Last month I shared our plans to begin offering some socially distanced events at the West London Buddhist Centre. Today, as England begins a second period of lockdown, it is clear that we will not be opening the centre until next year, and with so much uncertainty about the future there is no telling when this will be possible. I admit to mixed feelings about this – with such a small team offering classes in person and also online alongside all our other tasks would have been a stretch. Yet I have missed being in the shrine room practising alongside sangha, missed making offerings at the beautiful shrines Tarakarunya creates around our lovely Buddha rupa.
In some ways the Government announcement creates clarity and focus – we know that for the immediate future the West London Buddhist Centre activities will only be online. Although this is a disappointment, I’ve been heartened to find that even operating as a virtual Buddhist centre we are able to share the Dharma in a meaningful way. I’ve also been moved to see new people joining our sangha and finding their lives transformed by the Dharma. I am proud of what we are currently offering online and excited by our plans to develop this further next year.
However, as someone who lives alone, I have particularly missed being in the company of ‘real people’. There is something about being in the physical presence of someone which feels so different to talking to their image on a screen, or hearing their voice on the phone. Even if it’s not possible to hug (and I’m definitely a hug person) there is a different energetic connection when you are both in the same room. We often talk about being embodied in our meditation practice and I think for me this has been even more important under the challenging conditions of the past months.
Those conditions have been both external and internal, the two in many ways inseparable. Everything that happens in the world and in my own life has a big impact on my mental states and my mental states have a big impact on my daily life. There are times when I can’t help myself entering into negative mental states, allowing anxious thoughts to escalate, allowing anger to turn into ill-will, to react from views and conditioning I thought I had let go of many years ago. And I’ve realised that I am not always aware when this is happening so it’s vital to create time and space to regain my spiritual perspective.
After having to cancel a planned solitary retreat in Wales because of a local lockdown, last month I went on a virtual retreat hosted by Dhanakhosa (a beautiful retreat centre in the Scottish Highlands) led by Viveka, a teacher based in San Francisco. It was a challenging retreat for me but also deeply healing and I came back from it more grounded, more confident and having released a lot of fear that I had been holding in my body for months. It’s not that I had lost my faith in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, those have remained constant. I just needed the opportunity to go deeper in my spiritual practice, to face my demons and engage in a process of letting go. One of those spiritual deaths we encounter again and again as we follow our spiritual path.
Of course it didn’t take me long to find myself back in negative mental states (I’ve been particularly triggered in the run up to the U.S. election and stayed up much of last night following its progress even though I was well aware that the final results might not be decided for days, possibly for weeks to come). However I’ve regained my Dharmic perspective, also appreciating my many positive mental states. This was the second time I stayed up through the night this week; at the weekend I was very inspired by Dharmavadana reading the entire White Lotus Sutra, starting at 7pm on Saturday night until 8 am the next morning. How amazing that was, and how fortunate I feel to be part of such an engaged and committed spiritual community. It is such a joy being with you and practising with you at our classes and on our courses and retreats. I am thinking of you during these difficult times.