This week, University staff across the UK are on strike, their action pointing towards pensions, pay and conditions. Not being a UCU member, I am still at work this week - not a straightforward decision. In fact, in the past 2 weeks I have felt a growing sense of anxiety. A child growing up in the 80s, I have memories of the miners industrial action and all the aggression and violence associated with picket lines. Coming to work this week has been the first time I have had to cross a picket line in my working life and I have been aware of the stories building in my imagination, noticing how each one adds to the anxiety. And whilst I could see my attempts to avoid the issue (e.g. “how can I change my teaching so I can work from home?”), I knew this was an opportunity: to meet my fear with courage.
As I walked off the train and up the platform towards the picket line, I did my best to stay in touch with my experience – to not push it down and stay with the growing physical sensations. In the past two weeks, I have been practicing this on the cushion – each time a remembering of what was ahead arose, dropping the story and coming back to my chest, the shallow breath, the beating heart, the tightening shoulders. Practice makes perfect – or at least, practice makes one prepared. Preparation in this sense is not a rehearsal, as that can make us act from a script. Preparation in this sense is becoming confident in being open to, and being with experience.
Returning from retreats are always interesting times; transitions from what was to what is; from the extraordinary to the ordinary. Relief to have made it; sadness to have left; reconnecting with loved ones and the familiar; overwhelm of returning to normality. A few friends have been in touch with me today, my first day back, asking “how was it?” - and all I can answer is “I don’t know” - which is really the short (and honest) answer to a multitude of feelings and thoughts which all depend on the exact moment I am asked that question. One moment I am okay, the next overwhelmed.
Since 2010, I have been on retreat a couple of times per year. My longest time away was the 4 week “Dathun” I attended last Spring, but normally I go away for a week to 10 days. That was the case this time around. Two reasons this retreat was different: it was my first solitary retreat, and the first time with the practices I am undertaking as a recent initiate of the Vajrayana (the third ‘vehicle’ of Tibetan Buddhism). The very foundation of the Buddhist path (and indeed of existential-based psychotherapy of which I am also a practitioner) is working with uncertainty, ambiguity and groundlessness. So of course, going in to such retreats with any kind of expectation is risky - and I really did do my best to stay open to what might be, what might not be. I examined my hopes and my fears ahead of the retreat, recognising the storylines I was creating of how it would be. I’ve shared with you before how my emotional ‘default’ if you like is an anxious presentation - so, I like to plan for every eventuality. Planning brings me control…and so the first lesson of the Vajrayana: that ain’t possible. And, I sit here now quite bruised and battered - physically: my body has taken a beating (6h of sitting a day, and taking on a new practice of prostrations), and emotionally: my ego did not like having the carpet pulled from underneath me.
I’ve been back from the US for nearly two weeks now. On one level, I got back in to the normal run of things pretty quickly. I was back teaching 24 hours after landing at Heathrow; the majority of jet lag had faded within 2 days; and my client work resumed in a way that seemingly belied by absence for a week. Since returning, my interactions with friends, family, colleagues, clients have had me reflecting upon how we end up communicating our experiences; especially those of a profound nature. Can we ever truly reveal ourselves? Do we want to? Do we need to?
And, it hasn’t been easy to know what to share when asked “So, how was it?”.
On a very practical side, I know that part of the commitment in becoming a student of Vajrayana Buddhism is to keep the teachings and practices secret. In the words of Judy Lief, the teacher who led the retreat I attended back in June:
“The tantric path requires complete engagement and fierce dedication. There is a quality of directness, abruptness, and wholeheartedness to it, and it is said to be the more rapid but more dangerous path. Tantrikas, or vajrayana practitioners, recognize that the most challenging aspects of life—the energies and play of confused emotions and frightening obstacles—can be worked with as gateways to freedom and realization.”
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