Life in a Buddhist Meditation Centre – ‘Finding my Zen’

Now heading into the final stretch of my three week stay at Nagarjuna Kadampa Meditation Centre I find myself a little side-tracked with thoughts of life beyond these walls.

If you read my previous post (‘Those Community Feels’) you will have read just how absorbing I have found the community here, despite it’s ever changing nature. As a working volunteer I am committed to work five days out of every seven, luckily for me the management here have been very considerate in allowing me to choose every Wednesday as one of my days off as it allows me to temporarily head home and run the SMART Recovery group that I facilitate every week.

This ‘break’ back into the outside world is always a welcome one as I get to spend some time with my partner Jules and our fur babies Oscar, Tango and Milo. Of course, I always look forward to my group meetings too as they are very much grounding for me and despite the often emotional nature of such meetings, I am always proud to see small but significant improvements in those that attend regularly.

What with this weekly window to the outside world I still carry the sensation of being a very temporary visitor and maybe this is part of the reason I have struggled to find my Zen. Prior to my arrival I had a very fixed concept of how I would be spending my time and what forms of self-discipline I would be imposing upon myself. It wasn’t long after arrival that I realised just how difficult it would be to abide by my self-elected agenda, sharing a dormitory created the first challenge. How and where could I find space to practice Yoga, private meditation or to work undisturbed? These are all things I believe I need in order to find my Zen!

I’ve discovered that there is only one place available, the public lounge area at very early hours of the morning whilst the rest of the house still snoozes. This may sound fine but I still today can’t get past the impending sensation of being an intruder, of being greedy with a shared resource despite no one else trying to claim the space before the sun rises, or perhaps it’s an internal conflict surrounding the thought that I am exercising my own selfish belief of the right to some level of privacy at some point of my day.

Right now, I am sat in the busy ‘World Peace Café’ where I normally work serving customers homemade soup, toasted sandwiches and cakes but today is my day off. I’m sat at a small round table in the corner of the wood panelled room and am being serenaded with a cacophony of at least three different languages as far as I can tell, plus the steaming and clinking one would usually associate with a busy café. As my attention flits between my surroundings and the steady stream of 1’s and 0’s currently creating these words I struggle to comprehend how anyone could find their Zen in such a hectic World, even one that exists within a Buddhist Meditation Centre.

Zen has become a common word in the West and has oft been misdescribed. Most people I’ve met have an idea, right or wrong, of what the word means. As far as I can understand, in its truest form Zen is both something we are and something we practice, it is our ability to realise the joy of being, just being. Nothing more, nothing less.

My day off has given me the opportunity to join an hour and a half teaching session with the very well respected Kadam Bridgette Heyes, the topic of this session was ‘Medicine Buddha’.

Medicine Buddha is one of many Buddhas, each of which became a Buddha through self-control and a devout dedication to the teachings of those that came before. I like this fact, unlike say Jesus the Buddhas didn’t just appear in a virgin womb and pop out to part seas, turn water to wine or wash people’s feet. Before I go into any more details of what the ‘Medicine Buddha’ teachings relate to let me first set the classroom scene…

In a converted and high ceilinged stable building stands a wall length shrine composed of paintings, photographs and statues along with intricate glass bowls and ornaments. Just in front of this stands a low seat and podium allowing the teacher in situ to peruse the crowd and vice versa.

Amongst the Monks, Nuns and working volunteers my fellow pupils are a combination of the over 60’s with a penchant for bright hair dye, some slightly generic looking young and middle aged couples, greying or bald men adorned with wooden beads and turquoise stoned rings and a smattering of people who would not look out of place drifting through the aisles of a garden centre. This is not meant to be derogatory in any way and I include this description purely to allow you to envisage the broad spectrum of those actively seeking Buddhist knowledge.

So, we inhabit rows of comfy yet functional chairs facing the Teacher in residence and listen intently to their interpretation of the Buddhist writings about Medicine Buddha and the methods in which we could incorporate these practices for the good of others and also ourselves.

I won’t offer a blow by blow account of the teachings, but I will share two things that I found to be incredibly poignant;

1/ A compassionate person can sometimes find themselves in despair because of their inability to help others. For example, does is not upset you when you see a person sick in hospital and you feel totally helpless? The teachings of Buddha are that when you feel helpless you can at the very least devote your thoughts and prayers towards those less fortunate which gives one a vehicle for their compassion and in turn allows you to avoid that sense of total despair.

2/ When we are sick, our illness can give us power. The concept here is that when we are ill, mentally or physically, we often become very self-absorbed and our illness becomes all encompassing. I’ve had Man Flu; I know the feeling. The Buddhist teachings are such that whilst poorly we can try to focus ourselves on others who may be in an equal or worse situation. This ensures we are not utterly swamped with self-pity and frustration but instead can attempt to mine some positivity from a seemingly unbearable situation.

Both of these are, in my eyes, simple distraction methods for people to use when they feel mental or physical upset. There doesn’t seem to be any magic at play here, this is redirecting your automatic thoughts, this is being Mindful in the face of adversity is it not?

Bring your mind back to the mildly frenetic café scene that includes me, sat at a corner table whilst the humdrum of people, wobbling china, vegan cake slices and sloshing lentil soup whirl around me in a seemingly purposeful carousel of distraction.

My search for Zen has been one of pre-determined expectation. I can see now how my narrow mind had created an idyllic external environment, upon discovery of which I would be delivered with an abundance of that ever elusive Zen!

The more I contemplate ways in which I might be able to ensnare my fair share of Zen the more I begin to realise that perhaps I have already found it and I’m simply too ignorant to recognise it.

With my fresh, quite possibly a little misunderstood and certainly very simplified, knowledge that the building blocks of Buddhist teachings are merely ones of a learned ability to redirect your automatic thoughts, I just might be starting to make some sense of all this.

Zen really is, put simply the ability to feel inner peace, regardless of your surroundings, your current emotional state or your preconceived ideas of what it should look and feel like.

Zen truly is the joy of just ‘Being’.

I know I must train my mind to ensure I can access it consciously, but I’m pretty sure that Zen already exists within me, within you, within us all. We just have to learn how to let it flower.

Today, why not try just ‘Being’?

Much Love and thank you for reading, Carl McGregor <3

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