“Can you help me?” I asked my mother as I stood in the kitchen. I needed to eat but I wasn’t able to make myself a meal. In fact, I wasn’t able to do much at the time and didn’t understand what was happening to me as I felt like I wasn’t able to get control of my life. I kept messing up and not following through on my commitments.
I let down a friend I had agreed to help with teaching public speaking in a school. On the morning of the class, I sat on my bed and stared at my unshaven legs, unable to get dressed and had to call him to tell him I wouldn’t make it, causing him to have to re-arrange the whole teaching schedule he had prepared and effectively ending our friendship and working relationship. I also forgot a client appointment I had. This client had turned up at the healing centre I was working at and I wasn’t there. It was only when they called me that I realised I had this appointment. I had to contact a company that had wanted to hire me to run a corporate training programme to let them know I wouldn’t be able to work with them and had to refer them to another person. This was supposed to be the start of more corporate work for me, work that would likely have paid well, an ex-client had recommended me to this company so it felt like I was letting them down as well.
I couldn’t fulfil my voluntary commitments either on the management committee of the organisation my family had been involved in for several generations, from the very founding of the organisation. This position I had as chairperson of this committee made me feel like the prodigal daughter who had come back into the fold of my family after my misspent youth. It was a position that involved me sitting side by side with successful business owners, lawyers and prominent members of the community as well as meeting members of parliament and government officials.
At the time I was also studying part-time for a degree online. After having left university many years ago to go to rehab for drug and alcohol addiction, I was hoping to now complete my degree but couldn’t keep up with the work on the course with everything that was happening.
In fact, I was spending most of my time at home in my bedroom as everything else just felt like such an effort. I contemplated if life was worth living and there were days when I wasn’t sure if it was. Yet taking my life didn’t seem an option either. In my heart I knew that this wasn’t a solution as I believe that what we don’t resolve in this life we have to resolve in the afterlife or come back again in another life to face. I felt trapped and hopeless.
I tried to reach out to friends and family, some of whom chose not to respond or cut off from me, not able to be present with my raw emotional state. Others responded with loving words and supportive messages or took time out between work and their families to come to be with me which helped.
The psychiatrist I went to recommended me to a psychologist after prescribing me medication to help me sleep. It was helpful talking to the psychologist and she was a safe harbour that calmed me down and I started to be able to get some sleep again.
I felt like I needed something more and remembered a friend talking about her stays in Buddhist retreat centres in Malaysia so I asked her to recommend one to me. I thought if I could get away for a while and go on retreat, I could get some clarity for myself and in my life.
The moment I saw the image of the lush forest foothills surrounding the retreat centre in Taiping, I knew this was the place I needed to go to and set my sights on this next step. At the time they were only accepting applications by mail so I had to post my application form to them. It was a few weeks before I heard back that I had been accepted but then I had to figure out how to get there.
Crossing the Causeway
I got an email from one of the participants in Singapore going to the retreat, she offered to help organise the travel for those of us going from Singapore to Taiping. She and her husband would meet us at the Woodlands checkpoint, she said. Another two participants suggested we meet me at the MRT station so we could take a bus to the Woodlands checkpoint. I got a lift from my mother to the MRT station and then followed the participants on the bus to the checkpoint where we would cross the causeway together to get a bus to Taiping where the retreat centre was.
After we got through immigration, we took a taxi to Larkin Sentral where we boarded the overnight bus to Taiping and I just followed the group, putting one foot in front of the other pulling my suitcase on wheels behind me. It was strangely calming to sit in the bus looking out the window at the night sky and the movement of the bus lulled me to sleep in the wide worn cushioned seats. We arrived in Taiping in the early hours of the morning when it was still dark so ate some roti canai in a nearby coffee shop. After an hour or so, we hopped into two taxis which took us through Taiping to the bottom of a small hill where we alighted and got into a jeep that had driven down the hill from the retreat centre.
I wouldn’t have got to the centre myself in the state I was in but somehow by showing up, I was helped every step of the way to this sanctuary to start my two-week silent retreat.
I was assigned a place in one of the dormitories, which was just an open room where we laid out very thin mats and one small hard pillow to lay our heads on. This forest monk lineage that this retreat centre is aligned with is a particularly austere one and doesn’t believe in any comforts. We were also all assigned various housekeeping duties as well, mine was to clean the toilets in our dorm.
The next fourteen days were filled with up to ten hours a day of sitting then walking meditation in 45-minute blocks. We started the day with yoga and stretching in the morning and ended it with dharma talks at night. We only had two meals a day with lunch being the last meal and a snack in the late afternoon. Most of the food was donated to us by the residents of Taiping so we never knew what we would be eating and some days it was noodles or chee cheong fun for breakfast and most lunches were modest zi char buffets. I learnt to appreciate any and all food we had and especially the day we were served ripe sweet fleshy durian from the trees in the retreat centre.
It was very settling to be in this environment surrounded by the forest and during meditation periods we were allowed to walk in the forest along walking paths or sit in the outdoor meditation platforms. I found a flat stone meditation perch facing a small waterfall where I would sit and butterflies would land on my hand.
Understanding my Dukkha
The teacher, Patrick Kearney, who led the retreat was a layperson who’d been a Catholic priest, Theravada Buddhist monk, studied Zen Buddhism and then disrobed and was now married. I’d initially braced myself for his hour-long dharma talks, wondering why they hadn’t shortened the talks like was the standard now online or at events like TED. As I started to listen to Patrick though, I was struck by his knowledge of Buddhism and found myself furiously taking down page after page of notes in my journal during his talks because so much of what he said was helping me to understand Buddhist teachings and apply it to what I was going through at the time.
When I first started reading about Buddhism in the 1990s and the noble truths that form the foundation of this wisdom tradition, the first being life is dukkha or suffering, it really put me off as I didn’t want to struggle more than I already had in my life. It took me many years of life experience and this retreat to see that Buddhism is not saying that we should suffer but that we do. We suffer because life doesn’t live up to our expectations, wants and desires. As Byron Katie says, when we argue with reality, we lose 100% of the time.
I could see that my suffering was because of a relationship that hadn’t worked out. It surprised me how much of myself and my life I’d been willing to sacrifice for this man when I thought myself a very independent and self-contained person. I felt a very desperate need to be loved and the inability to accept how I was being treated. I was also embarrassed at how I’d let it affect me so much and in such a public way. I should be handling this better I thought. After all my learning, experience and at my age, why am I struggling and feeling so helpless? I should be better at this.
Something is wrong.
This is not me.
I wasn’t able to manage the impact of this relationship on my life and couldn’t get myself out of the confusion I was in. I was much needier and less independent than I realised.
I didn’t know or recognise myself.
But the reality was that it was me.
In those two weeks of noble silence, learning about the dharma from Patrick’s talks and all the reading from the books in the library, I began to ponder being open to what was happening and allow it to teach me about myself and others, to help me understand more deeply how I was experiencing dukkha through my disappointment, hurt, embarrassment, confusion, conflict and pain.
Karlfried Durckhem writes, “The person who really being on the way falls upon hard times in the world will not as a consequence turn to those friends who offer them refuge and comfort and encourage their old self to survive. Rather, they will seek out someone who will faithfully and inexorably help them to risk themselves, so that they may endure the difficulty and pass courageously through it. Only to the extent that a person exposes themself over and over again to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found within them. In this daring lies dignity and the spirit of true awakening.”
As I sat and walked in meditation, I noticed that my dukkha was constantly changing. This is annica or impermanence according to Buddhism, Patrick said. The doctrine that everything, including suffering, arises then passes. And if we can lessen our identification with our suffering and allow all things to be as they are, ever-changing and impermanent, and give it space, we may notice that in that space there is ease, peace and direct knowledge.
Once I was less identified with my dukkha and more open, able to give space for my experience through my meditation practice, it became clear to me that dating someone who wasn’t respectful, considerate or honest, just because I was lonely and felt a spark was not honouring what I knew deep down I deserved and could have in a relationship. Also not being able to accept that I was being treated how I knew I should be, was causing a lot of conflict. Then there were the parts of my life where I was doing things I thought I should be doing and trying to conform to how I thought my life should look became more evident. My voluntary work, while fulfilling, was also very draining and didn’t feel like it was where I operated best and could contribute in an optimal way. Studying for a degree online was hard without the support of a campus and environment of other students or any real access to teachers. I was also not very interested in the subject I was taking and couldn’t relate to a reductionist approach to learning. It was something I thought I needed to feel like I was good enough and earn more money. All the extra jobs and corporate work I took on took time away from developing my own coaching programme and classes. I was helping other people to build their work and businesses instead of focusing on how I could better serve through my programme and classes.
The Life That Came Forth
It took me some time after the retreat and many more hours of meditation, therapy and self-work to understand the choices and circumstances that led up to me feeling the way I did and where in my life I needed to make changes, but the teachings and practice of Buddhism and being guided by Patrick were a turning point. I’m blessed to have encountered a guide who could help me understand the dharma more deeply and apply it to my life and struggles.
Though I was already meditating before the retreat and had read about the dharma and attended Buddhist classes, I didn’t really understand the power of the practices in helping us to be fully present in each moment, in body, mind and heart, with the reality of my dukkha and what it means to be human and alive. I also didn’t fully understand the teachings in any real depth. In piecing together my own spiritual path without a guide, I was missing out on the value of learning about a whole wisdom tradition and having a teacher with experience to help me apply the teachings. It’s not that I no longer experience dukkha but that I can move through it more easily as there’s more space now for peace, insight and perspective. I’m largely on course with my life and living in a way that feels true though I don’t take for granted that I’ll never feel so lost or disoriented again. If I do I know what tools and teachings will help me address and resolve the underlying issues that are causing any misalignment. I also know the value of being open now and reaching out for help and allowing myself to be guided by an experienced and wise guide. As a result, I’m able to hear more clearly the life that wants to come forth from within.
While it would be nice to be in a relationship, it doesn’t feel like I need it to make my life full. I’ve stopped expecting other people to meet all my needs and make me feel better about my life. What needs I have that aren’t met through my relationships, I work to get met through therapy or healing and spiritual practices. I’m also more able to accept how others are showing up in relationships with me and have fewer expectations. I have more clarity and boundaries about what’s acceptable to me or not in a relationship and aligns with my values in terms of what feels respectful and who I truly want to be in a relationship with in my life and how. This means that I’ve learned to leave the table when love is no longer being served, as Nina Simone says.
It took a few goes for me to find voluntary work that was a better match to my interests, experience and skills and wasn’t as draining for me to engage in. I volunteered as a mentor with teenagers who’d been abused as well as set up a support group for survivors of abuse. I’m currently gathering resources to offer those of less privilege while also offering services and classes at a reduced cost to help make my work more accessible and in particular to vulnerable communities. I’ve stopped doing corporate training and speaking work like I used to or working for others unless I’m hired to teach my own material or programmes and am more focused on building up and investing my time in my coaching programme and classes. I’m currently on several courses learning about animism, ancestral healing and mindfulness in more depth, classes where I feel well supported and belong to a community of learners and teachers who have a depth of experience and expertise they generously share. These are courses that I’m engaged in easily and though it takes a lot of energy and time, it gives me back so much more and enables me to learn more tools and teachings to help others directly and contributes to my own learning and growth. Being a student helps me be a better teacher for others too, to understand what it’s like to struggle with and try to understand, apply then assimilate new teachings and concepts.
Being of Service to Others
After I moved through and unravelled my own conflict using the tools and teachings of Buddhism with the help of Patrick, I saw the richness and value of this wisdom tradition and could then better help others to work through their own confusion and conditioning so they could embody their lives in a way that was freer and without conflict.
Walking through my own confusion and struggle taught me the value of letting go of self-importance and being willing to admit that I didn’t know how to help myself then reach out for and accept help. It helped me to realise the limitations of self-will and make choices from a place of faith instead, trusting the help being offered by others which got me across the causeway and to the retreat centre and into the refuge of the dharma and the practice of meditation. It allowed a greater wisdom and grace to guide me through the necessary steps to deepen my spiritual practice and embody my path.
I now better understand what is needed to come to terms with where we are in our lives and all the feelings and conflict we’re feeling then do the work to untangle it so we can gain clarity for our next steps. It’s only then that we can truly heal and make more conscious choices about how we’re living our lives so we can get more on course with the life that we want to live and feel at peace. This is what it means to honour ourselves and our paths deeply and live a meaningful, fulfilling life.
I couldn’t have got to retreat without the help of others and a wise guide helped me by sharing his knowledge of the dharma and the teachings of his lineage. This was the beginning of my awakening to the deep wisdom of the dharma and appreciation for a community I now belong to and lineage I’m a part of. A community that is a source of support and lineage of elders that hold me accountable. Elders who have more experience and knowledge, who show us where we still need to awaken in order to deepen into our spiritual practice so we can be liberated from dukkha then do our part to help others to awaken and be liberated too.
Who are the elders who help you with your learning edges and hold you accountable?
What lineage or wisdom tradition is a refuge and resource for you?
What other support do you have for your spiritual practice and path?