I was thinking recently about the time I went to the local hospital’s chaplaincy centre for meditation classes and ended up listening to a Buddhist nun’s teachings in-between meditation sessions. And I’ve been contemplating how we can be influenced by religious teachers, by their charisma, by their sense of inner peace and by what they impart to us, and how we can be partially or completely converted to one religion or another, at a certain point in our lives when we are seeking answers, through the power of one individual. I’m using the term guru to encapsulate any spiritual teacher, sage or mentor and guiding light who share their own literal and experiential knowledge and for whom a student feels respect, reverence, and even love. What are these special qualities that are so powerful?
So there I found myself, quite a few years ago now, listening to a real life guru who fits our definition perfectly. I’d picked up a leaflet somewhere thinking I’d like to explore meditation because I wanted some inner peace. Just like that, right?! Feelings I didn’t like had been churning around for quite some time – nasties like anger, frustration, envy, a great dollop of negativity, and a sense of failure because I was in the habit of being too hard on myself. I wasn’t feeling like me anymore – the real me – so I thought meditation might help. So, sitting in the company of fellow students, all eager to learn, I began what felt like an indoctrination, listening intently to a lovely lady teacher known as Gen Kelsang Devi, sitting in orange robes by a tiny table on which stood a glass of water and a little black prayer book. She was young and had a contemporary modern approach – just perfect, I decided. As she gently led us into meditation, focusing on breathing and mental visualisations, my attempts were a bit fraught with my inner musings going something like this:
Close eyes, yes, get comfortable, feet apart, hands in lap. Which hand in which hand? Oh it doesn’t matter, okay. But I’ll get it right next time. Oh here we go, have to go doing that relaxing all parts of the body thing, bit by bit. Do we really have to? It’s so boorring? Why can’t we just get on with it?
Right, okay, I see, breath in good energy, breath out the bad, positive, negative, right, right – hang on, I can’t do this with those dogs barking outside! How dare the owners let them carry on like that? How are we supposed to concentrate? People can be so selfish! So ignorant!
Quiet again, that’s better. But just a minute, now I can hear my tinnitus blaring. It’s so quiet in here, this is the last thing I need. It’s not relaxing at all. Actually it’s getting very uncomfortable, louder and louder in fact. It’s all right for the others, they don’t have this ringing to contend with! (sneak peek at the others, who look irritatingly tranquil behind their dutifully closed lids).
And I’m feeling physically tense in my chest now. I can’t stand this deep breathing in, and hold, hold it, then deep breathing out. I’m having to hold for far too long, it doesn’t suit me. Just do it the way you want, then. Right, fine! I will!
Going deeper now, yes, hmm, I think I’m getting somewhere now. I think I can feel it. Stop thinking then, just feel. You’re not here with your inner self and the universal spirit ,whatever that is, if you’re still thinking, you know! You’re aiming for nothingness, expansion…
Fraught with tensions, until this happened:
Hmm—————————————this is quite nice———————- ——————————————- think I’ll stay like this—————— —————————————————————————————
What? We have to come out of it now? Yeah, okay, only when we’re ready. But I’ve just got here! ———–Why don’t I want to open my eyes? ————————————————-I’m not particularly deep or anything. Oh, all right, I’ll come out now———-(I stretch and smile at Devi)
I carried on trying meditation at home for a while, allowing myself to listen to wind chime music to offset the tinnitus and I treated myself to a meditation cushion from the local Buddhist Monastery, known as Samye Ling, which we’re lucky enough to have here in the Scottish Borders. I sat in the temple, absorbed the atmosphere, and many years later, I do still pay it a visit now and again. I meditate now and again. I bought a couple of books and I read them now and again, looking for my pencilled markings in the margins. I guess I’m one of many that gets this far…but doesn’t go beyond this point into a real conversion process, because upon investigating further into what was available, I noticed all the courses and the fees which I could scant afford, I saw the business side of it, I saw all those different schools of Buddhism with varying affiliations. How do you choose? I saw one or two of the others students telling me they were going to the next level, but I sensed the ego still in them, I sensed this was their next ‘cause’ or fad. I became suspicious and wary of handing over my personal power. I thought to myself – I’ll go my own way, thank you.
But the really special thing for me, which is the point of this post, was Devi’s charismatic teaching between the mediations, and the interactions of questions and answers which she invited into the session. I found myself listening to the fundamentals of Buddhism with a real world application, delivered by a Scottish lass in her thirties turned Buddhist nun. I felt we were extremely fortunate to have her come down from Edinburgh just for us (say 5 to 10 people at any one time), and the sessional fee was only a fiver. I lapped up her teachings like a dried-out river bed. And if you read last week’s post, it will be no surprise that I wrote notes afterwards, which I’m taking a look at as I type.
The concepts she taught for us to think about and to try to put into practice to find inner peace included:
Cherishing others – by cherishing others, no matter who they are and what they have done, you’ll feel a weight lifted that otherwise would be filled with anger, jealously or despair. The big question that was asked here was – can you do this cherishing without making yourself vulnerable, weakened, an idiot, or ‘walked all over’?
If you cherish yourself above others and put yourself first all the time, or push yourself forward before others, you’re creating a negative karmic energy which slowly destroys your good nature, your openness and your ability to love others as we do ourselves.
To recognise the kindness and services done to ourselves in a multitude of ways, whether those kindnesses are intentional or not.
To recognise the social construct we unconsciously adopt – eg judging others, categorising people, not realising that we are all equally significant, all with equal worth.
To have compassion for self and others, to keep your own needs in balance and appreciate the needs of others.
To be mindful of your inner thoughts and feelings, to practice shutting down the fears, doubts, angers and jealousies of negative mind, to develop an open positive mind to attract positive karma into your life.
Ultimate happiness cannot be achieved by external means. External means are only fleeting. Happiness comes from within in the form of inner peace, in which the muddy waters of delusions and distortions we plague ourselves with are stilled, so that the water clears. In this clarity there is room for enlightenment or at least some enlightened moments!
Don’t react to others negative mindsets with a negative mind of your own – dispel and defuse it for your sake and theirs. Be open and honest and act with integrity. You can change your karma by modifying your inner attitudes and feelings.
The benefits of acceptance, patience, and the detaching from ego-driven attachments – huge topics far too big to cover here.
So contemplating these, and trying to put some of it into practice, got me started on a midlife journey. This was only the beginning, but it was a beginning instigated by listening to an inspirational (in all the best senses of the word) person, who happened to be a Buddhist nun.
So what were the special qualities that made Devi my guru for at least a little while?
There was a sense of theatrical anticipation in that we waited for her to enter the room in her robes, when everyone suddenly hushed and respectfully responded to her Namaste greeting.
Her voice and tone was quiet and measured. Every word and syllable was carefully enunciated to be soaked up into your being and your heart. There is a real skill to this delivery of information and she had it in abundance. She talked. We listened.
She was humorous and compassionate at the same time.
She was still in herself and glowed with an inner harmony. And I asked her quietly just within myself – how did you get like this? Did following Buddhism really give you this? And at this point, I had to decide how far I wanted to go with these practices. Did I want to learn more, go on a retreat? Did I want to fully embrace this philosophy? The fact that her example raised these questions is the true power of a guru for me.
Devi left after a few months. On her last evening, we all had coffee and biscuits as usual, then she said her goodbyes. Some of the ladies gave her a hug. I stood back, but she reached for me and she gave me a hug and it was one of the most special hugs I ever had. Going to meditation just wasn’t the same after that. The two replacement speakers (one a trainee monk, the other a plain clothes psychiatrist (and yes, I struggled with that one!) ) did their best, but it wasn’t working for me any more in the same environment, so I took Devi’s teachings away with me to carry on my journey.
Now I deliberately haven’t put a link in to connect you to this lady who’s gone on to teach at many retreats and festivals, because she was special to me and isn’t necessarily to you, and you may well have your own past ‘guru’ teachers to remember, but if anyone out there is interested you can listen to Gen Kelsang Devi delivering some teachings on Youtube and judge for yourself.
Cheers for now, and feel free to share any experiences of your own.