Most of us know how to get what we want in daily life. But what about our spiritual life? Let us go "Out on a Limb" and consider how we can get what we really want – lasting happiness and the good health that accompanies it?
At school we studied. Then we learnt a craft, a trade, a profession and put it into practice. Learnt some more and steadily developed our skills and experience, progressively becoming more accomplished and more useful at what we turned our mind to.
In sport, a good coach and dedicated training brings results. In personal relationships, so little training, so little preparation! No wonder our best laid plans often went array and we learnt through hard experience. And the mind? Not much better for most of us. No manual, no users guide; we just struggled through attempting to think clearly and to get the most out of this extraordinary asset.
So what about the spiritual path? When the time has come and we are ready to explore that dimension of our life, how best to proceed?
Clearly there are two needs – good information, and regular practice. In older times, both would have been directed by a spiritual teacher. We would have sought a teacher, learnt from their wisdom and experience, and been guided to apply their teachings and techniques.
Today, many teachers observe we are living in degenerate times. Teachers express an urgency in their efforts to help communities around the world to become more caring, ethical, altruistic, compassionate and loving. They reach out in a way unknown in history.
So much great spiritual literature is now widely available; increasingly free or cheaply on the net. Great masters travel the world visiting their students and offering the best of what they have to anyone who is prepared to listen. Many more are engaging with social media and the quality of material available on UTube is literally mind boggling.
It is said that when the student is ready, the master appears. In my own life, I spent many years going to different teachers, listening to what they had to offer, studying their books and those of many others; seeking a path to commit to.
This approach is encouraged in most spiritual traditions that are not fundamentalist. The relationship between spiritual aspirant and teacher is as important, if not more important than any other, so it is makes sense for both parties to be reasonably confident to begin with. It is wise, therefore, to take the time to find a spiritual teacher that you feel you can trust to commit to, and who is prepared to accept you as a student.
This is an important point. There is a time for seeking and examining; then there is a time to commit. And with commitment, how might one learn?
Some teachers communicate primarily in the obvious fashion, with words. We may benefit from reading their books, or more directly through hearing them speak. Maybe if there is that personal contact, there is the added benefit of being able to ask questions and to receive personal instruction. Of my own teachers, Ainslie Meares used language with consummate therapeutic skill, while Sogyal Rinpoche is adept at putting profound spiritual concepts and insights into readily accessible metaphors and clear instruction.
Another style of teaching involves communicating the quality or feeling of the message through actual physical contact. Ainslie Meares valued this approach highly, stating that the essence of meditation was to be found only in the experience of it; and that experience lay beyond words. He used skilful, gentle touch to convey the feeling of deep relaxation and the simplicity of meditation.
Then there are authentic spiritual teachers who teach through presence. You simply “feel” the essence of their message. Anyone who has been to a Public Talk or retreat with Sogyal Rinpoche will know why he is renowned for this quality. I too remember being with Sai Baba in India and feeling his presence from 50m or more away – a real tangible, physical presence of warmth, love, kindness.
Another possibility is what is called “mind direct” transmission. When one gives a teacher their full attention, there is the possibility of subject and object becoming one. There can follow a merging of minds and there is the possibility of a direct transference of knowledge, wisdom and insight.
So what to do?
How to get what you want? Read as much as you can. Then, when the opportunity presents, the best way to receive teachings directly from a spiritual master is to approach it as a meditation. Give the teacher your full attention; be open and undistracted. Listen with your ears, but also your eyes, your heart, your whole being. Be open to their presence, feel their presence, their quality.
Whenever an authentic teacher is speaking in your area, why not go? Why miss the opportunity? If you allow yourself to be open, and immerse yourself in their presence, there is the possibility of connecting at a deep level. Maybe you find your teacher. Whatever else, this is a reliable way to deepen your meditation. Maybe you will receive a mind direct transmission and who knows, find what you are really looking for.
1. Retreat in Germany
What a treat to share in presenting a meditation based, health and healing related retreat with monks and nuns of Thich Nhat Hahn’s tradition. Very simple, very clear, very direct.
One lovely new technique: combining deep relaxation with a contemplation: relaxing each part of the body deeply while contemplating gratitude for all that part of the body does for you and for others.
2. Danger in mind
Four hours out of Hong Kong, 4am and the Captain comes on to announce one engine has failed and we need to return to Hong Kong. Ruth momentarily contemplates dying, then rests in the confidence all will be well: either we arrive safely or she is ready and at peace with dying. It does not occur to me we might crash and I sleep. We land safely, 1hr on the ground and off again to Europe. We had stayed over in Hong Kong, but spare a thought for those who were travelling from Australia direct; they had over 30 hrs flying with just a couple of short breaks!
3. Keep the home fires burning!
We hear from the people looking after our house that the weather in the Yarra Valley has been freezing. Happily it is mid 20s here.
Retreat and go forward
BOOKS: The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying; Sogyal Rinpoche – includes more guidance on how to be with and listen to a spiritual teacher.
The Miracle of Mindfulness; Thich Nhat Hahn – good introduction to the teachings of this great master and author of over 100 books.
Meditation training and retreat with monks from Thich Nhat Hahn’s tradition.
I will co-lead this weekend retreat, Oct 7 – 9, at the Foundation’s Yarra Valley Centre. This promises to be a wonderful few days, and is likely to book out, so early registration is advised. For link to more details, bookings etc, click here