Life Boats and other important stuff from Retreat

This post is especially for those who encouraged me to go on retreat, the Monks and Nuns who imparted great wisdom, and everyone else who has been a part of my new life over the last 2 years.

Today I want to share my thoughts on the answer to a question I asked on retreat with Ajahn Dtun at Wat Buddha Dhamma just last week. My question was “How does one gain wisdom when deciding how to balance looking after the body and the mind, when the two responsibilities seem to be at odds.” For example, whether or not to go on retreat with a chronic illness, when the process of gaining spiritual teaching and merit, contributes to the illness. Ajahn Dtun had mentioned many times already that people who are sick, have the responsibility of taking care of themselves… I wanted to know more about this. When do you say “no, now is the time for rest” (and miss out on the particular opportunity), and when to say “yes, my body is up for the challenge”, despite the possible negative physical effects. And also I guess, what does he mean by “look after yourself”. I figured he has this covered, having survived bowel cancer.

Why has this been so hard for me? I think it’s mostly fear. Fear of being somewhere I can’t cope physically, and having to obviously stand on the sidelines, whilst everyone else does their part with work and attending meditation sittings etc. Also taking time or attention from others, when they should be focusing on their own time there. The physical and mental strain of being out of my environment, cold, hot, tired, not able to have quiet etc. The fear of a crash during, or on return, that sets me back a long way. The disappointment then, of being back where I was years ago. The fear of being responsible for a really bad decision.

One of the reasons these fears have been so alive, is that I believe my body has a memory of it’s own, and in the past I have not been able to go camping etc without a huge crash, and my body just brings the fears up to protect me. However the reality is I walk 10kms a day and gym everyday too. So it took a fair bit of logical conversing, but eventually I think my body was cautiously optimistic and willing to give it a go. (In the end I was so excited I think it just gave up and jumped on board). And the end result was that I had a couple of sleep ins, didn’t make all the group meditation sessions, did attend all the dhamma talks, worked my fair share (probably more), socialised, meditated, studied, walked everywhere, laughed, cried, got hot, got cold, it rained, had overly chatty housemates for two nights, and felt really proud of how I just enjoyed my time, and skillfully ‘looked after myself’ when I really needed to. Although at times I had to be really mindful and control my emotions and those fears as I went. Now I can’t wait for the next trip there, and any camping, fun adventures in the future.

Back to the answer….

Ajahn Dtun’s answer was quite lengthy, broken up by the fact he uses an interpreter, as he speaks Thai. And at very first, I didn’t think he had fully understood my question. But as I (and many others) realised over the weekend, he has the wisdom to give you the answer you need, not the exact answer to the question you might have asked. (Ajahn Dtun is considered to be an Arahant, and after the retreat, I believe it !)

One analogy helped me understand the assigning of responsibility and the authority I have within myself. Those who are ill (which in reality is all of us to varying degrees) have the serious task of looking after our bodies in this life. If you imagine that your body is a boat, and you, as your present self, have this one life time to get from this side to the other without sinking, then your task is to stay mindful and tend the boat so as to complete your journey in the best state of health possible. Because we have physical form, our physical health provides support to our mental and emotional health, and vice versa they are interconnected and all important.

Since coming back from retreat, I have gained some insight already regarding this balance. I have been catching up on energy and think by the end of the week I will be back to my normal self. However the impact is minimal, and I realise that small sacrifices that have a quick expiry date are ok. The wisdom from teachers such as Ajahn Dtun, far outweigh the catching up needed afterwards. So a little bit of patching, for an amazing journey in my boat.

To further the analogy, this morning I thought about the idea that maybe we actually have a fleet, rather than just the one boat. Ajahn Dtun said later in his response, that I had equal responsibility to look after my mind. So, the other boats represents our mental, spiritual and emotional wellbeing. And again, we are responsible for each boat being seaworthy until we reach the end of this life whenever that is for each of us. Ajahn Dtun also said that when the damage became unrepairable (as it eventually will), our responsibility was to allow the boat to sink gracefully knowing that we had done our best to sail as far as possible, fulfilling our responsibilities in this life.

Some thoughts on responsible boating from Master B.

Master Behram Ghista answered a question once about balancing family life and daily practice. I think the assumption was (as would be easily defended) that your family comes first, kids, partner. Dinner time, bedtimes, homework help etc. And you squish in the time to practice if you can afterwards. After all, Mothers and Fathers are supposed to be sacrificial. Therefore it was not possible to have as much spiritual growth with such a busy life. However he was very insistent that there is nothing more important than your daily devotion to spiritual practice, and it just took more effort and commitment with a family or busy lifestyle. Having set your practice as first priority, your family life, work life, relationships would be easier to manage, calmer, happier. That in prioritising your own practice, you guarantee your subsequent interaction with others flowing from that practice. Through your personal wisdom gained from your dedication and commitment, you manage every other thing skillfully, without harm and with great love. Tend your spiritual boat, and it leads the others. Perhaps this boat has the compass, the rudder and the sails.

Master B talks a lot about being creative and spontaneous. Which brings to mind that whilst a commitment to regular time and place practice is very important, the ability to be creative can allow us to stay committed on days when things just go crazy. When the wind is blowing a gale, and the spray is reducing visibility to zero. There is no moment in each day where we cannot be grateful, mindful and present. It just takes a little more effort than in your regular sunny, calm space.

He also mentions that true wisdom comes from solitary practice. Having someone in your life to share the dhamma with, may give you mental and emotional support and stimulation, and to have such a person is a blessing. But you will only truly get your own insight in solitude, so make sure you spend time with people who understand this. Share the ride, but mind your own business boat, you cannot repair someone else’s for them, nor can they for you.

Don’t wait till the water is knee deep


So the idea of being mindful and committed enough to mend the boat when it gets damaged is the thing. However we are not always aware of the damage or it’s source. Life is tricky. Intuition and gut feeling can alert us to unease, yet it takes the practice and concentration, dedication, to find the source of the unease. Then it takes time to repair the leaks and holes, and mindfulness to not allow the same damage to happen again. We may see how we treat ourselves and others as symptomatic, but it’s not always obvious where the water is coming in. So firstly we need to know that there are leaks and holes and how to find the leaks and holes, and this takes practice, and practice takes time. Too much busyness, even good and selfless busyness, blocks our senses. We cannot hear the drip of the water coming in, or see the damp bottom of the boat. Nor smell the damp rising like a clear fog around our spiritual space. Too often we are not mindful enough to catch the first drip. Another thought is sometimes at best we patch. We can certainly remove ill will, resentment and all manner of negative emotions and thoughts, but some damage is deep, and not everything can be healed completely in this life. Repairs can represent our liberation from suffering from the cause, but eventually the boats must still sink due to their impermanence. And when that time comes, lie back and rest for good. It’s ok :).

So what do we have.
A fleet of boats to mend and patch, and have amazing adventures in. This life of storms and sunshine, rain and wind. It’s a great analogy, because it’s so easy to visualise. Certainly we are not out on the ocean of life alone, but some things are just our responsibility. And for me that’s been a key insight from Ajahn Dtun. Through wisdom and mindfulness I can fully take charge of my own care. No one else can. Their misunderstandings, comments or attitudes about what I have to do to mend my boats and sail on, is really their problem. And with a strong lead boat (spiritual) my other boats can follow without stress and strain of the currents of life in this world. To use the compass of my lead boat, everything else falls into place behind. Sure the physical one may start to resemble a second hand tinny, with barnacles and turtle poo, but when it gets damaged, I can just jump across, repair it, and jump back to the front, where I can see clearly ahead and enjoy the adventure.

Happy Sailing !


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