The Path by Gaye (Dawa) Rowley

The great gift and paradox of The Path is that it not only leads to, but simultaneously also IS only this moment.

All my life I’d yearned for a spiritual expression that made sense. Even as a youngster I couldn’t bear dogma. Then, when I was pregnant with my first child, an old schoolfriend dropped by for a visit. He was on his way down to build the first hut at something called a retreat centre at some place called Wangapeka. He’d been living, of all places, on Crete studying something called meditation with someone whose name I could never properly recall without mouthing ‘Rumplestiltskin’ under my breath first. (Apologies Namgyal Rinpoche)

I asked questions. Lots of questions! And, suddenly, there it was! A non-dogmatic, inclusive philosophy. The notion of intrinsic human goodness. The Bodhisattva Vow. The word ‘Enlightenment’. And best of all? A methodical Path to get there.

I assumed, as most people do, that The Path followed a map; that Enlightenment is a place you end up at. A quiet place, no doubt. One where gentle people sit still a lot, (and never slam doors).

I mean I knew it wouldn’t be a literal journey. I realised it must be about, you know, Improving Your Character and Getting Rid of What’s Wrong with you. That sort of thing. I thought it might be a bit like one of those guided bus tours where you pause a lot for cups of tea and buy postcards to show where you’ve been. Only on The Path to Enlightenment you sort of were the postcard. I guessed there would be a lot of being serene once you arrived. For sure it had to be about changing yourself; a sort of surgical removal of faults. I mean, what would be the point otherwise?

I doubted, however, that I’d be eligible for a seat on the Enlightenment bus. Surely only monks and yogis (and daring single people) could do that. Their lifestyle demonstrated that nothing was more important to them. They gave up everything. They shaved their heads! That alone would have to make them better candidates than me. I had a husband and a mortgage and a baby on the way. Far too ordinary, too worldly.

I consoled myself with the thought that there were probably heaps of rules I’d never be able to keep anyway. (Like silence for a start!) Plus, and I thought this might be the clincher, I didn’t want to shave my head. I looked at my baby bump (and my shiny hair) and decided the best I could do would be to aim for a vaguely parallel course.

Years rolled by. I stumbled through the debris of my life squeezing in ten more addresses, three more babies, a divorce and a large dose of undiagnosed PTSD. I read voraciously. I used Body Speech and Mind (a book summarising three months of intense teaching by Namgyal Rinpoche) as a daily handbook. I attended every class I could – often with children in tow for lack of a babysitter. Formal practice was a challenge. I managed it by getting up earlier than the children. Except when sickness (mine or theirs), exhaustion (ditto), school holidays, visitors or changed work hours got in the way. But the notion that meditation could contribute to the wellbeing of all beings, and the Bodhisattva ideal made it worth the effort.

During an urban retreat, Tarchin once pointed out that stopping at traffic lights could be used a cue for noticing the quality of your mind (and perhaps even nudging it a few clicks toward the wholesome). With music lessons, sports practices, dentists, doctors, birthday parties, and play dates for four children I was certainly familiar with traffic lights. If I could call my mind to a loving state (or current Sadhana practice) in Auckland traffic, I could do it anywhere. I also spent a lot of time scaling mountains of laundry, cooking, mending, sweeping, supervising homework and applying Band-Aids to ouchies, not to mention time on the phone with friends, part-time work and a smidge of academic study. I tended to treat real life like a slightly shameful poor cousin of the meditative path. But one day I asked myself, what’s the point of meditation anyway, if it’s not about being kinder and more present in your life? Practice always comes in handy when it comes to improving skills. I might not achieve become Enlightened in this lifetime, but I could use it to practise some of the precepts and attitudes. Why not?

Now, after more than 45 years of study, retreat work and domestic mayhem, I have realised that moving toward Enlightenment isn’t about silence or bliss (though both are necessary tools) or even perfection. It’s about how we place our attention. It’s about finding ways to arrive more freshly, lovingly and wisely in each moment. It’s not about liking everything that goes on or about avoiding preferences. It’s about using our attention to be less swayed by our likes and dislikes.

And I have learned this. The tender, frustrating, overwhelming, flesh-and-blood immediacy of caring for others can be a rich and valid spiritual path. The great gift and paradox of The Path, it turns out, is that it not only leads to, but simultaneously also IS only the moment you are in. It is up to us how we use the moment.

Gaye Rowley will facilitate a short retreat at the Wangapeka in July, exploring how domestic responsibility can be a Path to freedom.