April 23, 2013

Robina Courtin: Meditation is not mystical


"DON'T say 'stilling your mind' - you won't still your mind sweetheart - your mind is going to be as berserk as normal." 
Robina Courtin likes to tell it like it is when giving instruction on the mind, meditation or just about anything.

Best known for her work inside some of the roughest and bleakest quarters of prisons in Australia and the US, including death row, the Melbourne-born, Catholic-raised Tibetan Buddhist nun cuts through the cliches of religion at lightning speed. Public lectures are fast, furious and rarely leave the student guessing. " 

Don't expect your thoughts to go away. Don't think of meditation as some magic pill which is how some people think about it. It's not like that . . . and don't mystify these words . . . and please, I beg you, don't feel it's holy. It's not," she told a recent gathering in Sydney.

In truth, Courtin maintains a deep respect for the holy, an attraction held long before she was ordained 35 years ago. But it is her no-nonsense, at times confronting, translation of Buddhist psychology that has created a following as she blasts apart all the usual stereotypes pervading religion and the "spiritual".

With a turbo-charged energy that defies her 68 years, Courtin's teaching schedule has her on a permanent global road trip that now sees her back in Australia. Stress, anxiety, addiction and heartbreak are all in the mix as she makes her way across the country, guiding people on how to tackle the everyday miseries of a modern world.

"Being a Buddhist is being your own psychologist, being your own therapist. What that means is really learning to listen to what the hell is going on inside," Courtin says. 

"The main cause of the misery and the neuroses and the unhappiness in our life is not the outside, but it's the inside."

There are many factors that come together to produce our unpleasant and pleasant experiences - in other words, suffering and happiness - and we assume that the main factor involved is "the thing out there", whether it be an object, person or event.

And this is where we run into trouble, Courtin explains. "Everything in us believes that 'you're' the problem, 'it' is the problem, my 'mother's' the problem, my 'genes' are the problem. For sure they play a role, but the main factor is what goes on in our head," she says.
"And the main thing going on in our head, which underlies everything else, is attachment - this bottomless pit of dissatisfaction that gives rise to the assumption that I must get what I want every microsecond; it's just there all the time, running the show - it's a junkie mind, desperate for nice things."

It is when the junkie does not get what it wants - what it is attached to - that anger, fear, stress or anxiety can arise, even at the most basic level. Think of the stress or even anger at the driver who cuts in front of us.

 Courtin points to concentration techniques such as meditation as a way to slow the automatic thought processes down to alter them.

"It's then that we can hear the underlying stories, viewpoints, opinions, and gradually change them. Our minds are the one thing we can change," she says. 

"These techniques aren't religious -- believe me, it's got nothing to do with believing in anything."

Perhaps there is no more glaring example of changing habitual thinking as that seen with some of the male prisoners Courtin has worked with over the years through the Liberation Prison Project, an initiative she founded in 1996 to support inmates in Australia and the US. It formed the basis of the 2000 documentary on Courtin's life, Chasing Buddha.

Courtin recently returned from visiting her old friend Mitch, who has been on death row in Kentucky State Penitentiary for the past 30 years. He is a striking case study in how the mind can change to accept reality.

"We just sat there laughing for two hours even though his death date is coming up at any moment," Courtin says. "He said 'I'm ready for that electric bolt, Robina' because he's worked on his mind. He's come to terms with himself. He's let go of the crap and the garbage and he's got compassion . . . he's ready for death, you know."

In a broad sense, Courtin says there is little difference between us on the outside in our everyday mental prisons and those in jail.

"Reality means I'm in prison and I can't get out. That's reality. I'm in this shitty job -- do I have a choice to leave?" she says.

"We live in a fantasy of 'if only I could do this' and 'I wish I could do this' and then if we can't, we blame everybody else for not being able to do it. Whereas these guys in prison . . . they know they can't change it so they either go crazy or they change their minds."

Courtin says it took her years to walk the talk of Buddhism. Her history has been one of extremes -- from life as a hippie to self-declared communist, then feminist before she was drawn to Buddhism, which she says gave her a world view and liberation.

"And that's what I wanted -- a view of describing the universe mentally and physically and how it ticks, and at the same time, one that I could put into practice experientially to help me change myself."


Meditation involves the deliberate holding of your attention to a subject, object or process
During meditation, your brain's activity alters significantly, as shown by MRI and EEG scans
The brainwaves evident during meditation are alpha waves, which accompany relaxation of the entire nervous system and body

Results can include feeling more "alive", improved emotional balance, enhanced feelings of calm and heightened awareness

Research shows a large number of physical, emotional and psychological conditions are favourably influenced by meditation, including:

• Anxiety
• Chronic pain
• Depression
• High blood pressure
• Insomnia
• Migraines
• Stress
• Life-threatening illnesses
• Recovery from accident or illness
• A lack of a sense of purpose


by: LISA MACNAMARA.  Picture: Sam Mooy Source: The Australian

With many thanks to The Australian