Buddhism 101

My crash course in Buddhism.


photo credit: Shapour Bahrami


Yesterday I went to an ‘Introducing Buddhism’ course at the Leeds Buddhist Centre.  It was a pretty intensive 6 hours, by the end of which I was totally whacked and ready to get back to my modern Western trappings and some good old fashioned noise.  Nonetheless, it was a rewarding experience which has given me a lot to chew over.

The people involved were some of the nicest, friendliest and most welcoming people I’ve ever come across.  They were more than happy to listen to my relentless scepticism and answer some of my more awkward questions (not always totally to my satisfaction – but then I am particularly grumpy cynical).

The day started with a round of introductions and some funny and friendly banter.  I’m going to be completely honest and say that, deep down, I expected a religious group to be a fairly humourless affair; this couldn’t be further from the truth.  The group was full of warm and self-deprecating humour and I felt immediately at ease.  As a self-proclaimed introvert (more on that another time), this is no easy feat for me: it can take me months, if not years, to feel comfortable around people.

There was absolutely no sense of judgment, or force.  Nobody tried to convert me, or to persuade me that Buddhism is the right and only course.

After we were all chatted out, we went through to the main room.  Immediately I felt uneasy again.  There were mats laid out in front of what was basically a shrine: a Buddha figure surrounded by lights, flowers etc.  The trappings of religion have always made me feel uncomfortable;  anything that smacks of a deity, or worship, brings out the sceptic in me.

(I would just like to point out at this point that I am in no way against religious people.  In fact I feel a kind of envy for their certainty of faith.  I know plenty of Christians and they are all – without exception – remarkably kind and caring people.  It is organised religion that makes me feel uncomfortable).

Anyway, I made myself comfortable on the mat (after some helpful instructions to avoid dead leg), and we began a guided meditation.  I am not totally new to meditation – it’s something I’ve tried myself, as well as experiencing in various work training courses etc – therefore it didn’t feel alien to me.  I think my other half was a little freaked out though.  To the uninitiated, busy westerner, there is something seemingly wrong – unproductive – about just sitting and centering your thoughts.  The meditation was 30 minutes long, and it involved breath counting (counting each breath up to ten, starting again if thoughts wander), as well as feeling the breath in the body.  It was deeply relaxing and I felt very chilled by the end, despite the inevitable pins and needles.  This experience matched my preconceptions about Buddhism.  It felt right and natural; it confirmed to me why I was there.

We then had a break.  I was ready, after 30 minutes of silence, to start chattering.  The urge to connect with people is very strong: humans are, after all, social beings.  So I felt a little repressed and agitated when we were told the break should be in silence.  In fact this feeling of repression was quite surprising to me: usually I resist small talk, and enjoy disappearing into my thoughts.  Perhaps I’m not as introverted as I thought.

Anyway, after the break we got the chance to do some chatting.  The two ladies who ran the course (both wonderfully warm and lovely people) read us a translated verse and asked us to have a discussion in groups of three.  I loved this part.  The verse itself was beautiful, and the sentiment was along the lines of: ‘it is not your circumstances that make you happy, but how you react to them’.  This is something I (almost) totally believe in, and it was great to have a chance to discuss this with knowledgeable and respectful people.  My friends and family typically regard this sort of thing as ‘naval gazing’ so it was really nice to find like-minded people.  Our discussion ranged far and wide (as well as disappearing off-topic into a debate about whether a jaffa cake is a cake or a biscuit… I maintain it’s a cake).

I also used this opportunity to express one of my perceived worries about Buddhism: the tug between accepting your circumstances as positively as possible (as suggested by the verse) and actively trying to change them.  While I understand the idea that we can be happy whatever our circumstances, it is not so easy to accept for, say, someone who is starving, or who is being abused, or part of human traffic, or is terminally ill.  It smacked a little of a theme running throughout many religions: a theme of power, of keeping people down, of urging them to accept their lot in life without complaint.  I strongly disagree with this.  I suppose this is a western precept – and also a worryingly capitalist one – but I strongly believe in the right of individuals to strive for better.

However, the experienced Buddhists in my group were quick to dispell my worries.  One of the group members said: Buddhism is not about blindly accepting circumstances, but about distinguishing between what can and cannot be changed (a bit like the famous AA mantra).  She said that Buddhism does encourage actively tackling circumstances, because it is all is about being honest, and putting up with intolerable circumstances is not being true to yourself.  However, what Buddhism does say is: once you have done what you can to change your circumstances, let it go.  Do not hold onto anger and hate.

This makes sense to me.

So when lunchtime came around I was feeling excited and keen to learn more.

However, after lunch, the religious aspects of Buddhism began to creep in.  We took part in a ‘Puja’ (a chant); which basically involved members chanting a particular verse (I’m not sure which one), while individually going up to the shrine, lighting a candle and making a private offering to the Buddha.  Parts of the verse involved offering ‘reverence’ to the Buddha.

This is where Buddhism and I began to part company.

To my untrained eyes, this appeared no different to the other religions: it wavered dangerously close to worshipping a deity (despite Buddhist claims that there is no deity and no worship).   I resisted the urge to subordinate myself to a person (and the Buddha was a person) who died 2,500 years ago, no matter how enlightened and wonderful he was.  I strongly believe in the humanist precept that all we have is ourselves, and we have the potential to create heaven or hell right here, right now.  The world is amazing enough without looking for something more.

The Buddha took a wonderful step and gave an amazing gift to the world.  But there are plenty of people in history who did this.  The suffragettes gave a wonderful gift to women.  Nelson Mandela gave a wonderful gift to black people in South Africa and across the world.  It does not mean we should worship such people.  Respect, yes; worship, no.

And I suppose this is when it came crashing down: Buddhism is wonderful and inviting and liberal and progressive and compassionate and everything I want the world to be.  But, at the end of the day, it is still a religion.  And there’s no getting away from the fact that religion and I do not fit together.  I sometimes wish we did: I sometimes wish I had a certain faith in something beyond my experience.  But I don’t.

I cannot make myself believe in something.  I used to believe in Father Christmas: it brought me joy and happiness to believe – with complete certainty – that Rudolph’s hooves would patter on the rooftops.  But I cannot make myself believe in something just because it would give me joy.

I expressed all these misgivings in the Q&A session at the end.  The group listened with incredible respect to everything I had to say.  They did not try to push me, and they certainly didn’t tell me I was wrong.  What they did say was: Buddhism is what I want it to be.  I can take away from it whatever I like; I can focus on what is meaningful to me.  I can avoid pujas if I choose.  It was a really interesting discussion and I learned a huge amount.

So, by the end, I was left with the following thoughts.  I love so many aspects of Buddhism.  It is a kind, gentle, peaceful and respectful religion.  I agree with so many of the morals and ethics which Buddhists abide by.  I respect the tradition of debate and scepticism, and the lack of force.  I feel humbled by the fact that I know so little, and am not in a position to judge Buddhism based on one day.  I am eager to learn more, and to practise meditation, and to attempt to abide by precepts such as gentleness, respect and gratitude.

However: I am resistant to the religious aspects of Buddhism, and without those, Buddhism is something entirely different.  A form of humanism, perhaps; or mindfulness.

Maybe I am too closed-minded to really open my heart to it; perhaps as a devout secularist I am just as judgmental and self-righteous as the most intolerant religious people.  Maybe this is a flaw of mine.  I don’t know.

I am still digesting my experience yesterday, and what I have written here is in no way a comprehensive assessment.  Just my initial thoughts.

I would definitely like to go again, and learn more about Buddhism and meditation.  However, even if I don’t do this; even if Buddhism becomes just a passing interest during my twenties; even if I revert to my default position of secular humanist; I have still learned a lot.    I have learned about myself and my own intolerances.  I have learned more about the Buddhist faith.  And I have also met some fantastically warm and kind people.

Please feel free to comment on anything I’ve written here – I’m always keen to learn more!

4 ways I’m going to incorporate Buddhism into my life


4 ways I’m going to incorporate Buddhism into my life


photo credit: Roberthuffstutter

If somebody knocked on my door and asked me my religion I would say, without hesitation: none.  I am a secular atheist, or perhaps a humanist.  While I believe people should be able to freely believe whatever they choose (without discriminating against others), I generally believe society is better when it doesn’t embrace organised religion.

That said: there’s something about Buddhism that keeps bringing me back.

It just feels different to the others.  In fact it doesn’t really seem like a religion at all – more a philosophy; an approach to life.  It seems I’m not the only one that feels that way.  A quick search for ‘secular Buddhism’ throws up 5.5 million results, the first one of which is the Secular Buddhism Association.  A contradiction in terms? It would appear not.

So what makes it different? Mainly this quote, supposedly from the Buddha himself:

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

I think this is what appeals to my naturally sceptical nature.  There is not a list of rules, handed out on a tablet, to be obeyed or to risk fire and brimstone.  There are some suggestions to be pondered.

So tonight I took the bit between my teeth and booked myself onto an ‘introducing Buddhism’ course.  I have also been thinking about ways I would like to be a bit more ‘Buddhist’ and thought I would share them with you.  (In between cups of tea and filling up hot water bottles… I’m currently dying of man flu)*.

(*despite not being a man, this is possible.)

So anyway.  It’s not going to be easy – I would make the worst Buddhist EVER, mainly for the following reasons:

– I am grumpy, grumpy, grumpy.  Far from seeing the positive in everyone and showing endless patience like the Dalai Lama (love him), it only takes someone walking slowly in front of me (why? why??) or my other half sniffing too loudly and I’m off in an irritable huff.  Must do better.

– I virtually never live in the moment, which is one of the cornerstones of Buddhism.  I am constantly over-analysing a conversation from yesterday, or worrying about a meeting tomorrow, or ruminating over whether there will be a nuclear war, or whether the economy will tank, or whether my coffee will run out in the morning, or whether I offended one of my colleagues last week…. etc etc etc.

– I try and do everything at once and do none of them very well.

– I am in a constant state of nail-biting angst.

But I’m going to try and do some of the following, over the next few weeks.

1. Be compassionate

Yes, even towards that person walking in front of me at the pace of an arthritic snail.  Yes, even to the wasp that came in through a microscopic gap, but now cannot find a way to exit even though all the windows and doors are wide open.  Yes, even to my long suffering partner despite an insistence on watching Top Gear or humming the same line of song over and over. (Love you really, sweety).

Compassionate.  Yes.

2. Be patient.

I am SO impatient.  I want everything yesterday.  When I call the lift from floor 13, I want it here now.  When I put something in the microwave, I don’t want to wait 45 seconds.

This has to stop.

3. Do one thing at a time and concentrate on it.

This means not checking my phone while I’m eating tea; this means concentrating when I lock the door so I don’t have to check ten times; this means starting a piece of work and seeing it through to completion.

4. Live in the moment.

This will be the hardest of all, but I’m going to try and stop ruminating on the past and the future.  All we have is now.  I’m going to make the most of it.

I will keep you updated, and I’ll also let you know how the course goes.

What do you think? Do you follow a religion? If so feel free to share parts of your religion that help you to live life better, I’d love to hear.

Who do you shower with? A new way to meditate

My gratitude list

My billionaire’s list

photo credit: BlatantWorld.com

So: as you know, I started my little adventure on 1st January wanting to overhaul my life in numerous different ways.  I did the usual new year thing: I set myself resolutions, I made myself all kinds of promises to be kinder, more productive, more patient, happier, etc etc.

But I never really stopped to look at how good I’ve got it, right now.

I have recently developed an interest in Buddhism.  Despite worshipping at the altar of Atheism, as anyone who knows me will tell you, the philosophy of Buddhism speaks to me on a number of levels.  One of the things which Buddhism encourages is gratitude for what you have now.  Not constantly striving for something more.

So today, I’m digressing slightly from the mission statement of this blog and taking stock of what I’ve got right now.

I don’t have a billion pounds.  But I have so many things that are worth a billion pounds to me.

My billionaire’s list. 

– I have the most wonderful partner, who is supportive, patient, loyal and one of the most caring people I’ve ever met (not to mention insanely good-looking ;-)) – although clearly insane and/or blind 🙂

– My family is totally the bee’s knees.  There is so much love in my family it could practically burst.  (Not that you could tell from the number of insults flying around the room).

– I’m studying Psychology which I find incredibly interesting

– I have my health.  There really is no underestimating this one.  I have a working pair of eyes, arms and legs, and all my organs are in the right place and crack on with their designated job without complaint.  This makes me thousands of times better off than the millions of people who do not have these things.

– Similarly, I have a roof over my head, food in the fridge, clean water and money coming in every month from a job I enjoy.

– I have friends who I know I’ll be friends with when I’m old and grey

So that’s quite a list.  Next time I complain (which I do frequently), I will remind myself of this list.  I know that if I ever want to feel like a billionaire, I have a list of things I wouldn’t sell for a billion pounds, or a trillion.

So how about you – what would you put on your billionaire’s list?

Who do you shower with?

photo credit: Spring Dew

…no, not like that.  What kind of blog do you think this is?!

I mean, who do you think about?

What argument do you play over in your mind?  What hurtful words do you hear on your repeat?  What stinging and witty comeback do you plot in minute detail?  Whose birthday present do you plan?

I’m betting, if you’re anything like me, you don’t shower alone.

I find that, whenever I am without any distractions, my mind leaps to and fro: if I am not ruminating on a conversation I had yesterday, I’m worrying about a meeting I’m having tomorrow.  I am rarely completely in the present.

Having a shower (or a bath) represents one of the only distraction-free times we have on a daily basis.  No phones, no TVs, no laptops; just us and the drum-drum-drum of the water.  I find that my mind tends to go wild.  Sometimes, this can be a good thing; an inspirational thing.  I even planned this blog post in the shower.

But usually, it’s not.

What if we used our shower time for something else?

Something I have been trying lately is to meditate in the shower.

For those who have images of me zoning out only to wake up half an hour later with someone giving me CPR… well that’s not what I really mean by meditation.  I could talk endlessly about this subject, and why meditation and Buddhism in general greatly appeal to me (more on this in another blog post), but for our purposes here, when I say meditation I really mean mindfulness.

Take time to concentrate on what’s going on right now.  With no judgments or values.  The past and the future do not exist, not in any real sense. 

What does the water feel like?

What can you hear?

What does your shower gel/bubble bath smell like?

What do the droplets of condensation on the cubicle door look like?

How does the foam bunch together on your hands?

What is your breathing like?

Be present, in the moment, right now.  Really observe what’s going on.

You will emerge feeling rested, having given your brain a much needed break from all the to-ing and fro-ing.  The health benefits of this sort of meditation are well-documented (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7319043.stm); but I find that the main benefit is just a rest from all that exhausting thinking.

And what’s more, you will have banished everyone else from your shower.  That’s real alone time.