Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Surprising Harvests

Living in a Buddhist Centre – Life Happens II
I finally summoned up my courage (after weeks of procrastination) and uprooted a mystery plant, that had self-seeded and grown, to Triffid-like proportions, in the corner of my basement garden.  For most of its life, I had assumed that it was a sunflower – the leaves were big and pear-shaped, mid-green, with lighter veins, slightly furry and gently serrated at the edges, the stem was thick, woody and hairy...But then it had developed side shoots (like small branches) and grown really bushy...
Odd, I thought, this plant has ambitions to become a small tropical forest all by itself, whereas sunflowers are usually single stemmed, tall and leggy... Then it grew more side stems, and strong sturdy suckers...I thought it may be protesting about the lack of light by growing more and more sideways, upwards, outwards, across...  It grew to about four metres (16 feet), high: tall enough to reach the sunlight over the top of the basement.  I tied the now leaning, top heavy, stems up to the inside of our cast iron railings.  But what was it?  But then I thought – relax – let it flower.  Let it have its moment of glory as any self-respecting sunflower should!
The flowers came and were anti-climatical.  Tiny.  It was so disappointing. The flower heads were just bigger than the bottom of teacups, there were seven of them.  And, whilst the petals were yellow, so were the centres, with small stigma and tiny, undeveloped, seeds.  Sunflowers usually have those lovely dark, often chocolate brown, stigma and anthers at first, followed by the beautifully geometric Fibonacci spirals of plump seed cases, so this was a disappointment.
This giant plant came out surprisingly easily when I pulled, only to reveal dozens of white, muddy tubers attached to the roots.  It was almost surreal.  I was working in twilight, so at first I couldn’t see properly what these bumpy protuberances were, or where they were coming from.  I hadn’t expected such an abundance of what almost looked like button mushrooms: spherical, bulbous, asymmetrical and round, earth-covered, glowing, phosphorescent fruit.  I gathered a carrier bag full, of these surprising creamy, muddy, fungus-like Jerusalem artichokes, underground critters that had grown all by themselves, beneath the concrete pavements of Bermondsey, without anyone knowing or caring that they were there.  And how good they were, boiled, with butter and garlic for my supper!

Later that evening, my own seemingly stubborn and untamed mind did just the same as the plant.  I was sitting in my room, letting my mind go and just watching my thoughts.  I hadn’t got the energy to go and sit on my meditation mat, but I believe it’s OK to not force yourself to formally meditate if you don’t want to.  A friend of mine at our parent monastery, Samye Ling, recommends:  ‘Just sit, and relax and watch where your mind goes.  Avoid all that Buddhist flim-flam’.  No pressure.  Nothing fancy, just let yourself be.  No sitting in uncomfortable positions, no special room to be in.  It’s a do-nothing, pro-idleness stance. 
So I was sitting, reflecting, in my comfy chair, but actually feeling utterly depressed and miserable and my mind was racing.  I was thinking about how unforgiving and angry I am towards those who I feel have deliberately and unfairly hurt me. (And I was feeling merciless even though, in more tolerant states, I know that those who have been brutal act this way because of the brutalisation that they have suffered).  I was having all sorts of negative hate-filled thoughts.  Then I thought, if I was in the religious tradition I was brought up in, I would be blaming myself for these thoughts.  I would say I was sinning.  But, I thought, I am in the Buddhist tradition now and I can be kind to myself.  I can accept all this negatively in myself.  I don’t have to try to be lofty and repress my misery.  So, for once, I tried to stop trying to not have these thoughts.  Instead, I tried to think what are these feelings of hatred like?  Can I be kind to myself even though I am doing what I am not proud of?  Can I stay with these emotions I despise and feel ashamed of, and not blame myself for having them?
As usual, I didn’t get very far, or stay in that soothing mode for long, because my mind likes to flit. But then I became conscious of just breathing.  I was suddenly aware of sitting and breathing, having let go of identifying with my thinking.  What a release that felt like!  What was different was that I hadn’t consciously willed getting to that place, but maybe because I have practised meditating, where I have trained myself to come back to my breath, again and again, and that moment of release just came.  I would normally have stayed, hooked into negative thoughts.  

That return to my breath felt like a blessing, (isn’t it strange how we need to use theological language, even though we don’t necessarily have a theist perspective, to try and explain what these magical moments are like?)  It seemed that all that time I had spent on a mat, trying to meditate, had paid dividends.  I escaped some sort of entrapping cycle of negativity without really trying to.  This was equivalent to the miracle of my unexpected crop of artichokes.  My meditation practice has worked (to some extent)!  My mind was beginning to change!  And even though I don’t meditate in order to achieve any specific benefits, I was glowing.
Amanda Root was an academic at Oxford University and now lives and works at Kagyu Samye Dzong Tibetan Buddhist Centre, Bermondsey, London. Her article Life Happens was published on the Resurgence website. 

Photograph: Franckreporter, www.istockphoto.com

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Our Future on the Line

The last two weeks have been crazy. I’ve been here at the UN climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa, with 10 other delegates from the UK Youth Climate Coalition. We’ve been working with the international youth climate movement to try to get a good deal for young people; it’s our future on the line, and we were determined to remind negotiators of this.

In the early hours of Sunday morning – 36 hours late – the conference reached its dramatic conclusion. With impassioned speeches and frantic huddles, the outcomes that we’d been waiting all year for were literally hammered into reality. As I sat at the back of that plenary hall at 5 am, and the Chair rattled through the decisions, banging her gavel after each one, I reflected on my time in Durban.

The job of young people at these conferences is to inject positivity and hope into a process that is often painfully slow and dull. We’re here to outline the vision of the future we need, but when the process seems destined to obliterate that vision, it’s really hard to stay positive. So, in the last few days of the conference, we found our collective voice, and the conference sat up and took notice.

On Wednesday, six young Canadians turned their backs on their environment minister while he was making his speech. For this, they were loudly applauded by delegates, but were led out of the conference and stripped of their accreditation.

The next day, my friend Abigail from the US stood up and interrupted her lead negotiator’s speech with the voice of American youth, and told those gathered that he could not speak for her or the millions of others like her who want a safe future. She too received an ovation and was escorted from the conference centre.

On Friday, my friend Anjali delivered an impassioned intervention that again received loud applause, and later, hundreds of young people satdown in protest outside the plenary hall and demanded that their voices be heard.

So were our voices heard? Well, undoubtedly, we made an impact. Richard Blackfrom the BBC, wrote that “Outside the halls of government, it was a very good meeting for the youth. Unfailingly charming, youth delegates brought a freshness, a ‘Yes-we-can’-ness, to the often jaundiced proceedings”.

Are we pleased with the outcomes? It depends who you ask, and what their expectations for this conference were. For me (and I don’t speak for the rest of the delegation on this), it could have been a lot worse. A month ago, we were talking about the entire process unravelling here in Durban, and that didn’t happen. Instead, we saved the Kyoto Protocol, which was vital for continued international cooperation on emissions reductions. We also got a timetable for a new global deal, and the ‘Green Climate Fund’ was born, which will help get money flowing to poorer countries to help them deal with the impact of climate change.

However, the world is still very much on course for catastrophe. While we may be one year closer to that catastrophe, we’ve kept open the possibility of changing course to avoid it. The best way I can sum up my feelings right now is that we’re fighting a fight for my generation’s future. We could have completely lost that fight this weekend, but we didn’t. And for that, I’m glad.

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Matt Williams, UKYCC Youth Delegate to the UN climate talks.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Ancient Art of Meditation

A potent symbol for peace in an ailing modern world
With stress on the rise and Flash Mob meditation gatherings spreading across the UK to galvanise a better world, the British School of Meditation prepares to launch at the Isbourne Holistic Centre in Cheltenham in response to the mass growth in meditation in the UK.
Amid all the pressures and strains of the current financial crisis and growing dissatisfaction with an outmoded material society, the ancient art of meditation is emerging as a potent symbol for peace and calm in an ailing modern world.

“In today’s frantic world more and more people are turning to meditation as a way to calm their busy minds,” says renowned meditation teacher Mary Pearson, author of Meditation the Stress Solution, who co-founded the British School of Meditation with Helen Galpin.  “Stress is a huge problem and many people are looking for a way to reduce their stress and live happier lives.”

Meditation is also becoming widely recognised as a tool for positive change and wellbeing, for bringing people together as a community and for generating a major shift towards more conscious and sustainable living. To this end, hundreds of thousands of people have been gathering in open urban spaces around the globe for Flash Mob meditation sessions in recent months, including several in London as well as in other UK cities – from Bristol and Brighton in the South to Aberdeen in North Scotland.
The many benefits of meditation include stress and anxiety reduction, calmness, enhanced clarity and focus, better sleep, lower blood pressure, weight loss, looking younger, and a boost to the immune system.
“We are really thrilled to be hosting the British School of Meditation courses at the Isbourne,” says Janie Whittemore, Centre Manager of the Isbourne Holistic Centre. “We’ve seen a major rise in interest in meditation here at the Centre in recent months, it’s a fantastic tool for maintaining calm and focus amid the stresses of busy modern life and there’s a clearly a real need now for more qualified teachers to take it out to the masses.”
While meditation is becoming increasingly popular, Mary Pearson and fellow meditation teacher Helen Galpin looked at the existing provision for training meditation teachers and discovered a distinct lack of face to face training available. They duly founded the British School of Meditation to supply this demand, providing OCN accredited courses, and playing their part in spreading peace in the world.
“Teaching meditation has helped both Mary and myself find peace and happiness in our lives,” says Helen Galpin, who is also director of The Nutrition Centre chain of shops in Gloucestershire.  “It’s a great joy to be able to help people find time to ‘just be’ and switch off from the daily grind.”

The British School of Meditation runs an introductory day for its first teacher training course on Saturday 14th January in response to the unprecedented demand for teachers.
Meditation Teacher Training course details
Introductory First Training Day on Saturday 14th January 2011 (10am-4.30pm)
Part One: Saturday 25th February 2012 & Sunday 26th February 2012 (10.00am-4.30pm)
Part Two: Saturday 21st April 2012 & Sunday 22nd April 2012 (10.00am-4.30pm)
For bookings/further information visit: British School of Meditation

Will Gethin has worked as a holistic explorer and travel writer since 2004, writing articles for the Independent, the Evening Standard and various conscious living magazines. He has worked as a communications consultant, promoting humanitarian and intercultural organisations like IT Schools Africa, The Makhad Trust and Tribe of Doris.
Will Gethin founded a Guest Speaker programme at the Isbourne Holistic Centre, bringing leading edge spiritual authors and presenters such as Peter Owen Jones and Satish Kumar to Cheltenham to present educational talks and workshops.