What's that rustling sound? Tumbleweeds gently rolling across the journal? The sound of noble silence has accompanied my November and December entries, but I do have an excuse of sorts, having been ensconsed in Kopan Monastery at the November Course from 1st November until 5th of December and, well, the rest of the month was all bhakti business teaching and Christmas cheering. I wanted a little space between doing the course and writing about it as I needed to get a little settled and integrated with it all before I tried to explain it.
Frankly it was hard. Far far harder than I had imagined it would be. After all, having survived eight gruelling weeks of yoga teacher training, how hard could 4 weeks be I thought. And we now know the answer was HARD. I've struggled a little bit to work out why it was so hard. Of course there is a swift and simple answer (spoiler alert here): my mind. In reality, I probably reacted exactly as I was meant to. The November Course isn't supposed to be easy. It's not a luxury retreat, its 30 days of intense self investigation under the guise of learning the teachings of the Graduated Path to Enlightenment, also known as the Lam Rim. For Westerners, even ones like me who have spent a bit of time studying Eastern philosophy and religious traditions, these teachings are deep, confronting and intense. They ask us to radically review everything we know about WHO we are, to conclude that everything, ourselves and our identities included are impermanent and empty.
While conceptually this is able to be understood, it is the move from intellecual understanding to wisdom and realisation that may take more than a few lifetimes to master. The teachings were dense and brain bending, but while I may have had more than a few moments of wanting to throw in the meditation cushion and come home, I forced myself to keep sitting, and listening, and meditating and squirming at my self discorvery. I observed how I wanted to run into the arms of sense distractions, pull a doona over my head and not have to know what I know now about the effort required to practice compassion - and how much throughout my life I hadn't done this. At the time I thrashed around in my brain looking for all the things I could blame for how hard it was. And actually, I came up pretty short. The food was delicious, the monastery was beautiful, the monks and nuns were kind and helpful, the bed was comfortable, my roommate was lovely and so were the other 200 people on the journey with me. Even the weather was hot and sunny everyday, not the mid winter thermal inducing freeze fest I had packed for. Nope, there was nothing wrong with Kopan. That left only me, and my mind as the culprits of my struggle.
I learned a very good lesson on retreat, and actually am daily having little snack size wisdoms arising from what was poured into my brain during those daily teachings. I thought I was nailing the spiritual life, and that my righteous daily meditation, cruelty free eating, and attempts at bhakti were reward worthy. What I realised was that so much of this activity was totally motivated by my own sense of ego and identity, I was doing it for me, not for service or for others. Don't get me wrong, this doesn't invalidate the efforts, as at least I wasn't torturing kittens and making purses out of puppy fur. The realisation is that I fall so easily into the trap of self cherishing and attachment to wordly sensation or samsara, and that the work of compassion and service is far, far harder than I had wanted to imagine.
I came home exhausted and a little freaked out by the whole experience. I wondered if I had lost my faith and all my spiritual aspirations were some cruel kind of emperors new clothes? I thought perhaps I just didn't have what it took, that all of my austerities and practice were pointless. I wallowed around in my mind for a while, in a warm bath of poor me, and then realised that I was still doing it, back in the trap of myself as the centre of the world. All I had to do was be of service, to take little daily steps of kindness and that alone was exactly what the complexity of the Buddhist teachings boiled down to in their essence. Make this life the best it can be to prepare for your next one. There was no need for a monster self indulgent crisis.
Here were the truths: learning is hard, some experiences are hard - that's what makes them valuable learning. Teachings and teachers can be challenging, which is good. Growth and change takes work, lots of work, and the rewards aren't fast or personal. But doing the practice, as i've sung from my soapbox so many times before, that is the pathway, a little bit every day. Despite my deep self questioning, I never stopped my meditation, my mantra, my committment to the daily non negotiables. Even though it may have been begrudging at times, I swiftly came back to the joy of a spiritual practice. I got that my blocks were staring me down from the mirror, and while it would have been easy to give up, it was the tyranny of easy that I was ultimately fighting against. The November Program was one of the toughest things i've done, (and i've done a few in the name of curiousity, self development and seeking) but ultimately it is also, I suspect, going to be one of the most profound and long lasting experiences that will inform the next passage of my life and my work.
Dr Polly McGee is one part writer, and many parts assorted thinker, do-er, talker, eater, chef, explorer, yogi, kirtaneer and dog wrangler. She has worked in kitchens, bars and restaurants from frantic to fancy, managed multi-million dollar innovation grants programs, advised hundreds of start-ups on how to refine their business ideas and source funding, and championed causes from a variety of soapboxes, lecterns and stages. She is currently the Strategic Marketing Lead for Global Edtech Startup Prosper Education. Her new book, The Good Hustle, is coming out in February 2018