On my recent retreat with Judy Lief in upstate New York, I took a deep dive into the teachings of “Mahamudra“. Literally translated, Mahamudra means “great seal” – and like a wax seal used in days gone by, a seal of authentication. The practices of Mahamudra reveal the ‘authentic’ nature of mind to the meditator; and such instructions are reserved for those meditators who have reached the point in the path upon which they enter the Vajrayana. It is a step I took back in the autumn of 2019. Since that time I have become fascinated in these particular teachings – not surprising for someone who identifies with the mind triad on the enneagram and considers themselves a student of mind…after all, I am a psyche-therapist!
Judy’s teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, has said “The whole process of Mahamudra is seeing the situation of life as a pattern. That’s why the word mudra is used, which means “symbolism.” It doesn’t mean ordinary symbolism; it isn’t a question of signifying anything, but it is the actual fact of things as they are. The pattern of life is a pattern. It is a definite pattern, a definite path, and you learn how to walk on it.”
Judy thus invited us to not only think of Mahamudra as a defined set of practices (during which one looks directly at ‘mind’), but also to see the whole of our life as ‘mudra’. Mudra is also translated as ‘gesture’. Some of you might have seen the many different hand gestures that statues of the Buddha depict. The Buddha on my shrine for example has his right hand raised in a hand shape that looks like “stop”: it is actually the mudra of ‘fearless’ – again, SO appropriate for an enneatype Six!
Back to Judy’s invitation: to consider our life as mudra, as one gesture. What is the gesture we want to live out? And in this contemplation, there comes a move toward a continuity between practice and life (or form and formlessness). The aim of meditation is NOT to become a good meditator, but rather to become more familiar with our mind and so befriend it across all of our live and experience(s).
This invitation was a timely one: as I move across the threshold of 5th into 6th decade of life. Since I turned 50 a few weeks back, I have found myself deeply thoughtful – in part, considering how I want to live the rest of my life; and what legacy I want to give. I am incredibly fortunate to have a work that I not only love but also has a sense of giving something ‘back’ into life, the world. But even in those words, I am aware there is a distinction between ‘me’ and ‘world’. I am getting a sense through Judy (and the advanced Buddhist teachings) that the REAL practice of Mahamudra negates that separation.
I am not outside the world, I am not only IN it, I AM it.
This is the Buddhist teaching of interconnectedness, of non-duality. And as such, any movement, any gesture, that “I” make has ripples. I cannot make any decision, make any move without impacting the world. And so it is true in reverse. Flow, dance, back and forth. I am touched by the world, I move the world.
A great gift that the practices of Mahamudra have given to me is to help me recognise the ocean and waves of life. On the recent retreat, and the long sits of ‘zazen’, I was (again) given the opportunity to see the anxiety that arises in my bodily experience. Here, sitting in upstate New York…and yet my mind was half-way across the world, back home. I watched the stories, wave after wave; the bodily affect in sync, wave after wave. All I could do (other than run out of the zendo, not good form) was sit and do what I have come to trust more and more – allow gravity to take ‘me’ down into my body; or more accurately, drop the anchor of awareness deeper and deeper.
That morning, Judy had said in the day’s teaching “Nothing is going to be okay”. Given this was a Buddhist teacher, one might take that literally – or as one Buddhist monk says to his friend “no-one is getting out of here alive” – if we follow that thought thread, no wonder we get anxious about our fate. However, as I sat, the anchor dropping, I had a sense of what that line actually meant “Nothing is going to be okay; everything IS okay”. Or, more accurately, in this moment, now…
Nothing is going to be okay; everything is.
It can seem like a paradox. As one drops one’s attention into the body, deeper and deeper, the sense of a body begins to disappear. Long into the sit that evening, the “I” melted into the “anxiety”, so that all remained was experiencing, the is-ness, the now-ness”
“Nowness is sometimes referred to as the fourth moment. You have the past, present, and future, which are the three moments. Then you have something else taking place, which is called the fourth moment”, another quote from Chogyam Trungpa.
In that now-ness, time and space collapse. There is no meditator meditating anymore, there just is….well, IS-ness!
“But hang on a minute, Helen” I hear you say…”how can that be true when you say there is continuity between practice and life?”. A very good question…another invite from Judy – ask more questions, stop searching for answers.
As I reflect upon “life as mudra” and ask “what does that mean to me in, in my work, in my relationships”?, it occurs to me that now-ness cannot be found: it happens when I drop the sense of being a separate “me”. And, just today, this very day has been made up of experiences that have called for me to acknowledge my self-centric being just doesn’t cut it. Part of being an elder is recognising that ‘waking up’ cannot be separated from ‘growing up’: taking it on the chin that I am not the centre of the world; I am not separate from anyone around me – what is happening to them is happening to me (in some way at least). It can feel like I am pulled, I am inconvenienced, that “life isn’t fair”…but that is the big mistake: taking everything so personally, trying to control “life living itself”.
It makes me think of a quote from Ken McLeod’s text “Reflections on silver river”…
“Do not practice to improve the situation of your life; use the situation of your life to practice”
Today has been a day when I can see my error; and I open, relax, receive. Rather than life revolving around “me”, we revolve within life; we are not outside of life, we are one with it. Life and practice are not different; there is only ‘experiencing’. As in the beautiful movements of tai chi and qi gong, an interconnected weave and flow: non-resistance, non-separation.