Mindfulness filled in the gaps in a low-key Buddhist upbringing

Mindfulness brings clarity to a philosophy I’ve been seeking a lifelong understanding of. I grew up in a household where both parents were experienced in Zen Buddhist meditation. It seeped into my world view, I see with hindsight

Buddha webThe Buddha of rural North Devon

When my parents talk about their experience of the 70s (I was born in 1978), they tell many stories of their group of friends, who all seemed to meditate together in Crediton, a small town outside Exeter. There they baked rocksolid barley bread, got excited when a visiting Buddhism teacher (Swami G) visited. One of their friends dedicated himself ruthlessly for days on end to ‘cracking’ koans (Buddhist riddles, like ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’).

The famous book by Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, was on our bookshelf, and at some point in my teens my mum gave me my own copy, but only because I myself showed an interest. Buddhists don’t really have an agenda that anyone else become Buddhist, and there’s not much to explain (there’s not a huge amount of rhetoric), so it’s not like having a religious upbringing. If you want to know about Buddhism, sit on a cushion and see what you discover, was the implied response.

I think I needed MBSR to spell out some of the benefits of meditation, to give me Jon Kabbat-Zinn’s humourous and chatty explanations of what’s going on in your consciousness when you meditate.

Mindfulness filled in the gaps in an upbringing where Buddhism was in the background, but not much expounded

Buddhist parents don’t lead you to a special service every Sunday. They just mutter things under their breath into their brown rice.

Buddhism isn’t really designed to be explained, with texts, or doctrine. And Zen especially – it’s supposed to be the stripped-down experience of meeting your consciousness through meditation. Rather than wasting your energy talking about it, just live it. It’s not a matter of PR. But as a result, I didn’t really comprehend or espouse my parents’ ideas.

Buddhas get sold in gift shops

That’s where I bought my Buddha head! In the local shop that sells humorous mugs and quirky piggy-banks!

Actually, it’s a credit to my parents that they took a quiet approach: they weren’t coffee-table-book Buddhists, into the flowing Thai silks and luxury-retreat notion of peace. In other words, they weren’t into it because it was stylish.

They were, at one time, proper authentic ideological hippies, who tried to walk the talk of their values. But they also weren’t that ‘into’ it year upon year: by mine and my brother’s childhoods it had transmuted into a gentle, ungreedy, nature-loving way of life out in the countryside. It wasn’t so much about a philosophy.

I first tried meditation aged 4

My mum had spent a short time living in a monastery in Northumberland, and when we were small and lived in Frome, Somerset, I once or twice remember her hosting a zazen meditation session in our living room (I remember giving it a whirl, though it was very hard for a 4-year-old to sustain any kind of meditation activity). And I once or twice remember her wrapped in a blanket meditating, though it really wasn’t a daily habit.  She kept a teeny tiny ivory Buddha on on a windowsill with a few other lovely things. I, a busyminded child amid adults trying to stare into space, must have been a right pain the arse.

I think I notice the influence of meditation in my Dad in his pace, the slow unstressed rhythm of his activity, the way he closes his eyes after a tree after lunch. I never see him meditate, though he says he likes to sing Buddhist chants in the car (though I more often know him as someone who listens to the cricket on the radio in the car). He does seem to make an effort to be in the present in his life. He doesn’t seem to have any grand plans for the future – when I was a teenager I couldn’t fathom his lack of urgency and ambition, which was consuming me.

Both parents seem deeply, deeply happy in nature. They live by the weather of today, what’s going on in the garden, whether you can see the stars tonight or not.

I went to India. Original, hunh?

That was the Gap Year privilege, to ‘go travelling’. My (older) friend had done a Vipassna course, and lots of yoga in India, so I guess we talked about it and it all seemed exotic. It was exotic, mindblowingly intense travelling.

While I was there, I went North to Ladakh, which has a Buddhist culture very much in tune with its proximity to Tibet. I went on a trek for a few days, and some monks let us sleep in their house overnight, giving us a kimu-chi-like supper, and waking us with their amazing throat singing.

Also while I was there, I went on a week-long completely-silent meditation course, which alternated an hour of sitting meditation with an hour of walking meditation (I really liked the walking), and there was a bit of short talk in the evening, and then back to the tent which I shared with another tourist called Jane, and we broke our vow of silence with killer farts that elicited vocal reaction.  I loved the experience of being silent for a week. My heart felt big by the end. I’m not sure if I’d felt my heart much before that.

As a Leeds student I joined a Zen Buddhist group

There were about four people. It wasn’t a student group. We’d go to a ‘dojo’, which was just a terraced house in a suburb. Meditation was 6am-7am. I’d spend the whole day in a bad mood from lack of sleep, and look forward to the bit where they come round and tap your back with a stick. I’d feel tortured by dropping eyelids, vision swimming in a spangle of the boring boring boring woodchip in front of my face.

Something that’s come back to me from that time, is having breakfast with them afterwards one weekend, and one guy, John, asking me with good humour if the theatre I was studying was “all about ego?”. I said I thought it probably was, but I was nowhere near being able to slow down the ego bus. I had to ride that bus all the way to its destination: burnout.

I went to Japan after university

It didn’t have anything to do with Buddhism, more to do with where you could earn a decent wage as a TEFL teacher. I missed a trick because I was much more interested in the outdoor party scene on the coast south of Tokyo than I was in meditation. I enjoyed the aesthetic of temples of and beautiful gardens, but very much as a tourist.

I found the culture problematic in some ways – some people seemed passively accepting of their alotted role as a wife or a salariman (even those who were a rave DJ today often had a career lined up for the next year), and I was right in suspecting that this is not a gold standard for the kind of ‘acceptace’ that’s a central tenet of Mindfulness.

There’s acceptance, where you’re timid, and don’t feel able to alter anything in your life, and there’s Acceptance, where you are in your present with kindness towards its warts and all, but in an empowering way. I’ll try to find a better way to express that distinction in due course, because I think it’s a really important one.

I did yoga, because it was a choice between that and PE

There’s been some yoga along the way. That’s not totally distinct from Mindfulness, even though some yoga puts its roots in a Hindu tradition. Some of the MBSR meditations are about being with the breath and simple body movements, body yoga.

I’ve done a bit of Hatha Yoga, very sporadically, since I was 16 and did an evening course in Topsham. Doing some physical activity was a compulsory element of my International Baccalaureate Diploma, and the alternatives were things like icy cold canoeing club, so perceiving myself as profoundly unsporty, that was me choosing myself a ‘soft’ option.

I loved it. I should choose soft options for myself much, much more often.

When I say I’ve done yoga sporadically, I mean that I’ve done it when I’ve been to a class. Like, when I was a member of Holmes Place gym, and they had loads of classes you could drop into.

Theatre is all about presence, too

And after Japan I did an intense, two-year physical and devised theatre training at a school in Paris called Ecole Jacques Lecoq, and then another Lecoq school called Lispa, in London. We did yoga exercises there every day. Come to think of it, it’s worth mentioning that breathing and movement are fundaments of theatrical presence, so I suppose I spent a lot of time working on being in the moment, trying to be present, and (heaven forbid!) improvising. It’s all part of the same awareness-based practice, but with a different goal in mind.

I need the decorative aspects to keep me motivated

When I came to Berlin two and a half years ago, the first thing I did was take advantage of a local yoga studio’s do-all-you-can for a month, a kind of eat-all-you-like deal where you paid a set fee and went nuts. I’ve stayed there, on a weekly basis, ever since. I like the magnolia outside the window, and the mellow quartz crystal lighting. As with Holmes place, when it was the free towels that kept me loyal, here it’s the aesthetic. You see, I’m totally shallow even in my attempts to be deep.

Or am I? In the end, it’s easy to get into a self-punishing, driven mindset with physical exercise. If you can keep it feeling like a treat, like you’re spoiling yourself, loving yourself with an indulgent gift, then you’re onto a different track. If that’s the feeling of swishing through an airy studio, and tasting the free lemon verbena tea, then so be it. Learning to love yourself, is like, the hardest thing on earth to do.

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How did meditation make its way into your life? Quietly, or deliberately? Should parents bring children up in an ideology, even, or not? Chip in in the comment thread below.