I sit cross legged upon a sturdy yet comfortable sofa in the drawing room of a stunning manor house constructed in a long bygone era, the specifics of which I can’t quite remember.
I am five days into my three week stay at Nagarjuna Kadampa Meditation Centre and as far as I can tell I am currently only one of two or three people awake within this expansive brown stone abode.
I have always enjoyed being an early riser, selfishly sharing my current little slice of the world with as few people as possible. To my right sits a steaming cup of peppermint tea back dropped by an array of Buddhist literature and a large stone fireplace, to my left a well decorated, intricate and ultimately beautiful Buddhist statue. In front of me lies the shameful bulge of my Christmas paunch reminding me that I need to move more and eat less.
My arrival at the Buddhist centre very quickly became a test of patience, perhaps pre-arranged, as I sat quietly in the onsite ‘World Peace Café’ waiting for someone to give me the tour and induct me. As someone who typically has a very busy mind, a relatively short attention span and has been described as ‘fidgety’ this was the first of what I envisage will be many challenges.
The driving force behind my decision to live in a Buddhist Centre for three weeks is a desire to spend quiet and undistracted time alone, to make an earnest effort to not only hear but to listen to my own inner monologue and to do so in an environment that actively encourages self-reflection and investigation. I have bumbled, fell and drifted through a tumultuous couple of years and often found myself spiralling into darkness, leading to a stint in rehab, hospitalisation on several occasions and multiple suicide attempts. I am now slowly but surely clawing my way back to a more plateaued emotional state and this experience is one which I sincerely hope will be fuel to the fire of my mental and physical restoration.
After surviving those forty five minutes of patience practice (I didn’t cry, stamp my feet or turn over any tables!) the whistle stop tour and induction were completed and my bags were strewn into an empty room before I was immediately put to work within the very café I had recently (and patiently) been sat. Under the guidance of who I now know to be a very lovely man called Santi I was shown how to use a professional coffee machine (harder than it looks!), the cashiers till, the sandwich toasters and various other implements required for the day to day running of what is a popular eatery and coffee stop for locals, passers-by, volunteers and those currently staying at the centre for a ‘retreat’.
During the past five days I have spent most of my time working within the café, which I have thoroughly enjoyed, but have also spent time preparing vegetables in the large professional kitchen and cleaned bathrooms, of which there are double figures dotted throughout the house. There is something strangely therapeutic about working hard knowing that there is no pay cheque waiting in exchange, your admission to the community is your reward and so far I have found this to be more than ample reward.
As a ‘Live in volunteer’ I am expected to work five out of every seven days in exchange for a bed, my meals and access to any meditation teachings that don’t conflict with my work schedule. So far, I have only had the opportunity to attend two meditation sessions, both of which form part of the ‘Lamrim Retreat’ currently being hosted here. ‘Lamrim’ means ‘The stages of the path to enlightenment’ and throughout the five day retreat attendees are guided through the basic Buddhist principles of the inner path to true happiness. There were a few sessions that were accessible to me around work commitments and from those I chose ‘Meditation on Death’ and ‘Meditation on Emptiness’, morbid I know! (#TimBurtonFan).
As an Agnostic who openly carries a level of intrigue about the general religious impact on society, I entered both sessions with a very open mind and a peaked interest. The first session on Death was more of a teaching about our own impunity and self-absorption but with one hell of a catchy title! Everything I heard made sense and I can’t deny that if one was to strip the teachings of any form of religious association the sentiment was evidently one of Mindfulness and humbleness. The silent meditation portion of this session only accounted for fifteen minutes whilst the remaining hour was dominated by Buddhist prayers sung to terribly unmelodious tunes interspersed with the relatable and wise words of the presiding Buddhist teacher. I must admit that I found the prayer singing a little too much and my mind became constantly distracted by the thought that the tunes must have been created before the prayers were translated into English. The English verse then simply shoehorned in to create clipped words, elongated vowels where they didn’t seem to fit and the occasional and surprising, sometimes unsettling, change in pace.
The second session I attended, this time on the subject of Emptiness, included less prayers and more teaching which I enjoyed. In much the same vein as the previous meditation on Death the theme of Emptiness is quite clearly, to me at least, an exercise in the hope of personal realisation that you (we) are rather insignificant and both your (our) current mind and body as you (we) perceive them are somewhat of a façade. Said façade is possibly created by your (our) own illusion of self-importance or perhaps a socially conditioned attachment to the material world. This is my take on it anyway, I imagine those more knowledgeable on the matter may suggest I’ve misunderstood.
My perception and understanding are almost certainly moulded by an inherent desire to avoid being drawn into any and all religious aspects of what I’m trying to understand but what I can say with 100% confidence is that the teachings of Buddha, religious or otherwise, are deeply intertwined with what we label morality, compassion, humbleness and selflessness. All of which are traits we can, and should all aspire to include in our Mindful approach to everyday life.
As this huge Manor House begins to cast a dramatic shadow and a few stars begin to burst through the darkening velvet sky, I feel undeniably welcome, hugely privileged to be able to live this experience, humbled to be surrounded by so many inherently kind people and I remain intrigued about what the coming days will bring, both internally and externally.
Next time: “Life in a Buddhist Meditation Centre – Those Community Feels”
Much Love, Carl McGregor <3
Guest Writer – Carl McGregor
Carl is 39 years old, has a Daughter of 19 currently residing in Paris and lives in Northamptonshire with his partner Jules and their three cats Oscar, Tango and Milo.
Having previously built a strong career in Senior Management and Commercial roles and following two traumatic life events, some time spent in rehab and several suicide attempts Carl made the decision to step away from the corporate world and pursue something that brings more joy to his everyday existence.
Now as a mental health advocate, SMART recovery facilitator, avid reader and ‘wannabe’ writer, Carl will soon graduate as a Yoga Teacher certified by Yoga Alliance U.S, Yoga Alliance Professionals UK, Yoga Alliance International, The World Yoga Council and the International Yoga Federation.
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