Now I must confess to you, I always worry about going to religious things on my quest to discover bargainous things to do in the capital. I don’t have a faith myself, and it seems wrong to treat other people’s as a form of recreation. But I was oddly excited about going to the London Buddhist Centre for a meditation class. I have never yet met a nasty Buddhist, and meditation is available to people of all faiths and none, so all was well.
The London Buddhist Centre (LBC) is about five minutes walk from Bethnal Green tube, assuming you can find the right tube exit. My advice is that you take the exit marked “National Museum of Childhood” and ask to be pointed towards Roman Road. The LBC is housed in a former fire station, but you can’t tell from the inside, because once you open the little red door you are hit by the strong sense of incense and the sight of a lovely little patio garden. As you go through the main door of the building, you pass a little reception desk which was manned by a gentleman wearing some sort of tie-dye jumper and a beard which looked strikingly like that of Albus Dumbledore. I explained I was there for the lunchtime meditation class. He seemed genuinely thrilled that it was my first time there, and he excitedly explained the drill. I took my shoes off and hung up my coat where I was directed to, and made sure all my valuables were safely in my handbag, which I was allowed to take into the shrine. I then put my £2 in the bowl, and went through. Yes, you read that right – £2. Astonishingly good value, I thought.
As I took up residence in the shrine room with around 30 other people, a youngish gentleman wearing a white stole and a red lumberjack shirt went to the front of the class and sat down. He explained that we were going to be doing a meditation devoted to improving our friendliness and our loving kindness. We would think about ourselves, a good friend (that we weren’t attracted to and was about our age), someone we didn’t know well, but was a regular part of our lives and a difficult person (we were advised not to think about someone we actually hated unless we were on a proper retreat). We would think about each of these people in turn, and think the following four statements about them: may they be happy, may you be well, may they be free from suffering, and may they progress. To be honest, I’m fairly full of loving kindness at the best of times, so I struggled to think of anyone who was a bit difficult, but after a suitable period of contemplation, I came up with the goods. I thought about myself, my best friend Sara, the nice lady at the corner ship and someone else whose identity shall remain with me until the grave.
The guru then gave instructions about sitting, which is a complicated business. I had already been eyeing up everyone else’s mat, and noticed that everybody else had gone for extraordinarily elaborate arrangements of cushions. I’d picked out one poxy cushion. I had cushion envy. It turns out that your options when meditating are sitting on a wooden chair, or sitting on the floor, but if you are sitting on the floor, your feet AND knees must be on the floor, and for most people that means sitting on at least three cushions. I fetched the extra cushions, and placed my rear on them. My knees were still nowhere near the floor. I had the strong sense that I could assemble the cushion equivalent of the Himalayas, and I still wouldn’t have been even to get both knees on the floor. I arranged myself as unobtrusively as I coul, and sitting next to the zen mistress with a Miu Miu handbag, I shut my eyes and set to meditating.
As expected, I’m not that brilliant at meditation. My head is always full of thoughts, and especially so when out blogging, you can’t help but half sketch out what you’ll write you see. So I wasn’t that great at giving either myself or my friend loving kindness, but by the time we’d got to the person in your life you don’t know very well, I was on fire. There is a lovely Asian lady in my local corner ship, and bizarrely I had a very clear vision of her walking around Mam Tor which is a very windswept mountain in Derbyshire. Her hair was gushing in the breeze, and as I watched her running down the hill, her hair out like a curtain, I was a bit taken about that my addled brain had come up with this stuff. The guru chimed his bell, and I had to focus on my difficult person. Again, I had a clear vision of them in my head, and I realised that they weren’t at all bad really, and I a bit daft to be bad-tempered with them. Then we were supposed to think of all four of us together, and then all the other people in the room being equally important as human beings. It is not that I disagreed with the statement, but somehow or other my concentration broke. I think I’d noticed I kept putting in a non-prescribed statement “may they be loved” instead of “may they be free from suffering.” But anyhow, I lost it, my eyes opened, and I took in my surroundings.
My fellow meditators were all around my age, with varying levels of mad clothing on. One in particular was the spitting image of what Jesus would have looked like had he returned to earth in 2011 in Shoreditch. There were beanie hats, and zany curls, and the old bloke at the back who had kept interrupting the guru’s introduction by bellowing “we can’t hear you at the back.” Every man jack of them looked blissfully happy. The guru at the front looked liked he might levitate from his two cushions at any point, regardless of how close his knees were to his mat.
And then the meditation finished, and the guru explained about the various retreats and classes that were coming up, and that he was available to answer questions while people drank their tea. My jaw dropped open, and at that point I found myself seriously considering taking up Buddhism. Who could dislike a philosophy where loving kindness and tea was available (with soya milk for those who preferred it)?