What feels like a thousand years ago, friends of mine established the Yoga Society at university. I would occasionally help out schlepping mats and bricks to a room across campus and stretch myself with the group of women we had gathered together. The stretching could be tough, but I enjoyed it. The guided meditation to close the session less so.
Week after week as everyone else lay on the ground, breathing and connecting with their bodies – occasionally falling asleep – I would become a tight ball of stress and furious tears. Eventually, I had to just stop. It was too much. I couldn’t do it. It hurt. I could not explain why or how I ended up in tears, but there we were. I could not be calm or centred. It was impossible. My body would not physically permit it.
A few months ago, on a cold wet Saturday I made myself leave my house and visit the Buddhist Temple in Wimbledon. I’ve lived in London for ten years and this temple has been something I always wanted to see, but never “got around to it.” There are so many things I never “get around to” that I’m having to actively make myself do them now before I up sticks and leave. They have open days on Saturdays and this was my only chance.
I walked and walked and found myself somewhat lost in an incredibly suburban area until I spotted the stylised gates and forced myself through them. Visitors are encouraged to come and take a look around at weekends – presumably to make everyone feel welcome and not to be suspicious. This was one of those days. I was by myself and incredibly anxious about doing something wrong or going somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. I enjoy a clearly laid out system, but none was obvious. I essentially mooched around a bit by the lake and the outside of the Temple until I spotted Other White People who clearly didn’t know what they were doing either. They took off their shoes and went inside. I rapidly followed them – safety in numbers!
The Temple itself is a beautiful white building, atop steps flanked with white lions, with a red roof and gold details. It is beautiful and a breathtaking surprise amongst normal British houses. The door leads to a single room with every inch of the walls covered with a huge brilliant vibrant mural depicting the life of the Buddha (as well as contemporary elements relevant to the Wimbledon temple such as European buildings, Margaret Thatcher, Mother Theresa and temple patrons!). There is also a great shrine with three large Buddha statues, gold vases, flowers and candles.
The people I followed sat on the floor amongst a group of white visitors. I did the same. We all sat in awe of our surroundings. A small man – who I refer to as a guide, although that’s not the right word at all – explained to we visitors details of the mural, elements of Buddhism and practices of the monks. Incredibly patient and very softly spoken, he was welcoming and calm and answered our bizarre questions – none of us had thought to do any research at all before we wandered in.
He explained many things and didn’t make us feel silly for asking obvious questions. The whole time I was waiting for a sales pitch for Buddhism. It never came. The guide explained that anyone can come and meditate at the temple. That Buddhists don’t “worship” Buddha, that the world religions run alongside Buddhism – you don’t need to give up one to practice Buddhism. I waited for a pitch for donations for the roof, or to contribute to one of the many charities run by the Temple. Never came.
At one point, the Monk (“The Monk”) came in and we were invited to stay and listen to him chant. We did. We were given leaflets with the words to say along if we wished. We followed the English translation as best we could. I really enjoyed the foreign-to-my-tongue sounds and trying to work out the words as we went. Then during the Dhamma, the monk explained each stage of the chanting. What the Pali words meant, the kneeling, the bowing, the fan. Again, he told us we didn’t have to be Buddhist to say the words, and bowing to the Buddha wasn’t worship, but respect for his teachings. There was no “we are the one true Church” that we have in Catholicism. No “our guy is the best and everyone else is going to suffer the consequences later” that seems to be quite the line from other world faiths. To be honest, I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop on this, but it doesn’t seem to be coming.
We were then invited to join in a meditation session – if we wanted! No Pressure! – that, for beginners, would be led by our guide. The experienced mediators left with the monk to go to a room downstairs and our guide told us to sit on the square cushions and cross our legs while he explained a few things, told us what would happen and then demonstrated the practice.
The Temple in Wimbledon practices walking and sitting meditation. The general idea for walking meditation is that your movements are slow and deliberate and you focus on these to clear your mind. You look at the floor in front of you, rather than at anything else in the room. We stood up and had the thought “preparing to walk, preparing to walk, preparing to walk” and then mentally narrated our movements “right goes thus” and “left goes thus” as we slowly picked our foot off the floor, moved it forward and placed in on the ground again. When we reached the wall, we would think “standing, standing, standing” and then “preparing to turn, preparing to turn, preparing to turn” before thinking “turning, turning, turning” as we turned in 60° increments and then walking back again. That was it. No mantras, no chanting, nothing odd. Just walking slowly and being quiet.
This, I could do.
After some time doing this, we sat on the floor and tried sitting meditation. Unlike other meditation, the Theravada meditation practiced by our monks focuses on the rising and the falling of the chest, rather than the inhale and exhale of the breath. I can’t explain why this makes a difference to me, but it does. Somehow I managed to sit in this room with strangers and do it. The tears still came, but it was something I wrestled with and on, rather than lost as so often before.
Basically, this is a post to say that I meditate now. Something in me fell into place. The guide and the monk were very clear that meditating is HARD and that beginners aren’t very good. And that monks spend a long time learning how to do this. That it’s not as straightforward as it sounds. That it really does help. I decided I would keep going back to Temple until I stopped spontaneously weeping and I managed it. Guided meditation works for me. Walking – which I always knew was helpful to me – helps me calm to the correct mindset for sitting meditation. It doesn’t feel like something I’m BAD at, rather as something I am LEARNING.
One night after chanting and meditation I decided I would go back to The Big house to have tea with the monk (rather than scurrying away like I did most weeks) and ask questions. Turns out, Buddhism is way cool. Buddha had various notable signs that marked him out as the Buddha – long earlobes, for one. A tongue that could cover his whole head for another. I mean, Jesus’s tongue hasn’t often been remarked upon. Questions about doing things right or wrong in the Buddhist tradition were gently batted away with explanations as to do what helped within the teachings of Buddha.
I asked the monk how he became a monk, why there weren’t female monks (monks have to travel alone and it wouldn’t be safe for women to do that – which is practical, but also a bit sad, when you think about it. Hashtag the patriarchy) and various other minor things. I found I have become very interested in Buddhism in comparison to the faith I grew up in. I see why people convert (not the right word, but I can’t think of a better one).
One moment on the first night really sealed it for me. I was there with two other new people and one chap who had been there before. The other newbies were hungover and exhausted and enjoyed being calm and quiet. At the end, the guide asked us how it went and what we felt. We newbies said it was nice and hard and calm. The other guy – who was still a beginner – said he felt a void open in him and he was at one with everything. The guide SHUT THAT DOWN. There was no way that could have happened so soon and in such a short space of time, he explained gently but firmly. That would be unlikely and quite possibly dangerous.
On the way out, the other two and I waited a safe distance before mindfully cackling over how he was too big for his britches. There would be no showing off in Temple. That’s not what it was about.
And so I went back often.