Monday, 21 April 2014

A Northern Goddess

As a Work Exchange Volunteer at Easter Bhakti Gathering, a weekend spiritual festival in the South of England, I wasn’t entitled to a bed in a dorm. Instead I was expected to sleep on the hard floor of a beautiful wood-panelled dining room which turned out to be, essentially, an oversized fridge. I’d borrowed an inflatable mattress but, regardless of the effort my fellow roomie and I put in to get the thing pumped up, it was having none of it and, in frustration and exhaustion, I gave in and slept on my yoga mat.

Well, I say, “slept” but you should read “shivered with cold and discomfort”. Boy, did I feel sorry for my little self. I was feeling so miserable with the pain of the hard floor that colluded with the sub-zero night-time temperature to ensure I didn’t get any sleep, that I actually cried with self-pity. And you know when you can’t sleep and you get to thinking? Well, I got to thinking.

I got to thinking of something I always push to the back of my mind in the hope that it’ll go away: of how agonising it is that I can’t imagine myself having children. You see, the model I see all around me of parenting is nothing short of horrific: babies bawling relentlessly for hours; bad tempered children playing up in public places; depressed, disconnected teenagers skipping school to get wasted; disillusioned university graduates working jobs they hate; knackered parents at the end of their tether from frustration and a lack of sleep and/or money; state schools with teachers forced to focus on academic results instead of the pupils’ needs; a society that divides us and makes us compete with each other… and a pharmaceutical industry raking it in from the catastrophic mental health problems created from this highly dysfunctional system.

Who in their right mind would want to bring a child into this? Not me, that’s for certain. I couldn’t do that to myself, let alone to another human being. “Where do I go from here?” I silently but desperately asked the air around me. “What’s the answer?” I admit I felt lower than I’ve felt in a very long time, and was certain I was asking in vain. My thoughts were broken by the squawking sound of a baby coming from the mountain of duvet in the corner of the room. I’d got in bed late with the lights off and hadn’t seen who else was in the room. “Terrific,” I thought. “With a baby in here, sleep is definitely out of the question.” But that was pretty much all I heard – two squawks and nothing else all night. Unusual, for sure.

By dawn I felt like hell. My back was hurting from the floor and I’d barely slept in the struggle to keep warm. I tried, half-heartedly, to join in with the singing in the kirtan marquee but I just wasn’t feeling it so ended up slumping in the chai tea tent not wishing to connect with anyone because I’m not the same as these people, you see, and we have nothing in common. Even the event organiser is a married Asian woman with a phenomenally cute young baby and a wonderful husband who plays tabla (hand drums) to accompany the singing – so, other than the event organising thing, she and I are dramatically different.

My roomie who’d tried to help with the stupid mattress that wouldn’t inflate came to sit opposite me in the chai tent and she looked a bit blue. Turns out her back was hurting from the hard floor and she’d barely slept for shivering all night from the cold. Hm, OK, perhaps I could relate to her... She's in her early 20s. I found out she was brought up in a community where everyone looked after everyone else and she was home-schooled until her early teens when she then went to a Steiner school. This bright, young thing left school with no qualifications, not because she couldn’t get the grades (she was well spoken and clearly intelligent) but because her particular school didn’t offer them! Instead, they’d go camping in the woods, they’d learn crafts such as how to build an outdoor stove, how to live sustainably, make clothes, grow food, and their creativity and well-being were the main focuses of their education. She now works in an ethical, organic establishment which sits beautifully in line with her own values. She told me that those of her classmates who wanted to go to uni did so and having no formal qualifications was of no hindrance to them. She “loved school” (I’ve never in my life heard anyone say that!), stays in touch with the teachers (what?!) and regularly goes back there to help out with lessons. (Wild horses couldn’t get me back through the gates of Crossley and Porter Grammar School! I winced just typing that.)

My roomie and I hung out a bit discussing ways of getting ourselves a cosier sleeping environment which ranged from simply asking them to put the radiators on to sneaking all the blankets off the chai tent sofas to sloping into dorms looking for spare beds. (We went with the radiator thing but by some miraculous twist of fate, I ended up with a bed in a dorm next to a warm radiator and spent the whole night in blissful gratitude for something that I would normally take for granted – I sure noticed the lesson in that.)

During my time in the chai tent I was entertained with card tricks from little girls, eavesdropped on stories told by excited and breathless little boys about what they found in the woods, and met the chilled out 6 month old baby girl (who had failed to compound my belief about babies and sleep), and her beautiful older siblings. Their family lives in a community in Wales where they share home-schooling and practise non violent communication. I also chatted with a fabulously sexy and colourful character (it’s rare I can use those words to describe a mum, it’s more often “tired and frumpy”) who is learning Shakti dancing and plans to go and teach it in Goa at the end of the year. Her young teenage daughter can’t wait to visit India to experience the culture.

By the third day, I had stopped wandering aimlessly trying to “bed in” and began to feel some genuine love for and connection with the people around me. I felt grounded and finally joined in wholeheartedly with the ceremonies. I helped to create a mandala (symbolic picture of the Universe) from rose petals and sang my heart out to the devotional music of Tim Chalice which, I have to mention publicly, just speaks to me.

And it was while Tim’s music connected me with the Universe and everyone around me, while I sang with such eternal happiness that tears soaked my cheeks and dripped off my jaw onto my lap and I didn’t care, that the penny just dropped like a bag of gold coins from heaven.

I glanced over at the organiser’s husband with his happy baby on his lap while he played the drums, I looked at his wife singing and swaying also with tears in her eyes, I watched the home-schooling mum dancing with her children around her, I noticed the sexy Shakti dancer rest her head emotionally on the man next to her. And I saw a new model. I looked sideways at my roomie sitting cross-legged on the floor next to me, a shining example of the end result of this model of creative, nurturing, non-violent, self-sustainable community parenting brought about by two spiritually wide-awake parents. Right here was the answer to my conundrum.

I sat there in timelessness, as I let go of the repressed agony and my heart swam in joy at the realisation that I could do this – I could be a parent. Me.

At that moment I felt a trickle of blood escape and realised I’d entered my menstrual cycle. Then, as the music subsided, all the children - some dressed as bunnies - entered centre stage carrying chocolate eggs. I laughed and sobbed at the same time. Of course: the egg and the rabbit, symbols of woman’s fertility; and Easter, its roots in the Pagan festival of Ostara, a celebration of Eostre, the Northern goddess of fertility!

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Analysing the finger

Before I begin I need to make it clear that it’s not my intention to “bash” or promote any spiritual path – we all must follow our own yellow brick road – I’m simply offering my observations and I know there are others with an entirely different perspective. And that’s fine. But this is going to be controversial, so hold onto your hat…

I’ve spent a decent amount of time around Buddhists in different locations, and the same with followers of Osho, and the stark differences between the behaviours of these two groups claiming a path to spiritual enlightenment is nothing short of staggering. 

Obviously I have to generalise here as not all Buddhist followers are alike, and not all Osho followers are alike but there are some very strong and noticeable themes in the overwhelming majority of those whom I’ve encountered, and I believe this is owing to the main types of meditations they practise. 

I must clarify at this stage that those I’ve met who tell me they follow “Zen Buddhism” do not seem to show quite the same characteristics as the other Buddhists I’ve met – they seem a lot more serious and a lot less joyous (sorry, but they do!) – and I can’t speculate why this is as I know nothing whatsoever about Zen Buddhist meditations but I believe they are not the same as the two main Buddhist meditations outlined below. So in this piece I’m talking about Buddhists in general but NOT Zen Buddhists.

Where did I get my experience?

Buddhism: I completed the Introduction to Buddhism Course at The Buddhist Society, London, and spent many evenings at the Buddhist Centre in East London, UK. I spent an intensive eight days with 280 participants, plus monks and nuns at the Lam Rim (teachings of the Buddha) course at Kopan Monastery, Nepal, and a further four intensive days with 10 participants and monks at an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism course in Pokhara, Nepal. I lived for six months and attended many meditations at the Ganden Buddhist Centre, Halifax, UK, and have read three books by the 14th Dalai Lama (the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhists), as well as having dipped into several books by Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (the founder of The New Kadampa Tradition) and have read several other books on Buddhism.

Osho: I spent two months living in Pokhara, attending a small Osho meditation centre for daily meditations, followed by two months living in Pune, India, a few minutes’ walk from the Osho Meditation Centre, mingling with Osho followers on a daily basis, as well as spending full days at the centre many times during that period. I attended a full day of meditations commemorating the death of Osho at a centre separate to the main ashram in Pune , and I spent three months at Angsbacka, Sweden, living in close contact with several followers of Osho.

What did I notice?

The (majority that I’ve met of) students of Buddhism come across as open, grounded, present and friendly. Their general outlook on life is one of positivity and acceptance which makes it easy to be friends with them, to work with them, and to get to know and understand them. Generally, they’re able to express themselves in a healthy manner by asking for what they do or don’t want, and saying what they mean, kindly but clearly. The longer they’ve been following Buddhism, the more prominent these characteristics.

Conversely the (majority that I’ve met of) Osho followers appear spaced out, out of touch with reality and unable to communicate effectively. They can be unapproachable, it’s difficult to connect with them, get to know and understand them, they’re confusing, you’re not sure where you stand with them, and they can be moody and seem very lost and deeply unhappy. They often have a far-away look in their eyes like they’re not present. Generally, they’re unable to express themselves in a healthy manner, apparently hiding their emotions with blank looks and soft words that strongly suggest a mismatch between what they’re saying and what they’re feeling. The longer they’ve been a student of Osho, the more prominent these characteristics.

Why could this be?

In Buddhism, the two main meditations are Mindfulness: being present in the moment, very aware of your surroundings instead of allowing the mind to wander – and Meta Bhavana or Loving Kindness Meditation: sending out prayers of love and kindness to oneself and others. These two meditations cultivate qualities that make life as a human being easier to deal with. Rather than being upset about the past or worrying about the future, these meditations help us to focus on the here and now which is very freeing, and to love and take care of ourselves and everyone we encounter, which makes our day to day a lot less of a struggle. The positive effects of both of these meditations are immediately noticeable, and improve the more times they’re repeated.

For followers of Osho, the two main meditations are Kundalini and Dynamic.
In Kundalini meditation, the first parts of the meditation are to allow the body to shake, and then dance to music. The idea is to help energy move through the body, allowing it to come without forcing it and, in doing so, release the day’s tensions. This is followed by two stages of staying still, witnessing what is going on inside. It’s an individualistic meditation that focuses purely on oneself and what’s inside, and doesn’t take into account anything outside of oneself. It stands to reason, then, that a person regularly practising Osho’s Kundalini meditation can become very internalised and appear out of touch with other people and what’s going on around them.

In Dynamic meditation, which is to be practiced first thing in the morning ideally every day, the focus is on expressing one’s emotions in whatever way they come. As those who usually seek spirituality or religion are struggling with something, this means that the emotion that comes up is often (but not always, of course) distressing and dramatic and most often involves crying and/or shouting, as well as physical body movement. Another aspect of this meditation involves 15 minutes of jumping with one’s arms in the air. It’s common that the first time a person practises Dynamic Meditation they don’t enjoy it or get anything out of it and are advised that they must go a few times to notice the benefits. Drama and exercise are very addictive and so it’s easy to see how 15 minutes of jumping and 15 minutes of crying/screaming/wailing each morning can quickly become depended upon, and once addicted, it’s easy to see how an “addict” can think that their daily fix of exercise and drama is actually benefiting them. No addiction is a good thing because it’s masking something that needs addressing, but an addiction to this drama is particularly damaging because what we focus on perpetuates. So although it’s entirely healthy and, indeed, essential to feel and release emotions, when the same emotion is expressed repeatedly (in this case, because of the addiction that builds to expressing it on a daily basis) it becomes stronger and more real. If the emotion being expressed is distressing then it’s easy to see why someone regularly practising Dynamic meditation could become deeply unhappy.

In a nutshell

If, like a Buddhist, you focus on your physical senses in conjunction with your surroundings and cultivate a loving mindset, you will learn to become connected with the present moment and attract loving relationships.

If, like a follower of Osho, you focus purely on your own physical and emotional feelings with no regard for anything outside of yourself, you will learn to become out of touch with your surroundings and disconnected from other people.

It’s actually not rocket science, is it? What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Where the Truth Lies

If you want the truth...

don't look to science. Science is not a set of unchanging facts and figures but a process and does not have all the answers.

don't look to religion. Religion is a set of complex stories from which you may extract other people's truth, but not all religions have the same answers.

If you want the truth...

look inside yourself. Develop your intuition through spirituality and be guided by it. Your intuition can be relied upon to always steer you in the right direction.