I’ve wanted to live a life that is focused exclusively on helping people for many years now, having been inspired by the example of my spiritual guide and many of his followers. But much of the time my wishes to do what makes me happy and feel good have gotten in the way. However recently I’ve started to gain some clarify and have chosen a direction to move forward in. One which I hope will enable me to swiftly actualise this wish
I’ve been travelling around Europe, and more recently North Africa, for the past six months. It’s certainly been an interesting adventure and marked its beginnings when I generated a renewed determination to attain enlightenment as explained in this article.
I was under no illusion that my wish to travel, to explore new places and have new experiences was coming from attachment. But at the same time I got clear indications from my guru yoga practice that this was the most beneficial thing for me to do
Now some people might be inclined to wonder what sort of guru yoga practice this is. Would we ever get such advice from our guru, after all what meaning is there to be found in travelling the world?
It’s likely that many of us already know there’s no inherent meaning to be found in anything… not really. Rather the meaning of our activities is principally determined by our motivation or attitude. For me, I wanted to follow the wishes of my guru and so for me this made going travelling a virtuous activity
However for any activity to remain virtuous, or of benefit, then we need to sustain our motivation throughout that activity. Although I’ve continued to rely on my guru whilst travelling, I can also see how my attachment has increased and I haven’t been mindful of my original motivation
In fact if I’m honest I mostly forgot about my motivation to follow my guru’s wishes and instead have enjoyed many of the experiences in and of themselves. However this in itself has also been a teaching
A moment of self-reflection
I was walking through the local marketplace here in Marrakech recently and was reflecting on the benefit my travelling had brought to date. Although on the one hand there had been some clear benefit at times, this seemed to have declined as the travelling went on. And when I considered how I had been spending my time more recently, I could see that I’d actually become pretty lazy
I was watching netflix more than ever, sleeping in and not really using my time meaningfully. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve still maintained a strong wish to benefit others and to make progress spiritually, but it’s felt like there has been a disconnect between this wish and the way in which I’ve been using my time
So I engaged with my guru as I was walking along and got a clear sign that my travelling wasn’t bringing any benefit. In one sense this didn’t come as a surprise given my own reflections. But on the other hand this practice had indicated travelling was what was most beneficial for me to do. Was there a contradiction?
This whole process reminded me that things aren’t as fixed and linear as we so often relate to them as being. What made me think that just because it was beneficial to go travelling six months ago that it would still be beneficial today? I’ve tried to make it meaningful (at least at times), but I guess overall I didn’t succeed. It was then that I realised it was time to move onto something new
Deciding what to do with my life
For a long time I’ve really wanted to dedicate myself wholeheartedly to the spiritual path. I’ve also contemplated over many years what the best way to do that actually is. In one sense working in a buddhist centre full time has seemed like an obvious option. But at the same time attachment to earning a good income and enjoying a comfortable lifestyle has prevented me from putting my heart behind that
Of course there are already many wonderful examples of people who have selflessly dedicated their lives to benefiting others. And these examples can be seen within various sponsored roles throughout the world in our own tradition
Although these roles clearly function to bring immense benefit to many people, for me the idea of working very long hours without a lot of rest or free time and for very little remuneration, simply seemed unappealing
Of course I’m generalising here because not all sponsored roles are like that. Although it does seem they’re often rather demanding, there’s no doubt they can fuel a lot of personal spiritual development
Another aspect that has held me back from wanting to do one of these sponsored roles is that many people will tell you it’s necessary. That is if you want to attain enlightenment
But there was something about this which never quite resonated with me, and I didn’t like the idea of ‘having’ to do something I didn’t have my heart behind in order to achieve a permanent state of happiness
After all, how are we ever going to reach that state unless we’re learning to become happier and happier all the time? And is doing something we don’t really want to actually going to take us in that direction?
So I put a lot of energy into thinking about how I could attain enlightenment whilst remaining in control. I still wanted to be able to work in my job and have a comfortable life. But I also wanted to complete the path to enlightenment
In this investigation I uncovered many useful ways to approach my practice that would enable me to do this. This led me to the conclusion I could definitely attain enlightenment living a normal daily life (as long as I lived long enough). And although I believe that’s still true, my wish to live that life has now started to fade away
Making a decision to go on retreat
When I was on one of my first retreats I heard about someone who was doing a three month silent retreat at Tharpaland International Retreat Centre. As soon as I heard about this, the wish immediately arose to do that same retreat the following year. And that’s what I did
I was just reflecting on that yesterday, and realised that even early on I’d had a strong connection with retreat. After my guru yoga practice revealed that travelling was no longer meaningful I wondered what I should do with my time. Then the idea to go on retreat arose
This wish to go on retreat brought this beautiful passage from Meaningful to Behold to mind. Whenever I read it, it makes my heart sing. It’s a quote of Shantideva’s, taken from Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, in which he expresses his longing to go away on retreat.
“Having left the people of the world behind, where will I dwell? In solitude where there is no one to interrupt my Dharma practice. The trees, birds, deer and other forest dwellers will never hinder me but rather will benefit me by serving as objects of my renunciation and bodhichitta, which will increase daily. I will receive nothing unpleasant from these forest folk.
When will I dwell in a cave where there is no foundation for clinging to arise? In empty shrines or at the foot of trees, unattached to family and not looking back – when will I come to dwell like that?
When will I dwell in that place not owned by others, which causes no arguments and allows me to meditate for as long as I like: a clean open place where I can dwell without attachment to my body and possessions? When will I be able to live without fear, with nothing but a begging bowl, a cooking pot and some poor clothes of no use to others, and desire anything?”
It’s six years now since I went on that three month retreat, and reading this a few times has further inspired me to return to it once again. Although this time for a substantially longer period of time
I’ve always enjoyed doing retreat and have done many over the years, but I must admit I’ve never felt a strong wish to do solitary retreat during that time. However in the tradition I follow it’s customary for practitioners to eventually go on a three year retreat to attain the final goal of enlightenment. I figured if I did go on a long retreat myself it would be something I would do far away into the future, but now it’s just on the horizon
After getting some signs that going on a long solitary retreat would be beneficial I started to make preparations. Although on one hand it seemed a little daunting, when I allowed my awareness to dwell peacefully at my heart a great joy arose at the thought of going
This made me realise that I must have created the causes to go on this type of retreat in the past (well into the past!). And so with my teacher’s blessing I booked myself in to do it for as long as funds would allow
What I’ve learned on my travels
All of these developments have kind of surprised me. I no longer feel concern at the thought of not working in my profession or of working in a sponsored role. In fact the thought of working for a buddhist centre full-time (and yes for virtually zero financial gain) now brings me great joy now
As already mentioned, I think that part of the reason the wish has now arisen is because it’s simply something I want to do rather than something I feel I should do. Travelling has also made me more aware of the vulnerability of this life and the need to make the most of it while I still can
And so now the real meaning of my travelling has revealed itself. It has taught me that despite having loads of spare time and being able to experience new and interesting things, none of that brought with it any real happiness or meaning
Of course I knew this before I left, on an intellectual level at least. But as is the case with all of buddha’s teachings, we need to internalise them so that they deeply influence all our behaviour and ways of thinking. After all what power do intellectual understandings have to protect our mind?
I’ve also realised that despite having had many interesting spiritual experiences over the past couple of years, their benefit has been limited because I haven’t learned to control my mind. What I want to achieve is a mind that is as calm as the depths of the ocean and as stable as a mountain
And so this is at least part of what going on retreat will achieve. It helps us to stablise our positive states of mind and experiences, and this in turn allows us to remain happy all the time. With a stable and happy mind it’s then easy to positively influence and benefit others
In truth I have no idea what I will do after my retreat, but I’m confident Venerable Geshe-la has plans for me yet. In the meantime I have some (meaningful) travel to conclude before retiring to solitude in a few months time