The birds are singing outside, it’s a sunny spring afternoon, it’s a wonderful moment.
I feel like I’ve recently woken up from a dream.
In fact I’ve been helping to organise a long-weekend meditation retreat not far from Madrid, with monastics from Plum Village. My ‘before’ and ‘after’ this event are vastly different.
Before, I went through quite a strange period. I spent weeks where quite a lot of the time I was obsessing over camera equipment, which lens to buy, which camera… I spent more hours than is healthy reading reports on websites and forums, and nearly spent a fortune at a camera shop in Madrid on a camera hardly any better than the one I have. (Luckily they didn’t have it in stock, which I took as a sign and gave up looking for it!)
I felt heavy, stressed, slightly off-center. Now, after the retreat I feel light, and feel I have no interest in new cameras or lenses at all! I still love photography, but on the equipment front it feels like I was gripped by a kind of madness!
What changed? For a start the event, the retreat, is over, that’s clearly a weight off my shoulders. It was a retreat for 250 people, with a party of 7 monastics from Plum Village over to facilitate it, and all of that involves a lot of hard work. Plus it brought up difficulties from last year. Last year I helped organise Thich Nhat Hanh’s visit to Spain, which involved 5 very big events, a party of 50 monastics, thousands of people attending the events, hundreds of volunteers, and had a very difficult effect on my family as I was so busy for months before.
The echoes of that were felt this year, though this time the much smaller scale of this retreat meant there was hardly any suffering at all on the family-front (plus I’ve learned to better separate family and work, last year that was almost impossible).
And March-April is a difficult time. The anniversary of my mother’s birthday and death-day in the space of 3 weeks, more echoes of suffering reverberating into the present.
And this year all of that came out in slightly obsessive camera equipment perusal! Like a dream, from which I feel I’ve woken up.
But what woke me up? Without doubt the stopping and returning to the present moment that we practiced on the retreat. And in my case more than anything, the daily walking meditation by a river with hundreds of people, and eating mindfully in silence with hundreds of people, two key mindfulness ‘practices’ that I enjoy very much.
Being on the organising team meant a lot of running around, but those moments of mindfulness practice brought it all back to the fore again – stopping, breathing, coming back to the present moment via my steps or my knife and fork, again and again… the effect is quite magical.
It reminded me how incredibly important these practices and these pauses in life are. This stopping. When all the camera lenses stuff was going on I was aware that I was in a bit of a spin, and I mostly knew why (the reasons above), but it was only by getting away from normal life into an environment designed to foster peace, stopping and awareness, that I was really able to step out of the mud and see how crazy the previous month or so had been.
I’ve learned a lot from this experience. Firstly, my desire to make these mindfulness practices a central part of daily life again is very strong. It’s a lifeline. A refuge. An everyday wake-up in everyday normal life. I’m doing walking meditation again at least once a day, out in the streets and parks – it’s the practice I most enjoy (so it’s the right one for me!)
Secondly I realise that these periods of being lost, of compulsion – whether it be with camera equipment, or whatever – are just part of life, and not something to feel bad about, but certainly not a place to get stuck in. Just a place it’s easy to fall back into as a response to difficulties or suffering, especially as our materialistic society quite wants us to be there! (And by the way, there is nothing wrong with camera equipment, just the way I’d been approaching it!)
And I see again how important it is to retreat from the habits of normal life every now and again, to get in touch with the source of the other, healing energies of mindfulness, peace, compassion. To wake up. On this retreat I saw so many examples of people being transformed – people who turned up in a state of stress and exhaustion and left with a beaming smile, people who had a clear breakthrough in entrenched suffering – all because they risked taking a long weekend to stop, and get in touch with that energy of peace. It really really works. And it clearly worked again for me.
And finally I’ve been reminded again that no matter what happens in life, in the world around us, there is nothing more important than being awake, aware, solid, strong, compassionate, free from our afflictions. I think not only is it possible, but that for me it’s a responsibility and an aspiration to foster these qualities, and to present that face to the world. And I’m sure that when those qualities are present, they will rub off on others around us.
The phrase ‘Peace in oneself, peace in the world’ has taken me a long time to fully understand. It seems too simple. But I’m beginning to see it. And to see that all it takes is practice…
Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh