Obstacles as the Path

A month ago I had to have some major surgery due to Crohn’s Disease/Ulcerative Colitis. For years I’d resisted and was fearful of the idea of surgery, but thanks to my studies in Buddhism and meditation with Lama Shenpen’s the Discovering the Heart of Buddhism course, when it became inevitable after all other medical and alternative routes had been a dead end, there was nothing to do but accept the situation and embrace it ‘as the path’.

As well as the DHB, I also I found Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s teaching (famous Tibetan Buddhist teacher and one of Lama Shenpen’s teachers) on the ‘Warrior Heart‘ particular fitting and would keep coming back to that idea of being a fearless Sacred Warrior: someone who feels the fear but keeps moving forward through it, a very helpful analogy to my situation.

Eventually this I found that applying my training to this situation was actually very liberating, as through meditation practice I could just drop the storyline attached to my situation. I accepted the operation as my karma that I had to go through and began to almost welcoming or feeling gratitute to the whole experience as a way of deepening (I was trying not to view it as ‘testing’) my practice.

Before going into hospital I made sure I was fully aware of what I was going to face: extreme pain, a big physical and visual change to my body and a big lifestyle change of day to day living with an ileostomy, and long recovery period of several months.

I had been studying the final section of the Discovering the Heart of Buddhism study course which covers Mandala Principle, which was incredibly fitting. Mandala Principle is implied in all Buddhist Teachings but unusually it is taught explicitly by Lama Shenpen as part of her ‘Living the Awakened Heart’ Buddhist training courses. To begin with it seems quite complex, but it’s a tool for helping us ‘become aware of, and for talking about, complex patterns in everyday life and experience’. Learning about the Mandala Principle (Mandala is Sanskrit for ‘a centre and what surrounds it’ and refers to anything with a centre and periphery) helps you increase awareness of the ‘dynamic patterning and structure of reality in order to act effectively’:

“Mandala Principle is not meant to be a conceptual system for trying to explain the nature of the world, but a non-conceptual reality that the teachings on Mandala Principle help us to discover.” – Lama Shenpen on Mandala Principle from Discovering the Heart of Buddhism.

Mandala Principle is something that can be recognised in all aspects of life, experience and awareness, from the structure and behaviour of a single cell, to the vast galaxies of space, to our family and social circles, to our connections to everyone on the planet.

It also teaches us about the different Mandalas we are all experiencing: the personal, practice and ego mandalas and how they operate and interplay. We can become aware of our ‘ego mandala’ and realise how strong the ego process is, all Buddhist practice incorporates increasing our awareness of the ego’s grasping and attachments and trains us to no longer align ourselves with that activity.

Applying the teachings of the Mandala Principle to my situation: If I could keep aligned with my practice mandala as my centre and central heart wish, I could accept all forthcoming events as practice, even welcome them. While meditating and practicing with this by making Pranidhana’s (Buddhist wishing prayers) I began to notice how the ego mandala would ‘make a play’ for this central control, testing the boundaries and trying to overtake the centre with its fear and ‘what about meeeee’, ‘what about this, that and the other’, trying to bombard me with doubts and stories.

In particular the ego mandala was pushing a very real sense of fear at the possibility of death. I’d once had bad reaction under general anaesthetic before, what if I had another that was fatal? What if I caught an infection or hospital ‘super bug’? People die all the time from simple procedures, and this was a biggy.

Again I allowed myself space with these thoughts, leaned in and welcomed them as practice. I noticed that my fear of death wasn’t for myself, which was interesting and felt like progress in some sense. It was a fear of causing pain and upset to my loved ones, leaving them in the lurch with lots of hassles to sort out.

I read Lama Shenpen’s book There’s More to Dying than Death’ and I reminded myself that death could come at anytime for any of us. The book also inspired me to give these fears a practical application, so I updated a folder I’d started which contains what to do in the event of one of us dying. It’s full of practical advice I’d found about how to register a death and arrange a basic funeral. My email contacts, funeral wishes, bills and accounts in my name etc. That gave me some peace of mind in a practical sense!

The teachings about boundaries within Mandala Principle, and emotionality at the edge of boundaries was also particularly fitting for my situation. Using the body as an example, the boundary of my physical body was about to be very literally and visually breached. I could therefore prepare myself for an emotional response of seeing that. In all likelihood it was going be shocking, upsetting and scary, what excellent fodder for practice!

I began to notice more that as my practice mandala was central I was calm about everything that was about to happen to me, and predominantly fearless. When any inklings of feelings of fear arose, which is obviously very natural with such a large operation looming, I practised ‘leaning in’ and turning towards it with loving kindness, also as part of the practice.

Part of me realised that all this preparation would be tested in a sense, and that my ego mandala might take full control once I was actually there and in the midst of the pain I might lose my ability to keep aligned with my practice mandala, but I resolved to just do my best, to take everything as it came and to stay aligned with my practice mandala and heart wish as much as I could.


On the day of the surgery, although I felt a sense of apprehension and shakiness. I managed to keep coming back to my breath and allowing myself to be with the shakiness and remembering that everything was ok in the present moment. I was given the first part of the anaesthetic and then was hooked up to heart and blood pressure monitor. The anaesthetist then commented how calm I was. I was pleased that this was a scientific confirmation that my meditation and practice was really ‘working’!

It felt like a great testament to the teaching and practice, but I was extra wary of my ego claiming it as some kind of victory! I could feel the pull of the ego trying to claim that I was somehow ‘good’ at meditation or Buddhist practice, which is always one of the predictable tricks of the ego! I chuckled internally and rolled my eyes at its feeble attempt at clawing back some ground!

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