by Tim Exile
‘If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.’ – David Foster Wallace
Music is a passion and a career for me. I started playing the violin aged five, DJ-ing at fourteen, released my first record at twenty and have recently moved into developing electronic music performance software. I starting coming to the London Buddhist Centre six years ago. Initially I thought I’d need to give up my career to be a serious Buddhist but in many ways it’s made my passion for music more focused.
Before I became a Buddhist I was strongly opposed to the idea of worshipping anything at all. I thought it was at best uncool and at worse recklessly dangerous. But a teacher of mine pointed out how I already worshipped so many things – my youth, my career, my creativity to name just three. None of these will outlast my life – at least one of them is fast going out the window! Constantly devoting myself to these fickle things has often been a source of hell in my life. Crisis and fortune blow on winds completely out of my control and even when they blow in my favour, the fear of change stops me savouring the sweetness fully.
The only way I’ve found to work against getting blown around by these winds is to surrender to something bigger than me – something infinite and cosmic. The more wholeheartedly I can surrender to it, the deeper the healing.
On retreat the myth of the Buddha takes on an indescribable symbolic reality. The devotional rituals we do have been the biggest source of healing and growth for me. This has taken me utterly by surprise. Paradoxically I’ve learned that it’s surrender itself – the giving up of worldly things – that allows me to engage more effectively with all the mundane things that motivate me in my daily life. Awareness zooms in while big shifts happen deep in the psyche. The surrounding environment becomes intensely vivid. Here are a few small moments I scribbled down in my journal during the two-week-long, mostly silent retreat I went on last winter.
We sit silently in the lounge between afternoon meditation and dinner, warming by the wood-burning stove. My distraction has finally calmed and I wade into a blissful sea of bodily sensation. Tomorrow, I promise myself, I will savour every experience with the most delicate attention. Later that night my mind goes off like a firework factory. I get no sleep and spend the next day struggling to notice a single breath.
Before the morning meditation. High tides have flooded the fens and the nature reserve is closed. The eastern sky is gloaming. The crescent moon hangs where the sun is about to emerge, the dark side slightly illuminated by the reflected light from where earth’s day has already broken. For a moment I can see the interdependence of the physical world at work, the cycle of days, months, tides, breath and lifetimes in harmonic motion.
The last word of the evening ritual is ‘shanti’ chanted once each for the complete cessation of greed, hatred and delusion. One evening on hatred’s ‘shanti’ I accidentally let out a small audible fart. Our stillness has so much momentum that no one flinches. Later, alone in another room, I replay the scene. The phrase ‘shanti-pants’ comes to mind out of nowhere. Four days of silence bursts its banks. I lose myself in uncontrollable laughter till I cry.
Sumana is a kindly practitioner who’s been doing it for longer than I’ve been alive. He wears his long hair in two pigtails tied by neon scrunchies, one pink one yellow. I meet him just long enough to exchange names before ten days of silence. We sit next to each other in the shrine room over the days of meditation, building a friendship silently. New Year’s Eve is a big confessional ritual, the apex of the retreat. We walk round the stupa chanting mantras and burning our handwritten confessions. I pass him. He looks up with bright eyes and presses a small wrapped boiled sweet into my hand. It feels like a teaching.
I’ve descended to the putrid landfill of anxiety accrued from years of relentless striving to be someone. As I process the toxic sludge, all I feel is hatred and doubt. I skip meditation, heading down muddy tracks to a storm in the fens. Rain seeps through my black rainwear. The mud on the flood defences is thick and unwilling for progress. It’s New Year’s Day but the Norfolk Broads are void of those who nurse hangovers and dislike the wet. At the furthest point I yearn to undo thirty-eight years of grasping. I turn back. Later that afternoon I remember the walk. Wet reeds half submerged, ducks cowering in the lea, cracked paint on old buildings. But the tide has turned in the River Yare. There’s something soft and new in the brine.
Offerings and mantras and too much energy to sleep. I put on my thick coat and over-trousers and pace out in the cold through trees to the stars. Heads of dark cows track my progress from the shadows. Three owls triangulate spells over the furrowed fields. An unseen bird calls to warn of a dangerous presence. I’m a guest in this life.
We’re doing a meditation to strengthen our compassion. I’ve been taking a jackhammer to what seems like a brick-wall indifference to suffering. My shoulders are tense. Taking a moment to feel the pain my effort goes slack for a moment. Into the gap pours an image of my gran. She sits in her armchair at the Woodlands care home where I last left her in a hurry to catch my train. Her thin rumpled hands are in mine as she pleads to go back home. For a breath I feel her pain and all that made it in infinite resolution. I well up. It’s a glimpse of the inevitable suffering of all that lives.
Charlie drives us back. None of us want to turn our phones on to use Google maps. Viryanaga relents. The first drop of the world lands with a ‘silent’ buzz. This time last year, Viryanaga was Glenn. He was ordained in the summer and given a new name. We keep forgetting and calling him Glenn. The skyline ebbs from bare fractal trees to geometric concrete. We pull up outside the London Buddhist Centre and go our separate ways after fond farewells, turning over the almost impossible riddle of how to share the benefits of the work we’ve done. ■