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opening the heartI’ve taken to asking people I meet online - friends, family, students, supervisees - the question “what are you learning about yourself in all of this?” I’m intrigued by the ‘growth’ aspects that the COVID-19 pandemic is revealing. As a relative newbie to the Vajrayana path, I am appreciative of the View - that the phenomenal world (people, situations, viruses) is our experiment, our alchemical pot if you like. And how we interact with it brings many lessons.

Conversations at the back end of last week threw a few more ingredients in to the pot. Some people were sharing with me their experience of finding contentment in solitude; others were talking about the space they are finding and a connection to hobbies, new ones as well as re-found ones. As I listened to both, I recognised an ‘envy’. On many levels, my week is very similar to that BCV*. I still have a full client load in private practice, and I still have my two-day a week teaching post at the University. And for this I am grateful: I have a sense of normalcy in that structure, and I have little financial concerns…I know many are not in such a fortunate position. Nor do I have children who need my time for home schooling and additional emotional support. Yes, a lot to be grateful for. Yet, envy arising too. So, as we might ask all of our emotions, what is the message envy brings - what is it that I need to change?

I have been reflecting on post-holiday feelings I have experienced. On journeys home from France, I often look over to my wife and ask “why can’t we maintain this holiday rhythm and attitude back home?” Why is it that ordinary life can feel so much more compressed? There is an echo of this contemplation as applied to the current scenario: “how can I feel more spacious?”

I was sitting in meditation last Thursday morning as the sun was rising. The reality of the situation was at odds with my experience of it. Having started sitting so early, I had plenty of time for my practice yet I felt squeezed. I could feel myself willing time forward, like there was an urgency to the next moment in my day. An urgency AND being at rest, quite an odd feeling to be housing those two experiences simultaneously within my body and mind.

In the book I am currently writing, I use a series of personal vignettes to detail how I came to meditation, Buddhism and to start training as a therapist. Much of what I share unravels how I retreat from ‘being’ by taking on ‘doing’. A long repeated pattern of mine, it pops up in most of the endeavours, projects, roles across my life: PhD, academic and athletic careers. I am still seeing this pattern (though more subtle) in my life today; and with my practice, I am seeing it more clearly than ever.

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alchemical pressureWhen I re-read my last blog post, I actually feel a little naive…given the experience of “stay-treat” and how I have come to view it in my rearview mirror. I’m reading a lot of Jung right now, and his explanations of individuation as alchemy has relevance for me: the intentions with which I entered my stay-treat became transmuted (in quite unexpected ways) given the additional pressure on the vessel - the intensity of the pandemic added to what was already designed to be an ‘intensive’ (practice and writing block) became an experience of heaviness and dullness…and a LOT of resistance!

As my last blog described, the intensive started well - I reconnected with my writing project, and my Ngondro was benefitting from the container I had created for myself. As I previously described, structure suits me - it did as an athlete, it continued to as a meditator on retreat. But these past 2 weeks, intensity + structure became first a loss of steam; and then turned to resistance.

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writing immersionAs I sit here at my desk, I realise how fortunate I am to be in a position of ‘retreating’. As a nation, as a global community we face a huge and unprecedented situation; and I am still able to put aside time and space for myself to practice and to do some writing. I truly am in a bubble; somewhat like a normal retreat - given I am not in touch with the ‘real world’; yet unusually, there are moments of recognition that NONE of us are in touch with the real world…or at least as we have come to know it.

As I write, I am in Day 2 of my staycation / stay-treat. In preparation, I created a daily schedule for myself understanding that we best relax and open within a strong container. I know from participating in organised retreats, the ‘best’ (most revealing) experiences have been when the organising committee and teachers have held the space with firm boundaries. Meditation sessions begin and end on time, retreatants know what is expected of them and when (periods of silence, work rota, lights out), and the schedule is one where a daily rhythm is held. Right now, I am holding myself to a schedule - and I notice how the easing in is unfolding.

I wake, cuddle cat, have breakfast, read, start my ngondro practices, coffee and journal, have lunch, go for a walk (respecting the one hour limit!), give time to my writing project, cuddle cat, have “intentional dialogue” with my wife, aperitif, meal, film or jigsaw puzzle. It is more leisurely than a normal retreat (more cat cuddling for one), but there is still presence of a ritual. This is not for everyone: when I shared my intention with my wife last week she expressed the boredom she said she would have if she followed the same routine day after day - for me, I find it comforting, luxurious - stick to this rhythm and I can trust my intentions for the fortnight will be met.

Most retreats I have been on, and certainly the ‘best’ ones, have given much thought to the transition in to the container. The container can be like a swimming pool with a shallow end, where the demands on retreatants are often ramped up - this is often the way of the longer retreats (like the four week dathun). However, I have also appreciated the ‘deep end’ approach - where you start with 2 or 3 days of silence and long sitting periods: this is not easy but one does arrive in a deeper place more quickly - 7 to 10 day retreats often take this approach so to offer more ‘bang for their buck’. Yet both approaches really ask the retreatant to feel in to their experience and ensure we listen to our responses. It is more important to be receptive than prescriptive.