Below is an extract from the vomit draft of my upcoming book…I hope you enjoy it.
I was excited to move into the next phase of my life—to learn from masters of strange lands. And to live a more authentic life away from the pretense and snobbery of art school. But the move from music to monastery was not without problems. My parents were concern I’d joined a cult, and I was now working in a corporate call-center for a finance company—the antithesis of everything I believed in and pushed against for so many years. From the outside, it appeared as if I was moving away from all I had worked so hard to achieve. Intuitively, I knew better, and this was confirmed with the first meeting with the Tibetan lama I’d spend the next fifteen years living and learning meditation.
I’d been attending Sunday meditation classes for about a month when I got the chance to meet the Lama in person and to ask questions that had come up. I also wanted to move into the monastery, and I was seriously thinking about becoming a monk but this required approval from the main Lama. So I’d asked those that managed his time for a private meeting in order to ask permission to move in, to bring up the idea of ordination, as well as to create a deeper connection.
On the day of the meeting, I arrived at the monastery early and nervously waited in the main kitchen as people went about their business. I was under the impression one of his Western students would lead me to his room and introduce me, but, as the allotted time approached, I was starting to wonder if I’d been forgotten when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the Lama walking towards me. I stood as he approached. He smiled and gestured for me to follow. We walked out through a side door and into an area of the main house where the weekly meditation classes were held, and the upstairs second story held his residence.
As the Lama led me up the stairs, he asked, “What do you do?” And with pride, I told him, “I’m a music student and go to the Victorian College of the Arts,” as if he would know of this school. I recall noticing how my ego inflated itself in order to appear more than it was, and I felt a little embarrassed by my response. But his reply to my remarks was genius. He immediately retorted, “Ah…music…just entertainment.” And with those words, a weight was lifted from my shoulders. Not only the weight of self-imposed expectations but, the weight created from the idea I believed that music had an inherent value beyond the activities of making or consuming it. As I mentioned above, the first thirty seconds of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme“ drips with spiritual meaning.” This was something I believed in for a very long time—that music was inherently meaningful. But this wasn’t an empirical fact I’d found. But rather, it was something I wanted to be true. And I made it be true because it somehow gave meaning to my life.
Music was my Land of Oz. A fantasy land to which I’d escape. A place that gave meaning to the angst of teenage melancholy. And this worked for me for a time. It helped me make sense of a value system thrown upon me by well-meaning people. But it was a system that I just could not digest without suffering reflux. Whenever I could, I would escape the beer-drinking-football-watching Australian culture for the free-thinking world of art, and everything seemed to be better. But now I was no longer a teenager, and it was time to be handed the red pill. Thus in a single moment with his words, the Lama ripped open the kimono to reveal the truth. My Oz was a fantasy world of make-believe without any real inherent substance. And I was relieved to be shown this truth. Relieved because I was being given permission to see through the scaffolding I’d erected to create a value-system that would ultimately limit myself.
Looking back at this first meeting now, I see these words were what I needed to hear. They were words meant just for me; for that time. A month later, I had moved in, and in true Karate-kid style was given a chore. I was shown what to clean, how to clean, and when—wax on; wax off. The area I was tasked with was the foyer of the main house along with an ornate timber spiral staircase that led to the Lama’s second-floor residence, and the meditation room itself. I felt a sense of privilege to be given this particular area and I took it very seriously. The Lama’s cook took me through the cleaning process. First, I was to dust from the top of the staircase down. Then to dust from everything to the floor of the foyer, and vacuum the massive Tibetan rugged that covered the marble floor. Then vacuum the marble floor, and wait for the Lama to go for lunch. Once he had left the area I would mop the floor and stairs of the staircase, and finally, polish the ornate timber hand-rail of the large spiral staircase that led to his residence. This was a ninety-minute task to be done weekly.
Week one arrives and I get my cleaning equipment setup and begin the highly scripted process. First, I dust from the top down. Then vacuum the floor of the foyer and marble staircase leading to the Lama’s area—all the while keeping one ear open for the Lama. Seconds before, I finished vacuuming the Lama appeared through a door on the second floor and began to walk down the staircase. Just as the cook had mentioned he was going for lunch and would leave this part of the house allowing enough time to mop the floor and have it dried by the time he returns. An hour later, and just as I am coming towards the end of polishing the timber hand-rail I hear the lama return. I stand as he enters the room. I’m about one-third of the way up the staircase, and as he passes, we do not make eye contact. The Lama continues as I wait. Then just as he reaches the top of the staircase and disappears into his living quarters, he stops, props, turns around, and asks me a question. He asked, “how do they bend the wood like this?” pointing at the hand-rail. I had no idea but I thought about it for a second or two and replied. “I’m not sure but I would imagine they heat the timber and then place it into a vice to bend it to a particular shape, and then over time it would remain there.” Without smiling he seemed to nod his head in the affirmative and went on his way. I felt great about myself and continued on with what I was doing.
Week two rolls around and I follow the same process. I dust. Then vacuum. Wait for the Lama to leave for lunch. Mop. Then polish the timber rail. And on cue, as I am finishing off the hand-rail the Lama appears through the side door. I stand and he passes me without eye contact and continues on. As he reaches the top of the staircase he stops, props, and asks, “how do they bend the wood like this?” At this point, I’m a little confused. Has he forgotten he asked this question last week? Surely someone of his reputation would not repeat himself? He is, after all, respected as a brilliant scholar of Buddhist philosophy with thousands of students all around the world. But now he is asking me the same question as if he has forgotten he asked it last week. So I set my confusion aside for the moment and answer but with a tweak. I say, “I imagine they moisten the timber first, and then place it into a vice, which is a device that will help bend the wood, and they have to use enough pressure to have the wood bend but not too much that it will break.” He seems equally assured by my answer as the previous week before he goes on his way. Confused I too continued on with what I was doing.
Then week three—same process. I dust. Then vacuum. Wait for the Lama to leave for lunch. Mop. Then polish the timber rail. On cue, as I am finishing off the hand-rail, the Lama appears through the side door. I stand and he passes me without eye contact and continues on. As he reaches the top of the staircase he stops, props, and asks, “How do they bend…” and at that moment, like downloading wisdom directly from the Lama’s mind, I understood he was not asking a question but rather, he was skilfully showing me what I needed to understand about myself. That to transform, one needs to first moisten the mind with compassion, and place it in the vice of meditation. But not too tight or you will break, and not too loose or no transformation will take place. It was as if I downloaded this nugget of wisdom before he could even finish the sentence, and as I processed what had just happened, I noticed the Lama beaming the warmest smile I’d ever seen. Thus confirming I’d finally got it. And with that, he left and the question never came up again.
Now you may be thinking, why not just explain the importance of self-compassion and meditation in the process of personal transformation? Why not just use simple, clear, and direct language to explain why these are key tools in this process? Why did the Lama instead choose to go through a three-week word game? There are real reasons for this but, there are two things I’ve noticed over the years being around such lamas. Firstly, they can be extremely patient when teaching, and they need to be. There is a Tibetan saying, it’s easy to see the flee on another’s back; hard to see the elephant on your own. Couple this with the fact that genuine transformation does not come from adopting a different set of beliefs, and we can see why patience is needed. I will go into more detail in the following sections as to why this is important but for now, I will say this, we are working against deeply ingrained tendencies to believe that what we see and think reflects a reality outside of ourselves. And that our lived experience unexamined sets up a paradigm that makes self-transformation a difficult task indeed. For this reason alone, and this speaks to the second observation, the methods leveraged by lamas can be quite unorthodox at times—case in point the story above. However, by taking the time to deliver the message that compassion and meditation are the tools of transformation in such a way that it allows this information to be assimilated through a process of self-discovery, not information retention, one discovers this truth for oneself, and in one’s own lived experience. Therefore, allowing for the possibility of self-transformation in this very process.
An endnote: this is not part of the book but something I wanted to add here for clarification. The way I define meditation both here and in general is, perhaps, not what you might imagine it to be. For me, meditation is an analytic, diagnostic, and therapeutic tool used in the process of personal development. The fact that you may become calmer as a result of meditation is simply a by-product of self-transformation.