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Recollections of an Anagarika

Adrian Cambden

In 2002, Adrian Cambden ordained as an anagarika for a year.
This is an extract of his writings.


Just outside my village there is a track that leads up into the fields; it is a popular spot for people walking their dogs. I used to regularly pass the track whilst driving to the school at which I taught. Seeing people walking there always made me envious. I thought how happy I would be if I too could be walking freely whilst the rest of the country was going to work.

A year later, under perfect conditions, I was in the monastery. I had breakfasted, it was a glorious day, and I was striding across the fields, whilst the rest of the country was going to work. Observing my feelings, I realised that I felt no different to how I felt at any other time. I didn't feel excited; I didn't feel blissful; in fact, if anything, I was in a slightly bad mood. Not at all what I had expected. My fortunate situation had made no difference to how I was feeling. Going for a walk was merely that; it wasn't the great pleasure that I had anticipated when driving my car to school, an anticipation that had to some extent propelled me from that car into the monastery. And that is what the monastery has taught me - a hard lesson to learn - that outside circumstances don't necessarily make a difference to how we are feeling. What we carry around inside ourselves dictates how we feel.

When I was a teacher, I was aware that my feelings of unhappiness made everything around me seem cold and gloomy. I had supposed that leaving my job and living a life free of pressure would bring a sense of calm and peace to my mind, but I was wrong. The emotions that arise in us are beyond our control. They have a life of their own. Our internal experience is not what we expect it to be.

The most powerful experience I had in the monastery occurred at this time last year. I had been living there for a year, and had come home for ten days to visit my son Aaron and my ex-wife. It was a confusing time: there were the tugs and pulls from seeing my ex-wife, the house was in a mess, I had financial worries, and Aaron had just received the results of his GCSE's. He had done so badly that we wondered if he would be able to enter the sixth form. He was frantic, and I got upset while telephoning around to get him onto the courses that he wanted. I put my feelings down to the domestic situation I was in, and assumed that all would be well as soon as I returned to the monastery, where I could breathe a sigh of relief and sink once again into peace and contentment. This was not to be. Terrible confusion reigned, and the pain of the visit home grew into an intense stomach pain, which prevented me from eating properly. I consumed various medications, and although these gave some relief, the deep pain remained. It seemed to go on and on.

After returning to the monastery, Aaron's housemaster and I remained in email contact. This was not pleasant, because, in spite of all my efforts to get Aaron onto the right courses, and in spite of all his assertions that he had done badly at the exams because the questions 'had not been the right ones', the housemaster told me that he was in fact putting in no effort at all. This from an education that was costing me £13,000 per year. Was I angry? Yes, very.

One day, I was sitting in the monk's common room feeling very uncomfortable, when Ajahn Vajiro walked in. He asked me how my son was getting on, and I let it all pour out. I told him how upset I was. When I had finished, I asked him how this could happen to someone who was well versed in the practice of watching the mind and the emotions. He said that we can't control our thoughts or feelings. They come into our minds or bodies of their own volition. We don't choose to have them, they appear by themselves. The only choice we have is whether or not to hold onto them. By observing them but not following them, we can just let them be; we don't have to add to or empower them.

So, by being angry I had added to the pain: angry about Aaron, and angry that I should still get hurt after having lived so long in the monastery. I had assumed that such emotions would drop away with practice, after so much peace and quiet. Yet it was the same as it used to be; in fact, if anything, it was worse. I wondered if I was wasting my time in the monastery, or if perhaps the problem was me. Either way, I still had a very long way to go.

In 2003 the problems at home meant I had to return to lay life, to the life of a teacher. I was offered a job in a well-disciplined and well organised school, with few difficult students, and in which I would earn good, steady money. Of course, there would occasionally be a challenging class, but that is part of the great discipline of teaching. I was fresh out of the monastery; I wasn't tired and jaded like some of those I saw around me. I was enthusiastic. But fairly soon, I was back to feeling how I used to feel: bad. Being a 57-year-old man, what could I do? I had no qualifications to pursue another career. I would have liked a simpler job, but simpler jobs pay badly. To add to this was an emotion that I had not expected.

I am a mature adult with a liberal understanding of the world, and do not care about social status - or so I thought. But when I decided that I was no longer going to be a teacher, the anticipation of a fall in status hit me hard. If anyone asked me what my job was, I replied that I had just stopped being a teacher, and was looking for something else. A sense of inferiority swept over me. One day Aaron said that he didn't care whether I was a teacher or not. He said that whatever job I took was okay. I remember how relieved I felt when he said this. I was surprised at how much I had looked for his support. It wasn't so much my job status that was important, as others' acceptance of my job status.

I am now reasonably settled into two jobs; neither is terribly demanding, and, to put it simply, I am quite enjoying them. And I can't (if I am honest) put the blame on them for any pressure or fear that I feel inside me. When I was a teacher I often used to wake up at four thirty in the morning and worry about my job and then not get back to sleep again. This made me more and more tired - an affliction that I blamed on my job. But nowadays I still wake up at four thirty in the morning and guess what, I start to worry about my job! I think, 'Whoa! Hang on! What have I got to worry about?' And I lie there and watch my mind hunting for something. I would like to offer you a poem that I wrote at the monastery. At that time I was doing the early morning unlocking duty. It's called Morning Frost:

Was it the wind or the eye that caused the tear
to flow with a sigh down my cold and frosted face?
Or was it the still warm memory of yesterday's call
to my son that caused the fall
of a liquid memory across the cheek?
The key slides into the lock on the dot of four
(as the full moon clear beams down upon the monastery floor)
and I move quickly from place to place
opening to the world this spiritual space.
But as I do, my mind is caught twixt night and day
as I ponder again what his housemaster had to say
and the heat of thought shimmers with the cold of dawn
and between these two, slides a tear
and I am torn.


Source: Forest Sangha Newsletter, April 2005, https://www.fsnewsletter.net

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