At the start of the Triratna Urban Retreat, as people around the world join together for a period of intensified practice, here’s a reflection on practising at home, developing mindfulness in daily life and the influence of the worldly winds: praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, fame and notoriety. This is the first in a series of blogs this week on the theme to go along with the Urban Retreat
For many years I was able to go on retreat for several weeks each year. Much of that time I was living in residential Triratna communities where I could sit in the shrineroom each morning. More recently my life has changed. I now live with my wife (Kamalagita, who is also an Order member) in Cardiff with Leo, our two year-old son. We share the childcare, which is great in many ways, but it has brought many changes and challenges to my life. My time is less my own, so it’s harder to find a space for daily meditation and much harder to get away on retreat.
The disadvantages of my present lifestyle for practising mindfulness and meditation are obvious and so are the rewards that come from the connection with a child. But the experience of being a parent has affected me in ways I never expected. Not being able to meditate so much means that I have had to take more seriously the need to practise in the course of my daily life: hour by hour and moment by moment.
Spending time with Leo, for example, is usually tiring and sometimes difficult, but often it is delightful. All sorts of factors have an influence (they don’t talk about ‘the terrible 2s’ for no reason), but I’m certain that my own attitude and state of mind is an important factor. If I am pre-occupied with other things, or want to get on and do something else, things tend to be difficult with Leo. If I can engage fully with Leo as he plays with his trains or runs round a field, he is usually happier and I enjoy myself. Being with Leo sometimes feels like a test for my nerves, and sometimes it feels like a spiritual practice.
Endeavouring to be mindful and kind in daily life is a profound practice. When there’s plenty of time for meditation and retreats it is easy to start taking them for granted. More subtly, you can start to think that retreats are where meditation really happens while what happens at home is just maintenance. That goes along with a sense that meditation only really happens properly when you get concentrated and feel very peaceful. That’s true in a way, but it’s not the whole truth. It can be a way of turning away from the mess, clutter and perhaps the pain of our ordinary existence for the sake of something more reassuring and enjoyable. That tendency is always worth looking at. If it’s really a subtle form of avoidance or denial or aversion then, however far you go in meditation and however powerful your retreat experiences may be, it may continue to leave something out. I’m getting more interested in what happens day to day and what that tells me about my life and my mind. I’m interested in opening up to what my experience really is and finding effective ways to explore and engage with it.
Right, then! Who needs retreats? Mindfulness in daily life is where it’s at! Only … daily life is packed with opportunities for distraction, indulgence and stress. One part of my work is teaching Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, which is, in part, what has got me thinking about practice in daily life. That probably sounds relaxing, but let me tell you: stress management can be pretty stressful. The teaching itself is very engaging, but then there are all the things that go with starting a small business. I also write about Buddhism, and earlier this year I published a biography of the Buddha (Gautama Buddha: the Life and Teachings of the Awakened One). That was very satisfying, but now I want it to be successful, which means trying to promote and market it.
These are the things that preoccupy me when I am with my son, and remain when I find time to sit on a cushion. I want these activities to be successful and I am afraid that they won’t be. I get excited when things are going well and feel dejected when they aren’t. The worldly winds blow through me when I am meditating and when I am seeking to be more fully present in my activities. Yes, I would like to ride the winds like an autumn eagle coursing the thermals, but more often they buffet me. It goes deep. The winds affect me because my sense of who I am is connected with what I do and because I still care too much about what others think of me. That’s why the intention to be mindful and present – whether in daily life or in meditation – turns out to be connected with everything in my life: the conditions I experience and the values that guide me.
I am looking forward to the urban retreat for all these reasons. Practising in daily life is a fine practice, but I forget to do it, and the retreat is a kind of a reminder. I’m going to focus on putting into practice the things I tell my mindfulness students to do: mindful breaks; checking in with myself; three minute breathing spaces; meditation. But I’m also looking forward to engaging with the theme. You can’t practice in daily life unless you look at the effects of the worldly winds.