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Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?

02/05/2016

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About to turn the page on a new chapter in my working life, leaving one job behind after nearly eight years and about to start another, I’ve been reflecting a little on the meaning of life. Well, sort of. It’s only taken me nearly forty seven years but, hey, better late than never. And it was in this incurably curious frame of mind that I wandered into the serene splendour of the Wellcome Collection on London’s Euston Road to view their latest exhibition on Buddhist meditation entitled “Tibet’s Secret Temple”.

Mindfulness and meditation are, of course, all the rage at the moment; from magazine articles to mobile phone apps to colouring books it seems that everyone is keen to cash in on the mindfulness pound. The Barbican was even the venue for the world’s first “mindfulness opera” last autumn playing for three nights to a packed auditorium. I’m relatively new to it all to be honest and apart from a brief flirtation with the Headspace app (and clearly I’m not the only one as the app is now a worldwide business worth more than £25 million) I don’t think I’ve ever practiced meditation in the usual sense of the word. But I’ve often thought that my regular long distance runs, particularly when surrounded by nature, have a certain meditative quality. Or even just sitting down to read a book on a busy train or bus can be mindful.

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Essentially mindfulness involves taking a step back from our thoughts and concentrating on the present moment often by focusing on breathing and reconnecting with our bodies rather than living in our heads. Instead of dwelling on past mistakes or fretting about the future it encourages us to focus on the “now” and notice sensations in our bodies or the world around us. There’s a wealth of evidence that it can help us overcome restlessness and anxiety and make us healthier. Even the NHS, often dismissive of “alternative” therapies now recommends mindfulness as a way of preventing depression in people who have suffered bouts of depression in the past. Surely anything that might allow us to cut the billions spent on painkillers and antidepressants is worthy of further investigation?

Yet the sculptures, paintings, manuscripts and costumes of the bulk of the exhibition make it clear that Buddhist meditation is about much more than simply trying to live a healthier life or find some head space in an often frantic world. It’s a means of transforming the mind and developing a new understanding of life. There’s talk of chakras and energy flows and the interconnectedness of our minds and bodies and soon I can hear the opening chords of The Smiths’ “Still Ill” and the line “does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?” ear-worming its way into my brain. Buddhist meditation teaches the values of patience, empathy, compassion and gentleness and that through regular meditation over a long period of time we can actually change the way our brains work, a concept referred to as neuroplasticity, and ultimately reach a higher state of being beyond our own egocentricity.

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The temple referred to in the title of the exhibition is the Lukhang Temple which lies on a small island on a lake in the Tibetan capital city of Lhasa. On the top floor of the temple a “meditation chamber” holds a series of sumptuous seventeenth century murals that the current Dalai Lama has called “the jewels of Tibetan civilisation”. They stand as an artistic representation of the Buddhist path to enlightenment, a bit like a Buddhist equivalent of the Sistine Chapel, and are hidden behind curtains viewable only by successive Dalai Lamas.

Near the end of the exhibition a darkened room provides the opportunity to view digital representations of three of the murals from the Lukhang Temple’s meditation chamber. The colours are stunning; golds and greens and pinks grabbing the attention and then when you’re drawn in the level of detail is astonishing with yogis in strange poses and birds, trees, animals and waterfalls revealing some of the ancient practices of tantric Buddhism. Somewhere amidst all of this is meant to be the “cosmic vagina” symbolising the birth of the universe.

I sat down struggling to absorb everything. Next to me a young woman, her face illuminated by her mobile phone screen, was busy updating her Facebook status. Moments later, across the other side of the room, a ringtone chimed and a voice intoned “I’m sorry, I’m in an exhibition at the moment, I’ll call you back”. I’m not sure how long I was sat there for but as I gazed in wonder at the shapes that the multitude of yogis managed to twist their bodies into and pondered on the significance of the occasional flying body part my attention was disturbed by a pushchair, almost the size of a small car, colliding with my right leg as a family tried to negotiate their way around the, by now rather crowded, darkened room. Concentration disrupted, I got up and made for the exit perhaps a little more frazzled than when I entered. By now a large queue of people were waiting to get in.

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Outside, my eyes adjusting to the daylight again, I crossed the road towards Euston station. Even on Sunday afternoon four lanes of traffic roared up and down the road occasionally snarling at any pedestrian with the temerity to disrupt its passage. An ambulance sped by, sirens blaring, desperately trying to elbow its way through the traffic. Once across the road, I looked back at the magnificent Wellcome Collection building. In its neoclassical, pillared elegance it gazed back at me as if lost in contemplation itself, letting the streams of vehicles, like good and bad thoughts, drift by. Maybe there’s something in this mindfulness malarkey after all? I dunno.

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From → Culture, London

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