Thursday, 15 September 2016

Return to Samye Ling, Part One

I first visited Samye Ling in 2011, when a friend of mine was conducting psi research on meditators. Samye Ling is a Tibetan Buddhist centre of the Kagyu lineage. It was founded in the 1960s by three Tibetan exiles, and in the early years hosted David Bowie and the Beatles.

Originally, it was a single farmhouse, but today, it’s grown into a complex of buildings, including a magnificent temple. There’s also a garden, with a stupa (a memorial to the dead), a gateway, statues of Buddhist deities and notable figures. There are also yaks, which hide in a large field opposite the car park.

By August, I had a pressing need to go into retreat. The first half of 2016 had not been terribly pleasant: I’d been ill, physically, and had experienced several bouts of the horrible, exhausted paralysis that for me often follows a long period of anxious stress.

I’d also been finding life in the UK to be increasingly unpleasant, partly because of the ugly wave of nationalism leading up to and following the EU vote. Many of our worst qualities have been on display this year, and irresponsible politicians have fanned the flames of hatred and fear. By June, the general atmosphere seemed poisonous, and the tragic shooting of an MP only underlined for me where such destructive emotions could lead.

I’d also been feeling emotionally poisoned, bitter, angry and constantly afraid. I was becoming more emotionally reactive, and losing sight of the more positive aspects of life. Worse, I was aware that my own, pained inner state was causing discord around me.

One of Samye Ling’s founders Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche, who was murdered in 2013, once said that the Buddhist principle was to be everybody's friend and not to have any enemy. The problem was that I’d got to the point where I was seeing enemies everywhere.  So gradually, I came to accept the need for healing, and the exorcism of inner demons.

Buddhist worldviews (there are many, developed from a core of common concepts) have had a profound effect on my life. The practise of meditation has helped with personal distress far more effectively than any medication or counselling ever has. So I knew from past experience that the best chance for healing lay in a benign atmosphere, in nature, and in disciplined, meditative practise.

Arriving at the centre was a relief. Samye Ling is situated about twenty miles from Lockerbie, in the Scottish hills. I had a very nice talk with the taxi driver who drove me up there. She had swapped a high-pressure job for her current, part time profession, and was much happier for the change. This seemed a good omen.

I began to meet decent people almost the moment I arrived. Samye Ling attracts all sorts of folk who are travelling, for lots of reasons. Some are curious. Others have reached a crossroads in their life. Still others are, or have been, seriously ill (I spoke to several cancer sufferers there). Others seek refuge.

There was a meditation weekend in the temple, during the time that I was booked to stay at the centre. This was a crucial part of healing, and I felt a strong need to practise in a supportive environment.

The meditation was hosted by a monk, and the first challenge was sitting on a cushion comfortably. This did not always work: by the end of the first session, my back was aching quite a lot. Eventually, I opted for a wooden sitting thing, which felt a little more stable.

The first thing that happened was that those inner demons came out to play. This occurred over the course of the first day. At the end of the session, a little dazed, I went to the garden, and wandered through the stupa, reading the memorials of pets and people who are now lost to us.

I realised that I had been foolish, letting anger and fear rage about inside my head, unchecked. I also realised, reading the memorials of those who had died at my age or younger, how precious life really is. I felt the kindness and compassion of the people who had set up these memorials. And I remembered how much more important compassion was than anger and defensiveness.

I felt a great release of overpowering emotion, which was tough to experience, but necessary. The healing had begun.

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