Posts by Mandy Sutter

Can Byron Katie help our Buddhist practice?

Byron Katie

I came across the work of American self help guru Byron Katie ten years ago. She has published a variety of books which offer a series of simple questions designed to challenge and overturn your perception of any situation you’re struggling with. The questions work by flooding your mind with the ‘fresh air’ of a new (often reversed) perspective.

It’s an appealing technique when you’re in pain. But her techniques always struck me as being like Paracetamol – a short term solution. My old views always came back, dragging their long tail of complicated emotional responses. What’s more, the persistence and tenacity of my habitual thought patterns endowed them, to my thinking, with truth.

Buddhist teaching has suggested to me more recently, though, that there’s probably nothing ‘true’ about my entrenched thoughts and feelings.

With this in mind, last summer I went down to Kensington Town Hall to attend the day workshop Katie holds annually in the UK. In a deserted Sunday morning London, the queue was quite a sight – 800 people, who went on to fill the venue to capacity. I was reminded of the Dead Sea, a place of pilgrimage for Israelis with physical ailments. In Kensington we wore our sufferings mostly on the inside, but the atmosphere of hope, reverence and nervous anticipation was very similar.

When Byron Katie arrived with her husband and squeezed through the queue, many people gasped and one woman whispered, ‘did you feel it?’ This idea made me squirm, but the truth was that I had felt something; her radiance and calm were tangible.

Hate Thy Neighbour

In the packed Hall, she asked us all to fill in a ‘hate thy neighbour’ form. We had to name someone who annoyed us, explain why, and put down in detail what we thought they should do differently. We went into details about the behaviour that we never wanted to endure at the hands of this person again.

She asked for a volunteer to work through the contents of their form. There was no shortage, and a young man was chosen to go on stage and sit opposite her in a comfy chair. He read out what he’d written, and she asked him her four key questions: ‘Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it’s true? How do you react when you believe that thought? Who would you be without the thought?’

Here’s an extract from Byron Katie’s book ‘A Thousand Names For Joy’ that will give you a flavour.

Book extract

Rather than pick a person to dislike, Peter had chosen something about himself. ‘I’m angry at my reading and writing disability, my dyslexia, because it makes it hard to write, read, communicate, do the Internet, e-mail, work.’

Peter: In today’s world.
Katie: Yes. So “You need to read and write” – is that true?
Peter: Only to communicate with somebody who’s not in the present location.
Katie: “You need to read and write” at all, even for that reason – is it true?
Peter (after a pause): No. Ultimately, it’s not.
Katie: How old are you?
Peter: Forty-three.
Katie: You’ve been okay for forty-three years.
Peter: I don’t know if I’d use the word okay.
Katie: Well, other than your thinking, how’s your body?
Peter: My body’s great.
Katie: Except for your thoughts, haven’t you done well?
Peter: Yes. But I’ve had all the education possible to try to teach me how to read and write…
Katie: “You need to read and write” – is that true?
Peter: No. I actually do pretty well without it.
Katie: Good to know. Feel that, sweetheart. For forty-three years, other than your thinking, you’ve done fine. Your boots match.
Peter: Actually, I made them (The audience applauds and hoots.)
Katie: People who read and write may have a problem with that (The audience laughs.)
Peter: I know.
Katie: We’re too busy reading and writing (The audience laughs.)
Peter: The thing is, my mind doesn’t work in two dimensions; it works in three dimensions.
Katie: How do you react when you believe the thought “I need to read and write” and you can’t, because you’re dyslexic?
Peter (with tears in his eyes): Ashamed. Embarrassed. Society takes reading and writing for granted. It hurts.
Katie: Give me a peaceful reason to believe that you need to read and write. Or to read or write.
Peter: It would be nice to be able to help my ten year old son with his homework.
Katie: Oh, really? You’ve been spared! (The audience laughs.)
Peter: You’re right.
Katie: It’s like you’re wishing for an additional job. And the reality of it leaves him with something very important; it leaves him responsible for what he learns.

Their dialogue goes on, with some interesting twists and turns, for another eight pages, so I’ll stop there and go back to Kensington, where Katie’s way of bringing alternative views out was – as in the above extract – humorous and bracing.

People took a long time to answer her questions, naturally, and were on stage for between half an hour and an hour, during which time she would often ask the first two questions ten times or more. Eventually the person would tend to drop their voice and say, ‘No. I can’t absolutely know it’s true.’

If that sounds boring, it wasn’t, partly because every person’s case was different and partly because it was impossible to predict what Katie would say. One woman who’d asked to go on stage began a painful story from her seat in the auditorium. She said she’d reached rock bottom and so had her daughter, who was very ill but had no support of any kind in her life.

Audience members gasped as Katie simply cut the woman off. ‘No support?’ she said. ‘What about the chair she sits in; the air she breathes? They support her life, surely?’ ‘Yes but…’ said the woman. ‘Now, we’ll move to that gentleman over there,’ said Katie. ‘Yes, you sir, in the red shirt…’

I don’t know why she moved so swiftly on at that point, nor what governed her selection of people to go on stage, but would guess she needed volunteers who would respond quickly to her material.

Katie’s personal story

Her personal story is compelling. After years of severe depression in her thirties, during which time she’d contemplated suicide and often been unable to leave her bedroom, she woke up one morning in 1986 with a life-changing realisation. ‘I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment. That joy is in everyone, always.’ (from ‘A Thousand Names for Joy’)

In other books, Katie details further discoveries, for example the loss of herself as ‘I’ and the sense of herself more as ‘it’. She writes that she had to ‘put on’ a sense of ‘I’ again to be able to deal effectively with the world.

It is like reading a description of Enlightenment. Katie makes no claim regarding this. And while she does seem to be living from a different perspective than the majority of us, I’m not sure we can get there ourselves simply by applying her techniques.

I’m reminded of the advice attributed to the 17th century poet, Matsuo Basho, ‘Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.’

Having said that, Byron Katie’s her techniques can undoubtedly jolt us out of a certain painful narrowness and plunge us into an infinitely more generous view of the world. Perhaps if we repeat that experience often enough, the tight corset of self may begin to loosen.

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The benefit of meditating regularly

100 day mediation challenge 035As a long-time meditator who has never established a daily habit, I’ve been questioning the value of the 100 day challenge and asking: does it matter if I miss a day?

In the great scheme of things, it probably doesn’t. But although the ‘great scheme of things’ is a handy minimiser at times, its distant perspective doesn’t help much with detail.

The truth is that if missing one day turns into missing another and then another, I find it strangely difficult to get back to meditating. It’s as if an invisible membrane forms after the first lapse, which grows thicker and thicker as the days pass until it has separated me completely from my practice and from that part of me that values meditation and longs to be more consistent. I have to burst back through it. My first meditation after a gap usually feels like coming home and I can’t imagine why I resisted for so long.

This time I’ve let myself get to nearly 90 consecutive days on the timer I use (Insight Timer). There have been some ‘dry patches’ along the way where my mind has refused to settle, even for a second. But I’m trying not to expect immediate emotional or spiritual payoffs from my sits and just do them on trust, the same way I clean my teeth every morning. In a strange way, that lack of expectation makes it easier to ‘just do it.’

So for me, the benefit of being consistent is that it leads to more consistency. Whether there’s any other benefit, I’ll be very interested to see.

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“Zombies on Kilimanjaro,” by Tim Ward

Available on and

Available on and

‘”Your guide will probably tell you,” Ezekiel said, “that the name Kilimanjaro comes from kilima, the Swahili word for ‘mountain’ and jaro, the Maasai word for ‘snow-capped.’ But that’s just for the tourists. We Chagga people who have always lived here, we believe the name comes from our own language: kilema-kyaro, which means ‘Impossible to Climb.’”’

So begins Buddhist writer Tim Ward’s latest book, ‘Zombies on Kilimanjaro,’ an intriguingly and perhaps misleadingly titled memoir about climbing the highest freestanding mountain in the world with his 20-year-old son, Josh.

It’s a good beginning, plunging the reader straight into the ‘plot’ of this gentle travel narrative. Will father and son reach the top and will they reach it together? This question is both literal and metaphorical. Following Ward’s divorce from Josh’s mother, father and son have had a troubled relationship.

Ward’s description of the climb is very interesting. We travel in the company of guides and helpers, and meet some other climbers, some of whom reappear later on. Ward writes very well about the dramatic scenery and the physical effects of the climb on the body. He tells us something about climate change and its effect on the mountain.

There are also some wonderful reflections about his own father, and Ward is honest enough to show how he has inherited some of his father’s most difficult traits, and how these have affected his relationship with his own son.

So far, so good. But although the opening chapters of the book are gripping, a fatal flaw soon appears: a tendency to relay in direct dialogue things that would be better shown in the book’s action, or perhaps even omitted altogether.

Ward talks at length to Josh as they climb the mountain. What he says is interesting enough. He explains memes and makes some extremely courageous self-disclosures.

But the long, direct conversations come at a price. While they are taking place, the mountain disappears, Josh disappears and, ironically enough, the father-son relationship itself disappears. We are being told about events in the past instead of being allowed to witness how those events have informed the present and the living, breathing relationship between father and son now. Josh, largely relegated to the role of listener, becomes a shadowy figure. In contrast, I thought of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and how the father-son relationship is so strongly established despite minimal dialogue.

But there is certainly much to enjoy in this well-meaning and heartfelt memoir. A week after reading it, what remains with me is the compelling description of the final ascent to and descent from the peak, when there was no time or energy for conversation.

Tim Ward is the author of several well-regarded books on Buddhism and other subjects including the cult classic ‘What the Buddha Never Taught,’ an account of his experiences as a Theravadin monk in Thailand.

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Your True Home: The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh

Your True Home: The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh

Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh is a prolific writer, with over seventy books to his name. ‘Your True Home’ is his latest: a compilation of 365 short teachings, one on each page.

The format means we can take the book’s subtitle ‘everyday wisdom’ literally, and visit the book daily for a nugget of this much-loved Buddhist teacher’s lore.

And nuggets they are, never taking up more than half a page in a book which has a short, chubby format to begin with (though too heavy to be pocket size – unless you have very big pockets).

Title: Your True Home: The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh
Author: Melvin McLeod (editor)
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-926-1
Available from: Shambhala,, Kindle Store, and

The teachings fall into two broad categories: instructions and insights.

Day 144, for example, gives us a mindful breathing practice culminating in the lines, ‘Breathing in, I am aware of my body. Breathing out, I smile to my whole body.’

There’s an emphasis on positivity in Thich Nhat Hanh’s instructions. Our natural state is joy, he suggests, and we’d save ourselves a lot of trouble if we could appreciate that.

That emphasis isn’t there as strongly in his insight teachings. For example, on day 173: ‘When conditions are sufficient, something manifests. That is what we call a ‘formation’. The flower is a formation, and so are the clouds and the sun. I am a formation, and you are a formation.’

Similarly, on Day 62, he compares life to a kaleidoscope of changing patterns. ‘Should we cry every time one of these manifestations comes to an end?’

Core Buddhist tenets are being emphasised here: that life is contained in the present moment, and that the material world is constantly changing and unstable.

These truths may strike the reader as stark, presented as they are without back-up explanation. It makes the book an interesting mixture of comfort and challenge. Perhaps this reflects the two main practices within Buddhist meditation, Samatha (calming) and Vipassana (insight).

Editor Melvin McLeod is at pains to point out that the insight teachings are not ‘mere aphorisms to cheer us up or inspire us (though they do both). They are transformative insights and instructions, and we need to let them seep below the surface level of our intellect into our heart and guts, where wisdom gestates and real change happens.’

That would obviously be a fantastic outcome, but I’m not sure that reading this book on its own is enough to make it happen.

Having said that, who knows? Even if this is the only Buddhist book you ever read, bite-sized wisdom is a lot better that no wisdom at all. And even if we do take the teachings as aphorisms, at least they are thought-provoking ones.

Thich Nhat Hanh is sometimes criticised for endlessly presenting old teachings in new formats (and it’s possible to see this latest offering in that light, too).

But different formats undeniably make Buddhist teachings available and acceptable for the first time to a wider variety of people. Furthermore, re-presenting old ideas in new contexts can also be very powerful for those who are already familiar with them.

And so it is with ‘Your true home.’ While the meditation suggestions calm and focus us, the insight pages exert a ‘drip-drip’ effect. One day next year or in years to come (unlike a calendar, the pages are not dated, just tactfully numbered), we may read the right words at the right time and suddenly and unexpectedly recognize the living truth they are pointing to.

In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, ‘When conditions are sufficient, something manifests.’ Putting the word out there in different ways is one method of helping establish them.

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Meditating with tinnitus

Milarepa sitting, with a hand raised to his right ear, listening.

If you suffer from tinnitus – persistent ringing in the ears – you may wonder whether meditation is a good idea. And yet it can be a powerful tool in helping you come to terms with the white noise inside your head. Meditator and long-time tinnitus sufferer Mandy Sutter airs some of the issues.

Tinnitus can make meditation very difficult. And because meditation is mostly silent, it may seem that meditation can make tinnitus very difficult, too.

It’s certainly true that as soon as you sit down on the cushion and close your eyes, the tinnitus seems to get louder. It isn’t really getting louder: it only seems that way because you are cutting down on other external stimuli. However, the thought that you’re making it ‘worse’ by meditating can be off-putting, if you let it go unchallenged.

Even accepting that, some days it’s still tempting to stay off the cushion completely. And of course, a missed day can easily turn into a missed few days, a week, a month.

Indeed, some tinnitus experts believe that sufferers should avoid silence altogether.

But this rather black-and-white view doesn’t help the person who wants to meditate, so rather than hanging up one’s meditation mat for good, I think it’s worth investigating some of the resources available to see if there’s anything out there (or in there!) to help you.

Courses and books

Perhaps the first thing to consider is attending a led course on managing your tinnitus through mindfulness meditation. These courses, which are becoming popular with healthcare professionals, are held in a variety of settings, including medical ones. They aim to defuse the anxiety and stress caused by tinnitus and they often report excellent success rates. Try typing the words ‘tinnitus’ and ‘mindfulness’ into your search engine to see what’s available in your area.

There are other types of tinnitus retraining, too. One scientist of particular interest is Pawel Jastreboff, who rejects the old idea that tinnitus is caused by damage to the ear and believes in re-educating sufferers to think of the condition positively as, say, ‘the music of the brain.’ He posits a strong connection between anxiety about tinnitus and its perceived severity, and has found that a shift in thought can have a dramatic effect on someone’s perception of their tinnitus.

Also see:

Vidyamala Prue Burch’s book ‘Living Well with Pain and Illness’ (reviewed here on Wildmind) is another helpful resource. It doesn’t deal specifically with tinnitus, but uses meditation to approach any chronic condition. There are practical tips on how to cultivate a wider awareness of your body that puts your condition into context.

Some practical tips

Personally I’ve found this particular approach – of cultivating a wider awareness – invaluable. I now sometimes wear earplugs while I meditate (this is a complete no-no for some tinnitus sufferers, though, so please approach with care). Because wearing earplugs magnifies ALL inner body sounds, like swallowing and breathing, the tinnitus sounds seem to decrease by comparison, or at least just take their place among my body’s other normal noises. I find I can simply welcome them to the party.

I have also spent some time actively listening to my tinnitus during meditation, and although this may feel unpleasant and even counter-intuitive at first, I recommend it. When you really listen, you may identify sounds like crashing cymbals or whistles, or notice that your tinnitus varies in volume, or has a wave-like pattern. I have found it helpful to learn the length and breadth of my tinnitus in this way: it makes me less prone to worry.

Meditating with your eyes open can help: the increased visual stimulus acting as a balance to the unsolicited sound stimulus. You can use incense in a similar way. And I sometimes find it useful to meditate sitting against a warm radiator, the body sensation of heat again providing a balance. Walking meditation is another valuable and legitimate resource.

Using sound

Also helpful are guided meditations on CD or mp3 (there’s a good selection of these here at the Wildmind store, and search the meditation pages for free ones. Bodhipaksa has many on the free Insight Timer app. Of course, there are still periods of silence during a guided meditation (though some have background muzak) but the voice coming in and out focusses one’s attention away from the tinnitus.

Listening to ambient sound is another option. You can buy devices or download mp3 files that reproduce the sound of waves, or rain pattering on a windowpane, or the crackling of a log fire. Whale or dolphin sounds can also be good. You can concentrate on the sounds as the object of your meditation or use your normal meditation technique (e.g. counting the breath) with the sounds in the background. I have a Sound Oasis which I find invaluable. These devices can be pricey though, so it’s worth downloading some free ambient sounds to your computer before you buy one, to make sure this method suits you.

You’ll find some ambient sounds more effective than others, depending on the character of your own tinnitus and the nature of your own emotional responses to things. I usually turn my Sound Oasis to ‘Harbour Swell’ (the sound of a creaking boat bobbing on the waters) but this might not suit someone who suffers from seasickness!

Listening to music may help, though you may find it too emotionally stimulating. In fact, this may be one of the rare occasion when muzak is better than music!

Forget any idea that this isn’t ‘proper’ meditation (something that bugged me for a while). It’s just a different kind of meditation.

For some tinnitus sufferers, wearing earphones is helpful. The sound is brought closer, as if inserted between your hearing and the tinnitus. This isn’t the case for everyone, though, so find out what suits you.

Going on retreat

Silent meditation retreats pose a particular problem for the tinnitus sufferer. Forget ‘me and my shadow’ – it’s ‘me and my tinnitus’ for days on end. What you can face intermittently during the course of a normal day can seem overwhelming when it’s continuous.

But it’s still do-able. My tinnitus is quite severe, but I go on retreat several times a year.

The important thing is to look after yourself. As you already know, tinnitus is an invisible condition, so no-one makes allowances for you automatically. You may find it difficult to make allowances for yourself, too. But however embarrassed or guilty you feel about making a special case of yourself in an environment where you are strongly encouraged not to, please do: you have my permission, at least! Retreat leaders can be very helpful if approached beforehand.

Request a single room if one is available. You can play ambient sounds and there will be less chance of being woken during the night (tinnitus sufferer often find it difficult to get back to sleep).

Keep your eyes open during meditations if you need to, or take yourself off for walking meditations while the others sit in the shrine room.

No matter what the normal rules are, allow yourself books, iPod or CD player and earphones. You may not need to use them, but they can act as a security blanket.

If particular foods exacerbate your tinnitus (e.g. caffeine) a retreat may offer the ideal opportunity to avoid them for a time. If other foods help, take them with you. Chocolate helps my tinnitus (only kidding, unfortunately).

Taking care of yourself on retreat can be a valuable lesson in self-metta (loving-kindness towards oneelf).

Coming to terms with tinnitus

Having said that, it was on a silent retreat three years ago where I had no security blanket that I perhaps came most deeply to terms with my tinnitus.

My single room hadn’t materialised, and I was sharing with someone who kept putting the light on through the night. Despite decamping to the sitting room a couple of times, I went for four nights with virtually no sleep. I became more and more anxious. My tinnitus, exacerbated by the anxiety, raged continually. I felt as if a jetplane was taking off in my head. All the meditations were a write-off. Finally I made a break for the retreat office to ring my partner and ask him to come and get me (he’d only have had to drive 200 miles). But I couldn’t remember our phone number.

I decided to stay till the next morning, if only because it was too late to leave that evening. And that night in bed, tinnitus raging, I felt despair laced with terror. What if this never ended? What if this was how it was going to be for the rest of my life? My heart thundered and I had to stuff the pillow into my mouth to stop myself from crying out.

Then I heard a clear voice in my head. ‘You don’t need to follow that train of thought,’ it said. ‘You just need to calm down. You know how: you have the tools. But they won’t work if you don’t use them.’

For some reason, I was able to recognise the truth of this. It was a great relief. I lay in bed going through every relaxation technique I’d ever learnt, be that in cognitive behavioural therapy, meditation classes, or hypnotherapy. It took a while but eventually I felt my body and mind profoundly relax, and knew I would sleep, if not now then later. The tinnitus, loud and insistent, was still there. The feeling of relaxation wasn’t one of relaxing despite it, or beyond it, but alongside it. At that moment, some of the emotional charge went out of my perception of my tinnitus, and it has never come back.

So, through meditation, I’d say it’s eminently possible to reach some degree of accommodation with your tinnitus, no matter how you go about it. You may even come to see your tinnitus as significant, instead of a nuisance: a vehicle for self-nurturing, and for reaching accommodation with yourself as a whole (including all the painful, messy and inconvenient bits).

You may even find, over time, that you have made friends with your tinnitus: or at least that you are not the sworn enemies you once thought you were.

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The Closing Circle

Writer and meditator Mandy Sutter views the reporting-in process at the end of silent retreats with a mixture of dread and excitement.

Many Buddhist retreat centres embrace the custom of the ‘Closing Circle’.

This doesn’t mean sitting in the middle of a razor toothed torture ring that gradually closes in and squeezes the life out of you, like something out of a James Bond movie.

No. It’s worse than that.

It means that after spending, say, a fortnight in silence with thirty strangers, the group sits in a large circle on the last evening to share their experience.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against hearing how everyone else got on. Quite the contrary: who wouldn’t long for sensible talk after being marooned with the egotistical maniac who inhabits the inside of my head? I’ve had to listen to her deluded ravings more or less non-stop, unable to drown them out with the radio or a good novel.

But I find the Closing Circle a bit of a nightmare, made proportionately worse by the number of people in it.

Some Closing Circles are uncomfortable in anyone’s money. Those, for example, where everyone thanks everyone else so much, it’s like being at a Bafta Awards night. Or those where the emotional intensity builds so much on the way round the circle that the poor person who goes last has no option other than to say it has been the best fortnight of their life, and collapse in a sobbing heap on the floor.

But even a sober Closing Circle can be tricky to negotiate.

After a fortnight of very low stimulus, the richness of a diverse group of human beings is like a gourmet banquet after a strict diet. The body and mind rebel.

And the false impressions you’ve formed about your co-retreatants in the silence get blown to smithereens. For example, the bloke who did everything in a slow, absorbed way, never smiling or making eye contact (obviously a veteran Buddhist) turns out to be on his first retreat ever. The woman with the radiant smile and calm aura (an obvious bliss-bunny) was in fact freaking out and drove twenty miles to the nearest town on day five before thinking the better of it and turning back.

Such reality checks are definitely a Good Thing. But thirty at once is a shock.

Then there’s the disorientation factor. While you’ve been sobbing quietly through most of the meditations and hit depths of existential despair you didn’t know existed, someone else was loving the imaginative vegan food and enjoying tranquil walks down by the stream.

I often feel a deep sense of community with others when living in silence together. As soon as we’re on speaking terms again, this sense vanishes like a whisper in a wind tunnel. I feel adrift. I wonder: was it just another of my delusions?

In the Closing Circle, we are brought up against the impossibility of doing justice to a wordless experience using words. People go on and on (self included) in their efforts to articulate what can’t be said.

But perhaps I’m alone in finding the Closing Circle hard to handle. How do you go about it?

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Why I call myself a Buddhist

Figure with weird bulging eyes, from a Tibetan thangka painting.

When I became a Mitra (friend) of the Triratna Buddhist Community earlier this year, I was surprised by the surprise of my non-Buddhist friends. They seemed aggrieved.

This was the general message:

‘We know you’ve benefited from meditation, and going on silent retreats. Although that’s not our idea of a holiday, we’re pleased for you. But why spoil everything by espousing a weird Eastern religion? Can’t you keep it secular? And if you have to be religious (though God knows why) can’t you stick to your own? OK, maybe not the Church. But what’s wrong with the Quakers? They sit in silence and meditate, don’t they?’

Fair enough questions. And I tried to answer them. I talked about the value of meditation, the common sense of the precepts. I talked about enjoying chanting, and finding ritual moving.

This was all true. But my explanation, even as I gave it, struck me as just so much hot air. After a lot of apologetic shrugs at dinner tables and in cafes, I realised that my decision to become a Mitra hadn’t been ‘thought through’ at all.

The commitments involved in becoming a Mitra – coming out as a Buddhist, promising to live by the precepts and choosing the Triratna Buddhist community as my spiritual home – didn’t feel like things I had ‘decided’ on.

Rather, all my experiences within the Triratna Buddhist Community had added up and reached a tipping point. I suddenly felt ‘at home’ with it all.

By experiences, I mean acts of kindness I’ve felt and witnessed. I mean the teachings of Order Members and the warmth or sometimes lacerating sharpness with which those teachings are delivered. I mean stuff I read in Buddhist books that speaks directly to personal problems I didn’t realise anyone else had. I mean the intimacy of joined voices reciting the seven-fold puja (one of the core rituals in the Triratna Buddhist Community) and the hypnotic beauty of the Heart Sutra, the poem at its core. I mean the pregnant sense of strangeness and mystery that often suffuses me when I sit in silence with myself or with others, at home, at Leeds Buddhist Centre, or on early morning meditations on retreat where you enter the shrine room in the dark, meditate while dawn gathers, and step out utterly and completely in the day.

I can no more justify or quantify this than I can tell you why somebody falls in love with one person – perhaps a person from a different background – and not another. My Mitra ceremony felt like a kind of marriage. Most marriages go through rocky patches, I know. I’m going through one even as I write this, not having meditated for a fortnight. But Buddhist practice gives me a home to come back to, a structure to see my struggles in the context of. That’s why I was happy to say ‘I do.’

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Meditation For the Love of It, by Sally Kempton

‘Inner spaciousness is always there, with its clarity, its love, and its innate goodness,’ says Sally Kempton in her new book. Our task is learn how to connect with it, and in Meditation for the Love of It, which has garnered rave reviews from such spiritual luminaries as Lama Surya Das, Kempton sets out to show us how love and enjoyment should be at the heart of our experience.

A shame then that although the book contains much of value, it’s hard to love it, and at times, hard even to enjoy it.

Parts are written with sensitivity, imagination and a sense of who the reader might be. Kempton offers an excellent explanation of how to work with a mantra. She successfully combines practical advice with metaphors that foster intuitive understanding (‘after a while the mantra begins to act as a sort of magnet that aligns the particles of your scattered attention’).

The meditation exercises – which come towards the end of each chapter, in ones, twos, threes or more – are varied and imaginative. ‘Become Aware of your Awareness’ was one I found particularly good, to the extent that I now incorporate it in my practice.

But there were two aspects of the book that I found very difficult.

Firstly, Kempton talks a lot about bliss states and refers again and again to where our meditation practice will eventually lead us.

In those chapters where the meditation journey itself is the subject, such as ‘Where Do You Find Yourself?’ and ‘The Process of Ripening’ – chapters offering a kind of road map to help the reader assess his or her progress on the meditation journey – this is all well and good, and actually very interesting.

But the emphasis on transcendental states in the rest of the text is draining and counter-productive. It’s as if ordinary experience is being continually presented as something to move away from.

Maybe this is the case. But there’s a problem inherent in talking about it too much. As the poet Antonio Porchia said, ‘he who makes a paradise of his bread, makes a hell of his hunger.’

It’s something of a paradox, but the meditation teachings I find most helpful are those that barely mention any future state but help one to focus unconditionally on the here and now with all its pains and pleasures.

This may be just me, and Sally Kempton may be writing for more experienced meditators. But here was the second problem: I couldn’t see who the book was aimed at.

Kempton’s teachings are based on Kashmir Shaivism, a ‘philosophical system’ that she describes in the chapter ‘Moving Inward’ (pg 109 onwards). Nothing wrong with that, except that the book, with its frequent quotations from spiritual leaders of all traditions, seems to be marketed at the general reader.

And yet, among passages written in a down-to-earth colloquial style, the text breaks out into esoteric language and liberal use of the symbols of Kempton’s yogic tradition. This shuffling between registers is disorientating and made me wonder who was talking. I would feel on board with the ideas and concepts, only to feel crestfallen when I was suddenly excluded by alien words and concepts. Hope was offered, but it was also snatched away.

I was thrown by assertions like ‘the radiance of supreme Awareness is present inside the [mantra] syllables’ (pg 92), and ‘Oneness is the Truth’ (pg 110). The capitalizing of words made me uncomfortable, and sometimes I was invited somewhere I just plain didn’t want to go, as in the meditation exercise, ‘Seeing the Mind as Shakti, the Energy of Creation’ (pg 151).

Having said that, the book has something to offer both secular readers and readers from different spiritual traditions, if you approach with caution. For yoga practitioners out there, it is probably a godsend. For Kempton’s followers and fellow Shaivists, it may even be a Godsend.

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“Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life,” by Thich Nhat Hanh

On New Year’s Day, many of us will resolve to lose weight. But before we finalise our weight loss plans, writer Mandy Sutter recommends taking a look at Thich Nhat Hanh’s interesting new book, Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life.

For millions of us, overweight is a seemingly intractable problem. We start diets and exercise programmes with good intentions, and may succeed in losing weight. But our new, low weight is hard to sustain and the pounds creep back on, sometimes gradually, sometimes indecently quickly.

According to Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr Lilian Cheung, authors of Savor, our difficulties aren’t entirely of our own making. The ‘obesigenic society’ we live in makes it tricky to live in a healthy, balanced way. There’s a proven link, for example, between the rise in obesity and the rise in TV watching. And food manufacturers are generally more concerned with turning in a good profit than with safeguarding people’s health.

A significant part of Savor is devoted to observations like these, backed up by intelligent discussion and reference to up-to-date scientific studies. The emphasis on interconnectedness is no accident (we Buddhists tend to bang on about such things) and marks the book out as more than just another book on weight loss. It takes the sting out of one’s own struggle too, and relieves the self-blame that strikes as one reaches for another chocolate in front of the afternoon film.

But having put our problems into context, the authors don’t let us rest on our laurels. The book is stuffed – perhaps a little surprisingly – with practical advice on eating and exercise.

A seasoned dieter will have seen much of this before, but what’s different about Savor is that the benefit of following the advice is described not just in terms of the self but also the wider community. Interconnectedness again. For example, it’s pointed out that riding a bike to work will not only help you lose weight but safeguard the clean air in your town, as will your next step: trying to persuade local government to build cycle paths.

Another thing that marks Savor out is the meditation exercises peppered throughout, the reference to Buddhist sutras, and gems like ‘the 7 practices of a mindful eater’. The exercises and references to Buddhist texts are well explained and justified within the weight-loss context, and therefore accessible to non-Buddhists.

I do wonder, however, if exhorting us to recite Thich Nhat Hanh’s Five Mindfulness Trainings once a week (pg 209) isn’t a bridge too far for the non-Buddhist reader (at whom the book seems to be aimed).

And although the book’s approach will fall like manna from Nirvana to some, it will alienate others (including Buddhists fat and thin alike) who don’t buy the idea that our society is in a bad way or even that our planet is in need of saving. Very occasionally the text degenerates into hectoring, as if one is attending a very right-on party and has been trapped (on the other side of the room from the food and drinks table) by an earnest bore.

But these slips are minor ones in a book that’s thoughtful, concerned, well researched and pleasingly wide-ranging.

Ignore the blurb on the cover, which makes mindfulness sound like the new ‘fix’ to help people lose weight. In fact, the book gets it the other (right) way round: our problems with weight offer us a golden opportunity to learn to live more mindfully.

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The ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ phenomenon

When the film Four Weddings and a Funeral came out in 1994, I was irritated by the film’s ‘token’ inclusion of a deaf character and two gay men. A lesbian friend was less judgemental. She was just thrilled that a mainstream film featured a gay relationship.

Reading Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-seller, and seeing the film adaptation starring Julia Roberts, I think I know how my friend felt. The ideas are flawed, but to see Buddhism portrayed positively in popular culture is a delight.

The story – if you don’t know it – is of a thirty-something woman, unsatisfied with her affluent New York life, who goes travelling for a year in search of self-fulfilment. Her quest is successful: she stuffs herself with pizza and pasta in Italy, experiences a spiritual epiphany at an ashram in India and meets the love of her life in Indonesia. Then she writes a best selling book about the whole adventure and earns a small fortune. I came, I saw, I conquered.

And as Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, ‘aye, there’s the rub.’ Reviewers have criticised both film and book for their ‘rich girl goes shopping’ tone. Not so offensive as regards pizza and pasta perhaps, but less credible when it comes to spiritual enlightenment and finding the love of one’s life.

Besides, can the quest be genuine when Elizabeth Gilbert is doing it partly for material gain? Can it be genuine if squeezed into a twelve-month space, not to mention a book that has to have a beginning, middle and end? When we see Julia Roberts in character on the bathroom floor sobbing over how her life doesn’t fulfil her, should we be sympathising, or saying ‘get over yourself’ and saving our concern for the earthquake victims of Haiti? Furthermore, most of us aren’t able to leave hearth and home to go ‘find’ ourselves. Does that mean there’s no hope?

These questions pop up uncomfortably again and again as one reads, or watches Eat, Pray, Love, to the extent that the book (very well written) and the film (a visual feast) both become something of a guilty pleasure.

But it would be a mistake to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The film, and to a greater extent, the book, have merit.

There’s a tradition known as New Journalism, which started in the 1960’s when New York Times journalists decided that to write about something properly, you had to experience it. They went to Vietnam, lived with Hell’s Angels or shadowed rock stars for months in order to get that all-important inside view. And they wrote about their findings in the first person. The ‘I’ viewpoint entered mainstream journalism.

Elizabeth Gilbert is writing in that tradition. We may carp at the circumstance of her quest but it is courageous – she leaves the familiar behind in an attempt to open herself to experience – and as such, it’s a metaphor for all our quests. She may be writing primarily about herself, but she offers that self up as the everyman/woman self of the privileged Westerner on its relentless search for happiness. This comes over more clearly in the book than in the film, in the searing honesty of the line-by-line writing. The book is less simplistic, containing complicated episodes that the film omits. And Gilbert’s unflinching self-analysis has chimed with many readers, perhaps because she articulates Western malaise so well. We have so much: why are we still unhappy?

A friend of mine claimed recently that he’d like to read a novel that wasn’t written by a writer. He was distrusting the craft of story, with its the inevitable distortions. And yet, as Pablo Picasso said, ‘Art is the lie that tells the truth.’ We have to bear in mind that Eat, Pray, Love is essentially an art form: a story, not a description of reality.

A spiritual epiphany doesn’t happen on demand, in an ‘it’s Tuesday, so it must be enlightenment’ way. A few months meditating in an ashram and learning from spiritual teachers doesn’t guarantee anything. But it might act as a springboard. Spiritual insights do happen, and although in reality you can probably have them without leaving your own home, if we view Gilbert’s quest in the spirit of story and of metaphor, where one thing stands for another, we may be able to see her work in a more generous light.

Having said all that, the story would undoubtedly have been more interesting if she had returned home overweight, broke and having discovered that the love of her life was a serial womaniser – and still had taken it all on the chin, with equanimity. That would have been an epiphany worth witnessing.

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