Having looked forward to staying at Kopan for nearly a year, I arrived in an attempt to have no expectations and at a minimum to recognise when the expectations I did not have did arise, because they somehow do even when we don’t think we have them.
The grounds were magnificent, overlooking Kathmandu with a 360 degree view of the valley surrounded by the Himalayas, I cannot recommend a visit to this monastery enough. Two resident mountain dogs half greeted me - I say “half” greeted because they are Buddhist dogs so they have no attachment to attention from people, they are completely at peace without our attention which was my first challenge of monastery life because, if you don’t know me, I’m absolutely obsessed with dogs and completely attached to their attention.
We turned off our phones and laptops to enable us to dive head first into our minds without distraction. I was so looking forward to this because working for yourself means you could be on your smart phone 24/7 if you allowed yourself to be and I'd become quite attached to the frickin’ thing, it was like an extension of my body by the time I arrived! The first two days I stayed in relative silence, no chatting, no music, just meditating, course lectures, short meal times, sleeping and circumambulating the Stupa (walking in circles around a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics for an undefined amount of time - I usually finished circumambulating after reciting 108 mantras).
We learned about the 1st of the three “poisons of the mind” (a/k/a Disturbing Emotions) that keep us from being happy - attachment (to people, things, ideas, etc.) and the 2nd poison - anger/aversion… both which keep our ego satisfied yet leave us discontented (another blog post on this to come). Night three I was in bed losing my mind...straight losing it. Not able to sleep I had the same loop of thoughts going round in my head and had for the preceding 72 hours I realised, thoughts all based in attachment and my anger/aversion to them...though I was aware of this I couldn't stop them!! I tried thinking of everything and anything instead but my ego got its way.
Nothing worked, not pranayama (breathing exercises), not reciting mantras, not pretending I was a Tibetan monk in prison. I wanted so badly to stop these thoughts but couldn't on my own knowing that I had to be up in mere hours to meditate. I knew if I just accepted my thoughts as my ego at play, I’d relax but decided that was for another day. I took some Valerian Root and turned on a playlist of healing songs and immediately felt myself relax and start to fade to sleep.
Not having your phone to distract you, house chores to do, errands to run, tuned to listen to, people to talk/respond to or Netflix to watch, you really are left with just your deceitful mind telling you that you are unhappy, that you need something other than your present circumstances to be happy.
I knew I cheated turning on the tunes and downing the sleeping herbs but let myself off the hook because I'm still a student, I’m not enlightened yet...it took Buddha 49 days under that Bodhi tree so think I'm doing well.
What this experience revealed to me is: 1. that our minds really do control us and simply being aware of this is not enough to stop them...controlling our minds so that we can experience happiness (the Buddhist way) takes practise. I've meditated for 5 hours straight on a number of occasions and meditate often for shorter periods of time...I’ve done 24 hour silent retreats and have been studying Buddhism on and off for nearly 10 years but there's always plenty of distractions after these experiences. This experience of intense immersion into the subject matter of the mind and then being left alone with the mind without distraction was more challenging than I expected and a brilliant exercise.
2. how attached I am to a certain story about how my life is supposed to look and the anger that arises when I realise that DESPITE ALL THE WORK I’VE DONE I CAN STILL BE TRIGGERED BACK INTO THAT STORY. My everyday life full of distractions keeps me from noticing just how subconsciously entrenched in the story I am, how entrenched in our stories we all are. And our stories are part of what keep us believing we are unhappy.
These insights are not at all new to me but this experience was a good reminder that inner work ain't easy and that reconditioning our minds takes time:)
The remainder of the course was blissful, I got over the hump, survived the baptism of fire. I'll be writing another post on the valuable teachings of the Buddha related to Disturbing Emotions but for now I wanted to give you the quick and dirty account of what you can expect going into mind control school, because that's what a course on Buddhist studies will teach you...how to control your mind that is deceiving you all the time. I can't fail to mention that our course leader, the venerable Tsultrim, a nun from Australia who started her spiritual path at almost 50 years old, was amazingly honest, relatable, clear and hilarious - I highly recommend taking her courses, which usually take place at Kopan in January every year. Also the staff, the monks and the little children monks were all so welcoming and hospitable. I'll be going back for sure and if you’re on the spiritual path or interested in self exploration yourself, definitely consider doing a course or private stay at Kopan. The format of the courses and the environment are a perfect balance for safely getting to know yourself and your inner world, ultimately leading to more peace in your life :)