In Between Thoughts - Interview with Benjamin Charlton

Benjamin Charlton, based in Oxford, in the UK, works as a political risk analyst focusing in the Asia Pacific region. Outside politics, he also loves Asian cultures and has lived in China and Japan previously. Being a Buddhist, Benjamin has been a meditation practitioner for decades and running a meditation community. He is devoted to spreading the benefits of practising meditation and mindfulness to a wider population.

Are you always a serene or mindful person?

I don’t think anyone is always a serene or mindful person. At least, I have not met anyone like that. Even the Dalai Lama says he gets angry or impatient sometimes.

What does serenity mean to you? 

I think it is something very idealised - we often imagine serene places like still ponds, cherry blossoms or Zen gardens, and have fantasies about our feelings if we were there. But maybe when we go to a place like that, we don’t actually feel as serene as we thought we would.

The most serene feeling to me is those moments in between thoughts during meditation or even during normal life. We often just go from one thought to the other, but if we practice mindfulness, we can notice gaps between thoughts sometimes.

Could you elaborate a bit more on the moments in between thoughts?

Sometimes thinking feels like a burden and the mind just drops it - this is a habit from mediation. When you meditate, you let thoughts go, then thoughts come back, you let them go again. You are not practicing stopping thoughts; you are practicing letting thoughts go. Sometimes when you let them go, the next one does not come for a while. 

This is a result of practicing meditation and these moments are not something you can deliberately produce by working hard for them. Actually quite the opposite, it is about relaxing and letting go. 

Another way to put it is the idea of flow, which is the state when people are completely absorbed in what they are doing, for instance painting or writing etc. Their minds are clear and quiet by only focusing on the things they are doing. In meditation, that is what you try to do - to cultivate that kind of focus but without the external attraction to draw us into it. So you are not relying on painting, writing or other “things”; you are able to settle into the flow state just using the feeling of breathing -- or the feeling of walking if you’re doing walking meditation. 

Any turning point that you wanted to become more mindful?

I first encountered meditation when I was in secondary school around 14 years old. I was in a Catholic school and our religious studies teacher taught us to meditate. Catholics have their own kinds of meditation, including a kind of mindfulness of breathing that, looking back, I think might be adapted from Buddhism. It was a very interesting discovery to me, and I immediately started doing it at home, because I enjoyed the still and calm feelings. That is how I started meditating. 

There are times I’ve lost touch with meditation. I tend to find when things are going well and I feel happy in life, I lose touch with it. But when things are tough and stressful, even depressing, then I go back to it. It is like my home, where I can go back to find peace. That’s not actually a good way to approach it, though. The Buddha recommend that during good times we reflect on the fact that life won’t always be easy. It goes against the grain to do that, because ultimately dissatisfaction of some sort is what motivates us to practice. But it’s better to sew your parachute before you need it.

Were you meditating when you were living in Japan?

I was, and that was unusual. In the West we think of Zen as quintessentially Japanese, but most Japanese people don’t really know about it and aren’t interested at all, so I don’t want to idealize Japan. Most people live in cities. It’s overcrowded and everyone’s tired and busy and the constant noise and flashing lights are sensory overload. But the other side is real too. A lot of people do practice the tea ceremony, flower arranging, calligraphy and so on. I guess that stuff is popular because it gives them a break from the chaos. 

I studied Zen meditation, history and philosophy at a Buddhist university in Kyoto, but the teacher of the course was actually American. He was brilliant. He taught me things about meditation that I still remember every day. He was a tall white guy with a big beard. Not exactly the fantasy image of a Zen monk. But most real Japanese monks aren’t either -- they live in cities and have wives and kids and they’re basically businessmen who do funerals for money and don’t meditate much.

My most memorable meditation experience in Japan was one evening I was walking by the river Kyoto. It was a warm evening. The moon was shining. I wasn’t there to meditate, but the setting was so peaceful, and there was nobody around, so I thought I’d sit on the grass under a tree and meditate. I crossed my legs and closed my eyes -- and immediately realized I’d made a terrible mistake. As soon as I stopped moving, mosquitoes started biting me all over. My face. My neck. My ears. My ankles. And especially my hands. In Zen meditation you’re not supposed to move, no matter what. So I just sat there and let them eat me. It was torture. I lasted maybe five minutes before I gave up. When I opened my eyes, my hands were bleeding from all the bites. I’d imagined that meditating under that tree in the moonlight would be magical, but actually it was a trap. I guess a Zen master would say it served me right. You don’t find peace under a tree, only in your own mind.

Has lockdown had any impacts on your meditation practice given the increasing uncertainties in our lives?  

By coincidence, I first started teaching meditation around the time the first lockdown started in the UK. It turned out it was something people seemed to really need and appreciate during the lockdown. So for me, the big change wasn’t to do with my own meditation, it’s that I realised I could teach meditation as a way to help other people. I feel like that’s my small contribution to getting our society through the crisis, and actually that's helped me cope with it. At times like this there’s so much we can’t control, but finding some way to make just a small contribution means you don’t feel totally powerless.

Do you have any advice for people with zero or little meditation experience but would like to try out?

It is one of the paradoxes in meditation or mindfulness - the more you try to relax, the harder it is to relax. I would advise people to start small and do it often. Just five minutes every day. You shouldn’t force yourself or feel like it is a burden. Go at a slow and natural pace, let your enjoyment of it motivate you to do more - that will happen naturally with time.

Could you please share your experience as an organiser of Zen Walk” group in Oxford? 

The “Zen Walk” group was partly a product of the lockdown. We weren’t allowed to meet together to meditate indoors, so we did walking meditation outside instead. 

Walking meditation is a traditional Buddhist meditation method although it’s not as well known as sitting meditation. In Buddhist monasteries in Asia, if you go there early in the morning, you can see monks doing walking meditation - maybe walking slowly around the temple courtyard in a line, or walking in the forest. 

It’s a great method, especially when you feel agitated. Instead of using the breath as your object of meditation, you take the footsteps - the feeling of walking, the movement of your legs and the sense of contact with the ground. Similar to the breath, walking is a natural, instinctive movement. You don’t need to think about how to do it. You can just do it and let your attention rest on the sensation. 

If you feel agitated or stressed out, breath meditation could be challenging as it is too subtle. You can feel you are breathing in a tense and anxious way. At times like that, walking might be a better option as it helps burn off some energy.

Walking meditation is also good for practising calming and concentrating your mind while your senses are engaging with the world around you. If you get used to practising walking meditation, sometimes you become more aware of your body when you walk in daily life, like maybe to your car or on streets. You slip into a sort of meditation in the middle of your normal life, naturally, without really trying. That is because you have built up the habit.

Could you talk about the mindfulness course you took with the Oxford Mindfulness Centre (OMC) and share with us your experience? 

It is an eight-week training course developed by Oxford University and based on the best research in the field. The course teaches you many different techniques and methods. Then in the end you are invited to pick which ones you like best, or which ones best fit the circumstances of your life at that time. The course is great in the way that it takes into account different personalities and different minds, unlike if you go to study in a Zen monastery in Japan, say, where everyone will practise in the same way. For some people, the OMC course could be life-changing. 

Did you discover something new after the course?

I discovered that secular mindfulness is much more sophisticated than I thought it would be. At OMC they don’t talk about philosophy. They make it all seem very common sense and ordinary. But those practices can still have a very profound impact. Even though I’d already been meditating for decades, I still learnt new things. Doing the course actually made me want to learn to teach the course, so I signed up for the OMC teacher training programme. 

Are you a tea lover?

I am normally a coffee drinker but I approach my making coffee as the Japanese approach making tea. :P I make it into a ‘coffee ceremony’, although I only have time to do it on weekend mornings. I take my time, smell the coffee aroma, listen to the water pouring, and feel the warmth of the cup in my hands. It is a good warm-up for meditation.

Do you have any daily ritual?

I do sitting meditation with a friend for half an hour every morning right before work. We do it every day, so we keep it very simple. We say good morning, then I ring a Tibetan bowl and we start doing meditation, then I ring it again to finish. It is helpful to have an accountability buddy, otherwise I’d be tempted to just stay in bed and I wouldn’t have time to meditate before work.

In the evening before I go to sleep, I prepare everything for my next morning’s meditation, setting out the mat and cushion and positioning the Buddha statue that I face when I meditate. That way I don’t need to rush to do this stuff in the morning when I’m still half asleep.

How do you combine mindfulness with your daily life, especially your work life?

It is difficult as we have a daily publish deadline at work. The nearer the deadline gets, the more intense it gets. But the three-minute breathing exercise taught by the OMC is quite helpful. When I feel stressed out, instead of a cigarette break for some people, I have a meditation break. It’s easier to do this now as I work at home. I can sit up straight and close my eyes for three minutes without feeling self-conscious. Even though the exercise is so short, it feels like it reboots my brain and I can go back to the work with a clear mind.

If I have time, I may do some walking meditation at lunch time. I’m lucky that I live near a nature reserve, so I can get somewhere green within a few minutes. But in the past I’ve done walking meditation in the city centre too. It works anywhere.

Lastly, please give three pieces of serene living advice to our readers.

These are the ‘quick wins’ that had the biggest benefit for me.

Firstly, cut down on the amount of news you watch and read. A lot of news isn’t actually useful information, it’s just noise.

Secondly, reduce the usage of social media.

Thirdly, keep a gratitude journal. Write down ten things you are grateful for every night before you go to bed. Ten sounds a lot but the point is to train yourself to notice small things in daily life and appreciate them.

Get more inspiration from Benjamin.

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