What is a Teacher?

I always wondered why there didn’t seem to be many books on Zen. Because I thought it was something I really needed to know about, or understand. This great, powerfully mysterious thing that seems even more intriguing because it keeps its secrets.

But I’m realising that Zen is a ‘way’ that motivates against he accumulation of knowledge and cultivation of the intellect. Giving it a name even, is failing to get it.
One of the main Zen ‘patriarchs’ back in ancient times, Hui Neng, was actually illiterate and understood it all intuitively.
And then you hear about the Flower Sermon, where the Buddha just held up a flower instead of saying anything. And only one person got it. And he was the person chosen to carry on the Buddha’s teaching. 

And Thich Nhat Hahn, who is so popular – his whole thing is Zen, but he doesn’t go on about it. He hardly mentions the word. I think he knows it’s a trap.

The whole thing seems to be like a kind of dance, the avoidance of the intellect, trusting the emptiness of just being. Or being emptiness (or whatever!)
And this all relates to the internal drama with which I seem to be entertaining myself at the moment: “Am I qualified to sit in a room with people and help them to relax?”. Cos all the teachers like to be so qualified these days, with their intimidating mindfulness qualifications. That whole ‘expert’ thing is a massive obstacle.

As long as I can keep a distance from that thought, then I know I’m in the right place. Staying with the soft, innocent clarity of ‘beginner’s mind’ and ‘don’t know mind’. To just be, and hold that space of just being, and say what comes out. And not be fooled or bullied by words and concepts.


The Gift of Forgetting

We’ve all done it: you’re having a conversation with someone, you get momentarily distracted and you forget what you were going to say. It tortures you. You almost writhe with discomfort as you become totally focused on trying to remember your so-important point. Your friend looks on patiently but it feels like all your credibility is leaking away.
 It’s frustrating. But look at it another way and you may see this momentary amnesia as a gift; a potential shortcut to something very precious. By mistake you have come very close to the Absolute; that place of freedom where opinions and stories are completely irrelevant.
Medieval Christianity spoke of the ‘cloud of unknowing’ where the mind was bypassed to enable a true connection to God through the heart. Similarily, Zen Buddhists prize the ‘Don’t Know’ mind, where the intellect is confounded and as a result, we see things as they truly are.
When you forget your lines in this human play, the ego is suddenly weakened, threatened, and struggles desperately to re-establish its its role of interpreting the world.
The lost thought that you are trying to retrieve seems like a massive, delicious pearl of wisdom that was going to enrich both your lives when you shared it. But when you do remember your point (which will only happen when you stop trying to), it probably won’t seem very important at all.
So, why not make the most of this tendency of the mind tendency to seize up occasionally? Next time you lose your thread in a conversation and sense a void opening up where your sense of self-definition was, jump into that hole.
Hopefully you will be with somebody sympathetic. You could say you need the toilet, and disappear for a few moments and surrender to this very empty, spacious feeling inside that the ego sees as an enemy. The ego fears it, but it is no threat to you. In fact, it is the true you.
We are usually so desperate to express our opinions, and to move on to our next point, but if you accept the gaps         in your stream of thought, you could find yourself in a very beautiful place that ultimately moves you on much further.

Can You Still Your Mind?

I went to a zen meditation session today. At first the monk leading it was talking about watching any thoughts with acceptance while you meditate, something that I’m very familiar with. Then he said ”It’s impossible not to have thoughts”.
Actually, getting to a place of no-thought is something that I often aim for and now and then achieve. When I take a long time watching my breathing I can ‘go up a level’ as I call it, where there might be visuals but the busy thinking mind is absent. Then the calm restful healing can really happen.
Somebody beside me spoke up: “I can do meditation without thoughts”. But the leader wouldn’t have any of it. “It’s impossible” he said, delighted with his certainty.
I thought stilling the mind was a cornerstone of Zen. It’s why I turned up at the class – even as a kid, before I even knew what meditation was, I would sometimes slip into this kind of state. If I found myself in a silent room sometimes I would just soak up the atmosphere and the feeling of ‘here and now’ till it was so intense, so present that the blood seemed to be singing in my ears. There certainly wasn’t any thought going on.
In recent years I have seen my own spiritual path starting to become clearer, but it is delicate. And when I come into contact with people who are very definite about a contrary view it disturbs me. I instinctively take account of everything that comes my way so I can quite easily get blown off course.
I was trying to enjoy the session (a bad thing, trying!) but the comments he had made put me off a bit. Hasn’t he heard of Samadhi? One-pointed mind is a key concept in Buddhism and Hinduism. I said “What about the present moment? When you are deeply present there are no thoughts”. He said “What I’m saying is it’s very hard”.
Ok then. I now realise that what he’s trying to say is don’t feel like a failure if you have thoughts. Don’t fight them or try to banish them; that would be counter-productive and would make a lot of people give up. I totally agree with that.
But personally, I don’t need that reassurance at the stage I’m at. I do a lot of my meditative stuff on my own but I’m interested to find people who are on the same page as I am, as I widen my understanding and ‘go up a level’ together.

The Freedom Inside You

To care deeply about the world is a wonderful and essential thing. But if a news story or a political crisis feels particularly unbearable, you might feel your emotional reactions  affecting your resilience and dimming your light.

This is a great opportunity to observe your feelings without becoming entangled in them to the point where they become disabling. When you notice feelings of distress bubbling up you might find it helps to simply label them as ‘worry’ or ‘anxiety’. They are familiar feelings that you know well. Just acknowledge them without getting into a dialogue with them and let them slowly fade.

Distinguish between what you can and can’t change. Resisting what already is will amplify your sense of discomfort, while acceptance will help you to let go and come into the present moment, where you will find peace. Take a break from the world and spend some time doing things you enjoy to take you away from your busy mind. The peace you generate will benefit the people around you and the wider world. When you have rejuvenated yourself you can then start to work practically for the better world that we all want.

Focusing on your breathing takes you back into presence, but I have recently found out that concentrating on the out-breath is particularly calming. Try making that breath a little longer.

Currently reading: Mindfulness for Worriers by Padraig O’Morain

Simply Sitting

Tonight I had an insight where I kind of saw through all of this learning that I try and stuff myself with. Lately I’ve felt the need to swot up on mindfulness as I’m running workshops with that word in the title. Even though I already soaked up through Eckhart Tolle’s books and videos. He teaches it, he just doesn’t use that word.

But after concentrating on my out-breath (which is a great new tip I picked up) I suddenly I saw through the intimidating aura of all this ‘spirituality’ and ‘wisdom’ contained in these books. I just realised that simply sitting here with no thoughts is all it is. And not calling it anything. I then had a powerful sense of the present moment, like I only do in quick bursts, but the strongest yet. It re-emphasised to me that in all this I’m on a journey to zen.0b80619b467223d212fca0875771cfc1

Why do I compare myself to others?

man-thinkingFacebook is minefield of potential comparisons with other peoples’ lives (or what they choose to present of them). If we are not feeling great, seeing news from people who appear to ‘have it all’ might lead us to descend into envy and despondency. But we can choose how to respond to these inputs. Just because other people seem happy and fulfilled, that doesn’t mean we can’t be. There is not a finite amount of happiness to go round. We can share in the love and fulfillment we see at a distance, be inspired by it and feel glad for people.

This is a list I wrote to remind myself how to interpret other peoples’ news on social media, tailored to what is important to me in my life. You could do your own.

Musical success
It’s exiting that Liverpool acts are getting recognition. How nice that people I like are getting recognised. How nice, how happy that must make him feel inside. Good to see happiness.
Achievement in projects
That’s interesting. Great idea. They must be very organised! Admirable. I can learn so much from that.
Who’s getting paid gigs
Very good. It’s good to get paid gigs. Well done.
Female attention
Ah, so much love and connection.
Disposable income
That’s their life, this is mine.
Holiday pictures
Beautiful. I’m happy anywhere.
Friendship networks
Lovely to see connection. We’re all the same, all have the same needs. And all are connected.
Fun for them. That’s their thing.
Well-readness                                                                                                                                 Wow. Amazing wisdom they have absorbed!
Poetic reputation/acclaim
Well done!
Magazine success
Not interesting for me. But enjoy what you do.

Lost For Words

The next time you are lost for words, remember this
The tree needs no words to tell it how to grow
Your body needs no instructions on how to heal
The clouds have never read a thesis on meterology
The planets continue in their orbits without reference
To equations chalked on a blackboard
They are not lost

When you experience a sunset what need is there for words?
Do not search for them
They are not coming to rescue you from this mystery
This inner stillness, this halted moment
Be speechless, dumbfounded, awestruck, blown away

Imagine yourself sky-diving

You throw yourself from an aeroplane
A delirious imitation of suicide
Wheeling, twisting and tumbling
Through an avalanche of upward air
Before being snatched back to safety by a rip cord’s cruel neccessity
You land like a newborn being
Helpless, helmeted, tethered to silken afterbirth
Grasping, fumbling for language to convey
What never could be captured or ever contained
The mind gives up, the self gives way
And you laugh
You laugh
You have lost something that was never needed
Let it go

Words are our foot soldiers, our worker ants, our couriers,
They carry the message, they are not the message
Words are our rubies, our jade, lapis lazuli, mother of pearl,
They are the messengers of magic but not the magic
And when you find it they will disappear

Next time you have a beautiful surprise
An unexpected moment that stops your tongue with gratitude
Remember you are not lost for…anything
You have arrived and the moment is full, immaculate
Be silenced, stilled, stunned, gobsmacked
You have found something that words could only point to

Feeling the Love at UK’s first Laughter Festival

Laughter yoga has become increasingly popular since it was first devised in India in the 1990s. It encompasses a range of techniques which have arisen from new insights into the mental and physical benefits of laughing.
I’d already been to a few of Jackie O’Carrol’s laughter yoga workshops in Chester. I can’t say that it was easy at first, but after a while there was a sense of stepping out of my comfort zone, into a potentially transformational world of freedom, trust and maybe…LOVE!

The first UK Laughter festival was held at Cabourne Parva, a festival site in Lincolnshire in June and offered the chance to experience a concentrated dose of these feelgood vibes.
Jackie and I arrived on Thursday night and were shown around the site by organiser Wes Floyd. Based on a farm, there are several areas laid out according to festival-goers needs: toilet block, washing complex (of which more later), a bistro operating out of the farm house, and various areas for stalls, marquees and stages where the activities took place.

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On the Friday, a series of presentations took place in the converted barn, which is used as the main venue. Several speakers explained their work around laughter, health and wellbeing. Kate Hull Rodgers, originally from Canada, was a very entertaining speaker, who recounted her young life as an aspiring actress and how her lack of success had led to a breakdown and years of being institutionalised in the mental health system, before discovering some key insights that enabled her to take control of her life and mental health. Kate managed to turn this often tragic story into a hilarious monologue. She now an international speaker who explains to large organisations the value of laughter and how “If you’re having fun, you get more done”.

There are areas of woodland around the site which are perfect for a meditative stroll whilst listening to birds singing. It was in this woodland setting that I took part in an improvisation workshop later on the same day led by Anetta Panczel, who is orginally from Hungary and now leads improvisational workshops in Bournemouth. A group of ten or so gathered and Anette set a series of exercises designed to bring out our silly selves. Advertising an imaginary product, commentating on a bizarre event, or speaking in gibberish were some of the games we played. It was nice to have a ranges of ages acting ridiculous in the workshop, from people in their seventies to an eight year old boy.

The festival site had a number of special features including an outdoor jacuzzi, infra-red sauna (not quite sure about the workings of it, but it sounded a bit like being cooked so I avoided it!) and showers powered intriguingly, by compost. Adjacent to the showers was a ten foot-high compost heap consisting largely of wood chippings (the farm produces timber), which contained water pipes for collecting the heat generated by the decomposing compost. This green technology was in keeping with earth-friendly ethos of the site.

On Saturday morning Jackie was to deliver her workshop on the theme of ‘grace’, drawing on writing she is developing for a book. I was planning on attending, but found myself checking out a gathering in the barn instead. This is very much the way I attend festivals – I go with the flow as much as possible, having found that sticking to an itinery is unneccesarily stressful for me. The session I happened upon was being led Joe Hoare – though leading is perhaps the wrong term as he tended to go with whatever energy was happening within the group at the moment. Hence, as soon as I sat down in the circle I asked the reason why he clicked his fingers as he spoke, and so he invited us all to do it for a while, effectively to find out ‘why’ for ourselves. As we all clicked our fingers, we found a sense of rhythm and connection, collectively devising rhythmic chants that evolved continuously, and moving and interacting with each physically. It was essentially all about staying in the moment.

Saturday was also the day of the music performances. Before my set, Helen Wilson played acoustic guitar and sang – in a voice reminiscent of Vashti Bunyan – some very open and honest songs. In preparing my own set I had looked through my songs and poems to choose ones that best suited the ethos of the festival. My song ‘Don’t Hide Your Light’ seemed to be appropriate in that sense.

On Sunday I had time for another workshop before packing up to leave, which was led by the bubble of joy that is Eva Provedel, an Italian based in London. After a few minutes of improvised dance and movement led by Eva in the marquee, a line of people went outside and encircled some unsuspecting festival-goers, dancing around them and closing in for a giant hug.

All these happenings I’ve described were interspersed with numerous special moments of talking around the fire, chilling out and bonding with new friends who were all on the same kind of frequency, having come together to tune in a little bit more. To be honest, I didn’t take part in any laughter yoga in the strict sense, but everything was complementary to that. I’m already looking forward to next year’s Laughter festival. This was a beautiful start.

One Door is Enough

eck…and still I have this feeling that I need to check out as many different spiritual traditions as I can, to select a wide range of flavours from the buffet so I’m not missing out in any spiritual vitamins. If there are people out there finding clues to enlightenment, then I need to find them too. I hold onto them, so I can finally nourish myself at a later date; there is a feeling that I need to build up weapons in my arsenal so that I can launch an assault against the ego at some later point. Or to use a less violent metaphor, I am assembling a huge spiritual jigsaw puzzle. I need to fill in all the areas and some point the overall picture will become clear.

Buddhism, Vedanta, Zen, Taoism, Gnosticism, Siberian shamanism (?!) – I’ve studied or at least had a peep at them all, and I often end up frustrated when I can’t understand ancient texts, or freaked out by traditions that are too weird for me.

It’s then that I return to this guy, who speaks in the language of today, who reminds me to stop this vain searching, who has actually digested a wide range of spiritual traditions, for what it’s worth, but knows that one door to freedom is all you need. Eckhart points out that you can only ever free yourself now, not in the future, when you are telling yourself everything will be in place. Eckhart’s message is expressed through a deep peace and compassion which, he points out, is the primary aspect of the message. So don’t worry about the words. They are only pointing to the simplest truth, which lies beneath.



Transforming Fear into Love


Last night I went to a discussion about the book A Course in Miracles. One of the things that stuck with me was the teaching that love is the opposite of fear, with most people being in a perpetual state of fear.

I am seeing it everywhere today, this low-level fear and apprehension, in the eyes of people I meet on the stairs in my house (even though they say ‘hello’), in the people I pass on the street or at the bus stop. What must that fear do to your mind and body? It is the response of our ancient fight-or-flight self preservation system to the challenges of modern-day living, where overcrowding, overwork, over-stimulation and media-led panics combine with the miserable underlying truth that shopping does not actually fix anything.

I walked side by side with fear for a long time, always hyper-conscious of my self image, worried about how I interacted and terrified of dissapproval, all of this combined with misery over my unrealised potential, my loneliness and my OCD fears. It leaked out into my face, creating a catch 22 situation where my attempts to make social bonds were stymied by the inextinguishable look of terror and discomfort in my eyes.

The spiritual path that I’m on has led to the letting go of a lot of fear. A connection with the inner ‘I’ underneath my historical self and its struggles, has given me a lot of space and calm, to the extent that sitting on a bus seat opposite someone without wierding them out has become just about possible most of the time.

I feel connected with the people around me because I am not as preoccupied by my fear and it has left my face. I feel the contrast as most of them look quite wrapped up in their worries, and they sometimes look surprised, seeing that a strangers’ heart is open to them. It is quite alien to a lot people, but others you can see them relax a little and open like flowers, giving you a returning smile.

If we have a collective responsibility, maybe it’s to dissolve the fear around us with love. It can be done. It’s transformational and everybody needs it.