Jessica Magnin

“It is only when the mind is free from the old that it meets everything anew, and in that there is joy.” Krishnamurti

Everything has its place in time and in space and rules are no exception. Rules and codes of conduct keep us from falling into a state of anarchy, of total chaos. But then again, aren’t rules fabricated from the mind and perhaps rooted in fear? As much as we need rules and guidelines to live an orderly life, we might question, within reason, their potential of limiting our connection and heartfelt experience with others.

Here, in sleepy Luang Prabang a list of rules is publically displayed and posted around town. These rules are meant to be taken seriously and by all means, respected. With over 350 novices and monks living between the confines of the old town, one naturally abides by these guidelines but then, I suppose that depends upon the interpreter.

The second gong rings at 5h30 signalling the commencement of saibat, the giving of alms. In the faint darkness of the early morning, a thread of burnt orange robed novices, monks and abbots form what appears to be an endless stream of barefooted bodies with metal urns dangling from a woven strap resting on their bare shoulder.

I arrive at my habitual place, bow before my two elder Lao friends, take seat on a bamboo woven stool no more than 20 centimetres from the earth, place my flip flops neatly behind me, and tuck my sin, traditional Lao skirt, under my knees assuring that my legs are fully covered. A white “pha bien,’’or scarf, drapes over my left shoulder as I secure my hair neatly into a bun.

Behind me, the thick wall of Wat Sene separates me from 20 or so novices and monks making their final adjustments to their robes before stepping outside the confines of their monastery.  A wicker basket of freshly steamed “khao niow”, sticky rice, sits on my lap and I raise it to my forehead, bow in silence and bless these offerings with goodness and love. My dear Lao friends sit next to me. We exchange only a knowing smile of the eyes, nothing more. We allow the stillness of the early morning to bathe the present moment with sacredness.

The procession begins with a monastery’s dog or two guiding the way. Bare feet and bare heads gracefully pass at just arms reach, briefly pausing before me as I place a blessed clump of sticky rice into their urn careful not to make any physical contact, not even with their urn. One’s gaze should be soft, turned downward in humbleness and respect. These are the unspoken rules of conduct while offering.

Day after day, 94 in total, trip after trip, totally 6, rainy season or not, 3 to be exact, I am here with the same presence, the same intention and the same ritual of respect. But over time, things do shift and this is what is promised even by the teachings of Buddha himself. With habit and the passing of days, things do change, even the borders of set guidelines and rules.

The change began with the reception of an occasional yet discrete meet of the eyes, a faint humble smile, a whispered ‘’sabaidee’’ or “hello’’, a ‘’kop jai lai2”, a wrapped cookie, and even a brim-to-brim smile. Here, at this precise moment, beyond the rules of conduct, beyond what we call jit, or the mind, jai, the heart meets that of another and all differences, prejudices, conflicts, insecurities, superiority and even imposed rules drop, exposing one single thing, the art of being human and limitless potential of the heart.

“To be free of all authority, of your own and that of another, is to die to everything of yesterday, so that your mind is always fresh, always young, innocent, full of vigour and passion. It is only in that state that one learns and observes. And for this, a great deal of awareness is required, actual awareness of what is going on inside yourself, without correcting it or telling it what it should or should not be, because the moment you correct it you have established another authority, a censor.” Krishnamurti

Rules are necessary but they can harden us. We know this yet their implementation keeps us in tact. The mind is full of ideas about right and wrong, good and bad and packaged solutions to keep things from oscillating too far. Because the mind gravitates toward set boundaries, we create more. It is our mind’s way of making sense of the unpredictability of life and keeping chaos and fear at bay. Yet, our hearts yearn for more sacred moments of expression and connection and the humbleness of being human. Incapable of truly experiencing this humanness, the mind, limited in its limitlessness can only just begin to conceptualise what this softness might look like, feel like and be like. So within the confinements of suggested guidelines and rules of conduct, remember your heart. It is within the walls of the heart that love can be felt and expressed beyond measure.

The Shelf Life of an Open Door

The Shelf Life of an Open Door  The shelf life of an open door is unknown to even the wisest of beings. It may be instantaneous, fleeting like your next breath or lasting more like a handful of days. The dilemma is that no one really ever knows. When there is a calling from the heart, from its deepest chambers, there is a reason, and when on the path these heart callings are the stepping-stones that pave its way.

When one hesitates, idle thoughts move in, obscuring clear vision and obstructing the reality of what is. These thoughts are founded mostly in “what ifs” and tainted by the emotion of fear, bahya in Sanskrit, the sheer discomfort of the unknown. Moving into unchartered waters can be frightening like stepping out on a huge limb or slipping through an open door into very new and possibly unstable grounds. But this is what the heart asks of us, to stay put and remain completely open to what is even when life squeezes us to close down and run for our lives.

An encounter in a far away land was the beginning of two profound relationships that were forged through loving kindness and pure joy. Through one simple email, one precise sentence on a very given day, a life changing door cracked opened for only a brief moment on a sunny afternoon and began a chain of events never to be forgotten. The call of my heart manifested louder than any obstacle and naturally things fell wonderfully into place. With the blessings of my family and friends and a round trip ticket to Laos in hand, I was more than ready to embark on what was to come.

Waiting is never easy for the human mind. It is always easier to be the first to jump into the icy cold spring waters or be the first to present one’s oral presentation at school. Waiting induces paralysis and this I know only too well. At the young age of 5, I remember our son would gently tap the crown of his head when we asked him where his patience had gone. He would intuitively reply with a small tap on his crown “it is in my head.’’ And thus my head became the center of my attention during the next four days in an attempt to “patiently’’ wait.

The wheels of my mind went round and round like a broken record playing again and again. With an average of 60,000 thoughts per day that occupy the mind of most, and knowing that 90% of those thoughts are repetitive it is no wonder why we get stuck.  FEAR in big capital letters was everywhere. The word would jump out at me from between the lines of my books on compassion, it would reveal itself as the theme of a song and even show its face in insurance advertisements. The interesting thing was this thing called FEAR was my own. Even the most conservative of my friends and acquaintances blessed and encouraged me to make this pilgrimage. I quickly realized that there was no one to blame and nowhere to hide. Fear had taken me into her grip and squeezed me so tightly that at moments I lost my breath and considered forgoing my ticket.

In my waking hours my mind resembled a ping-pong match batting back and forth with question and response. Had I gone mad? Was it really necessary to travel close to 30 hours across the big blue to some foreign land for an experience, an unknown one at that? Would these sacred relationships change, possibly even end? Of course they would change, but doesn’t everything? No one needs to meditate on the other side of the world. Meditation is “here and now” and not “there and then.” I know that! Do I really want to disrupt generations of gender tradition? Isn’t change inevitable?

Pema Chödrön says that strong emotions are like flags going up to say ‘’you’re stuck!’’ She continues by explaining that we have the choice and the opportunity to stay with the painful emotion and observe it with compassion and curiosity or shut down and run. It is naturally human to want to know what will happen next, to feel secure and to avoid uncertainty at all costs, but it is also the root cause of our suffering according to the teachings of Buddha. We trade precious moments and empowering opportunities of love and growth for our so-called security, which is constantly collapsing because there is no such thing. So, I ask myself as Pema asks us to do, ‘’ do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly or do I choose to live and die in fear?’’

Those next couple of days were spent on my cushion watching the wax and wane of my thoughts and this big thing called Fear. Watching with curiosity and compassion gave way to greater insight. I breathed her into my heart with a huge welcome and exhaled space and softness around her again and again. Soon the thoughts of FEAR became just that, the thoughts of fear, until they became like occasional clouds passing through a sublime turquoise sky.

“The next time you encounter fear, consider yourself lucky. This is where the courage comes in. Usually we think that courageous people have no fear but the truth is that they are intimate with it.’’ (Pema Chödrön) Becoming intimate with our emotions, with life and with whatever keeps us from being free is liberating. It might be said that this humbling path is counterintuitive but it is the golden gateway to surrendering to life and its fragility as well as its awesomeness. It is the work of the peaceful warrior, the one who remains courageously open no matter what. Bravery doesn’t necessarily mean that we are fearless. Being brave is rather not letting her stop you in your tracks.  It is actually “a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”(Pema Chödrön)

Doors open and close and so do opportunities, encounters and even life itself but if we are so busy counting our thoughts like sheep jumping over the moon on sleepless nights, we miss the moon all together.  There is a solution and resolution to whatever crosses your path. Allowing yourself to become familiar with whatever life generously offers you is the path. “Like all explorers, we are drawn to discover what’s out there without knowing yet if we have the courage to face it.”(Pema Chödrön) So soften and know that you are in good hands, the hands of whatever you are experiencing. Let her be your friend as she has many things to show you and many places to take you.


An Open Door

An open doorDoors open and close a hundred times throughout the day. Such is life. Curious and receptive attention is needed to know when a door has opened inviting you into the kingdom of newness, potential change and connection. May it be an encounter, words of wisdom slipped in between mundane conversation, or even a dream. Each, in its own way may be that door, that message, that one that offers a fresh new perspective or a creative explosion of growth and freedom. There may be no logic or reason but your deepest gut tells you that it is right. In Sanskrit we call this clear seeing or inner wisdom, prajna.

It is just 6am when we returned to our modest guesthouse along the Nam River. Carrying empty bowls that were once filled with benevolent offerings that were humbly slipped into the urns of an endless silent thread of burnt orange robes. The sun had just begun its ascent above the lush emerald hillsides as we made our way down a narrow alley à la queue leu-leu sandwiched between a monastery and a strand of closely woven makeshift homes. Except for an occasional footstep, silence permeated the air. As I followed the steps in front of me, I wiped the remaining sleep from the corners of my eyes. For no apparent reason except that of the open door of destiny, my eyes gazed to the left and locked with those of one Buddhist monk among many. Time seemed to stand still, suspended like the full moon in the blackness of the night’s canvas. A large white brick wall separated us. Neither spoke, neither moved for what seemed like an eternity but I knew a door had just opened so I consciously stepped inside.

This encounter became the beginning of an endearing transformational relationship between a searching yogini and a peaceful Buddhist monk. We spoke for hours, mostly question and response, politely taking turns and making the most of this auspicious encounter.

Living a humble life in a monastery and following the teachings of the Buddha must have huge metamorphic consequences. I yearned to know the truth. Do we become immune to life’s ups and downs, to people’s moods and even to our own? Does the mind become forever tranquil, the heart light and joyous? Does happiness and compassion prevail? Do we bathe in the essential and do we drink the cup of loving kindness morning and night?

These quintessential qualities are what I aspire to and yearn to embody in every cell of my body. Some days it seems so simple but far too often I find myself affected by the unimportant, struggling with the swinging moods of others and my own incessant thoughts. Peace remains at bay until I am able to gently tether it back to the cave of my heart and the corners of my mind through deep meditation and conscious practice. It is a process, an infinite journey into mindfulness.

An open doorThe magic of modern technology has allowed the searching yogini and the Buddhist monk to transport our conversations from that auspicious day within the confines of his monastery, across the oceans and into the here and now. I am forever grateful for this open door, this leap of faith and for the simplicity of it all. I have come to realize through the gift of our encounter that whether we are a sage living in a cave, a householder raising 4 kids, a Buddhist monk dedicating his life to the Dharma or a searching yogini we all strive in some form or fashion to aspire to a place of serenity, of ease and of openness. Hopefully we all do our best with what we have at that moment and that is where we are.

Mindfulness, known as samma-sati in Pali and samyak smrti in Sanskrit, is the ability to pay close attention to what is. As the great Buddhist American nun Pema Chödrön says, “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh.’’

So sit back and relax but remain fully awake to what life brings your way. The next open door may be your invitation to peace, or resolution or even an occasion to let go. Aspire to embody compassion, tolerance, love and peace of mind and heart and know that they are attainable in small and sometimes grand doses depending on the moment. No matter where you are with it all, make that ok.

Pema Chödrön

“When you open yourself to the continually changing, impermanent, dynamic nature of your own being and of reality, you increase your capacity to love and care about other people and your capacity to not be afraid. You’re able to keep your eyes open, your heart open, and your mind open. And you notice when you get caught up in prejudice, bias, and aggression. You develop an enthusiasm for no longer watering those negative seeds, from now until the day you die. And, you begin to think of your life as offering endless opportunities to start to do things differently.”