Category Archives: Spirit

Buddhism for Pets

When I sat my first 10 day Vipassana meditation course I wasn’t expecting the amount of theory that was dished out every night in the teacher’s discourses. The Introduction to the Technique, required reading before sitting the course, stated that Vipassana had nothing to do with organised religion or sectarianism. But what was taught in those evening sessions was clearly Buddhist doctrine; the Eightfold Noble Path, the Four Noble Truths, the Three Stages of Wisdom, the Four Elements, the Six Senses, the Four Aggregates of the Mind. I couldn’t keep up with it all. Fortunately the teacher told us it wasn’t necessary to. We were to experience the technique for ourselves, give it a try and see if it worked for us. Then perhaps later, if it did, we could delve more into its depths.

As part of delving into those depths, a few months later I visited The Chenrezig Institute in the Sunshine Coast hinterland. Established in 1974 Chenrezig  was one of the first Tibetan StupaBuddhist centres in the Western World. It’s home to a Tibetan Lama and a community of monks and nuns.

After experiencing the Vipassana centre where there’s not so much as a stick of incense, no candles, no banners, no statues – nothing, Chenrezig was a shock with all its colour, prayer wheels and flags. When I went into the temple and was confronted with brightly painted devas, lotuses galore and prostrated monks I was astounded. From the ‘no distraction’ edict of Vipassana meditation to the garish busyness of Tibetan Buddhism, it was like visiting another dimension. All I could think was Buddhist monks must get really bored to have to invent all this stuff.

My next visit to Chenrezig was to interview a nun for my radio series Soul Train, in which I investigate different religions and faith-based organisations on the Sunshine Coast. I spent a wonderful hour talking with her, sitting in the shadow of an ornate stupa. She had been studying Buddhism for over twenty years yet she told me she had only scratched the surface of all the theory.

“It gets increasingly complicated,” she said.

Bored monks, I thought to myself again. Bored and making stuff up.

For my third and recent visit to Chenrezig I took my 13 year-old niece, her friend and my husband with me so they could experience it for themselves. The 13 year-olds took many photos and loved the fibre optic lotuses and the many faced statues. The Hubby, like myself, found the theory a needless distraction. But our opinions divided inside the stupa.

Stupas are the oldest forms of Buddhist architecture and they hold Buddhist relics and holy objects. Inside the big stupas are smaller stupas which people can buy to hold their photo-12loved one’s ashes. I was delighted to find little stupas in memory of not only people but their pets. There were cats and dogs mixed in with their owners and sometimes with a little stupa all to themselves. The Hubby left, retreating from the heady incense, piped music and Buddhist knickknacks, while I stayed, fascinated by these memorials to beloved animals. When I found a little stupa dedicated to two Belgian Shepherds I was sold.

We adopted our Belgian Shepherd from the RSPCA. She was six years old and had been abandoned. In the eighteen months since she became part of our family, we have discovered why she was abandoned. Anti-social, anxious and prone to biting other dogs. She loves us but no one else. We manage her behaviour, keeping her away from dogs and other people. Sometimes I wonder what goes on in her hyper-sensitive mind and whether she will ever find peace. Perhaps, years in the future, after she’s died from old age, I can put her ashes in a stupa and there, at last, she will be at rest.

Morphine or Meditation?

If you’re in pain what are you going to do, pop a pill or do some mindfulness meditation? sun & cloudsThere’s a lot of research that shows you’re better off doing the latter. Apparently meditation is better for pain relief than pain relievers. These studies have been going on for over thirty years and are so well-respected that in some parts of Canada meditation training is covered by their provincial health plan for those referred by a physician. That in itself is an interesting concept, doctors suggesting their patients learn how to meditate. Is this an admission that the drugs don’t work?

In the UK doctors are being told to heavily reduce prescriptions of painkillers and sleeping pills because of concerns that patients are becoming addicted. Instead they’re being asked to consider alternative treatments. That’s where meditation comes in. All this research involving heat testing and brain scans is showing that just one hour of meditation training can result in about a 40% reduction in pain intensity. Morphine and other pain-relieving drugs typically reduce pain ratings by about 25%. Meditation appears to work by calming down the pain experiencing areas of the brain while at the same time boosting coping areas. Ah, the power of the mind.

Mindfulness meditation is all about being in the present moment; observing the breath, observing sensations in the body. It reduces worry about the past and future. Meditation is low-tech and low-cost and even the side-effects are beneficial. In one study statistically significant reductions were observed in  negative body image, mood disturbance, anxiety and depression. Pain-related drug use decreased and activity levels and feelings of self-esteem increased.

In another study participants described achieving well-being during and after a meditation session that had immediate effects on mood elevation but also long-term effects on improved quality of life. Several themes were identified related to pain reduction, improved attention, improved sleep, and achieving well-being resulting from mindfulness meditation that suggest it has promising potential as a non-pharmacologic treatment of chronic pain.

And the latest study suggests meditation’s calming effect could help those with stress-related chronic inflammatory conditions such as bowel disease and asthma. I remember my own GP telling me years ago that the only thing that had been shown to be effective in the treatment of auto-immune diseases was meditation.

There is a saying: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. Most suffering, it seems to me, is the stuff we do in our heads; worrying about the future, churning over the past, never giving the present moment a chance. In mindfulness meditation the present moment is all important. Observing the breath, observing the sensations – including the pain – and knowing that this also will change. Sort out the pain from the suffering and almost miraculously most of the pain will disappear – well, according to studies, 40% of it at least.

I wish I was a psychopath.

Mindfulness. It’s been shown to alleviate stress, reduce anxiety, relieve drug and alcohol dependence, and my doctor told me it helps with all kinds of illness especially auto-blow flyimmune disease. I’ve been practising mindfulness for years as part of my daily meditation but I’m still not very good at it.

Mindfulness is all about being in the present moment. Not worrying about the future, not dwelling on the past. Being here, now, moment by moment. It’s not easy. My mind wanders all over the place. But when it does go meandering, I avoid beating myself up. I bring my awareness back to the present moment, mindfully, and start again. Many Eastern philosophies have used mindfulness techniques for millennia and Western psychology has taken to it with gusto.

When I was in Twelve Step programs one of my sponsors simplified it for me. One day when I was telling her about all my fears she said to me, “What is there for you to be fearful of? Right here, right now in this moment?”

My answer surprised me as much as her question. “Nothing.” If I keep my thoughts to the present moment what do I have to fear? Absolutely nothing.

Simple concept. Hard to achieve. But not if you’re a psychopath.

Recently I read this article by Kevin Dutton who’s a research psychologist. It was adapted from a piece he wrote called The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success. “What?” I hear you say. “Taking lessons from psychopaths? I don’t think so.” But it seems that I could take a few lessons in mindfulness from these violent maniacs myself. Kevin went to Broadmoor, the best-known high-security psychiatric hospital in England, to chat to a few of the inmates. What he found there amazed me.

One of the inmates, Leslie, told him; “The thing about fear, or the way I understand fear, I suppose—because, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever really felt it—is that most of the time it’s completely unwarranted anyway. What is it they say? Ninety-nine percent of the things people worry about never happen. So what’s the point? I think the problem is that people spend so much time worrying about what might happen, what might go wrong, that they completely lose sight of the present. They completely overlook the fact that, actually, right now, everything’s perfectly fine. So the trick, whenever possible, I propose, is to stop your brain from running on ahead of you.”

Kevin writes: Leslie’s pragmatic endorsement of the principles and practices of what might otherwise be described as mindfulness is typical of the psychopath. A psychopath’s rapacious proclivity to live in the moment, to “give tomorrow the slip and take today on a joyride” (as Larry, rather whimsically, puts it), is well documented—and at times can be stupendously beneficial.

And there you have it. A lesson in mindfulness from the most unlikely of sources. Perhaps it’s time to let my inner-psychopath off the leash, just a little. A little less fear, a little more joy. I just hope I don’t end up in Broadmoor. There, you see? I’ve done it again. Started worrying about the future. I wish I was a psychopath!

NB: I debated whether to use “I wish I was a psychopath” or “I wish I were a psychopath”. I did some research and I’m still not sure. “Were” is used in a state that has never existed and never will exist. “Was” is used in situations where the statement might once have been or could be a reality. But you can see which one I went with…

Me, my, mine = misery.

I have spent a lot of time meditating. Guided meditations, breath meditations, visualised lone plantmeditations. I’ve imagined pyramids with coloured steps, stared at candles until my vision blurred and spent hours in silent agony at Vipassana retreats. It was at Vipassana that I became familiar with the teaching of the Buddha. Not that I was expecting to. I was told that Vipassana was just a meditation technique, pure and simple. And it is. But at the ten day retreat where it is taught, every evening there is the Teacher’s Discourse which involves a lot of  Buddhist theory.

During one of these discourses I heard a theory that I’d heard in various forms before – that the idea of self is a delusion, that there is no I, no me, no mine. The teacher explained that any attachment to the delusion of I, me, mine only leads to misery. In the past I have reacted badly to this theory. I want there to be an I. I want things to be mine. I like owning stuff. And I like there being a demarkation between you and me. I believe that’s called having boundaries. I spent most of my thirties being told that having healthy boundaries was a good thing.

So where does that leave me when it comes to relationships? Friendships? Am I supposed to have boundaries? Or am I supposed to merge with the eternal we, the group consciousness? Is it possible to be in a relationship if we are all one? The teacher has a wife so I guess it must be okay.

The important thing for me to remember is that if there is no mine then no one belongs to me. I don’t own anyone, no one owns me. We are all free. Thinking I have owned people, that somehow they belong to me, has only caused me misery and heartbreak. There is liberation in letting go of that illusion, there is bliss in relinquishing ownership. Nobody owns anybody else. Love is a choice, not a commandment.

In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran wrote:

Let there be spaces in your togetherness,

And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

I like that. It says to me that even if we are one, we can still be separate. There is space between us to experience the joy of heaven. The best of both worlds.

 

This blog first appeared as a column in the February 2013 edition of Holistic Bliss

As voices take flight

photo: joefutrelle
photo: joefutrelle

This time, after the teaching of metta, as the teacher and his wife go singing off into the distance, I smile. No yearning, no bittersweet melancholy. Only happiness. Yes, they are going where I can’t follow, but I am on my own path – it’s under my feet, meandering into the distance, shaded with overhanging trees. It’s solid, welcoming, real. I sense the wonders, awe, troubles and joy ahead. I am on the path. My path. And they are on theirs as their voices grow fainter and fade away until one of the assistant teachers finally switches off the CD.

The assistant teachers sit for a moment longer then make their way from the meditation hall. The new students eagerly head for the door. I know they will be greeted by a sign, in its own frame, hung from the post directly outside. It will tell them that Noble Silence is lifted. After nine and a half days they are free to talk again. I continue to sit in meditation. Smiling. I am in no hurry. I am not in pain. Love, compassion, goodwill to all beings.

When I finally leave the hall the new students, like little birds, have scattered to chirp excitedly to each other, bursting with stories of pain and triumph, hell and freedom. I walk silently to my room. I’m not ready to speak and know the dangers of speaking too much, too soon. Outside my window two old students greet each other. They talk of anxieties, fears, endless running minds, heads aflame with thoughts. They talk of wanting to leave, of not sleeping, of only wanting to sleep, of good days and bad.

And as for me? What will I say when I finally let my voice take flight? Yes, I had pain. Yes, I did endless head miles. Yes, I felt as though there was a tangle of fat pythons inside my head, squirming and pushing against my skull. But in the end, the meditation took over. Eventually my busy, exhausting mind tired of it’s own stories. It would flick through the choices available, like DVDs on a shelf, and realise it had seen them all before, too many times. Then it would slow, let go, and finally, finally, let me do the work I was here to do. Observe the breath, observe sensations, remember the truth of impermanence. Awareness and equanimity. One step on the path and then another, sometimes shuffling, sometimes skipping, and sometimes doing an about-face when the pain bit back.

The teacher’s words still ring in my head; Liberate yourself from the bondages of craving, aversion, delusion, illusion and enjoy real peace, real harmony, real happiness. But now, finally, it’s time to hear words from my own lips. This time I choose the path leading to the dining hall and lunch, to join the other voices; gliding, swooping, diving and soaring.

 

The true meaning of Boxing Day

Did you go shopping today? Did you get more stuff? The shopping centres were packed on Christmas Eve and packed again today. How much stuff do we need?

I’ve heard that we only use 20 per cent of what we own. We could give the other 80 per cent away and never miss it. I kind of think that’s true. I have my favourite clothes, favourite cook books, favourite mug, favourite bowl. There are only so many glasses I can drink of at any one time without making a mess. The rest of my stuff stays in the wardrobe or in the cupboard for most, if not all, of the time.

Instead of going to the Boxing Day sales, something that I’ve only done a couple of times, BoxesThe Hubby and I decided to put things into boxes instead. Things that we didn’t need, things we never used and things we will never use. Tomorrow I will drop these things off at the charity shop. Hopefully someone will need them and make good use them.

I thought we were turning Boxing Day on its head. I thought we were being revolutionary –  getting rid of stuff instead of getting stuff. But no. I looked up the origins of Boxing Day and what do you know? Boxing Day has its roots in ancient Rome and was called Saturnalia. It was a day in which the rich gave gifts to those who were not so rich. Later on the in England and Europe it was a day when the wealthy gave gifts to their servants.

And why is it called Boxing Day? There’s a link to the Feast of Saint Stephen, which falls on Boxing Day. The custom was to put offerings inside metal boxes left outside churches and this money was for the poor. In Britain tradesmen would receive Christmas boxes of money or presents as thanks. And employers would give their servants boxes of leftover food and perhaps gifts and money to take home to their families.

So it turns out that the history of Boxing Day is all about giving to those with less than ourselves. It’s not about receiving. It’s not about shopping. The Hubby and I aren’t being revolutionary at all. We’re keying into the original intention. The true meaning of Boxing Day. Mr & Mrs Stephens are upholding the tradition of the Feast of St Stephen and we did it without even realising. It’s all a bit spooky really.

Looking now at the boxes all packed and ready to be given to charity, at the empty spaces on our shelves, in our cupboards and in our wardrobe, I feel lighter. There’s more space and energy in our home. We were stuffed full of stuff. Now we are freer. It’s true – by giving, we receive.

The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing is a series of blog posts where authors talk about their work using the IMG_0783same ten questions. At the end of the blog we tag other authors who will do the same thing a week later. So not only do you get to find out more about my book but you also will discover some other interesting writers. The wonderful Ian Irvine tagged me and here are my answers:

1. What is the working title of your next book?

My title is sex, drugs & meditation. Due to my publisher’s concerns this may change. Remember to Breathe is an option.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

I used to read self-help and personal growth books. They were full of jargon and exercises I was supposed to do – which I never did.  The bits I really liked were the case studies, the stories. When my life was transformed by meditation, and by one ten-day, silent mediation retreat in particular, I decided to write a case study, the story of what happened.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Non-fiction. It’s my meditation memoir.

4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

This book would be hard, but not impossible, to turn into a movie. It’s based within the frame of a ten-day silent meditation retreat – tough to write a screenplay for that! However there are a lot of flashbacks involving sex, drugs and my life playing in bands and working in radio. Charlize Theron would be great to play me especially as she doesn’t mind not looking too pretty if the role demands it. Ben Kingsley could reprise his Gandhi role and play the teacher.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Mary-Lou does not have it all. Never has. And now the one thing she does have is under threat. (Okay it’s three sentences but they’re very short.)

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My publisher is Pan Macmillan. Selwa Anthony is my agent. The book is due to be released in April 2013

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Oh Lordy, that’s a tough question. I had so many false starts. I had written 50,000 words most of which didn’t work. I started again after I was given some great advice by a literary agent. “If you’re going to write this book you need to be totally honest.” I freaked out, put the project aside and wrote ten drafts of a novel instead (unpublished). When I was ready to be totally honest I started writing again. This process took about six years.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Teach Us to Sit Still – Tim Parks

Oh and yes, that book, Eat, Pray, Love. I stated writing my memoir way before Elizabeth Gilbert’s book was released, I promise.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

It is an amazing story and it’s all true. When I read my final draft (before the publishing deal) I said to The Hubby, “This is such a great story. I can’t believe everything in it happened to me. I can’t fathom how I went through so much change and transformation and I’m still completely fucked up.”

He was kind enough to agree that it was an amazing story and not agree with the last bit.

10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

If you’ve ever been in a situation that you’ve found unbearable – with your work, relationship, health, weight, friends, etc – this book is for you.

If you’ve ever been in a state that you wanted to change but didn’t know how – this is the book for you.

If you’ve ever wanted to clear emotional baggage and be free – this book is perfect.

If you’ve ever wondered what being a radio presenter is really like – you’ll love this book.

If you’re wondering how someone who gets paid to talk could stay silent for ten days – this book will interest you.

If you have any curiosity about, or interest in, meditation – this book is a must.

 

So that’s it for me. If you want to discover some other great writers check these out:

Nikki Stern – her memoir Not Your Ordinary Housewife was released this week.

Paul Fogarty – not only a writer of prose but a writer of songs

Taylor Fulks – her book My Prison Without Bars was released this week.

Sean Tretheway  – two novels released so far and many more to come.

 

 

I’m just an animal

Is it something innate? Something in all of us? This longing for home, this wanting to belong? Or is it just in those of us who never felt as though they had a home, never felt as Cowsthough they belonged?

The times I’ve felt a sense of belonging are few and far, scattered through this life, these many lives it feels like. A friend and I made a home in a small flat in Coogee. I loved her and I trusted her. Still do, though years and distance have passed between us. I asked her, as we sat together in our kitchen, our playground for cockroaches, if she ever felt as though she belonged. Her reply surprised me.

“All the time,” she said.”

“How?”

“Because home is in here.” She tapped her heart.

I loved her all the more, and admired her, but I didn’t feel the same. Instead I had a vague wavery sensation inside my chest, as if I could dissolve at any moment. My home was less substantial even than straw.

I played in bands. Bands can be like family. A substitute perhaps. We worked, rehearsed, toured and played together. We shared secrets and disappointments, dreams and realities, and grew a history that was ours alone. Like a family.  But bands break up. My sense of belonging shattered each time.

I spent many years in Twelve Step programs. A big sprawling dysfunctional family. I found like-minded souls, soul sisters if you like. I wedged my way into belonging by doing lots of meetings and hours of service. I was admired by some, befriended by others, and the true friendships endured beyond the realm of those rooms. But eventually I discovered that this adopted Twelve Step family was much like the family I’d left behind. I didn’t like it any better the second time around.

I see people attracted to movements and modalities, causes and committees, and I see them as craving the connection that a sense of belonging gives. Like family. I understand it. But I’m no longer a joiner.

I still have a vague wavery sensation in my chest but perhaps this is the way I am. Movement and energy, floating and free. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe my sense of home is beyond the realms of this body, this reality. A place I cannot yet understand even though it’s here with me, always.

My dog comes up for a pat. My husband is on his way home. A tray of mangoes on the dining table fill the room with their scent. Two magpie larks build a nest in the tree outside my window. The native bees return to their hive.

Guess that this must be the place.

Is there such a thing as bad meditation?

I’ve always thought that any meditation is a good meditation. Sure, some may be better than others – positive and uplifting, rather than ho-hum, or should that be ho-om…

I love my mediation time. It’s time to myself, to be with myself. I watch those thoughts flit by until they calm down and diminish, until I’m left with space and a blue-sky mind. Other times it’s enough just to be able to sit down for a while and have the excuse of “I’m meditating” to keep all those bothersome tasks at bay.

But apparently not all meditation is good meditation. I’ve interviewed two people recently who have said that meditation can keep us in a negative loop. That if it’s done incorrectly it can ingrain harmful thought patterns and behaviors into our psyches.

Gary Little calls himself a wellness navigator and has spent twenty years researching the causes of pain. According to his findings pain is mostly in the mind and yes meditation is a great source of relief but he’s known people who have maintained their negativity with bad meditation practices.

Peter Hoddle is a metaphysical healer. He has spent a lot of time meditating. Although looking back he believes he wasn’t actually meditating at all when he was in his early twenties. He was either asleep or being run ragged by his mad and damaging thoughts.

In meditation our consciousness is heightened, our awareness expands and our thoughts slow down. It doesn’t matter what kind of meditation you do, as long as it works for you. Observe those mad and negative thoughts and let them go, as opposed to getting hooked in by them and letting them run the meditation and be the boss of you.

But I’m a fine one to talk. So many of my mediations have consisted of fighting with my mad monkey mind. It’s exhausting. But it’s also great fodder. The descriptions of just how mad my mind can get are part of my meditation memoir being released in April 2013 by Pan Macmillan. Oh, hang on a sec. Maybe I need to get the release date pushed forward. Isn’t the world ending in a couple of weeks? Now that’s something to meditate on.

Breath. Breath in,observe. Breathe out, observe. Repeat. I’m feeling better already.

 

 

The Unexpected Joys of Detoxing

“Why do I always do this to myself ?” I found myself thinking three days into a detox retreat. When other people take time off work, most of them have a holiday. Instead I spend seven days without food, taking lots of herbs to clean out my entire system, which before it gets clean feels like…well you get the idea. Other so-called holidays I’ve had involved meditating in silence for ten days and only having lemon water for dinner.  I seem to think that holidays are meant to fortify the body and soul rather than relax them. Perhaps I feel a certain amount of guilt living in a permanent holiday destination, where driving to work means a beautiful meander along the Maroochy River and I get to go to the beach everyday.

Friends and family laughed when I told them I was going on a detox retreat. “You’re the cleanest living person we know,” they said. “What have you got to detox from?” And that was a very good question, a question I didn’t find the complete answer to until almost the end of the retreat.

The answer I found was that I was detoxing from the media, from the news, from the gossip, from the latest round of tragedy and betrayal. I was detoxing from the internet, and boy did I go through withdrawals. Not being able to google myself up an answer or some information at the touch of a keyboard was almost as tough as going without three meals a day plus snacks.

I was detoxing from a certain mindset that pushes us all to achieve in the external world, to acquire and grasp and cut ourselves off from each other with our possessions and positions in life.

I was detoxing from fear, from the need to constantly prove myself in the eyes of others.

And strangely enough of all, I was detoxing from music. I fill my ears constantly with sounds from all over the world, the latest hit single from the multinational multi-labels to obscure bouzouki playing duos recorded on the last two-track reel-to-reel in existence. Sometimes your ears need a good cleaning out as well as the rest of your system so that you can appreciate a simple melody or a beautiful lyric.

The joy of detoxing is that you get to begin again all squeaky clean and when you do you can really enjoy that brand new song, the latest factoid on the internet and the taste of, well let’s face it, just about anything tastes good after a week of not eating!

**This post also appeared as a column in Holistic Bliss Magazine November 2012