I can remember that life was getting to me about five years ago. Stress of work, lack of social time. Then the embarrassment of needing to ask for 38 inch trousers from the uniform department. Something had to give and I was determined it would not be my gut over my trousers. So I decided to change my life style.
For this I went on a detox six week diet. No booze, frequent healthy eating and for the last four weeks veggie diet. By the end of it I had lost a stone and a half. More than that though I felt great, relaxed and able to wear size 32 trousers. In fact I felt so good that I decided to alternate between veggie one day and meat the next.
Taste buds were sharper – things that never tasted sweet before did. My palate was more discerning than it was before. Also I found that I was not reaching for a beer as soon as I came in from work. Rather I was feeling good, perhaps better without it.
Soon I decided to stick with a veggie diet. It had never seemed appetising before but my taste buds had changed that now it did. I also stopped drinking. But though physically I felt great people and work still stressed me out. I felt better but could not honestly say I was happier.
To this end I decided to try meditation. I found the practice exhilarating, relaxing and at times inspiring. During dinner intervals instead of being in the staff room listening to a lot of negative comments about other staff members I started to go to the local park, with a stream that ran through the middle. With mindful walking (every step in tune with your breathing) I found this brought about a peace that after months of doing it any stressful situation was easier to cope with and I could concentrate without unhelpful emotions getting in the way.
After months of doing this I decided to explore buddhism. For me, though I was an atheist, it seemed like it could combine the spiritual without the religious aspects. Practice without belief, no dogma, no creator god. It seemed like a humanist heaven – and I devoured books like my next life would depend on it.
In particular was drawn to Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalia Lama. The former due to his engaged buddhism during the Vietnam War. Compassion made little sense hidden inside your monastery walls – contemplation necessitates action, right thought leading to right action. The later is the most recognised practitioner of buddhism and his books were a form of popular psychology that made me feel good.
However, despite agreeing with the mindfulness teachings of the interbeing community some things for me seemed out of step with ideals that I aspired to. For example, the practise of taking young infants from their family to be brought up at a monastery seemed to be labelling children. Than rebirth seemed to suggest a bleakness to existence. Yes you could change your destiny but it could take generations for it to play out – you will suffer now for actions possibly done generations ago. Not only that but it seemed more an explanation for what was happening to you in the here and now, more an explanation of fate. The evidence for it seemed to rest on a bubble that was held up by your own suspension of disbelief.
Than there was meditation itself. I became aware of changes in how I thought but did not see an outer reality to what was going on. Even during a moment of bliss I could compare that experience to being under anaesthetic. Whether my breathing had slowed to a point I reached a high, or certain parts of my brain normally firing had rested which did not usually I experienced something that made me feel, well like a loved and loving human being.
Then using a Mala seemed to increase single pointed concentration. But againthere seemed something very human going on. Focusing on something else will help you to relax, and this ability will de-stress you and help you cope with other things because you are taking time out to relax. By doing nothing at times you could do more at others.
So I recognised the techniques as being useful to me. But the metaphysics and mysticism about warring gods and hungry ghosts made me question the claim that buddhism is not dogmatic or religious. Even Zen has and uses these influences, though I expect that a westernised version can be found at a centre near you.
That and realising that Tibetan history was not exactly rich in compassion, and current situation in Sri Lanka made me realise that, like all religions they may mean well if you cherry pick, but taken whole there was something rather disturbing about the whole thing that required suspension of disbelief.
I still find the Buddha’s sutras moving – the Pali Canon is one of the most important collection of writings and ancient wisdom. My mother certainly preferred me as a buddhist – for one when she talked about Intelligent Design my answer was that life was so fleeting be happy in what you think and use it to be loving and caring to all living things.
So being a humanist, why on earth do I still do mindful walking, mindful breathing, use a Mala, or like sounding a bell? Well as a human being I like ritual. Mostly however I find that it just helps me be a little bit sanier in a world that likes shouting at everyone and throwing one big tantrum after another without using that energy to find solutions. It reminds me to breathe in and out and smile.
Because we are never going to be here again. Life tastes sweeter when you realise that, and grab those moments of happiness but also accept the reality of what life is. Yes happiness is there and so is suffering, much of it needless and much not in the control of the people affected. I do not ever want to be someone disconnected from feeling injustice when I see it, but I want the focus to try and help correct it if I can, while accepting that I could even be wrong myself.
I am fascinated by religion, and buddhism is one in particular along with the Gita and the Tao. However, I cannot follow it as a practitioner of faith. I have found something else to carry that is better for the human journey of making sense of these atoms that seemed to have formed something that closely resembles what I call me. Humanism just makes more sense.