Our monastery is located at a particular dip in the Abingdon Road where the water is often at its deepest when it floods – earlier this month we watched as kayaks, canoes and dinghys went by.
Who would come to the weekend meditation retreat? Even the most enthusiastic would surely be put off as the waters rose.
Roads were closed and access was strictly by wellies.
And yet people were undeterred; the meditation room was so full that we had to spill out into another.
What made them so determined to attend a weekend of mindfulness, guided by our abbot?
Mindfulness meditation has gone viral.
With its adoption by the medical establishment, it is now considered one of the most effective treatments for a whole range of conditions from depression, anxiety and addiction to eating disorders and chronic pain.
Its success is widely documented with intriguing evidence of very particular patterns shown in the brain scans of meditators. But where did this practice originate?
Taught by the Buddha 2,600 years ago, the tradition has been kept alive in Buddhist monasteries throughout Asia.
It has now spread amongst lay people throughout the world as its benefits have become increasingly widely recognised.
Mindfulness meditation is a technique for observing the mind in the present moment so that we can wake up to its true nature – this can often be a shocking revelation.
As we practise, we begin to see how we hurtle from one moment to the next in the pursuit of feeling better or seeking a refuge from pain.
We can also see how this habit of mind can undermine our happiness and wellbeing. This point is important and can sometimes get lost in the attempt to ‘secularise’ the practice and present it independently of its Buddhist context.
So is this a navel-gazing exercise in thought elimination, a pursuit of blissful states, an escape from the realities of everyday life? In fact it is the opposite – mindfulness meditation asks us to turn around and face ourselves. The mind is often compared to a monkey in all its restlessness, its mad internal dialogues, its persistent attempts to avoid pain and find comfort. The challenge is to make peace with that monkey.
We learn to stay unflinchingly with our experience in all its rawness, neither chasing our desires nor running away from our fears. As this awareness develops something intriguing occurs – we begin to see that the more we let go, the more we have. As we stop chasing every temptation and running away from every discomfort, our lives take on a lighter quality: we are no longer slaves to every whim and impulse.
This is not confined to sitting motionless on a cushion. It applies to every moment as we learn to stand aside and watch the flow of our lives amidst the everyday pressures of work, shopping and watching the kids. Any spare moment is an opportunity to be mindful, whether in a traffic jam or waiting for the kettle to boil – it’s experiential, not a formula to figure things out, it’s empirical. In this way we come to develop patience, acceptance and compassion towards both ourselves and others, a resilience that will stand us in good stead during life’s ups and downs.
And it is not to be taken on faith. The Buddha himself asked people not to take his word for it, but to test it out themselves.
Now where are those wellies?