vividly.

This ability to imagine the past and the future and make assumptions about the present has profound consequences for us when we think about anxiety.