I know it is really unusual, but very occasionally I have been known to run out of words. Not in a ‘used up all my words for the day’ sort of way, although I have come close to that on a very intensively cerebral kind of day. No, this is more the feeling of grasping for a word, the word which can encompass everything in my head and heart at a specific moment. I have often started blogs with ‘OMG’ or ‘WOW’ or, ‘This is so amazing/beautiful/splendid/special’. But none of these extreme devices works just now, so I am just going to have to wing it until the right one crops up. Which is a funny choice of word as we have the Bournemouth Air Show finishing above our heads as I write, and we have just come back from a very windy but sunny afternoon at Mudeford Quay watching the planes belt back and forth across the sky. Oh and we saw the family of swans I just posted on Facebook, so obviously lots of wings around. Here are the swans and their teenagers again in case you missed the post.
We arrived at the Quay just as the spectacular Vulcan Cold War Bomber was passing over our heads for its very last flight before final, final retirement. And the most wonderful thing happened: we heard it approaching (it is huge) and when it was really close, and really, really low, Stephen looked up, raised his arm and gave a huge wave. And the pilot dipped the wing so the plane waved back. It was a lovely moment and somehow symbolic and very special for Stephen.
So back to winging it. The reason for my sudden inability to express the emotions in my heart is that on Saturday night Matt (number 2 son) and I went to sit with, listen to, and laugh with, some of the nuns and monks from Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hahn’s Buddhist community in south western France. I didn’t realise that groups of them periodically go on tour – and we are talking BIG world tours, not just a quick stopover from Calais. I saw an advert a while ago, and wrote in the last blog, about paying to go up to London from Bournemouth, on a Saturday night, to sit in peaceful contemplation with some monastics. Some would think that is a strange way to spend a Saturday night in London, but regular readers of the blog will know that during my treatment absolutely definitely the strongest tool I had at my disposal was mindfulness; this was my chance to actually experience being in the same space as people who were from the community which was founded by the man whose writing had given me such strength.
Having picked what turned out to be the hottest day of the year, Matt and I sweated our way across Covent Garden, past the eye-bogglingly lithe contortionist (I so don’t think people should be doing that stuff to their bodies), the street magician with a really sore throat, and through the mayhem of the West End to the comparative calm of Russell Square, where I had the extremely bright idea, in equally extreme temperatures, to climb the 175 steps from the tube station to street level rather than wait in the crowds for the lift. I realised after we started that the steps were in blocks of about 10, so even with my rudimentary maths I worked out we had 17 sections. After about 8 I was flagging, and, taking to heart the advice I was given after my stem cell transplant about pushing myself to go on when I really didn’t want to, I narrowed my focus from sections to steps. This step…this step…this step…oh look, a bit of a break. Breathe for a moment. Then a few more of ‘this step’. This bit is important for later on, so please remember it. Then we were there. Emerging blinking into about 30 degrees C in another bit of London that we knew even less than Covent Garden.
Matt and I are complete country bumpkins, and, even armed with Google Maps and a paper confirmation we managed to miss the venue the first time, but after about 15 minutes (so glad we allowed that extra time) we found it and were soon inside the air-conditioned coolness of the hall. We found good seats quite near the front and waited to see… well, we didn’t really know quite what. The first surprise was that the monks and nuns came out a good 15 minutes before the event was due to begin. Having previously only been to rock gigs where they keep you waiting an hour to build up the anticipation, or business gigs where they get really pissy when you are late, or arty gigs where you are locked out if you are 2 minutes late, this was a real surprise. Two monks and a nun were seated in front of the others and led us with some beautiful and simple chanting, even as people were still arriving. Weird, I thought. Then after a couple more rounds of chanting, one of the monks (who turned out to be the Senior English Monk), said that we were chanting to help create a warm and welcoming atmosphere for the people who were still arriving. Wow. That was different. And the whole evening continued in a way that was different from anything I could possibly have anticipated.
I think there were 13 monks and nuns in all, and the three major leaders were the English nun, the Senior Monk (who learns directly from Thay – that is their name for Thich) and Senior English Monk. I can’t find their names, so please excuse me reducing them to simple titles. They were so much more than that. Considering they were all sitting on their cushions on stage looking out at over 500 expectant faces, they were unbelievably calm, and they never dropped their smiles. In fact, when things went wrong, as they always do at these events, they were absolutely cracking up, and so did we. I have to say that all the genuine monastics I have had the privilege to meet have all had the most astounding sense of humour. I want some of whatever they’re on.
Where do I start? I can’t. Their words were beautiful. Tiny arrows of hope and optimism aimed at the darkest reaches of my soul. Aimed at everybody, as people around me were clearly reacting as I did. And almost the best bit was the opportunity for questions at the end. Senior Monk requested that the questions be short and to the point and not overly technical. One extremely brave lady asked the following: “You talk about suffering, and recognising suffering in ourselves so that we can have compassion for those who are also in pain. How about if you look at others who are happy, and you don’t feel their happiness?” Now I initially heard this as, “How do you help those who are already happy”, which is a classic case of me not listening properly. English Nun took the mike and clarified it for us. The question was really about how to cope when other people’s happiness just makes you feel even sadder and lonelier. In fact, just like when friends entice you out against your better judgement and you end up sitting in the corner at a party howling your eyes out. Oooh. That one hit home. This was depression in its darkest form. The elegant and incredibly subtle interaction which followed on stage was fascinating. Having delivered her beautiful summary of the question, English Nun respectfully smiled at Head Monk and gestured with a slight incline of her head, offering him the mike. As in, “Yours, please? Pretty please?” Head Monk closed his eyes and sat beatifically unmoved. English Nun leaned slightly forward and across Head Monk to Senior English Monk and inclined her head again, as in, “Well, will you answer this one? Please? Somebody take this mike!!!” English Senior Monk also smiled and showed not the slightest movement towards the mike. I think this picture captures that very moment.
Now, being such a people-watcher, I was absolutely fascinated. So not even a group of monks were leaping to answer a very difficult question, and I was full of admiration. I know that it is all too easy to try and fix somebody’s deep pain with a placatory comment, and I really respected the way that the community literally sat with the problem until the right person emerged to deal with it. English Nun sat back, placed the mike on the stage next to Head Monk and they just sat. The Bell Master, who was sitting next to the biggest and most beautiful singing bowl on the planet, was calm yet alert, waiting to be summoned. Another few moments passed, then Head Monk opened his eyes and with a slight incline of his head galvanised – not really the right word as it was much, much slower – the Bell master into action. The beautiful tone reverberated around the lecture theatre, and for quite a while after the vibration calmed down the community continued to sit with the question. Eventually Head Monk opened his eyes again and said that the brothers and sisters dealt with questions and challenges as a community, so he would like to know whether any of them would like to speak on the question that had been raised. OMG. He was passing the buck again. More very subtle nods back and forth, then one of the monks further back inclined his head a lot more than the others, which to me was the school equivalent of raising your arm and practically lifting out of your chair, “Me! Me! Me, Miss!”
The cool, calm tones of French Monk with Good English issued from the stage as he took the mike. He spoke of the ease with which we talk of suffering – our own and others. And how we are advised to sit with it. But what does that mean, really? It is so easy to give words to these things that we don’t know how to do, and in failing to ‘do’ them we just feel even emptier. You could have heard a pin drop, because every single person in the hall had been there, and it must be one of the biggest questions that is never voiced. That lady was so brave. French Monk said that just being with the sadness, and the idea that we feel bad because someone is happy, and we’re not, is fine. We work on accepting that. And if we can’t accept that? Then we work on accepting the idea that we find the acceptance itself hard, and that is fine too. Wish I had had that bit of advice back when I was in chemo and was grappling with the acceptance/surrender issue. In fact, wherever we are, however we feel, beating ourselves up doesn’t work. What works is giving ourselves permission to feel the anger, feel the sadness, and just be with it. That was the solution to everything, he said. Three simple breaths, and time spent with the feeling instead of racing around trying to negate it by finding a solution. The courage to sit with the pain and allow it to rest there until it doesn’t hurt as much. Or the anger, or the irritation. Woah. I loved that. All of a sudden it made sense – a bit like with the Bach remedies – treat what you see. Or in this case feel. The simplicity went straight to my core and it is sitting there with a gentle smile as I write this.
Another question was a lot more technical and came from a slightly irritated person asking why they had concentrated on Mindfulness all evening – which he disagreed with anyway – when there were many other aspects of Buddhism that they had neglected to talk about. Shock and horror spread round the theatre and Matt and I looked at each other… like, well why was the guy here then? What did he think he was coming to? The brothers and sister grinned at each other, so maybe they are used to these odd questions. English Nun was invisibly nominated to answer this one, and she answered so eloquently and gently, but showed that she absolutely knew her stuff. She explained that whilst they hadn’t commented on the other things we did that evening, in fact we had paid homage to every part of the Eightfold Path, and went on to demonstrate how that was so. As this isn’t a dissertation on Buddhism, I’ll leave you to make your own enquiries, but the beauty was again in the simplicity. Which for someone like me who over-complicates things at the drop of a hat, was a total revelation. I just loved the whole evening, and it passed way too quickly. I would never have believed that I could sit listening to a religious community for 2 ¾ hours and be completely enthralled and not the slightest bit sleepy. Actually we did move. We were led by Fit Monk in some gentle Chi Quong to relieve our stiff muscles about halfway through. And theirs. I did see a bit of knee rubbing going on. They sat totally grounded and still all evening, apart from that little bit of exercise.
None of what I am writing is new to you, obviously. What made the evening, the talks, the questions, so wonderful was the love and the compassion and stability of the community; it literally flowed off the stage and found its way into every pore of my being, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. After our gig the community were heading straight up to Stourbridge near Birmingham, where they were leading a 6 day retreat for 350 people. Which was full. Next time… next time.
Oh, and the steps? Back up at the beginning if you’ve forgotten where they are. There was a point when Senior English Monk was talking about his life in London before he joined Plum Village. He was in the middle of telling us about the importance of practising lovingkindness on ourselves before we inflict it on anyone else (my irony not his), and digressed to say that at one point he was trying to practise mindfulness at every opportunity. To this end, although the building he lived in at the time had a perfectly operational lift, he chose to climb to his flat on the fifth floor using the metal stairs outside on the fire escape. And he was so determined to achieve mindfulness during the whole journey that every time he lost concentration he made himself start at the bottom again. Then he laughed and said, not really. In the interests of also practising lovingkindness to himself he only went back to the beginning of the flight he was on. Relieved laughter all round, that he is human too. They all were. They were totally lovely people, and I would love to package up some of their goodness and loveliness and humour and drop little rescue parcels around the world. But at the risk of over-complicating things again, I can see that by starting to embrace their teaching in a very small way, I too can make a teeny difference. And I’d already started on that journey by unwittingly climbing 175 steps in a very mindful fashion at Russell Square tube station :-)
Of course all good things have to draw to a close, and with a yearning look towards the coach that was carrying the monastics up to the Midlands, Matt and I headed back to the West End to meet up with Stephen to continue our journey home.
After a quick bite to eat we got the train from Waterloo back to Richmond, where we had parked the car. We would usually get the train up from Bournemouth, but on this occasion we had decided to try the ‘drive most of the way and get the tube into London’ option, which has always been on the cards – we’d just never actually done it. There is only one train an hour to our neck of the woods, and there is frequently engineering work on the line at that time of night. There have been occasions where we have disembarked at Southampton and been taken by coach the long way across the New Forest to get back home – a 2 ½ hour journey rapidly turns into about 4 when that happens, which is a really tiring end to the evening. So we thought we would have more flexibility this way. Clearly a decision influenced by a universe which had our further spiritual development firmly in its focus.
Once we were boarded on the train, it rapidly became obvious there wasn’t enough space. We were standing in the area right where the Second Class cabin joins the First Class through a set of sliding doors. Naturally we were on the Second Class side, and periodically people would board and, seeing there were no seats in cattle class, head through to the Posh Bit, and I am 100% sure they didn’t have a ticket for it. I was slightly grumpy inside, wondering how people had the nerve to do that, and sort of wishing I did. Our little area continued to fill up until there were a lot more people crammed in than would be allowed under the Health and Safety rules which somehow never apply in these situations. A few jokes about sharp elbows started, and as the train started to pull away some bright spark, who looked a lot like Stephen Fry, piped up that we were thrown together in such conditions because British Rail had decided, against all logic, to take four carriages away from a train that usually ran full, so it was operating at half its usual capacity. The ice was broken. Two lovely ladies were close to the button which operated the barrier between cattle and Posh Class, and periodically, in an inadvertent move to adjust her weight in her achingly high shoes, one of them would lean against the button. The door would swish open to reveal its occupants.
To whom Stephen Fry lookalike announced that we were all having jolly good fun bonding out here and they didn’t need to worry about us in the least. Much laughter followed and we started sharing jokes, and the two lovely ladies continued to try and relieve their aching feet. I was standing opposite Matt and Stephen at that point, and the two lovely ladies were next to Matt. I was busily admiring their eye wateringly high shoes – which were clearly not meant for standing in on trains, or standing in at all, to be honest – when I noticed something on the edge of Lovely Dark Hair’s black dress. Euow, maybe she had something unspeakable stuck to it. But wait, no, it looked like a washing label. That meant…no surely not. Anyone who could afford shoes like those would know which way to wear her dress. Either that or she got lucky that night and had to rush for the train… My eyes travelled upwards just as she turned to speak to Lovely Blond Hair and revealed the back of her lovely black dress, with the neck label on the outside. Forcing my lips out of the laugh that was threatening to break free, I dragged my eyes away from the label and across the next two feet of space to meet Matt’s, who was watching the revelation unfold on my face with great amusement. With an almost imperceptible nod, he raised his eyebrows and grinned. He had seen it too. Choking back the laughter, I turned away from Lovely Dark Hair towards the door, and buried my face in Stephen’s shoulder, trying not to explode into hysterics. Stephen mistook my shaking shoulders for some indescribable grief that had suddenly overwhelmed me and was really worried. He asked Matt was wrong, who obviously couldn’t reply either because we were all in such an intimate space and she would have heard. I eventually got myself under control and explained what had happened, in very hushed tones, facing the other way. At which point, of course, Stephen wanted to see too. It was totally brilliant. The rest of the half hour journey went in a flash as Matt shared mustache and beard tips with the guys, and then to our surprise the Posh Club opened their door to see what was going on as they felt left out. Well. What a turn up for the books.
And did the rest of the journey go smoothly? No, it didn’t. The traffic gods were having the most massive laugh that night. Just as the railway gods carry out engineering works at night, so do the road gods close two lanes of a motorway so they can chuckle at our hour-long opportunity to practice mindfulness on the car park that is occasionally known as the M3.
But it was all brilliant. And I think that is the word I have been searching for. See, it was there all along and now I have used it twice in two paragraphs :-)
And on that joyful note, I will leave you until next time.
Be happy and well.