A rocky road to Mindfulness – Gelong Thubten

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Yogalife talks to British Buddhist monk Gelong Thubten, who is going to be in Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature to be held in February 2020. The millennial monk tells Viki Shah all about his journey of self-discovery.

Image Credit: Steve-Ullathorne-scaled

Please tell us about your journey and how you came to this point.  I was born and raised in the UK. In my early 20’s I suffered from a burn-out after extreme amounts of stress, which led to a phase of severe bad health; I had almost had a heart attack. This caused me to completely reevaluate my life. I heard about a Buddhist Monastery in Scotland, and so I went there to become a monk; I was desperate for something radical that would help my mind. I have now been a monk for 26 years and my journey so far has involved training at the monastery, also spending time in long meditation retreats, after which I began to help run meditation centres in busy towns and cities. I teach mindfulness and meditation in lots of different environments. I recently wrote a book called ‘A Monk’s Guide to Happiness, meditation in the 21st century’.

Tell us about your ordination into becoming a monk. How was the process? How did it affect you?
When I became a monk it was only going to be for one year – I took short-term ordination. There is a formal ceremony with the abbot of the monastery, a kind of initiation rite, and you definitely feel as if you’re entering a completely new way of life, a kind of rebirth. I loved it so much, and found it so meaningful, that I decided to extend my time as a monk for some more years, and then I eventually committed to the full, life-long ordination. After that ceremony I felt as if the cells in my body had clicked into place, I felt really at home.

Is it something similar to the Japanese process of Hikikomori? Does being alone or in isolation help you change or rethink your perspective?
No, it is not like Hikikomori! Actually the monastic life involves a mixture of times of solitary reflection and also times where we’re working with others. You can learn a lot about the mind from both situations. Periods of being alone, training the mind with meditation practices, can help us to have more compassion for the human condition, and this can improve our ability to connect positively to those around us and to the world at large. It’s all about developing more kindness and compassion.

What was your training like? Tell us something about it
I am still training! It doesn’t stop. I have been lucky to study under some of the great meditation teachers from Tibet, and I’ve spent a few years in intensive meditation retreats, the longest of which was four years long. During a retreat you don’t meet people from outside – you’re totally cut off, no phones or news, and you’re meditating in long sessions throughout the day.  

Was re-entering the world a shock after this profound experience?
After coming out of that four year long retreat I went to London and was quite shocked at the speed of things. The smartphone revolution, as well as different types of social media, had all happened during the period I was in retreat. So I was quite surprised by the stress this now created in people’s lives. The digital age was supposed to make our lives easier but in many ways we’ve ended up too busy. 

What according to you is mindfulness? What does it do to us?
It is very similar to meditation. It’s all about training the mind to be present and happy, less controlled by negative thoughts and emotions. There’s nothing wrong with thinking and feeling, and in meditation or mindfulness practice we are not trying to clear the mind, but the training is to help us become less negatively influenced by our mental activity. It’s a practice to be done every day, and it involves siting still and training the mind to focus on the present moment – often we use our own breathing as the support – and when the mind wanders, we gently return our attention to the breath (just breathing naturally). This helps us become less controlled by our thoughts and feelings. Slowly in our lives we can learn to have more choice in how to think and feel. The training also helps us develop more compassion for ourselves and for others.

How does one become mindful while living in the day to day world?
This is a really important point. Meditation is not just about siting down and doing formal sessions. It is also about practicing ‘micro-moments’ of mindful awareness many times per day – even in busy situations. Then we are bringing the power of meditation into our daily lives, and it really begins to change our habitual reactions to stress.

How can it help us achieve a better Work Life Balance?
I think if we meditate every day, it helps provide us with greater peace and focus. This will benefit both our working lives and our time at home. It gives us the tools to help us bring things into balance. 

Does our dependence on the digital world make us lose our ability to be mindful? Are we constantly on the lookout for something and never at peace with what we have?
I think that’s true – the more influenced by the digital world we become, the less easy it is for us to be present and to appreciate the things around us. We are constantly searching for more. Also we become increasingly dissatisfied with ourselves and with our lives, as advertising companies constantly tell us we don’t have enough. 

We hear about the benefits of Vipassana where one has to be silent for a long period of time. You have experienced this. Is it easy? How does it help? Do you think that the people these days need to do this often? Are they retreating in shells or are they talking too much via the social media?
I haven’t done a Vipassana retreat, it’s a different tradition to the one I follow (which is Tibetan Buddhism). I have however done other forms of silent retreat, and I think it’s really useful. The silence enhances the meditation practice as you get less distracted through talking during the breaks between the meditation sessions. I think periods of silence help to regenerate our energy.

Can you suggest one or two mini-mindfulness easy to practice sessions for our readers?

  1. Three Minute Micro-Meditation:
    Take in the room around you. Explore the light, the shadows and any sounds.
    Feel the ground under your feet.
    Then focus on the contact between your body and the chair.
    Switch your attention to the texture of the clothing under your fingers, as your hands rest in your lap.
    Become aware of your shoulders. Maybe they feel tense or tight, but that’s OK.
    Now focus on the front of your body.
    Feel how the breath moves your body.
    Breathe naturally and without effort.
    Whenever your mind wanders, gently return to the present moment, using your body as the focus.
  2. Sky Meditation:
    Look at the sky: maybe it’s clear and blue, or maybe there are clouds.
    Your mind is like the sky: limitless and spacious. Feel as if your mind slowly mixes with the sky.
    Keep looking at the sky.
    When you feel distracted, remember that thoughts are like clouds, and the deep blue sky is always there behind them. Your mind is bigger than your thoughts.
    At the end, close your eyes and focus on your body for a few moments.
    Visit: www.emirateslitfest.com to book a session.

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