Day 57 and a news item piqued my interest about a social media hit where people were posting their last ‘normal’ photos taken before lockdown. The original tweet had triggered a wave of nostalgia across social media platforms, as people scrolled back through their photo collections to discover what their lives had looked like before everything shut down. In one photo featured in the ‘Guardian’ a parent, photo editor Joe Plimmer, was holding a small child aloft on the open palm of one hand. The photo was crisply defined with the white cliffs of southern England and a perfect blue sky as backdrop. It was the swoop of the movement and the child lifted high knocking against the deep blue infinity of the sky and the feeling of light-hearted spontaneity conveyed in the gesture that summed up the spirit of the time before. This was a photo taken in a state of innocence when its photographer, Urszula Soltys, could not possibly have predicted the difficulties that lay ahead. Fast forward to lockdown and the uncertainty we have all been dealing with and how bittersweet that image seems.
My photo from 'the time before' was taken in February at the St Francis Retreat Centre in Auckland during a five day study retreat ‘Walking the Buddha’s Path to Freedom.’ The Franciscan friar in the image was real. He lives at the retreat centre. The first time I saw him, it was early morning and he was in the refectory. He passed through in his long mahogany coloured hemp cassock, with the heavy tie at the waist, roman sandals on his feet and I blinked and wondered if I had imagined him. Had I stepped into a different age, another place? The second time I saw him was during a walking meditation. He was in the garden attending to the grounds, his presence was deeply reassuring.
After a time when you sink more deeply into the silent world of a retreat your small room with its sash window looking into the arms of a big tree, your simple single bed on one wall and wash basin in another corner, rising early at dawn to meditate, meal times where food is eaten in silence, each day segmented into sitting and walking meditations and dharma talks, the final sit of the day in the gloom of the upstairs room with the last of the sun’s rays gleaming through stained glass windows coloured raspberry and green, you accept the way things are, exactly as they are. And as the days pass you not only accept the simplicity your heart slowly fills with gratitude for the very fact that you have food and shelter and warmth and all the teachings you could possibly want from three fine Buddhist women scholars. You have everything you need.
On that retreat I kept a journal as a way of consolidating the learning. There was so much to absorb, the quality of the teaching and the wisdom imparted, I wanted to try and put it into words wherever possible. And so my pen recorded the content of the talks, it described the beauty of the park that wrapped around the Franciscan priory, the weather, the light at different times of day, the very quality of the warm summer air.
During such a retreat there are opportunities to have a private audience with a scholar teacher. I was at a crossroads at that time, uncertain about where I would put down roots, on which island of Aotearoa, with which constellation of people. I remember the teacher saying ‘No matter which choice you make you cannot safety proof the outcome.’ At the time I found this hard because still I did not know. She also said, ‘You solve one conundrum and then others you hadn’t even considered appear as challenges.’ This was difficult too but she spoke calmly, without emotion, her voice coloured with empathy and I was receptive. Her next piece of advice, delivered as another challenge, offered something more I could warm to. ‘You need to learn how to live with unexpected and unpleasant consequences, and to sit with the uncertainty with equanimity.’ This is something Buddhism teaches, the practice of non-reactivity in all situations. To me it offers the best equipment for living, a practice to keep coming back to even and especially when I falter and get upset. I can still come back. I can aim to stay steady when the waves wash over, supported by mindfulness, and by the meditation practice of coming back again and again into this moment and to this body, breathing, quietly. And that seems to me to be all you need do through life's difficulties come back into the moment and simply be with what is here now.