But now there is a forest

This is the third of the set of seven blogs I wrote back in 2014 following a chance encounter with one of my Buddhist teachers Ajahn Sucitto. A lot of time has passed since I spoke to the teenagers at Steyning. They will be all be in their mid-Twenties by now. Perhaps some of those Buddhist seeds might have taken root. Perhaps not.

But talking of seeds and roots, re-reading this blog, I was immediately put in mind of an excellent book I’ve just finished by the American writer Richard Powers. His novel The Overstory won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and is an incredible piece of writing. Its whole structure and ethos revolve around trees and seeds and deep time. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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.

The teenagers I met were thoughtful and inquiring and keen to know what Buddhism offered

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.

Who knows what sticks when you give a talk to 120 16-year-olds? But I repeatedly used a lovely story I recently heard from Krishna Das, the kirtan singer. He was asked, as I was, what the point of all this meditation, chanting and practice was? And he told this story that his guru, Neem Karoli Baba had told. Practice is like scattering seeds onto the mud roof tiles that Indians used to use on their houses. With a little rain, the seeds germinate in the damp mud and after a little more rain they start to send down roots, destroying the roof tiles. The roots continue down the walls destroying them in turn until finally the whole house is destroyed… but now there is a forest.

Don’t know yourself so well. Get stupider.

I was repeatedly asked what had led me to Buddhism and what benefits I had got from those years of practice, and taking the long view, I had no idea when I took refuge 14 years ago what my ‘house’ looked like, and certainly no idea that I would be happy to see it ‘destroyed’ and be living in a new forest of live trees. But it is true that – when I cast my mind back to the anxious, insecure, puffed-up TV presenter fame-junkie that rocked up to Samye Ling in the snowy winter of 2000, then I am a forest-mile away from him. Perhaps that’s just growing up but perhaps it’s also practice.

The one thing that shone out very clearly from those enquiring minds today was their readiness to take on something new.

Ajahn Sucitto made an interesting comment in his talk in Lisbon about the things that get in the way of going forward in practice. First and foremost is the idea of going forward at all (and I’ll return to this later in the set) but then he went on to say that we are continuously hamstrung by our rigid confidence in “who we are”: ‘I’m this, I’m that, I know this, I’ve done that, I‘ve experienced this, I understand that.’ All of which is utter death to anything new. His throwaway comment was: Don’t know yourself so well. Get stupider.

Our whole notion of who we might be is in delicious and/or terrifying free-fall

This is a variant of the Zen idea of ‘beginner’s mind’ but brilliantly apt advice for the teenage mind. The teenage years are, after the first 18 months of life, the most expansive period in human brain growth. Apart from those first few months of life, there’s never another time when the human brain is so plastic and absorbent of new ideas and new ways of being in the world. And apropos Sucitto’s ‘don’t know yourself so well’, we really don’t know ourselves very well aged 16. In fact, our whole notion of who we might be is in delicious and/or terrifying free-fall.

But in the second part of his aphorism, the Ajahn is suggesting that it’s precisely our tiresome certainty and ‘expertise’ at living that gets in the way of living in a fresh and elastic way. There’s nothing wrong with being stupid when you’re starting out at something. It gives you the goofy space to make gargantuan mistakes that lead to gargantuan growth.

Thanks to all the students and staff at Steyning for such an inspiring day. I’ll be back…and I’ll be making you all practice the ‘Buddha-sit’, yes, I will.

I’d love to know your thoughts about your life as a teenager. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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