I was lucky enough to be part of the community at Gaia House this last weekend, for a silent meditation retreat with John Peacock and Christina Feldman, both very high-flyers in the western Buddhist and mindfulness world. It felt a genuine privilege to be taught by two people steeped in not just the profound intellectual and historical tradition of Buddhism, but, just as importantly, if not more crucially, in the experience to be derived from those teachings. Again and again, we were drawn back to the body; the breath; the contact with the world. John quoted from his vast repertoire of literary and philosophical references (is there no end to this man’s encyclopaedic knowledge?); but he came back to ‘bum on the cushion’, ‘wind on the face’, the tears of grief.
He reminded us, insistently, but gently, that ‘it’s all about the body’; this is where we interface with the rest of the world. We hear with our ears; we see with our eyes; we touch with our skin; we feel with our emotions; we think with our thoughts. We don’t have a choice about being a part of the world, the universe: it’s a fact. He quoted a French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who apparently talked about us being in the world, a part of the world, in the same way that a heart lies within the body: there is no separation. We are in constant contact, and there is not one without the other.
I was recently given a mala by some dear friends (there is a connection: bear with me). If you’re not familiar with the word, a mala is, effectively, the Asian equivalent of a rosary.
I’m not a particularly religious person – in fact, I’m not religious at all, having given up what I perceived as the ‘fire and brimstone’ nonsense I was taught as a child, at around the age of 15. So, I don’t confer anything superstitious or magical onto objects. I feel nostalgic or emotional about odd items, but not superstitious. So, I treat a mala with some affection, having come across them when I learnt to meditate in the 1980s. (I won’t go into the symbolism allegedly attached to a mala: you can Google that to your heart’s content for the rest of your life, if you’re that way inclined.)
I had this particular mala with me on the retreat, having had it in my hand, under my pillow, when I slept at home, ever since I had been given it, at the Winter Solstice. I counted each breath: I breathe in; I breathe out – move a bead. I breathe in; I breathe out – move another bead. Etc, etc, etc.
And very soon, it dawned on me (and this, I suppose, is my own personal symbolism sliding into place) that the bead that I was moving back represents the past; the bead that is about to be moved represents the future; and the thread that is in between the two represents the present.
The constant thread of the present. There is only the present. We have our finger on the present. The past bead is gone, and is not present; the future bead is not here, and is not present; the thread is what we have our finger on, in this moment.
And then, as if that were not enough, I realised that I was holding it all in my hand: past, future and present: beads I’d moved forward; beads I’d yet to move; and the thread of the present running through them. All together, in one place.
Weird, but kind of OK.