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There is something I must dwell on
because I know more than I know and must learn it from myself.

— Marilynne Robinson

In the autumn of 2004 I journeyed with about 20 other men from various corners of the world to a remote Buddhist retreat centre called Guhyaloka, the “secret realm”, nestled in the Costa Blanca mountains of Spain. The reason for my journey was to take part in an intensive 4-month retreat during which I was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order and given the name Manjunaga, which means ‘kind wisdom’. Guhyaloka is very remote and magical, hidden in a canyon deep in the mountains. If you have ever seen the rugged landscape in Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western films, you will get the picture. There are very few vehicles, no mains electricity, no phone, no television, no internet, no shops, and no bars. Snakes and lizards inhabit the valley and vultures can sometimes be seen circling in the sky. At night the sound of cicada song fills the air.

During the retreat we lived a very simple life, rising early to meditate, studying Buddhist teachings, practicing yoga, devotional chanting, baking bread, and building a community of friendships. One day on the retreat a practice was introduced called ‘exchanging self for other’. The practice involved writing and then exchanging your daily program of activities with somebody else on the retreat. The list included what drinks you liked, what you had for breakfast, any activities you did, what time you went to bed. We were encouraged to take on a person’s routine, habits and preferences for a day. For example, if they liked to have their coffee black with three sugars at 6.30am as they started the day, then for a day you would do the same. If they liked to go running in the afternoon at 3pm then you would do that.

I exchanged with a man who liked his porridge with nothing on it, which to my taste seemed rather bland and spartan. He tried my preference which was to have raisins, cinnamon, seeds and honey on it. As the day progressed I found myself feeling constantly challenged as if any sense of fixed identity I felt about myself did not seem so solid and concrete as before. This was the aim of the practice, to give us a direct experience of our sense of self as not fixed, but rather as something open, fluid and constantly changing. The Buddha taught that all conditioned things are devoid of a permanent, unchanging self. This is not a strange form of nihilism: it is not that we do not exist. Rather, it is saying that when we look at our direct experience all we observe are thoughts, feelings, perceptions, volitions, and acts of consciousness. Nothing can be said to be solid and permanent. There is no fixed unchanging self at the centre of our experience. Everything that arises in our life is dependent on complex conditions. Unfortunately, we suffer because we believe the opposite to be true and spend our days trying to defend or assert a belief in a fixed identity and self.

Such teachings can seem bewildering. I have found it helpful to reflect on the basic view that you are not fixed and that you can change. We may have limiting views about ourselves but they do not define us. Maybe, as we live our lives we can glimpse a sense of this, experiencing the fluid nature of ourselves, and trust that we are always so much more than we think we are.

“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”

Pema Chodron: Buddhist teacher