More Mandala magic

Last week’s post described some of the experiences in the first half of a four day block of mandala practice: the third out of the four practices of Ngondro. You might recall those first two days had me come face to face with a futility and deep questioning of “what an earth am I doing?”

On the morning of Day 3, I went for an early morning walk. On my return, cold, I jumped in the shower and felt a bodily gratitude for the warm water. The mantra of mandala practice again arose in my mind – a natural response to this richness and appreciation. I have experienced how deeply mantras and chants become embodied over retreat practice – for many weeks after my four week dathun I found myself folding tea towels to the ceremonial chants we had used in the communal eating ritual of oriokyi. These moments of appreciation were, well appreciated; and something did start to loosen up around my poverty mentality. Yet it remained “my” life that I was appreciating, and on some level, I remained unconvinced that I wanted / needed to give it away. Was it even “mine” to give?

But practice on Day 3 felt, in the main, a lot smoother. And, I was definitely feeling less resistance to the whole landscape of Ngondro. With letting go, speed increasing, and flow within, the 80k or so reps remaining after this intensive block feel a lot more manageable and less (potentially) futile: Sisyphus knows his term of imprisonment. I am getting somewhere on this road to no-where*.

But then…

Just before dinner that evening, I broke my retreat container with a deliberate and clear intention: to book on a retreat with a teacher with whom I am building an increasing curiosity and bond. Alas, as I went online the registration page displayed “sold out”. My heart sank. A visceral disappointment, and a critical voice telling me off: I should have booked that morning, it was my fault, I had got it wrong. I know this voice, it is one that keeps me on my toes so I don’t experience such disappointment and loss. It is the same voice as the one that “plots and schemes”. I accompanied this part-of-me onto the cushion for more practice. I found myself feeling into the disappointment, the sadness; seeing the bargaining, the planning of alternatives; imagining those who managed to get onto the retreat and feeling the waves of jealousy and happiness for them…all of this. I remembered that ALL of experience can be offered – and so I did, 6 malas** worth. I wouldn’t say this made it all better, but I felt more connected to the practice and at ease.

The next morning, my final day. Again I went for a morning walk, this time taking my breakfast to sit on a bench on the hillside of the Downs. This is a favourite place of mine, and perched above the sea I watched the sun waging a battle against the clouds, gaining ground as it rose higher in the sky, its warming power helping it emerge the victor. This sight, the disappointment that still remained – both fed into a deep sadness. Maybe I was also feeling a slight melancholy about this being the final day of my home retreat. Maybe not THIS retreat, but certainly a tenderhearted yearning for retreat. My bodymind knew I needed more of “this”. I cast my mind forward and wondered how I might do a more natural retreat. I feel at home in nature, it invites me to trust, to open, to relax…and this Downside spot in particular has always emphasised the divide of rural and urban. Its this bench upon which I would look over the town during the pandemic.

Jamgon Kongtrul, considered one of the greatest meditation masters of recent times, wrote a meditation song “Calling the Guru from afar”. Some of that melancholy I describe as I sat on my Downside bench was a yearning for that guru. The missed-out-retreat was with a teacher I had been considering “as the one”. Moreover, mandala is the Ngondro practice that comes before the fourth and final “guru yoga”. Missing out on this retreat whilst leaning into the opportunity to dedicate that time to more Ngondro felt like a spiral gesture of moving-away-toward. Was this meant to be?

As I walked home to begin my day of practice, I listened to an audio recording from said teacher. The talk, on “ground, path, fruition” took an unexpected turn, Rinpoche explaining…

“In seeing our delusion, sadness arises. This sadness is a key to the dharma. Rather than turning into depression, we use sadness as the fuel to keep going…to dispel the delusion”. The delusion? Seeing ourselves as a separate, independent self.

This was reverberating through me and my experiencing throughout my day of practice. As I closed my shrine (and hoovered the rice from the floor), I felt more open. Maybe in turning-inward there is a possibility of more expansion out; like a sponge reconstituting once pressure is lifted.

At the end of the day, just as the sun was going down, I went for a walk in my locale. I still had many questions about this world around me and how this practice of mandala operates. 

What is my relationship to this world?

Am I of it, in it, have it?

Is it mine to offer?

And, how is it to give it?

Is there enough to share?

A poverty mentality points to a “me” that has to have enough.

But as I walked, my experience was something quite surreal and put a different spin on The Searcher’s questions. The world around me felt both more vivid and more illusory. Perhaps that embodied reconstitution at the end of practice was also a self less defined and separate. On the cushion I have sometimes glimpsed moments of “Helen” arising in awareness just like sounds, sights arise. Yet this was one of the first times I had felt into that as a being-in-the-world, or more accurately, being-AS-the-world. 

Am I this world?

It has taken the best part of a day to write this; its unintentionally become the fifth day of a practice block! As a humanistic therapist, I know the value of making meaning, and my writing certainly does that. It has felt like a day of consolidation, a day in which I distil my learnings and establish my intention for practice as I move ahead (with the next 80k!). I have just returned from my local Waitrose to grab a coffee and take a break. I was quite surprised that my experience of the world, as that “being-AS-the-world” is still there. I am reminded of the work of Douglas Harding, “On having no head”. I am not claiming that my experiences this week have been on the same scale of Harding’s as he walked in the Himalayas but it is as if in my self dropping away (at least a little) there is less distinction between me / world. It also occurs to me that on this psyche-naut path to date, my fascination with all things mind has had me turn inward. Yet, I feel something to now be pivoting – not that this means I am now turning outward, rather that in and out are no different. 

Me as arising IN mind, one that also encompasses this ‘world’ I see.

Right now, I am not sure how this unfolds. But I do have questions. 

 If I am this world, what am I giving?  

On my recent retreat with Judy Lief she said the Vajrayana path is about asking more questions rather than seeking the answers…but one concept comes to mind (I cannot help it, its a habit) – that’s “threefold purity” – there is no giver, no given, no given to. Part of the mandala chant goes “imagining this is the Buddha realm, I offer it to all beings”

In my recognition of self-world as not different, is that “KNOWING this is the buddha realm”?

And then, what I am offering is the wish that ALL beings come to know this; to wake up to the vivid, illusion too?

And maybe, just maybe, the physical aches and pains, the intensity of energy in my head and tightness in my neck are not just a pragmatic invitation to raise my gaze – maybe this psyche-naut can look up to the horizon to also explore “mind”.


*The Talking Heads track that my MI seeded into my mind as I left for my 4 week dathun

**Malas are a string of beads, 108 on the long ones, that are used for counting recitations of mantra

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