As per usual, I’m late to the latest fashion. Buddhism, as a Western fad, has already passed through its honeymoon period. While intriguing to the liberally minded types who find themselves bumming around India for month after month, mentioning a meditation retreat back home could just as easily be met with eyes rolled as eyes widened. But, as you may have noticed, I’m in India.

So I registered myself for this ten day residential course. We learned a lot about Buddhist philosophy in lectures from a nun, and also had three guided meditation sessions daily. Both the lectures and the meditations were in a gompa, or Tibetan Buddhist temple, sitting on the floor on cushions. A massive, golden Buddha statue loomed over us at all times. Ostensibly, absolute silence was required for the entire time, except for the daily hour-long discussion groups and question periods during lectures. Three meals a day were served, in silence, and we were all assigned certain chores around the grounds of the monastery cum school. Some did dishes, others cleaned toilets or showers, I had to sweep the dining hall and wipe down tables after the evening meal. The chores were affectionately referred to as Karma Yoga.

It was a tough experience, but an awakening one. The silence, even for me, was not nearly as difficult as I had assumed. It was nice living within myself for such a long period of time. Although, as you might imagine, I managed to silently communicate with people when the urge struck. The meditations were difficult, however, for both physical and mental reasons. I’m not the most flexible cat in the alley, so sitting for even 30 minutes in a half lotus position was trying on my leg muscles and joints. My back still aches. Additionally, my high energy demeanour extends to my brain, which was endlessly leaping from thought to though like a lemur, rather than simply focusing on my breath.

The philosophical lectures were eye-opening, especially for me. We learned about the classically Buddhist topics of non-harm, reincarnation and karma. Compassion is a biggie, specifically pertaining to the concept of equanimity. In essence, the argument is that all sentient beings (from worms and grasshoppers to dolphins and humans) are equal in wanting to be happy and avoid suffering, even if they lack an internal monologue on the topic. We should treat all beings with the same respect we’d treat our own mothers – especially considering that we’ve all lived countless previous lives in countless previous forms (you were very likely something badass like a T-Rex or wooly mammoth), so even that annoying little mosquito was actually your mother at some point in history. Cool, yeah?

But the most intense and practical topic was HOW TO CONTROL YOUR MIND. You see, we are slaves to our mind. Didn’t you know? Your mind probably forgot to send you the memo. I’ll explain briefly here, but I’ll also try to write a more fleshed out post later.

Basically, everything exists within our mind. There is no reality outside of the experience of our senses as interpreted by our minds, so we have no idea what “reality” is really like. A dog can hear a dog whistle but we can’t; it’s outside the range of our ears. What else is happening that we’re not aware of? Makes sense, right? As far as we’re concerned, the world is a figment of our imagination. It follows, then, that emotions like anger, sadness, and joy are all created and exist solely within the mind. If all of our positive/negative emotional reactions to external events and people are just in our heads, why can’t we control them? Oh, right. We’re slaves.

Consider this: if you were in control of your mind, you could just wake up every morning and decide how you were going to feel that day. “Today I’m going to be happy and generous and generally relaxed with the people I encounter, even people who give me a hard time!” So why can’t we do this? Because we aren’t in control. We get impatient and snappy and frustrated and depressed and fed up and tired and so on. Buddhism, in a very real sense, is about understanding how your mind works. Once you can understand the mind, you can begin to control it. You can allow negative emotions to pass, and you can stop positive emotions from creating addictive cravings – the junkie mind that results in lustful drooling, constant seeking of new experiences, vast chasms of boredom and disillusionment, and a propensity to lean on drugs and alcohol to alter perspectives. Yes, I am guilty of all of the above.

So, while the course was simply scratching the surface, it was a healthy introduction to observing and analyzing the behaviour of my own mind. It’s like I’m an anthropologist sitting in the jungle watching the monkeys interact, only I’m watching emotions arise as my mind reacts to the events and people I’m confronted with all day. It’s fucking fascinating. Why did I feel the need to use “fucking” there? I don’t know, okay? I’m just getting started with this shit.

At any rate, I had a wonderful time. I met some incredible people. The school was up on a mountain top removed from the town below, so the normal sounds of dogs and  truck horns that permeate India were faint or nonexistent. We were basically inside the clouds all afternoon and evening, so you could watch the mist come floating up through the trees. It would even slip silently into the dining hall and obscure everyone’s view of whatever vegetarian meal was on offer. There was definitely an energy about the place, especially on those misty evenings.

For those who are interested, the course was the 10-day residential Introduction to Buddhism at the Tushita Meditation Center in Dharamkot, which is north of Mcleod Ganj, the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile. That’s a lot of capitalized words.

More soon on the meditation and philosophy. Love you like you were my mother (mom, I still love you more).