Rose Elliot is my favourite ever cookery writer. Always was, from my first venture into vegetarian food in my teens, and still is. My daughter recently bought me a new copy of her Complete Vegetarian to replace my broken original, over 30 years old and exceedingly well-used. I was thrilled, though there was an element of sadness in disposing of the original.
Rose is also an astrologer. In 2013, she sadly discovered her husband, Robert, had Lewy Body Dementia. They had just celebrated their 50th anniversary. Eventually, he needed nursing home care and passed away at 82, on Boxing Day in 2014. Robert was 12 years older than Rose who met him when she was 18. It was he who was originally interested in Buddhism though Rose herself came from a spiritual family. So, her transition into writing books about both astrology and Buddhism was not too surprising.
I Met a Monk was published in 2015. Rose wrote on her website: I cannot tell you how much the wisdom the monk shared with me has helped me to navigate these dark times. Living with someone with dementia, especially Lewy Body (with its delusions and hallucinations) is very dark indeed.
Basically, it is an account of course provided by a Buddhist monk who attended Rose’s and Robert’s home, and Rose’s of own journey along the path towards further enlightenment. The book is laid out in steps, which is the way to approach it, really. It explains how Buddhist philosophy can be incorporated into our lives at a time when ‘mindfulness’ has become a trendy buzzword. The book is accessibly written, describing the social situation of the group setting, the words of the monk, and the questions people present asked. Each section is then summarised, but all the concepts interrelate.
In the book, we are introduced to mindfulness, which is commonly used but really quite difficult to achieve at any realistic daily level, Metta (loving kindness, to ourselves and others), suffering or happiness, and the depersonalisation of suffering which is the first of the Four Noble Truths. We learn about letting go, and learning peace. The idea of Buddhism seems to be that it gives you the tools you need to live a life of peace, happiness and freedom in relatively simple ways which could be “written on the back of a postcard”.
One of the hardest things for us to do is to stop “judging, comparing, criticising and condemning” both others and ourselves on a pathway to peace. The phrase “it is as it is” is often used in the book, and I’ve since heard others use it, too. Accepting people and situations as they are brings peace; not taking offence helps. It seems that Buddhism is a useful way to try to live life. It accepts there is suffering (we all grow old, we all die, we all experience hurt and frustration but dealing with it makes life a lot happier). It struck me that this is how I have dealt with my many bereavements. I have a moment or two of “life’s unfair” but ultimately it is as it is and me being upset cannot change anything for the better, so while I may not like it, I accept it. A good coping strategy so far.
It considers the causes of suffering, many of which can be applied to consumer society today. We suffer if we expect others to conform to our desires and expectations. It is that sense of constant wanting and craving (which capitalism fuels) that deprives us of comfort and happiness. As a teenager, I decided that life on earth was actually hell because people were never satisfied, they constantly craved more, self improvement or simply material goods. Maybe that thinking was influenced by Buddhism. If we modified our wanting, we would be happier?
How do we live that happier life (which is what we all seek, after all)? Through compassion seems to be key. Compassion towards all living things, including ourselves. There are 5 precepts:
…not to take the life of anything living, not to take anything not freely given, to abstain from sexual misconduct and sensual overindulgence, to refrain from untrue speech, and to avoid intoxication, that is, losing mindfulness…
We need to have an inquiring mind, not blind faith. The website link below says: the Buddha pointed out the danger in fashioning one’s beliefs merely on the following grounds: on hearsay, on tradition, because many others say it is so, on the authority of ancient scriptures, on the word of a supernatural being, or out of trust in one’s teachers, elders, or priests. It adds that tolerance is important, meaning:
Tolerance does not mean that one embraces every idea or view but means one doesn’t get angry at what one can’t accept.
Ultimately, Buddhism teaches that the answers to life’s problems are within us, and most of these can be resolved through kindness, bringing yourself back to the present and letting things take their natural course. Then your life will become still. Which all sounds very easy but isn’t. There is, however, also the law of karma to consider, which is reaping what you sow. In practice, this means treating others as you would be done by, being mindful of the suffering of others. It doesn’t happen naturally. It is hard to forget old hurts and scores, for example, but doing so is liberating.
I’m not a Buddhist and would fall down in adhering to many areas outlined. However, there is much to be said for taking the ideas on board and running with the ones I can use. For example, I have found myself becoming far less agitated by the actions of others when I’ve reminded myself of the elements in this book, and focused on the present moments. That’s good enough for me.