Life has been hard lately. People I love are going through really difficult times. It is sometimes a challenge to keep remembering that things will change and that life won’t always be that way for them, or for me. When life’s inevitable suffering seems stronger than usual, it can seem impossible to relax and enjoy anything; especially when there is a lot to do.
Today I am reminded that life is beautiful and precious. A change of scenery has challenged my slightly jaded outlook. I am staying temporarily (not for long) in a flat on Eastbourne seafront. It’s such a beautiful flat. And it has a bath! I do miss having baths. The view from the window is amazing and I walk out of the door straight onto the seafront.
Don’t get me wrong. I adore my caravan. It is home. It has enabled me to change my life – at least for a little while. And I am missing my daughters, my dog and my cats. It is quite strange to be completely on my own. But it is lovely to just be. It is so pleasant to be able to leave the car and just walk to places (even though finding a place to park it in the first place was a bit fraught!). Sitting here I can hear the sea and the church bells.
I know that I am particularly jittery and unsettled at the moment. I find it difficult just to sit and reflect; meditation is nigh on impossible. But I am hoping that this couple of weeks (with a few days of visiting family in the middle) will help to calm me.
Last night on the way to and from Dharma Study I walked along the seafront listening to music. It was lovely. I must do more of that.
I posted the picture at the top of this post onto my Instagram account a year ago. I look all smiley don’t I? I had just had my hair cut and coloured and loved it. But … at that time I wasn’t having the best time to say the least! What was happening? Well…
I was in a job which no longer gave me much satisfaction. I loved and admired many of the people I worked with but the job itself had changed. I was never made to be at the computer all day everyday! The service had changed; Children’s Centres were not as they were; families were not helped as they used to be; Health Visiting is still universal but….
There was a lot going on with my family and friends. Much illness and suffering. I felt that I was not able to help and support them as much as I should.
I was living through the long tortuous end to a relationship which, although short lived in time, was very precious to me.
But there were flashes of light! I had been going to the Sangha Evening for a couple of months and was making friends there. I was beginning to see myself as a Buddhist and knew that this was where I wanted to be. I was yet to take the step into becoming a Mitra but I knew this would happen some day.
Since then! I have become a Mitra and am now training for Ordination. I have sold my house and now live in a caravan which I love. My eldest daughter did fabulously in her GCSEs and is now at college. My other daughter is homeschooled which is much better for her. I left my job and am fortunate enough to be able to not work for a while.
Sad things happened … incredibly sad. My Dad becoming ill and passing away; my Mum having to move into a home. My childhood house is being sold. My Mum is so strong though and is making the most of her life.
So yes – a lot has happened since I posted that picture. It’s strange to think that, at that time – I hadn’t even had the thought of selling my house and leaving my job !
I have been thinking more about mindfulness. Mindfulness in the Buddhist context – what it means for me, for my life. The part that mindfulness plays in my Dharma Life, in my journey. I wrote about it a few days ago ( https://teejordan.co.uk/index.php/2019/07/16/mindfulness-a-poem) but last night’s Sangha Evening led by the newly ordained Akāśhanandi on the Four Reminders (see below) inspired me to explore further.
The Four Reminders This human birth is precious, An opportunity to awaken, But this body is impermanent, Ready or not, one day I shall die.
So this life I must know As the tiny splash of a raindrop, A thing of beauty that disappears Even as it comes into being.
The karma I create Shapes the course of my life, But however I act Life always has difficulties; No-one can control it all. Only the Dharma Can free me and others From suffering forever.
Therefore I recall My hearts’s longing for freedom, And I resolve to make use Of every night and day To realise it.
The first noble truth is that to be human is to suffer. Suffering (Dukkha) is inevitable. We all know that – Buddhist or not. Every human being experiences pain, suffering and loss. A lot of our time and energy is spent trying to relieve, cover or forget this suffering. Sometimes we choose good ways of relieving suffering – talking with friends, meditation, going for a walk etc. But some of the time we choose less skilful methods. Addiction is often seen as a way of coping with suffering – Russell Brand has written and spoken a lot about this. We can become addicted to anything – food, Box sets, exercise, online shopping. Addictions are unhealthy habits and attachments. Many activities which we do for long periods of time may not be addictions as such, but we do them to fill time, because we are bored, because we feel tired and lethargic – Eating a packet of biscuits, watching endless box sets, flicking through FaceBook …
So there is suffering which we all try to deal with or avoid in many ways. But human life is precious as is shown by the first line of the Four Reminders. It is an opportunity which should not be missed. Life does have difficulties, there is always suffering but it is also a thing of beauty. We must make the most of it as this life is fleeting like the tiny splash of a raindrop. We never know when it might end. So – in comes mindfulness! Am I being mindful about how I am living my life or am I just drifting along with no purpose? Am I wasting precious moments? Am I engaged in looking for true freedom from suffering for myself and others or am I just covering it up with mindless, possibly harmful activity?
The way to freedom is the Dharma – “only the Dharma can free me and others from suffering forever”. The Dharma is the teaching of the Buddha – but it is not a set of laws and commandments which are written down and must be followed to the letter. It is a teaching which has to be internalised and lived by each individual Buddhist. The Buddha just said, “I am a human being, and I’ve had a certain experience. Listen to what I have to say, by all means, but listen to it critically, test it in your own experience” (Sangharakshita – the founder of Triratna Buddhism) – There is a story of the Buddha’s aunt / foster mother coming to him very hurt and upset because the Buddha’s disciples were giving out different versions of the Dharma. The Buddha was unperturbed – and said (in a much longer and more poetic way), whatever you find conducive in practice to finding the goal of Enlightenment – do that. The Dharma is a raft, a means to the other side of the river, it is a finger pointing to the moon. The Dharma is not an end in itself. As one of the Order members said to me – I have to discover what the Dharma means to me and live it.
I am still in the midst of exploration and discovery – but I do know that mindfulness is and will continue to be central to my practice, to my life. One of the five precepts which I follow as a Mitra concerns mindfulness – not being clouded by intoxicants (which, to me, can be anything which stops me from being fully present), “With mindfulness pure and radiant I purify my mind”.
Human life is precious and fleeting – so we must appreciate every precious moment. There has been much written about living in the present moment. One of the first books I read on it was Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now”. The present moment is all that we have – it is not a stepping stone to another moment. The Now is the most precious thing there is. To be present in the Now is to be extremely mindful of what I am doing and not to be distracted by regrets from the past or dreams of the future. I also need to take advantage of every given moment – is what I am doing at this very moment serviceable / beneficial to myself and / or to others. I need to take heed of the last lines of the Four Reminders – recall my heart’s longing for freedom and resolve to make use of every day and night to realise it. Now that does not mean that I have to be busy every moment of the day and night! It does not mean that I can never sit down and watch television. Rest and relaxation are important physically, mentally and emotionally. For me, being mindful and being in the present means that I need to know why I am doing what I am doing in a given moment and to be fully committed to that activity. Am I watching NCIS Season 3 because I am actively interested in the story and the characters or just because I cannot be bothered to get up and do anything else? Am I actually watching it or am I flicking through my phone looking at Instagram, responding to messages etc at the same time? Have I sat here watching it all day (not very likely at the moment to be honest as my mobile WIFI is a bit unreliable)? Am I taking time in the day to develop myself? Am I reading, learning about the Dharma? I want to hone my writing skills which were a little rusty but are coming back slowly – have I done anything to achieve that today? I lost the creative side of me for a while so what am I doing to get that back (another blog post coming in a couple of weeks). Have I been in contact with my friends and family? Have I done my daily meditation? And what have I done today to be of service to others – and how can I do more? I am intensely aware that, as I am not working at the moment, I could easily waste my days doing nothing in particular – which would be a great shame as I am so fortunate to have this time.
Before I end this post – I do need to make it clear that I am a work in progress! I am trying my hardest to practise mindfulness in the way that I have described. It’s hard! Even writing this, I have found myself distracted by the bleep of a text message which I answered… and, having picked up my phone I saw that I had a FaceBook notification… well you can probably see where I am going with this! I would say, however, that being more mindful does make me feel happier, more fulfilled and calmer.
Well that was a week! Hospital tests involving starvation, potions and cameras going where cameras are definitely not wanted! But I was looked after well in the hospital. The staff were wonderful. Thank you NHS. A few things were found – but, as expected, nothing to explain my joint pain. So more tests I expect!
This week is also the start of a restructure at work. It’s not going to affect me I admit but it will affect some dear friends, wonderful colleagues and families in East Sussex. There will be lots of changes to the lives of many people – changes that they do not want in a lot of cases.
In the midst of all this I am starting to live again. To feel like me again – even to make a little progress in becoming more Tee. I am finding ways to manage the pain, and to structure my life around it. Morning meditation, for example requires a hot water bottle! There are things I can’t do – I cannot take my little Pretzel on a lot of long walks, I cannot drive 200 miles to see my Mum. But there is a lot I can do if I just try, push myself a little and believe that things are possible.
Back to the subject of friendship which I know I talk about a lot in this blog. I am so blessed to have some lovely friends. Those who check up on me, take me to and from hospital, invite me to dinner. The friend who reminded me of Mara – the demon who attacked and tempted the Buddha with everything he had. The Buddha sat still in peace and openness. And the words, arrows, weapons and pain drifted away from him as soft petals. And during this notice period I am realising how many friends I have made during my time with Children’s Centres. I must try to keep in touch with them.
My pets – they help! Well most of the time. They can be a pain admittedly especially when they want food NOW. But my cats – JD and Smirnoff are good for cuddles and very entertaining to watch as they play. Pretzel – also very cuddly and fun to be with.
I still feel sorry for myself at times. Who doesn’t? But it’s ok. Suffering is intrinsic to human life. And things could be an awful lot worse! There are also a lot of things to be thankful for.
And – This too shall pass.
So no giving up! Acceptance of what cannot be changed; taking action where it will be helpful. Trying to attain the perfect blend of Kshanti and Virya – patience and energy.
The truth of life is that everyone will die. That’s the one thing we have that we can be sure of. Yet – when it looks like it will happen soon – the pain and sadness is so great and it comes as a shock even though all the signs are there.
My Dad is growing weaker. But he has accepted this. His wish is to leave this world peacefully – so we are doing all we can to make that happen. That’s all that we can do.
Nothing is guaranteed in life. Nothing is certain. Just because something is planned, it doesn’t mean that it will happen. Nothing reminds me of that more than a sudden sickness bug which cancels all my plans, work and normal life for a couple of days. It’s not serious. It’s a couple of days. But it’s hard not to be annoyed, upset and infuriated by it. I should be out on a Pretzel walk now but feel a bit too queasy. To allow myself to be annoyed or upset by this is the infamous second arrow. The first arrow is the illness – inflicted by something outside of my control. If I don’t just accept that first arrow with equanimity, I send in a second, self inflicted arrow which seems to do much more damage. Dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness) is caused by that second arrow.
One of my lovely ordained friends – when he makes plans – always says “all being well”. Some of us have taken to doing this “I will go to Hereford this weekend, all being well”. “I will meet you for coffee, all being well”. It is a recognition that I might want it to happen but it may not.
So this is the second day of feeling very nauseous. I have chosen not to send in the second arrow. I have chosen to try to just accept it as what it is. And it allows me permission to stop and rest. And anyway Pretzel is perfectly happy curled up on my bed.
The alarm went off far to early this morning. I hadn’t had a great night’s sleep and I just did not want to get out of bed. My back and joints had done their usual thing of seizing up over night so I knew that I was in for some pain until my body had loosened up. Mechanically, like a robot in mind and body, I went through my morning routine until I came to the point where Pretzel had her lead on and I was ready to go for our walk.
I so nearly did not step out of the door this morning. I felt all of the strong winds battering me and I just wanted to take shelter. But habit took over and off we went.
The first part of my walk was not enjoyable – and it was totally my fault! The weather was lovely, the moon was still shining and Pretzel was happy to be out for once (she is not a big fan of early morning winter walks). But I was feeling very sorry for myself – those pesky worldly winds were getting just too much. I let myself list all of the things that I felt were “going wrong”. I let myself dwell on the pain in my back, shoulders and legs. The list kept getting longer and longer… Then I came out of my head a little and looked up. The moon was still out – it was beautiful. Obviously, my first thought was a negative one – wishing I had a decent camera so that I could capture it’s beauty! You and I will just have to put up with my substandard iPhone snap! But then something switched in my brain. At my Dharma study last night I had been talking about responding to situations rather than responding… thinking skillfully. So I went back through my long list of woes and considered if there was anything that can be done about them. I came up with one or two things to do which I filed away for later. But, for the most part, I have to leave them be and see what happens. There is nothing to be done.
Just as I came to the end of my list, I heard the beeping of a car horn and turned to see a friend smiling and waving at me. It was at that moment that my mood switched. It was light bulb moment. I realised in that moment that, yes – there is a lot going on. People I love are suffering. My back still hurt! etc etc. But – there is a lot that is right in my life. My friends – so many friends who care about me and check in on me. I remembered all of the cards and presents I received on the day of my Mitra Ceremony and for my birthday. I reflected on the messages of love and support that I have been receiving. I thought about the lovely, beautiful women at my Dharma study last night. And – I am doing what I can to change what isn’t positive in my life. I am doing all that I can at the moment- some things just have to play out as they will.
I turned the corner and was confronted by the sun – cue for another bad picture (cannot always blame the iPhone! I am just not good at taking photos!). The sun will always rise. Whatever is going on in my life… the sun will always rise. The carousel continues to turn. Life is not satisfactory – The first Noble Truth of Buddhism – The truth of Dukkha – dissatisfaction, unease, suffering. If we base our state of mind, our happiness on the changeable world we will be unhappy a lot of the time! My journey to becoming more Tee is helping me to see the truth of suffering and to loosen my grasping, my craving for life to be different.
So I returned home feeling positive and ready to face the day. Those winds are still blowing as they were when I awoke this morning. But, at least for now, I am navigating my way through them a little better.
The Four Noble Truths:
The truth of Dukkha – dissatisfaction, unease, suffering. We always want things to be different
The truth of the origin of Dukkha – craving, grasping. The way that we look for satisfaction actually causes us more suffering
Dukkha can be overcome. We can go beyond suffering and dissatisfaction
We can follow a progressive path of spiritual development that affects every aspect of how we live our lives.We will then no longer build our quest for happiness on getting short-lived pleasure. If we have peace of mind we can weather any storm.
I have found myself in a state of confusion over the past few days. Not able to reconcile the need to accept the suffering and even the death of a loved one with equanimity with the need not to become cold and unfeeling. With the need to show others that I do care, I do love whilst still remaining calm and present.
Because of all of the stuff that has been going on, I have been reading and reflecting a lot on how to keep calm, live in the present moment and how to keep sailing a smooth path through loud, swirling winds. As you can see from my last post, I have read Tolle’s “Power of Now”. I have also had “Sailing the Worldly Winds” by Vajragupta recommended to me so I am reading that. I have been bringing to mind the impermanence of everything including life; I have pondered on Dukkha – the general unsatisfactoriness of life. Somehow I am standing in the middle of it all keeping calm (mostly) and letting things take their course.
But …. But how do I do this and not turn back to the person I used to be? How do I manage to keep in the present moment responding rather than reacting to my emotions without returning to the person who used to hide her emotions behind very strong walls? How do I work my way through the seeming paradox of reacting skillfully, remembering that everything has an ending and caring deeply? How can I be present for those I love in their suffering and not appear to be disinterested and cold? How do I continue to “become more Tee”? How do I find this path? What am I looking for? A friend said that I “have the direction, now to find the steps”.
Yesterday evening, I went to my Buddhist Meeting as usual. Every time I attend a Sangha meeting or meet up with friends from the Sangha I am struck by their calm, their sense of peace and the loving kindness / metta which flows from them. As we meditated, talked over tea and listened to the talks, I realised that metta is the key to this seeming paradox. I have not yet worked how but know that I am on the right path, taking the correct steps. This may well be obvious to everyone else – I may just be very slow on the uptake!
I know that I need to reflect more on this. I definitely need and intend to practise the Metta Bhavana Meditation. In this practice we cultivate loving kindness beginning with ourselves and eventually spreading it out to all sentient beings.
“The teachings on love by the Buddha are clear, scientific and applicable… Love, compassion, joy and equanimity are the very nature of an enlightened person. They are the four aspects of true love within ourselves and within everyone and everything”
Thich Nhat Hanh
I am not sure about this post… I feel that I have not adequately explained what I feel and the dilemma I face. I am not sure that I have described my small glimmer of light very well. But I am going to post this anyway. Things are not always straightforward. Some things need to be pondered upon and thought through for a while so that they become less twisted and tangled. In the writing and reflecting I will take a step or two forward. I am sure that I will come to these reflections.
Was thinking about my mitra ceremony on my Pretzel walk this morning. I was in a bit of pain from my back and joints (stress and cold,damp weather do not help them) so was trying to distract myself. I found myself smiling over the candle fiasco. I remembered the way in which everyone laughed with me and celebrated when I finally got my candle alight. It made me think about how things in my life often don’t go as I think they will. Something comes along to threaten the imagined perfection of the eagerly awaited event. But I always get through. Often I get through on my own but this time I had a whole community of friends with me supporting me.
Life does not always turn out as was expected / hoped / wished for. But with the example of the Buddha, his teachings and the Sangha I can make it through and become a better person in the process. I just have to keep remembering this.
Well it’s been a week… a week that I guess I knew would happen at some time but still managed to be a shock. A week in which my Dad has ended up seriously ill in hospital… a week in which I have had to find my mum a place in a care home. A week in which I sat in the sister’s office listening to news that I didn’t want to hear and then having to come home and tell my mum. I don’t know what will happen next … it’s all still very much a waiting game.
I’m not ready to start analysing my feelings. I have had to shut them away to some extent so that I can concentrate on helping my mum with her care and with the decisions that need to be made. I will have to save feeling for later.
There have been a few things which have struck me this week… the first is friendship. My parents have such caring and good friends who have been ringing and offering help all week. Some of them they have known for years. My parents are well loved. And my friends – one looking after Pretzel and my cats – oh and the hamster. Others texting sending their love. And one disappointing me I guess – but I have learnt not to push; not to take what isn’t freely given. And others I haven’t told because I don’t want to keep saying the words.
The staff on the ward have been wonderful. The NHS is much blamed and maligned but the nurses are amazingly caring people. And the consultant is doing the very best he can to give my dad the best hope possible. I also appreciate his honesty.
I have always been awe struck by how my dad has cared for my mum – putting her first and doing everything for her. This week as my brother and I have shared the caring doing it together and individually I have learnt just how tiring it can be. And my Dad must have felt unwell for a while but carried on regardless…
I have been surprised by how much I miss my home – my life. I miss my girls, my animals. I miss my cats curling up on my lap and my early morning Pretzel walks. I miss chatting with my girls. I missed going to the Buddhist meeting last night. I feel a strong sense of disconnection and a longing to be at home if only for a day or two. I guess I just want some “normal”. Some time where I’m not having to deal with wheelchairs and personal care; some time when I’m not having to help my mum make big decisions. Some time when I can start to process everything.
So this week has been about suffering. About the probable ending of a life my mum and dad had together. Impermanence. Sadness.