My friendship with Lydia has survived an infamous university orientation camp, messy pub crawls, epic road trips, alcohol-soaked music festivals and an amateur Buffy the Vampire Slayer video production. But 15 years after I first met her, she’s replaced those shenanigans with the pursuit of simplicity and stillness.
“I may as well start from the beginning, which is when I first met Bhante, my meditation teacher… I was 16.
Mum’s yoga instructor was hosting a meditation class at my family home. I went along and just sat at the back. The meditation itself didn’t go well – I was overthinking the entire time.
But, when I saw Bhante, it was non-romantic love at first sight.
He had this amazing tranquility about him and could laugh so easily — not at a joke, but from somewhere really pure. It felt like he understood all of these mysteries that no one else knew about.
Originally from Sri Lanka, Bhante moved to Melbourne seeking refuge from the devastating civil war. I met him a couple more times throughout high school but it wasn’t until the end of my Arts degree – when I was about to start my honors in Politics – that I decided to learn more about meditation. I was feeling directionless and started questioning whether a life of fun, good friends and a steady job would be enough.
I knew that Bhante would have some answers.
After more than 25 years of civil war, the political situation in Sri Lanka had stabilised so Bhante had returned to his monastery and I arranged to visit for a month.
This is when my love of meditation began.
I wasn’t particularly good at meditating, but it gave me a lightness of being — some respite from being so intense. In our culture we’re trained to be analytical, to think deeply and critically. The month in Sri Lanka taught me the power and beauty of simplicity.
I’d always assumed you have to get more complex to find the answers, but you actually have to simplify things.
This was a big revelation for me.
My life felt like a clash of two worlds that couldn’t co-exist and I felt so drawn to continuing my meditation practice that I dropped out of uni, started working as a carer, donated any spare money to the monastery, practised meditation and thought a lot about Buddhism.
The next time I went to Sri Lanka I wanted to buy a one way ticket but the day I left, Mum was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Looking back, it seems extremely callous, but at the time I didn’t take the diagnosis too seriously. Perhaps it was denial, or a misunderstanding of the Buddhist idea of ‘detachment’, but I simply put Mum’s health to the back of my mind, and ploughed on with my spiritual trip.
Understandably, my family was very upset with me. But, to my surprise, when I arrived in Sri Lanka, Bhante refused to teach me, and instead only offered to chant and send blessings to my mum. With this important teaching on compassion, I flew home for Mum’s operation. I then returned to the monastery to immerse myself in meditation and Buddhism for four more months.
It was around the time of Mum’s diagnosis that I made the decision to study psychology.
When I returned to Sri Lanka for the third time, during my psychology studies, I felt differently. I experienced a strange backlash to my earlier decision to invest so much time and money in the monastery. I guess the purpose I had found pursuing psychology somewhat lessened the purpose I previously attributed to Sri Lanka.
Over the past four years, I’ve been disconnected from Sri Lanka and have instead focused on how we can bring the good of Buddhism into our lives without having to change our lifestyles or become a monk.
So much about our culture is in conflict with Buddhism. We have short attention spans, we focus on three different things at once, we overcomplicate, we get lost in the virtual world and we make ourselves busy. Being submerged in this way of life, my biggest challenge is to continue to reconnect with simplicity and stillness without losing my personality.
I think that the best ideas come from stillness. An artist like Picasso had a blank canvas and a pallet and with his paints he would create something so beautiful from a place of stillness. You can’t think your way to great answers.
Mindfulness is about training your mind to reconnect with the present moment.
When we think about the past and the future, things get complicated because it’s endless and overwhelming.
But when we practice focusing on the present, the mind becomes more comfortable resting in the unknown – the mystery of being and living. This is such an inspiring way to live.
Some of the most rewarding work I do now is running meditation and mindfulness classes. I’m working with people with chronic pain and people who are really sick, in groups at both a hospital and university.
I also enjoy bringing Buddhism into my general working week as a psychologist. I teach patients basic mindfulness skills and use these techniques for my own stress reduction. These practices open up a window of tranquility in the crazy lives we lead.
I run two retreats a year and the next is a silent retreat. I’ve always loved Science, so if possible, I’d like to look at the lasting impact of people’s heart rhythms during the retreat. I’m fascinated by the way meditation influences rhythms of the heart – not just the heartbeat, but also the heart rate variability. This is a big predictor of heart attacks, stroke and life expectancy.
Bhante passed away last year so after a long period of disconnection, I went back to Sri Lanka. In Buddhism the teacher-student relationship is sacred and, while I’m not a devout person, my teachings were so transformative that I needed to pay my respects. I think Bhante would have liked that.”