As part of the Ebb TIde feature that we are currently running, Karen Richards writes about an event that changed her perception of the ideal of training.
I came to Buddhism in my mid-twenties. Initially cautious, perhaps even a little sceptical, once I had learned the basic principles and heeded the advice given by monks on how to establish a practice, I applied myself with a certain vigour. Along with my husband, we soon developed a daily routine which involved sitting soon after rising in the morning, and a period of reflection at the end of the day, after our three small children had gone to bed.
We went on regular retreats, taking turns to visit Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey, whilst the other stayed behind to look after the children. We helped the monks with out of monastery events and eventually became part of a small group of lay people who founded a priory in Telford, in the centre of England. We encountered the usual difficulties of course – fatigue, juggling the responsibilities of daily life and all of the other little tensions that arise in training but, all in all, practice had a sort of buoyancy that moved us forward and kept us afloat.
Then came a series of events that seemed to scupper everything. My husband, David, became seriously ill and nearly died. After many months in hospital, he returned home, but he remained an invalid. Only months before the illness struck, I had been promoted at work and now found myself trying to juggle being a carer in the evenings and weekends (my eldest daughter covered the weekday shifts) and working a responsible job, full-time. Inevitably, after several months of trying to manage, I was a physical wreck. I began to make mistakes at work and eventually got managed out of my job.
I remember that time as being one of exhaustion. I wasn’t unhappy, but I became almost robotic in my actions. Sometimes, I would just stop, feel my skin, watch my breath, and remind myself that I was still alive. The Buddhist practice, that we had established over a period of some thirty years, seemed to ebb away and we simply existed, side by side. We still meditated, in our own way. There were long periods of simply sitting in our armchairs, occasionally chatting, but mostly just sitting, interspersed with me helping David to simply stay alive.
But tides turn, and slowly but surely, a sort of equilibrium returned and, with renewed motivation, we found ways of adapting our practice to accommodate our physical limitations. In some ways, it seemed like nothing occurred during that period of slack water but, looking back and reflecting, it was a time when ambitions and ideals about what Buddhist practice looked like ebbed away and we found a deeper sense of ‘being’. We never doubted the practice itself, merely our ability to do it. Doing it, it turns out, isn’t always what we think it is. What we learned, is that the little rituals of daily life, which can be very helpful to us, are not ‘it’. “It”, is something that runs deeper than that. It is taking refuge in the Buddha, even when we are looking into the abyss.
And when the sea seems to have receded, so far out we can barely see it, there is life still playing out on the shoreline. I think this poem, written by E Nesbitt, author of The Railway Children and Five Children and It, is a lovely illustration of that.
Ebb Tide by E Nesbitt
NOW the vexed clouds, wind-driven, spread wings of white,
Long leaning wings across the sea and land.
The waves creep back bequeathing to our sight
The treasure-house of their deserted sand,
And where the nearer waves curl white and low,
Knee-deep in swirling brine the slow-foot shrimpers go.
Pale breadth of sand, where clamorous gulls confer,
Marked with broad arrows by their planted feet;
White rippled pools, where late deep waters were
And ever the white waves marshalled in retreat
And the grey wind in sole supremacy
O’er opal and amber cold of darkening sky and sea.