Since then, I have been meditating 20 minutes most days, unguided and a bit clumsy - perhaps 2 fragmented minutes focussed on breathing, and 18 accidently dedicated to planning the day, composing emails, reliving past glories and wondering if i needed to buy any more pasta before dinner. But when the timer beeped I always did feel that bit more grounded, perceptive and elegant. People became more beautiful, and it was easier to understand the true meaning of what they were saying and not saying, separated from my reflex judgements and preconceptions. It became easier to teach, as the pupils I worked with felt more listened to and respected, and were calmer and more open as a result. Activism became easier, as I was able to more clearly understand why I felt how I felt and why it was necessary to fight for a more equal, less pained world, and why those who fought so hard to maintain the status quo did what they did, and where I should, therefore, put my time and energy to best effect change.
The small amount of meditation guidance I received during my first trip to Ecodharma was revelatory, so the prospect of going back for a two week course that spoke of ‘deeper resources for action’ in the form of a meditation toolbox was warmly anticipated. Ten people, 14 days (of which 8 were in silence), no books, music or screens. An explicit link between inner transformation and societal transformation. Mountains, a strong community, processing of wood into heat, motion into stillness. My intentions for going could be rationalised and explained, but mostly I want to tell you about the things I experienced that I am unable to rationally explain.
On the first morning we went round with the who-we-ares and what-we-are-doings. Many on the course had refined their activism to a professional level - facilitators, consultants, journalists, lawyers, researchers. My own refinement, my own shoulder against to system-change wheel, has been to focus my efforts on those in our society with the most flexible minds - young people - and access them where they are (schools, pupil referral units, hospitals, youth centres) through the lens of something they, and I, get a kick out of - music. I have no chisel big enough to make the banks topple; I can’t even deny my rainforest-shrinking desire for char siu bao, but I can certainly help the young ‘uns produce and reflect on compositions that help them take ownership of their lives. And go some way to break the cycle of confusion and despair that leaves so many self-medicating with trainers, computer games and skunk. And tinder, revenge porn and smashed avocado, for that matter. The revolution will come when the alternative is so appealing and undeniable that the current planet-destroying, consumption-based system seems silly and irrelevant. How ugly things get before that happens is the only unknown.
Easy to say these things, but among such dedicated, intelligent bods I definitely had to work through a touch of guilt about my lack of ‘hardcore’ activism these last years. And a strange lack of emotion in many parts of my life. At some point anger was replaced with sadness, and then that got buried somewhere too, apparently replaced with a jaunty pragmatism.
But I digress. During the first few days of the retreat we were introduced to, among other things, two core process to go through during a meditation. Meta Bhavna, which is based on harnessing the essence of ‘loving kindness’ and deploying it first (and perhaps most importantly) to oneself, then a friend, then a neutral person, then someone you find difficult, and finally the world in general. This essence of loving kindness, like a lot of things spoken about in relation to meditation, is for the most part beyond description in words (Bach articulates it, as does Ballake Sissoko, as do Mariachi El Pinche Gringo, but you would have to see us live...); best way is to try it.
The second process is called the ‘four stages of access to meditation’ (or something like that), and if you were a glass of homemade apple juice with bits in, this process would aim to let the bits settle to the bottom, to leave the apple-mind clear and clutter free. If you were the helmsman of a small to medium size boat, the aim would be to develop smaller and finer use of the rudder to keep the ship on a straight course. If you were in a pub trying to balance a beer mat on it’s side, the aim would be to use smaller and smaller nudges of the hands to keep it upright, till eventually it just stayed there of its own accord, even if there was a gale outside and the people kept opening the door and banging their fists on the table. Stage 1 - count each breath to ten, trying not to let the mind wander. Every time it wonders, gently bring it back to the count. Stage 2 - count each breath to ten, starting each count when you first physically feel each breath entering your nose (easier if the air is cold). Stage 3 - I never fully understood but something to do with feeling the breath in your whole body. Stage 4 - Forget the counting, and focus attention on the part of your nose that the breath is first felt, both in and out.
Sounds quite mechanical and potentially a little boring, but for me this was a really good way in. Most of my life is filled with words - teaching, reading, radio 4, the news, facebook feeds, texts, emails, debate - head stuff. My inner dialogue is, as a consequence, strong and unrelenting. At the start of each meditation a running commentary of how it was going would continue, annoyed with myself for being so crap at it, congratulating myself when it worked for a moment, spinning off into random thoughts. But over twenty, thirty minutes this narrative slowed, and the other part of me, the unnamable part previously unlocked during musical improvisation, dancing, playing football, true connections with other humans, grew in stature, and I started actually being with the breath and noticing how subtle and beautiful it was. It was like the breath itself was dancing. I started saying things like ‘in....turn .... out... turn...’ and ‘lovely’ with each breath, and this was enough to keep my chattering mind at bay. And then I would check in with my body, and notice that my whole body was breathing with me, and in fact was poised and still and holding my mind like one holds a baby, and I would have a little wobble where my head started talking about this stuff, but after a few times of this happening it wasn’t a big deal anymore, and I stayed with it.
And then some unexpected things happened.
I started getting the feeling of pleasant tingling and shots of electricity starting in my hands and legs, and working my way up into the rest of my body. Like a relaxed sparkler that had found some friendly gunpowder all around my skin. Sometimes my heartbeat would come to the foreground of my experience, and my whole body would slowly pulse with it. Sometimes my whole body would take a leave of absence, and my entire existence would be the gentle, beautiful breath, in and out, sometimes visualisable in the form of a thin oval of white light. Sometimes these feelings were subtle, other times they were intense and I would gasp (was it audible?) as they overtook every pore of my body.
And then further, hitherto unknown feelings and states of mind started unfolding... but I fear no words will do the experience justice, and I know if I had read about them before I had experienced them myself I would have missed the point entirely. The fact is that these things aren’t explainable with logic or (to my knowledge) science, they aren’t rational, and we are encouraged, hard wired from a young age, to either have an irrational religion or have the religion of rationality, neither of which will accept these accounts in the manner in which they are played out. Where previously meditation had been about clarity and perspective, now i was sinking into something entirely different.
The speed at which I was able to reach these depths was due in no small part to the guidance of the facilitators, but also the lack of external stimulation that piles up the things we need to process. In between sessions we would eat, stare at the stars, keep warm, and sit on sofas in silence drinking tea (amazing what you can make tea out of. I got into sage tea, picked straight from the side of the mountain). At first it was kind of odd, being in such close proximity to people without the polite blah blah, but it made every connection count, and without the background noise everything else came to the fore - the food we were eating, colour, the workmanship of our surroundings both natural and man-made (I had never looked closely at a chair before. There were several specimens where we were, and it was quite amazing to see how different designers had achieved the same function though different forms). After looking at everything in the room I started looking at people’s faces. Faces! What cauldrons of expression! Bonus point to evolution.
The silence also offered ample time to process what had happened, and anything else that may be coming up, and leave the meditations - up to seven hours a day - clear to practise the release of discursive thought. I am always doing doing doing, and it becomes the norm, so when I have gaps I fill them with something - radio dramas, football dramas, my eternal to-do list. Going to see if I can change that a bit. In practical terms:
- Only check my email twice a day
- Do things more slowly
- Make our music education projects more long term with a stronger focus on social and personal outcomes for participants.
- Build some marimbas and travel round europe in my van with them, sticking close to the coast.
So that is that really. Oh and two food tips from the amazing EcoDharma cook Anna
1. GIANT CROUTONS. We are talking like an inch cubed. Baked with olive oil and rosemary. Crunchy, chewy and soup-soaked, all in one go.
2. Thickly grated raw apple, butternut squash and courgette with a simple vinaigrette. Amen.
Here is the translation of an eighth century Tibetan poem that was read some nights, the only words we heard all day:
**Shambhala Warrior Mind Training**
Firmly establish your intention to live for the healing of our world. Be conscious of it, nurture it, honour it every day.
Be fully present in our time. Find the courage to breathe in the suffering of our world. Allow peace and healing to breathe out through you in return.
Do not meet power on its own terms. See through to its real nature: mind and heart made.
Lead your response from that level.
Simplify. Clear away the dead wood in your life. Look for the heartwood and give it the first call on your time, the best of your energy.
Put down the leaden burden of saving the world alone. Join with others of like mind. Align yourself with the forces of resolution
Hold a single vision, in the same thought, the transformation of yourself and of the world. Live your life around that edge, always keeping it in sight.
As a bird flies on two wings, balance outer activity with inner sustenance
Following your heart, realise your own unique gifts. Cultivate them with diligence to offer knowledge and skill to the world.
Train in non- violence of body, speech and mind. With great patience to yourself, learn to make beautiful each action, thought and word.
In the crucible of meditation, bring forth day by day the compassion, wisdom, skill and courage for which the world longs
Sit with hatred, until you feel the fear beneath it. Sit with fear, until you feel the compassion beneath that.
Do not set your heart on particular results. Enjoy positive action for its own sake. Rest confident that it will bear fruit.
When you see violence, greed and narrow-mindedness in the fullness of its power, walk straight into the heart of it, remaining open to the sky and in touch with the earth.
Staying open, staying grounded, remember that you are the inheritors of thousands of generations of life
Staying open, staying grounded, be confident in the magic and power that arise when people come together in a great cause
Staying open, staying grounded, have faith that the forces of wisdom and compassion will manifest through our actions for the healing of our world.
When you see the weapons of hate, disarm them with Love.
When you see the fortresses of narrow mindedness, breach them with truth
When you find yourself in dark clouds of dread, dispel them with courage
When the forces of power seek to isolate us from one another, reach out with joy.
In it and through it all, holding to your intention, let go into the music of life.