In and out of control

When I was doing my PhD I developed a stomach ulcer as a result of all the pressure I was putting on myself to succeed.  Going to the university medical centre, the primary care physician/general practitioner there told me that the solution was to be less stressed.  Very helpful advice, no?  You would have thought that being a university health centre, providing information on stress management would have been a fairly high priority, competing with reducing the number of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and UDIs (unidentified drinking injuries).  However, sadly the staff there seemed far more interested in being patronising, getting home early and (in the case of one doctor) feeling up their patients.  That is, however, another story.

If someone is feeling stressed, possibly the least helpful thing you can say to them is ‘relax’.  Similarly to my doctor telling me to be less stressed, this is focussing on the end result rather than the method needed to get there.  Suggesting a few deep breaths and feeling the ground beneath their feet is likely to be much more effective and actually achieve the result of relaxation.

In the early stages of my illness I found it very hard to cope with all of the changes in my body and a friend of mine suggested that I made a list of the things that I could control and the things I couldn’t and encouraged me to concentrate my energies on the things that were in my control.  These included, what I ate, how much activity I did, the health professionals I worked with and (to some degree) the attitude I adopted.  Getting well (the desired end result) was something that I could not directly affect but only through the methods I adopted.
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A Stitch in Time

Dharma books

Sewing book covers
hands stiffen in the cold air
so sharp the needle!

The first day I lived at a Buddhist centre I was admonished for reading a dharma book at the breakfast table, lest it get covered with jam. I was similarly reprimanded for taking a text into the toilet to read. While I don’t completely agree with arguments that dharma texts should be treated as something totally sacred and that their care is greater than the fact they should be read, I do understand that how we treat books of importance to us says something about our relationship to the contents.

One thing I definitely took away from there was the practice of covering favourite books with pieces of coloured fabric, and tied with ribbons. I like this, as it seems to be an offering to the book itself, and a way of indicating that it is important to you. Of course, a book can’t receive an offering, so the effect is in our own mind, but I similarly like the practice of making offerings to favourite trees and rivers to mark them out as special to me.
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Shrine cleaning and preliminary practices

Shrine

This morning I have been cleaning my shrine and the whole area around it in preparation for a week of retreat beginning tomorrow to coincide with Losar, the Tibetan new year. Since the retreat will focus on kriya tantra practice, ritual cleanliness is more important than with more conventional meditation techniques (Alexander Berzin explains this in two excellent talks on kriya (action) tantra found at his website).

As a preparation for retreat this has, for me, achieved a dual purpose of allowing my mind to become more aware of what is to come, and also developing a clarity of purpose and focus. This second development was somewhat surprising to me, although I imagine that most of us are aware of a similar effect which comes with spring cleaning of any kind. Combining a spiritual focus with the cleaning work seems to make the mental clarity even more profound, and is something I will be seeking to utilise again.
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Unlabelling

We all have labels for our self and others.  It is hard to live without picking up one or two as we progress along the merry yellow brick road of existence.  The most basic relate to our age, sex, nationality and ethnicity.  Others point to our job, relationship status, sexual orientation and religious beliefs.  When we meet someone we often ask key questions so that we can mentally place them in certain pigeonholes.  It helps us to learn something about people without having to ask the same questions over and over.  If we know someone if a fireman, we have a pretty fair idea about what he does in his job, likewise for a secretary, actress, farmer and accountant.

So, where’s the problem?

Well, there is none just so long as we don’t go confusing labels with reality or believing that our past experience of certain labels means that others sharing that label will have the same or similar characteristics.  But no one would ever believe that all people from the same country were the same, surely?  Or that there is no such thing as a nice Democrat/Jehovah’s Witness/Iraqi/Creationist/*insert your own prejudice here*.  Notice the effect each of those words have on your mind.  Some will have none, others might make you tense slightly.  And this is just a word with no person in sight. Continue reading

Seeing Things As They Really Are: the story of Kisa Gotami

In the time of the Buddha many people came to seek his advice for mundane matters as well as spiritual. One story of a lay person who sought out the Buddha has survived over the centuries and that is the tale of Kisa Gotami.

Thus I have heard. One day a woman carrying a child came to the place where the Buddha was staying with his sangha (spiritual community) of monks, lay seekers and attendants. She was granted an audience with the Buddha and, clearly in considerable distress, told him how she needed medicine for her baby son who had fallen into a deep sleep and would not wake up.

The Buddha asked the woman, named Kisa Gotami, to pass the child to him so that he could see what he could do. The Buddha was no physician but was willing to do anything he could to relieve suffering in anyone, be they his friend, enemy or a complete stranger. Upon receiving the child into his arms, though, it was obvious to him that the child was dead and had been so for some days. It was also obvious that to break this news to Kisa Gotami would have a devastating effect on her mind. Continue reading