TLDR: I intended to have a mindful, focused, wholesome trip alone to London. It wasn’t. I remind myself to remain compassionate towards myself. From hyde park to a seedy-looking pizza shop, what can we learn about our minds and self-critic?
I deliberated for a long time whether to write this article. My recent solo trip to London was supposed to be a mindful, productive work trip, where I would focus on starting my new job, have lots of me-time for meditation, eat healthy vegetarian food and whatnot.
It was onboarding week for my new job, a company headquartered in London.
The idea was to get to know the people and experience the culture, then return to Singapore where I would be based. My new colleagues promised me I would love London in the summer.
Of course, the more I “craved” to be a “good” Buddhist the “worse” I behaved. Here, I choose to be vulnerable and share my thoughts with you. Like any working young adult, I’d like to manage your expectations and hope you can read on with compassion, for me and for yourself.
Flight to London
With the recent chaos of Heathrow and the airlines, I expected to “suffer” on a long journey, including transits and delays.
“What else could be better than seven plus seven hours of quiet meditation?“ I told myself. I settled in my seat, got comfy with the blanket, pillow and prayed no one would occupy the two empty seats next to me.
When a little girl of about three years old hopped in right next to me, I thought, “oh there goes my peace for the whole night!” I could feel myself getting agitated as she chirped excitedly, playing with her toy and poking at cartoon characters on the inflight screen. I was aware of these unskillful thoughts, which didn’t serve me at that moment.
Her mum fussed over the girl: she made sure the water bottle was filled, her daughter’s blanket was ready, her documents were kept etc. I noticed that her mum looked exhausted with a messy bun; her fringe all over her face. In contrast with her mother’s tender weariness, the little girl was beaming in a cute purple unicorn sweater; her hair braided nicely like a princess.
“Papa will be waiting for us in London, you sleep well tonight on the plane and you can see him tomorrow!“
As we took off, I looked at the scared little girl, quietly holding her mother’s hand. My gaze grew softer, and with compassion, I saw her as a little angel. It turned out she slept through the flight like a beautiful darling.
Our thoughts are powerful, they shape our perspective and evoke powerful emotions. So, how can we control our thoughts? The Vitakkasaṇṭhānasutta addresses the topic of “How to Stop Thinking”.
The Buddha told monks “They should examine the drawbacks of those thoughts: ‘So these thoughts are unskillful, they’re blameworthy, and they result in suffering.’ As they do so, those bad thoughts are given up and come to an end. Their mind becomes stilled internally; it settles, unifies, and becomes immersed in samādhi.”
I arrived in London in the morning after the long overnight flights. After navigating through the crazy Heathrow chaos, I made it to my hotel in central London. I felt fresh enough to walk through Hyde park to my new office. Hopefully, I could show up on the first day as fresh and upbeat as I could after the long flight. To my surprise it was drizzling, grey, chilly and in general miserable.
“Who told me this is glorious London in summer?!”
I tried to remind myself that the rain and cold are impermanent. The sky will clear up. With mindfulness in every step, I continued walking against the cold wind.
“An ally is what I need right now for support, a kalyāṇa-mitta (Pali word for an admirable spiritual friend),” I thought.
In the Mitta Sutta, the Buddha said “Monks, a friend endowed with seven qualities is worth associating with. Which seven? He gives what is hard to give. He does what is hard to do. He endures what is hard to endure. He reveals his secrets to you. He keeps your secrets. When misfortunes strike, he doesn’t abandon you. When you’re down & out, he doesn’t look down on you. A friend endowed with these seven qualities is worth associating with.”
And so I FaceTimed a friend, who virtually accompanied me on my walk through the cold.
That drizzle turned out to be the only rain I encountered throughout my week in London. The rest of the trip was filled with glorious, glorious summer sunshine. The rain is always temporary at Wimbledon, the British say. The misery is always impermanent and will pass.
I found myself stranded in a slightly dodgy part of town with my phone battery dying. I was struggling to figure out the tube lines back to my hotel.
“I deserve some kindness from someone! After all, I’d recently made a sizable donation to a charity.” However, at the back of my mind, I knew that “Charitable actions undertaken to gain a good reputation are also selfish and hence not a very valuable kind of giving. Nor can it be praiseworthy when one gives merely to return a favour or in expectation of a reward.”
I surveyed the four shops across the road and chose three more decent-looking ones to borrow a phone charger. All of them turned me down.
By then I was getting desperate and decided to try the last of the four shops: a seedy-looking pizza shop, the type where football hooligans hung out.
The pizza guy at the counter had a broken tooth and a crooked smile. Surprisingly, he passed me a white iPhone cable! And so I stood there for 20 minutes, never ordering a pizza yet making a new friend. He was from Romania, always cracking jokes and smiling with the pizzas. He said he has a chain that looks similar to my necklace.
Kindness and compassion come in all forms, sometimes unexpectedly. The judgement also comes in all forms, almost always subconsciously.
I usually enjoy my me-time very much, with the freedom of choosing what I want to do. However, loneliness struck without warning near the end of my trip.
I vaguely remember Venerable Canda, a nun disciple of famous Ajahn Brahm, speaking about Solitude vs Loneliness. Throughout the week in London, I enjoyed moments of Solitude. As Venerable Canda rightly mentioned, such moments gave me the opportunity to quieten down the senses and the thinking mind. I now understood what she meant by the feeling of having “landed”, in the ‘happy place” with nothing to think about.
There and then, however, I was craving company, someone to share the highlights of the day, the challenges I faced, and the joys of a nice dinner. I craved attention, someone to tell me, “oh you poor thing…” or “you’re doing great!”
It was the loneliness that hits you when you are single and walking through a sea of couples holding hands on Valentine’s Day. It was the jealousy you feel when you see your crush hangout with someone else on Instagram. It was the fear that you are forgotten, you don’t matter to anyone.
As I stood in Soho, one of the busiest London streets, amongst hundreds of people, I felt lonely. This time, I couldn’t call any kalyāṇa-mittas due to the time difference. They were all in bed by this time! I recognised the “I”, the “self” that was so strong there, playing tricks on my mind.
Instinctively, I boarded the bus and the driver smiled. He drove through Soho on the eve of the Pride Parade, with rainbow lights and flags everywhere. I closed my eyes and remembered what love feels like, what freedom to love feels like, what love for other beings feels like.
“May all beings be happy. May I be happy.”
As I look back on my short solo trip, I realised I was being very hard on myself. I wanted to be the perfect Buddhist, which meant the “judge” in me was constantly judging my unskillful thoughts and actions.
I had forgotten to pat myself on the shoulder, to give myself a hug whenever I needed one. There were small successes that I should have celebrated a little more. After all, I had an amazing onboarding workwise, met lovely people throughout the week, and made it back home safe and sound.
At this moment, I have a new-found confidence, one that allows me to navigate this new phase of my life, just like how I navigated the tube lines alone in London.
As Ajahn Brahm said, “Worrying never stops bad things from happening, but it stops you from enjoying the present moment.” Let us remind ourselves not to overreact to stressful situations or overthink about life!
Special Thanks: Deep gratitude to the HOL team, especially Xuan who encouraged me to write this article, and the wonderful Yi Shan for editing it. Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!