Mandala magic

Marking season nearly through, I managed to carve out four days in my week to press on with Ngondro practice. Just in the use of that phrase, “press on” hints at a flavour of something! As I have explained previously on this blog, Ngondro are the four “preliminary practices” a student of Vajrayana does in preparation for what is to come*. Having completed 108,000 prostrations and 108,000 mantra recitations, I am now on the practice of mandala offering: 108,000 repetitions of offering the entire universe to the field of merit. In practice, this involves piling grains of sand on a mandala plate to represent all the planets, worlds, objects, possessions, friends whilst visualising this world…and then “whooshing” the plate clean…that is one rep. I started this practice in the new year, and progress has been slow – in part because one must open to the main practice by repeating aspects of the previous stages (so it takes me just under an hour before I get to the part I can start counting); and there aren’t many days in my week I can put aside two hours. Anyway, pre-amble over. Needless to say, the practice has felt like an uphill struggle (Sisyphus comes to mind); and planning a four day block where I just built / destroyed for 8 hours a day felt like both a necessity (if I am ever to get through this practice in this lifetime), and an opportunity (to finally get some traction and relationship with this practice).

Back to Sisyphus for a moment: he has been on my mind a lot recently; that quality of time passing and how often life can feel like Groundhog Day. Its often exaggerated at this time of year for me because of marking (what can feel like piles) and the speed with which the early summer can come and go. Some of my students have also been writing about suicide in their assignments, so I have been immersed in some deep existential literature: one that searches for meaning in a life that doesn’t have any meaning inherent.

To be entering a practice intensive in this backdrop of “what’s the point?”  

With both prostrations and mantra practices, I came to know each had a particular “flavour” to them. Prostrations delivered a whole range of “hot” experiences and emotions; mantra practice was cooler and sad. Mandala practice so far has been a bit “meh” – not even boring; I have just felt disengaged. The hand movement of dropping rice grains into seven piles can also feel very mechanical. As I say above, I have not found traction; at worst, it can feel very futile.



incapable of producing any useful result; pointless.

So, why bother? The teachings convey that each Ngondro practice has an aim in service of preparing the (bodymind) vessel for the main practices to come. By the time we come to mandala, we are focusing on the two accumulations of merit and wisdom. Ultimately, we accumulate merit (or virtue) by building the mandala of a rich and abundant universe and offering it to all beings so they too can benefit. We gain credit, we give it away. It is an act of generosity, and we erode the habit of clinging and grasping – and thus accumulate wisdom.

For me, I have yet to connect with that richness, that abundance…so what is there to give away, or offer? There doesn’t feel to be an energetic exchange, a currency – it has felt more flatline. Yes, futile.

Ahead of this practice intensive I shared my concerns and doubt with my meditation instructor – she asked me, “so what IS the point?” (given nobody is making me do this – I wonder if Sisyphus had a choice). I found it hard to answer at first, but in staying with that question, a place deep in me knew it was because I am a searcher –  and that deep place in me is trying to find an answer to my pain and suffering as a human being. And so far, this path has not let me down. It’s not blind faith, it’s a faith built on repeated experiences of testing and something “true” coming back at me. I persevere now because so far I have not been let down. What is so difficult now is the lack of traction, the lack of something opening up and bringing that “a-ha!” It takes me to well known territory, doubts that I am doing it right…because if I was, surely I would feel something, something that can be processed and therefore healed…and that is what the “deep down place” wants-, needs- to feel better.

The practice is only worth doing if it helps me feel better…and because I’m not, its therefore futile.

On the first morning of this home retreat, I woke up and hit the cushion for a session before breakfast – just a session of sitting practice to settle in and establish an intention. As I sat, I watched the mind gearing up – mental activity I know well: questions, plans, a quite panicky mind flitting back and forth. In this “plotting and scheming” (as one of my first meditation teachers called it) trying to establish “the best way”. I felt the tension in my body, the felt-sense “I must not get it wrong” that underpinned the search “to do it right”. Of one thing I am very appreciative is how this path of meditation has helped me come to know “mind”…and just seeing that process helped me relax and remind myself this is the ONLY reason to practice – to know mind: mandala is just a different vehicle to come to know “mind”. That first sitting session offered me the invitation to slow down: to be less focused on numbers, and just know mind…

…and what continued to arise in mind was a persistent narrative: “why am I spending four days of my life (this precious life!) sitting on my backside, throwing rice around?” I was seeing how mind was trying to come up with alternatives; there was so much else I could be doing that would be less of a “waste” of these four days. 

But what? What else, really? 

As I opened to that enquiry, is the rest of life really anymore meaningful than this? Sure, lots of good things…but none of them have actually helped that “deep down place” find an answer, sanctuary. As I started the main mandala segment of my practice, I was leaning into the narrative, the story….and it became SO clear that this narrative was a push back – in that story, “me” gets created, solidified. Every time “I” has an opinion, it builds itself into something outside of experiencing. Resistance (to this practice, but also living life) is simply a narrative. The job at hand was to open to those feelings but drop the story: its content at least, because there is also something very helpful with knowing both the movement (thought) and stillness of the mind.

Sometime during the second block of practice on Day 1, I responded to my doubt “am I doing this right?” by reaching back onto my bookshelf for some help. Surely there is a book that tells me what to visualise, what to give away and how? One text caught my eye, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s “Not for happiness”. A little smile emerged as I pulled it out and connected with the front cover and its title – ha ha, of course…this practice is NOT going to bring happiness (sorry, deep down place). DJK’s commentary on mandala was so powerful to read at that moment – such a light, humorous touch that eased this serious “little professor Helen” and her (at times) desperate search to find okayness. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche would say, this is the cosmic joke, I already am okay…like the person searching high and low for their glasses not realising they already have them on. I gained some trust from reading this great master’s commentary, so I committed to his encouragement to “just visualise anything…then elaborate…everything comes from mind anyway, so give it back to emptiness” 

One recurrent doubt in this practice is how to visualise, what to visualise?

Content with my refined understanding, I went to bed…but I slept with restlessness and the next morning, Day 2, I awoke feeling groggy and grumpy. In that resistance and feeling so hard done by, the “me, my, mine” arose faster than I could physically get out of bed. I could see how “I” was making a big deal – the push back that create the solid “me” who has to do “this”. I felt a literal tug of war in this subject-object split. In realising how continue to hope these practices are going to make “me” feel better, I am experiencing they ain’t…in fact, they make things more difficult for “me”. “Me” is losing grip.

There is futility if the point is to gain something; perhaps in there being no-where to get, gentleness can arise? My body enjoyed that realisation. Physically, this practice is not easy. I don’t mind sitting for extended periods of time (as in my recent Zendo experience), however mandala practice exaggerates a physical process. The plate is made of brass – its not super heavy, but holding it out in front for a few hours at a time is a load. The other hand is picking up rice and dropping it in a seven-point ‘map’ (of the world) – there is therefore physical and mental focus. I realise how much looking down there is, and my neck was keen to tell me so. A dance of polarities – movement of the hand and rice; the stillness of the lower body. Its also quite a faff to move with all this equipment in place on my lap, so the body doesn’t get any wiggle room.

With an invitation for gentleness, I felt moved to take more regular breaks; and in one of those breaks I got up and walked around the house. I found myself continuing with the chant, one that sets out the view of this being an abundant and beautiful realm and here I was, offering it all up, giving it away…and it was incredibly moving to have this running through my mind as I looked around my home and everything in it; to consider the life I have. A deep sense of gratitude and appreciation welled up in me; but there was also a sadness that emerged…knowing that one day, we will move on from here to set up a new home in France. I will give this up literally. But I am curious as to whether there is a difference: giving it up, offering it. One feels like a need to hold on, a reluctant giving; a  “poverty mentality” – is there enough? Offering, on the other hand, feels less calculating and trusting.

“Poverty mentality” is something I know well, as is the fear and anxiety that emerges in trying to make sure I, and my loved ones, stay safe. I’m not quite the shopper that buys all the toilet rolls or pasta, but I do understand the propensity for that extreme action: this mentality was a thread through my childhood story. In the early experiences of mandala it has manifested as a tightness, a deliberateness. Whether it being careful not to allow my rice to spill out on the floor (not just mess making, but “losing” rice and needing to make more**), or making clear and measured piles on the plate. Going back to that pre-retreat discussion with my MI, we talked about me experimenting with a more playful approach: to see what it would be like to allow the mess. 

Gentleness and deliberateness, this also became a play of polarities in that second day. Being less deliberate, I took off the brakes (and this again feels linked to a poverty mentality). Out of fear, I ride life with the brakes on. As I let go, the rhythm of the practice changed and started to flow. Taking the brakes off meant I picked up speed; and some irony here – the faster I got, the more flow, the less rice I spilled onto the floor.

Flow, a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity

…so pointed out the Hungarian-American psychologist Csikszentmihalyi. But what I know about flow comes in the main from my experiences as a competitive cyclist. My best ever race result came in the National Championships in the final season of my career: tied on the 3rd step of the podium. I was throwing everything at that final season, but in a very experimental way: I had, in effect, taken the brakes off. And in that championship ride, I recollect riding through the halfway point and experiencing a loss of self. There was no Helen ON her bike, Helen and bike were not different. Flow, we might say, is when we lose ourselves in an activity. With the Buddhist view I now understand this as finding the (real / non) self. But back to mandala…as I let go of the brakes, speed and flow, I became less separate from the rice, the brass mandala plate. All there was, nowness.

And picking up speed meant more repetitions, more malas toward my total…perhaps a life lesson for me to consider. I ride hard, deliberately, WITH the brakes on – in my desperation to find, to search I mitigate the risks. If I can let go, flow, the only risk is to find my true self.

With those experiences arising, and it is never quite as linear as it appears (or my attempts to document) here, I came to question “who is visualising?” And is the act of visualising volitional. In this practice, does the visualising need to be deliberate? Or again, can that be something to trust as emergent? This feels an important question as I begin to touch on who am “I” in relation to “this” world.

To be continued next week


*More practices!

**There is a special preparation for the rice: soaked in saffron water and dried…and not using too much saffron, its expensive after all!

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