On what feels like the first like the first real sunny day of the year, I find myself indoors enjoying a different kind of warmth.
I’m at the Kadampa Meditation Centre, housed in one of the grand old merchants houses that surround Sefton Park in Liverpool, at a meditation workshop called Dealing with Pain.
the blank canvas of spirituality
I’ve been consciously dipping my toe in Buddhism for the last few years now, although I think subconsciously I’ve been swimming in it since birth and beyond.
I was raised by a Catholic and a Protestant, who fortunately, are liberal enough to let me make my own mind up about absolutely everything. So although I spent fifteen years at schools which tried to drill in the sometimes outdated, sometimes hypocritical and sometimes oppressive Do’s and Don’t of Christianity, I rebelled, proclaiming borderline anti-theist views for many years on.
Apart from life itself, I think the best gift parents can give you is a blank canvas so you can paint your own opinions. Hand-me-down beliefs aren’t really beliefs at all.
I’m incredibly grateful for that gift, as it’s over the years of travelling, meeting new people and opening my eyes to the world that I’m forming my own, ever-changing and never-ending, conclusion on faith.
A little bit of Buddhism goes a long way
The last workshop I attended at St George’s Hall was all about The Art of Positive Thinking, but today’s was focused on Dealing with Pain.
Buddhist Monk, Gen Kelsang Jigme, focused on two main types of pain – pain of the physical body and pain of the mind.
We opened with the Liberating Prayer and a simple meditation which I found really powerful. I focused on white light breathing in through my nostrils and black smoke breathing out with such intensity that my entire body sunk instantly into the chair.
It’s incredible how much tension we carry in every inch of us when we’ve got tensions in the mind.
Mind Over Matter
When it comes to physical pain, I’ve been lucky enough to have only suffered very slightly. I think I built up my Mind Over Matter resistance spending most of my childhood (and adulthood) falling over – a talent I’ve inherited from my tremendously calamitous Dad.
Even if my knees were punctured with gravel and covered in blood, the verbal reward of being told I was brave made me hide my quivering bottom lip and carry on playing.
So I realised quite early on the power of the mind in dealing with pain and applied it to things like going to the dentist or getting my blood taken. Whilst the needle is piercing my vein, I pinch my body elsewhere so hard that my mind focuses on a pain I was in control of, and any fear would melt away.
Obviously there’s a little bit of a difference between the prick of a needle in your arm and the long drawn out suffering of illnesses and injuries. No matter how much Mind Over Matterness you apply, you can’t cure it completely just with your mind.
But as Gen Kelsang Jigme explained, what you can do is alter your perception. By detaching ourselves from physical pain, we can see it for what it is and deal with it objectively.
We are not our bodies.
We are a mind inside a human body.
And that human body is destined to suffer and eventually, to cease to exist.
MATTER OVER MIND
Over the coffee break I got talking to a Hero.
One morning twelve years ago, at the age of twenty-four, he’d woken up and couldn’t seem to use his legs. He was taken to A&E and told that even though he was so young, he must have had a stroke.
As time passed and more tests were done, they realised that he actually had a tumour on his spine which was thought to be cancerous, and doctors talked him through end of life care. Then more time passed and he was told that although they’d now found that the tumour was not cancerous, he would never be able to leave his wheelchair.
This man had walked into the centre on crutches.
We talked about what had brought us here, to the workshop. He admitted to partying too hard at times, using drugs and alcohol as routes to escape reality. This is something I think is happening on a much bigger scale than we realise, like to admit or are brave enough to discuss.
When you’ve had a bad day, it’s much easier to pick up a glass of beer than it is to focus on purifying your thoughts through meditation
But he’s been making good choices and the meditation is clearly working for him.
As cheesy as it sounds, my pain and suffering has been my greatest teacher
People ask me all the time who my Heroes are….this is exactly who I’m talking about. He’s a Hero.
CLOUDS OF PAIN
After the break we meditated on the vastness and purity of the mind.
In their natural state our minds are just a clear and empty expanse that can be clouded momentarily with thoughts that are good or bad.
Pain of the mind, emotional pain, is usually caused by attaching ourselves to negative thoughts. It’s almost like clinging on to actions, events, painful moments of the past and keeping them here with us in the present. And I’ve definitely been guilty of that before… So I guess that’s why I’m here.
Probably one of the most profound teachings of Buddhism that have helped me let go of pain and clear my stormy skies, were written in Geshe-la’s book How to solve our human problems…
In reality, the painful feelings that arise on such occasions are not intolerable. They are only feelings, a few moments of bad weather in the mind, with no power to cause us any lasting harm.
Just as there is room in the sky for a thunderstorm, so there is room in the vast space of our mind for a few painful feelings; and just as a storm has no power to destroy the sky, so unpleasant feelings have no power to destroy our mind.