Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Tales from the Kalari

Here I am, back in south India, after a near-three year gap that feels much shorter - and at the same time too long. I've been composing a blog for ages on my wanderings, on the whys and the wherefores, the mysteries and the muck. As always seems to happen here, time gets swallowed.

So, until I'm organised enough to write this masterpiece down, here's a synthesis of vignettes I've been posting on social media since my arrival.

22nd October:

Someone's decided I need blessings. Yesterday at the Saraswati darshana at the huge and beautiful Padmanabhaswamy Temple, despite the huge crowd and someone's attempt to grab it off me, the Brahmin put straight into my hands the marigolds that had been around the goddess's neck (a bit like catching the wedding bouquet, only infinitely more relevant) and this morning after the Kalari homa, the officiating Brahmin made a point of picking out one of the puja's jasmine wreaths for me. Maybe in my discombobulated, newly-arrived state, I look in need of decoration...

23rd October:

Well how lovely is/was that. I kept a low profile in the back, did my appointed kicking exercise with my group and thought I'd escaped lightly and could just enjoy the demonstrations and initiations (which I did). But just before we finished, I was called out to make a few passes with the long stick with Sathyan. It wasn't a demonstration and wasn't an initiation so I'm not sure what I was doing. And that was the last thing before the end of proceedings. I think I have Sensei Morgan's superb aikido jo teaching (and patience) to thank for the fact I didn't do as badly as I feared. Then post-puja clean-up (those brass lamps need scrubbing and all those petals picking up!) teas, snacks and prasadam all round and laughing conversations with some senior students about massage and yoga. Now for some waiting and off to meet my Sanskrit teacher again. I'm really back.

25th October:

You'd think blaring music at 6:30 through some very potent loudspeakers outside all our open windows on a Sunday morning would put people off, but here it seems to be the preferred electioneering tool. Oh well, between the heat and monsoon rains, there were no plans for a lie-in anyway. Happy Sunday.

I bumped into Arun today at Kovalam. He teaches surfing there He remembered me too. Last time I was here I helped him take back to sea 2 turtles whose flippers were almost fully severed by stray fishing lines. My turtle tagging days in Ecuador came in handy, though keeping them comfortable through partial amputation was beyond me. It's one of the most distressing things I've ever been part of. Arun was grateful I was helping rather than standing around taking pictures while the poor creatures bled over the sand, as almost everyone else was. He offered to teach me to surf as a thank you, but I was always too exhausted after the kalari on the days I got to the beach. Maybe this time I'll get round to it... But I pray any turtles I see are in one piece.

27th October:

As anyone who does anything physically taxing knows, it's not day 1 that's the problem but day 2 (and 3, and 4...) Beginning of the long stick proper today. "I am giving you many corrections but I must have perfection" says Rajan. It's going to be a long road.

31st October:

It rained all night. I moved back into my downstairs room yesterday, cooler and familiar. Sleep was elusive in the sound of the rains and those crazy frogs, a loud, loud techno chorus all night. When my alarm went off before dawn, it was silent. Even the endless electioneering loudspeakers were subdued by the night's rainfall. The coconut tree field was flooded and I saw my first disorientated snake looking for a dry spot on my walk to the bus. Now I'm waiting in one of the treatment rooms for day 4 of pre-training shoulder treatment, the oils and bench and bandages and kizhi bundles feeling very familiar. And the waiting, which I do so much of here, which forces me to take space and time.

3rd November:

"First we teach you the alphabet", said Rajan in the kalari this morning, "only then can you make words and later sentences - by practice and developing the body."

4th November:

I thought the muddy patch I skidded on this morning was oddly placed. Normally the wetter patches are round the edges, from when the kalari has been hosed down and the water not quite dried off round the walls. Then I realised the slippery patch near the middle was made by me. Rajan had been working on the details of my sitting kick back-bending transition (never easy) and the mud was where I had dripped all over the packed earth floor. Will it ever get any easier?...

"You could be Kashmiri", said Unny yesterday over chai out the back after training, when we were discussing how to get me into the Padmanabhaswamy temple without reams of paperwork (no north Indian, incidentally, would ever believe I was one). "But if they hear you speak… If you speak Hindi, it will be ok". Ah yes, there lies a problem...

Indian English, in all its regional variants is probably my favourite flavour of English. This afternoon, curled up on a rickety low chair, alternating between my legs and the chair arm for a desk as I tried to catch the failing light while scribbling earnest Devanagari, Mahadevan, the Sanskrit teacher, said to me: "You have to mug up all these shabdas. There is no other way. You have to by-heart it".

6th November:

"Today morning very fine climate", said the auto driver on the way to the kalari, several times. This means it's not raining and it's not too hot. I had planned on taking the bus, but this auto driver is a neighbour of sorts and was very helpful the first time I was trying to get to my Sanskrit class and couldn't remember how. He used to work in the Middle East and has now returned and bought or built a very nice house. He waved to me from the balcony as I walked by the other day, to introduce his wife and son. So this morning, in the interest of being neighbourly when he waved me over, I paid the 20p extra and took the auto-rickshaw instead of the bus.

7th November:

"Are you tired?" asks Rajan, before our third meippayat (the first meippayat, to put it in context, makes me think a little wistfully of Sensei Morgan's 50 mae kaiten ukemi drills). This after the usual intense drilling through all my long-stick shortcomings. Well yes, I am a bit but it's ok. Through the transition of the turning leg, hovering on my left foot as I backbend, it looks like rain coming down but in fact it's only the sweat falling from my arm as it circles my head. I do love the kalari but I'm also grateful tomorrow, Sunday, is rest day. Also Tuesday, for Deepavali, but I have a Sanskrit class that day, I suspect because it's auspicious.

I've been revisiting my role as big-sister/fairy-godmother. A young Italian actor came in on crutches this morning to watch kalari practice. It turns out, someone fell on his leg in an acrobatics session a couple of months ago, and it's not yet healed (all credit to him, travelling first-time in India on crutches - he arrived two days ago). He'd heard there was a good Ayurvedic place in Kollam. Did I know of it? Was it for his leg? I asked. He should really talk to the gurukkal in the clinic. So I explained how it works, told him where to sit, made sure the ladies in reception and pharmacy knew about him and went to get my breakfast. Some time later, on my walk back from Mani Mess as I headed to the shops before the bus home, I decided on the off-chance to see if he was still there and check he was ok. He was still waiting but as I walked in, we were ushered to another room and told to wait on a bench as Sir would come. I stayed to act as interpreter/explainer of everybody's English-as-second-or-third-language and perhaps also just the cultural gap of what is implied and what is meant. It was sweet to see him unravel a bit after his leg was treated. Anyway, he has his oil for the week, has I think changed his travel plans to chill out in Kovalam for the required application time and will return in 7 days to see about further treatment. When I explained to him that Sathyan was saying that if his leg continues to heal (slowly) on its own with no treatment, he will likely always have some stiffness in it, young Antonio was keen to continue his treatment. He was visibly taken aback by how little today cost him. It wouldn't surprise me if he ends up training here.

8th November:

It's Sunday-no-training-rest day, so I slept until I woke naturally, bucket washed and scrubbed the last two days of training clothes (oh, to be a boy and train in my pants. The time and energy and water I'd save...) and sallied forth to get the bus to Kovalam Swiss Cafe Sunday breakfast. The bus conductor was the same pretty lady from last time, smart with very good English. She indicated I should sit next to her on this nearly empty bus. She asked after my training, I asked after her daughter Maitri. I asked after yesterday's election count. I don't understand the details of the Malayalam but it's clear everyone everywhere is talking about it. Democracy seems very active here. 41 seats to the Trivandrum Corporation, 34 to the BJP. Do I wear a sari? She does, for outings and marriage functions. I should try a Kerala sari - white with a gold border. Very nice. If anyone needs a wedding dress back home, it sounds like a good option.

12th November:

I was feeling a bit perkier this morning, after my cold and days off training. Up in the gallery, as I waited for the sweat to dry in the approved manner before washing it off (though this doesn't quite work in clothes), Rajan, emerging from the bathroom said to me "Lucy, are you tired today?" So much for perkier. Then he patted my wet, oily head as he left the building. In this culture that doesn't touch, I think that's as good as a hug.

13th November:

I seem exclusively to be getting lifts when I'm wearing a skirt. It was still drizzling after training, so I knocked my Kovalam breakfast plans on the head and decided to head home after local breakfast instead. I've not seen Hari for a while and we don't understand each other enough to have a conversation about where he's been. He was back today and pulled up beside me as I was leaving the kalari. A lift here invariably means on the back of a bike and a lady in a skirt or sari does this side-saddle. So I folded my umbrella, gathered my skirts and perched myself on the back. I'm getting to be a dab hand; I hardly need to hold the bar round the seat at all. Mani Mess was shut so Hari drove me all the way home. I watched the world go by in the drizzle, over puddles and potholes, resisting the urge to swing my legs. I still have no idea where Hari was going or how much out of his way I took him. Riders here have to wear helmets, though passengers don't. I hear that's due to change, so the days of casual lifts seem numbered - doubtless very sensible but a little sad too.

18th November:

One of my tasks in Sanskrit class the other day was to see if I understood enough about the pronunciation of the Mahamrtyunjaya Mantra to write it in Devanagari (I actually didn't do too badly). Today, among other things, my tune was corrected. "Wash your hands and feet before you chant. And sit properly, straight". I looked at Mahadevan sideways: "I know how to sit. I've done quite a lot of it." I then apologised and thanked him for the reminder and we both laughed. After instructing me on my necessary pre-homework ablutions, Mahadevan announced that I will be sitting a Sanskrit exam in February. He must have faith in my by-hearting. Apparently, if I pass, I get a certificate from Mumbai. Meanwhile Rajan in the kalari has been instructing me to observe the short stick. My long stick had better improve a lot first, I don't say. It's gearing up to be a busy few months.

19th November:

A while ago, when I gasped as Rajan unexpectedly threw a long stick at Anoop (who very dexterously caught it), he came over to me at the side and explained how the old gurukkal would do this regularly, because you should always be alert in the kalari, because the body should be "all eyes". Today was my turn, though far less spectacular than Anoop's test, and of course I dropped it. It landed on Ganesha's lamp, extinguishing it. I picked up the stick, re-lit the elephant god's lamp and went round the kalari to pay my respects to the various gurus and gods before Rajan led me through the long stick sequence as though nothing had happened. Flustered, I forgot to check whether my stick was sufficiently oiled before my round of observances and so I found out just how uncomfortable it is when it's not. "This is not coming. Why is it not coming?" the usual refrain to one of my passes. (Because I find it really hard? Because I'm not very coordinated? Because the stick is catching on my hand and pulling my skin?...) Today is not the day for overcoming obstacles, so I'm off to dip my head in the sea until it is.

"Did I see you this week training at CVN Kalari?" asked the young man across from me on the bus from Kovalam. He's recently started his travels in India, post Oxford graduation and band break-up, and is hoping to include a couple of months in the kalari from the new year. "Do you get much instruction when you start? When I was watching, you all just seemed to be kicking for two hours. He came and corrected your posture once, but that was it. It looks really intense." I realise it must look a bit daunting for a newcomer watching. When I arrived at the time of the kalari puja, I'd asked Rajan a question about logistics of training. "Be free. You are part of us," he'd said. At the moment, I'm both the only foreigner and the only woman in the kalari. In the mornings, training with these people, many of whom I've watched over years now, I almost do feel like part of them. There's hardly any English spoken; sometimes I think they assume I understand the quiet Malayalam. We all run through our leg exercises and postures, negotiating pathways across the kalari, almost silent, the occasional glance or smile to let someone pass, our sweat and handprints merging in the earthen floor. At some point, Rajan gestures us out in small groups to run through the salutation, the meippayats, then individually, our weapon of the moment. All the sequences are accompanied by the spoken Malayalam instructions, set like sutras. I don't understand most of the words but I associate certain sounds with certain movements. Actually, there's a lot of instruction - but most of it is in the repetition of practice.

20th November:

Rajan always gives the long stick a good bending, weight moving down into it, before passing it to me. I think he's testing it for flaws. As he leads me through the blocks to the side strike sequence, I have reason to be grateful he does this. His aim is true at my temple every time, but my stick, vibrating with the force of each blow, holds. I remembered to oil it this morning, so I'm dealing with the lesser problem of keeping hold. It's a skirt day today, so of course I get a lift to breakfast after training. Walking home from Mani Mess, someone shouts "Hello!" and then adds "CVN Kalari!" lest I think it's some random wolf whistler. I'm never quite sure whether I'm the woman with 3 heads or something they're quite fond of. Probably both. Certainly, the elderly Muslim man taking a peek at training before his treatment looked quite delighted I am learning this Kerala art form, quite unconcerned at my dirt and my sweat and my bare lower legs and arms.

23rd November:

I couldn't get to sleep last night, and when I finally did, the street dogs got into an uncharacteristic fight, which continued long and loud. When I got to the kalari this morning, for the first time, both my ankles were complaining on the turns, and my balance on the turning kick was more tenuous than usual. Ah yes, lack of ground, lack of sleep; the body always knows... Despite all this, kalari wasn't as painful as I'd feared. Rajan is adding to the long stick sequence with me, so now there's much more off the line forwards and back, more movement in circles through the space. There's a particular transition that eludes me. "Aamaram with the left hand. Why are you using your right? I can feel it in my stick which hand you are using." So the back hand is where the force comes from, the front hand is a guide. I'm not manually dexterous at the best of times, and this transition, straight into my weaker side, is very messy. The more seniors, with whom I usually do the meippayat sequences, weren't in today, so the pace was a bit slower through them. I still had most of my breath at the end. I realise that I'm fitter than I thought.

24th November:

I'm back on the local eucalyptus oil inhalations over a saucepan of boiled water - not something I think most people associate with sitting in your knickers because of the heat. I'm not sure if it's a revisit of this virus which has promiscuously lodged in half the people I know, being stuck too often in diesel fumes of traffic, or what toxins I inevitably inhale when burning my rubbish (nothing like it to bring home the nastiness of packaging) that makes my lungs feel so constricted. Pacing up and down the kalari after today's meippayat to regulate my breathing, I thought, really, it's a marvel my lungs work at all.

26th November:

Over the last 24 hours, I've been clumsy to the extent I thought life might be better if the earth just swallowed me up, perhaps my most obvious incidence (though not the worst) being when I clipped Rajan's head as he was taking me through the long stick this morning. (Anyone who knows anything about my weapons practice knows the instructions "more force" and "use your wrists" together are fraught with danger in my case.) I then realised it's not just me. The impeccable, persistent Charles of the enviable forms kicked himself (hard enough to wince) in the face today, and even Rajan clipped himself with the otta, something I've never before seen. So maybe it's something in the air, or the full moon.

27th November:

Today after breakfast, under Sujith's orders, I returned to the kalari to wait in the clinic for Sathya to look at the foot I'd sprained last summer, which is creaking a bit. A very elegant and charming older couple were also waiting for the lady's check-up after some treatment. We got talking; I showed them pictures from a dance performance while they showed me their children in Sweden.

"Your sister has a Tamil boyfriend", they said "so you must have a Kerala boyfriend." 

"My life's hard enough!" I bluffed.

"No, no", said the pretty lady, "there are some good ones."

"I don't see how that would work", I replied. "It's all arranged here".

"We will look for you," she half-joked.

I suspect she'd find me a hard sell.

5th December:

Borrowing books. Part of today's homework: to copy out a prayer for absolution for all my errors. Well I certainly need it. Oh and to sing/chant with more confidence (because it is not correct to doubt). All those errors make it hard...

8th December:

Well today I went and ordered my specs. I hope my whizzy Nikkon anti-glare varifocals don't give me migraine because they are by far and away the most expensive thing I have ever bought in India. The service was superb, and they are also changing the lenses in my sunglasses for a very reasonable sum. They were so pleased with me, the guy who's making my glasses insisted on buying me coffee and a deep-fried thingy at the tea stall below. And he's called Mr. Bean. Really.

10th December:

This decided it liked my skirt as I was stirring the kashayam paste over the gas burner for the treatment Sujith is giving. It's still here. I'm guessing it's a moth...

12th December:

How did it get so busy? This was supposed to be my quiet week, training in the mornings, giving kalari uzhichal (massage) treatment in the evenings. It all started very calmly, my period arriving at the weekend (there's a whole area on menstruation and martial arts that deserves discussion) so I went into the kalari to watch at the beginning of the week. In one of those nice synchronicities, Unny was visiting, giving uzhichal every morning - and seeing as he was massaging a man, he was doing so at the side of the kalari. Sathya instructed me to pull the curtain aside, draw up a chair and watch (it's rude to watch someone giving massage if you're not somehow involved) and so I had two days of observing Unny, who is much more experienced than me, which was very nice. On Wednesday, leaning over the balcony, I saw Sujith making an interesting looking potion (a kashayam, it turned out). "What are you making?" I asked. "You come upstairs and help" he told me. So after I finished training I'd return from my breakfast and start "cooking" the kashayam which Sujith massaged onto a patient (it's important it doesn't stick to the pan). "You take rest," he would order me before we began, which was a very good use of the waiting. Savasana, or nap time. So that was my mornings accounted for, and between that and Sanskrit and giving kalari uzhichal in the evenings (and how nice to do a full 5 days once again) and preparing for my trip... Well, I am a little frazzled.

Oh yes, did I mention my trip? I'm off to Chennai tonight, scene of recent horrendous floods. I'm visiting friends, and then off to a Vipassana meditation retreat on Shiva's mountain at Arunachala. I suspect this one will have more in common with my Cambodian than my Herefordshire experience... There's Christmas sorted then.

From Lucy, with love, xx

Sunday, 17 May 2015


In this time of transition, I came across these 25 minutes of continuous writing from 23rd April, 2011…

My fascination with footprints, walking and leaving no trace, the photo of our footprints, mine and Simone's side-by-side, hers sharp and indented, long walking across the wet sand, mine barely visible - do I exist on this earth?

When you were small you would bury your feet in the sand - the sensation of burrowing so vivid between your toes.  You liked to think your legs began at the ankles.  Long and lean and strong, you could tolerate them.  But your feet: so misshapen and flat and long and ugly.  You couldn't bear them.  Not strictly true. In fact you felt a sad compassion for the hideous creatures but were ashamed of them nonetheless and preferred to hide them in the sand when anyone else might be looking.  Feet buried in mud-coloured sand, staring out to sea, out through the green-grey breakers, out to the water home of mysterious dangerous creatures. Through the first three breakers you would play.  Yes, it was rough and somewhat dangerous.  A mistaken leap onto a wave would send you through its power, rolling and roiling, no air possible in the inescapable circling until it rolled you to shore, forcing your face into the gritty sand as a final warning before it washed out, its power temporarily spent.  You stood on your ugly feet, water foaming at your ankles, spitting the sand from your mouth, gasping, grasping air as those who had witnessed your aquatic clumsiness howled with laughter. Wounded, you turned to shout something at them, drowned out by the waves still roaring in your ear.  Your ripostes as a nine-year old were never very elegant, and this wasn't your clever language, so the howling mockery escalated.  It wounded you that people's response to your fear was laughter.  But their response to your pain was silence, to turn away and blank it from their map of existence.

You never understood why your feet were so ugly.  Both your parents had such handsome, elegant feet.

Nearly thirty years later those feet were treading around a gompa outside Dharamsala.  Mindfully treading, aware of each passage of weight through each articulation.  Your heel lands, then there is the wobble through your arch, out then in then out again as your synapses catch their balancing, then the spreading through the ball as some tendon or ligament clicks to a new place and the toes spread wide as another heel lands ahead.  This is the first time it occurs to you as conscious thought:  I walk and leave no footprints.  I leave no print upon this earth.  Do you mind?  This weightlessness, this passing on, passing on, passing through.  Will your feet ever find a place to plant?

The moon is full and the monkeys are somewhere in the trees beyond you in the dark.  It is chilly under the moon as you mindfully tread around the gompa, practising your walking meditation until the next teaching.  You travelled to India under a full moon and this is your first full-moon since you abandoned your last and most failed attempt at planting.  All of you came with that uprooting; nothing is left.  How many moons before you find a place to plant or a way to keep walking, sustaining, leaving no footprints?  The night is quiet and cold and the moon is high and bright.  You feel peace as you tread, tread, tread in your circles around the gompa.  For now it is enough just to tread under the moon.  It will not always be.

Your feet are not so ugly now.  You have grown grateful for the service they have rendered you, the miles they have walked, the seas they have swum.  They have faithfully travelled through sorrow and injury and flashes of joy.  They are worn and strong and fragile and it is many years since you took to taking their portraits on your journeyings, photographic proof you had walked these landscapes with no one to witness.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

On Tong Len and Toilets

Following my acceptance last year that the usual celebrations really aren’t for me, I resolved to spend the recent Christmas and new year holidays on some form of retreat, preferably one involving silence and a lot of meditation.  This was tricky, as for a while, wherever I turned, appropriately to the season, there was no room at the inn.

Eventually, Gaia House, a retreat centre for insight (Vipassana) meditation in the Buddhist tradition, agreed to take me from the 23rd to the 27th of December. I decided I could turn this into the longer retreat I wanted by resolving to continue on my own at home until the 2nd of January, a prospect I found a little daunting.

By the time I arrived at Gaia House, quiet in the south Devon countryside in the late afternoon, it was dark. I was a bit perplexed as I got out the car.  This was my first visit, and the place is in permanent silence bar a few necessary and rare exceptions. The basics eluded me.  I couldn’t work out, where, on this ex-convent, was the front door. 

Eventually I found my way round to a side entrance, where a long-term retreatant came across me.  After a brief whispered exchange (I’m grateful compassion practice is a cornerstone of Buddhism), she showed me a noticeboard where a little folder with my name was pinned. In it was my room number, a map of the building with an arrow to my room, instructions on my daily hour of work and a welcome letter.  One of the coordinators then came upon me and showed me to my quarters.  Later that evening, after supper, another coordinator gave me a mini tour, and answered any sotto voce questions, showing me where to leave a note if anything came up during my stay.  By this point, I had already found the main noticeboard and scribbled down the prospective timetable on one of the donation envelopes I had found (having, in the spirit of last year’s Vipassana marathon, omitted to bring a notebook with me).  This envelope was gradually covered with little notes I wrote to myself as the days progressed.

A marker of my experience at every Buddhist centre I have visited in any part of the world (which now cover India, Cambodia and the UK) is how well organised they are to support practice and allow people to integrate in and out as smoothly as possible.  Gaia House upheld this beautifully. As someone on personal retreat, I was free to do as I pleased so long as I respected the discipline of the place, did my allotted job during the hour set aside for work and observed the usual five precepts (no killing, no stealing, no lying, no intoxicants, no sexual activity).  There were informative signs everywhere so that silence could be observed without confusion or questions: around the tea-making area near the dining room, in the dish washing area, in the library, outside the meditation hall, in the sleeping areas.  It was warm, comfortable and incredibly easy.

The place was running slightly unusually because of Christmas. Some coordinators were away, no courses were on, there were few personal retreatants and we got an extra pudding the night of Christmas eve (sweets being usually a once a week event).  On Christmas day, I noticed the Buddha in the meditation hall had a scarf of red tinsel wrapped around his neck. The rest of the time, it looped demurely at his feet.

I arrived with the tail-end of a cold and a resolve to reintegrate my yoga asana (physical) practice after the discombobulation of recent months.  I was also resolved to give myself space in the discipline and not allow super/ego to push into exhaustion and grasping.  I was surprised to find it arced quite organically if I allowed it.  I roughly observed the general timetable, taking part in four of the scheduled 45 minute sitting meditations each full day.  Other than that, I set aside two hours every morning for yoga asana, which I began gently, increasing the dynamism and physical challenge as the days continued. 

We had mostly beautiful winter days, and I walked or sat outside every lunchtime.  The library was a delight to me, and I read every day, either in one of the armchairs overlooking the garden or in my room.  There was my daily work period and the evening recorded Dharma talk in the lounge.  I went to bed and rose early and on my first afternoon allowed myself a blissful nap – which was apparently exactly the right thing to chase the cold away.  And that’s how I filled my days.

I was designated to household work for my daily hour. It turned out this meant cleaning three bathrooms.  I considered that I’ve not been on toilet duty for some time in any retreat situation so, in the scheme of things, it was surely my turn.  As the place was fairly empty and the bathrooms not much used, it was not as unpleasant a job as it might have been.  That, and following non-harming principles (to the environment this time), all cleaning products were ecologically friendly so I didn’t have to deal with any nasty chemicals, and there were helpful signs instructing which colour cloths were for loos (yellow) and which for other surfaces (blue).

I had a particularly joyful experience cleaning the toilets, showers, sinks and floors on Christmas morning.  I have a great attachment to bathrooms (and hot water) and love a clean one. Whenever I’ve been on retreat I’ve always felt especially grateful to whoever cleans the bathrooms and loos for me.  Maybe it was the silence getting to me, but I felt great delight at returning this pleasure to others.

Actually, I suspect it was the compassion meditation rather than the silence.

As I was in a Buddhist centre, it felt rude not to engage in Buddhist practices.  On my application form, when asked what I meant to do on my personal retreat, I’d written that I meant to deepen my practice of Vipassana (insight) meditation – which always feels a bit like taking my medicine, bringing my bouncing and rebellious mind more - or usually less - successfully to heel. 

Libraries are a great favourite of mine and despite the tempting range of reading materials from various traditions, what I ended up polishing off during those days was Alan Wallace’s The Attention Revolution.  It’s a fairly readable book about the Buddhist practice of shamatha, calm abiding.  The practice develops stability of mind, so that we can cultivate minds that are neither too dozy nor too excitable to perceive the ultimate nature of reality.

Shamatha practice yields amazing results (so says the book) but struck me as a pretty dry enterprise, from the time I first encountered it with the lovely Tibetan Buddhists in 2009 on the course at Tushita in Dharamsala.  Essentially, it’s about focussing the mind, usually starting with the breath.

So far, so standard. 

But in order to achieve shamatha, you’re supposed to hold your attention unwaveringly on an object for four hours minimum and should count on meditating between 12 and 14 hours a day for several months or years to achieve this.  Only when you can easily do this is your mind fit for insight (Vipassana) meditation.  If you’re only meditating an hour or two a day, says Alan Wallace, well you’re just a dabbler.  Don’t expect much.

It’s not an encouraging or very realistic prospect.

I reckon I’ve got to maybe stage 2 of the 10, perhaps 3, but for a much shorter period of time than what’s stipulated.  I suspect I won’t be getting much further.

However, in respect of my hosts, I did do lots of mindfulness meditation on my breath.  Compared to my last retreat a year ago, I noticed a few things.  I was mostly able to stay with my breath more consistently. When I did wander off, I was less caught up in the stories of grief, anger, lust… or just list-making.  They were all there but they had less hold on me.  Mostly, I was able to return to the breath more rapidly and smoothly.

Hurrah for progress.

As I went through Alan Wallace’s book over the days, I was reminded of some of the compassion meditations I had been taught at Tushita.  One is called Tong Len, which was explained to me as “equalising and exchanging”.  Essentially, you focus on the light of the pure mind (this is where I veer from Buddhism and instead focus on the light of the Self or atman, as defined by the Upanishads in the Yoga tradition.  In the spirit of advaita, non-duality, I reckon this is ok).  Then you visualise someone and you see their suffering as black smoke or matter inside them.  Then you breathe it all in, taking it inside yourself until there is no darkness left in the person you are visualising.  You then breathe out your light (of the pure mind or Self), essentially all your happiness and positive qualities, filling them with it.  So you take their darkness, giving them your light.  You’re supposed to start with people you love, then move on to people you’re indifferent to, finally to people you positively dislike or who have done or wish you harm.  

Hardcore compassion meditation.

I did three supremely focussed 45 minute sittings of Tong Len.  I did it for any and everybody who came to mind, those for whom I feel affection and warmth, those who have hurt and angered me most. 

It occurred to me that Tong Len is exactly like cleaning toilets.  It’s rather disgusting when you start, but it’s amazing how clean and joyful it’s possible to feel after taking on and clearing out the muck.  And of course, it’s the nature of things that it’s all just going to get mucky again.  A task worthy of Sisyphus.

In the walking meditation room a (real) skeleton sat cross-legged, donated by a medical student, alongside a sign explaining how meditation on impermanence and death is a cornerstone of the Dharma.  I only did walking meditation indoors once, on Christmas afternoon.  As I paced in direct line with the skeleton for the best part of an hour, wondering who was the passed-on possessor of those bones, it occurred to me, as most of the country watched Christmas telly drunk on its sofa, that my occasional reputation for eccentricity is possibly not without foundation.

The silence was like a blanket over me and I was reluctant to leave.  There were no electronics during my stay at Gaia House but I discovered that I’m perfectly capable of using my phone on airplane mode for its meditation timer or clock without getting distracted.  This proved very useful for the home part of my retreat.

So on the 27th, in bright winter sunshine, I left Gaia House having gingerly switched my phone back on for the SatNav app to take me back to Swansea.  No distracting messages came through and I completed the 6 hour journey - 2 hours longer than it should have been due to post-Christmas traffic - in silence.  The crowds at the packed service station where I stopped for coffee and lunch were pretty intense, but I managed to keep my calm and quiet.  This continued on my stop at Sainsbury’s to pick up fresh groceries to last the rest of my home retreat.  There I bumped into a friend who has moved to Spain and I hadn’t seen for the best part of a year. This was one of a number of new year’s synchronicities.  She had come to mind at Gaia House, and seeing her again, all shining and glowing, felt auspicious and loving somehow.

I wasn’t able to maintain quite as deep a state of quiet mindfulness once at home, but the five days that followed my day of transition feel slightly enchanted now I look back on them from the pulls of life out in the world.

Trying to ride the line between discipline and listening, I managed to maintain my proposed schedule fairly successfully, with allowances for the morning I was pole-axed by my period and a genuine lack of berating guilt on my part at my lapse.  I’d constructed a provisional timetable before leaving for Devon but on reflection, given how much of the life I would be returning to happens in the evening, I decided that 5:00 risings were not particularly useful and so shifted them half an hour, still half an hour earlier than I had observed at Gaia House.  I changed the order of activities occasionally and towards the end of the 5 days stuck less rigidly to times, though still fitted everything in.  I was extremely disciplined with my cooking, eating far more varied food than I usually manage.

All senses were more vivid by now, a familiar response to silence and greater presence.  Consequently, the crutches I usually rely on were not necessary and slipped away without intention or effort.  I had stocked up on supplies of Emergency Dark Chocolate but in fact only got through a bar over the week (those who know me will know how impossible this would normally be).  In December, a friend had presented me with a Christmas pudding he had made.  I had saved it for my retreat tea, and I can’t describe the joy and gratitude with which I cooked and ate it every afternoon, enjoying a short walk to the sea while it reheated in the oven. 

Mostly, the beautiful winter weather continued.  There’s something about this kind of practice, a retuning to source perhaps, that elicits immense and totally spontaneous gratitude for absolutely everything, which makes me think that really this must be my natural state when all the rubbish is cleared away for a bit.  I spent an hour outside every morning, overwhelmingly grateful for the chance that takes me from the beauty of the Devon countryside to the beauty of the sea at Mumbles, for the people walking along the front, for friends who remember me in their Christmas pudding making, for warm clothes and comfort, for silence and solitude, for pain that pushes me to transcend, for everything.

Of course, difficult things arose too, but mostly I was grateful for the space to practise, and a little reluctant to return to the world as I usually know it.

My meditation focus moved to the Tantra of Kashmir Shaivism, more comfortable ground for me.  During my evening sittings I would listen to a portion of Sally Kempton’s teachings on the Vijnana Bhairava and practise them during the three daytime sittings of the morrow.  As my asana practice grew more dynamic, I re-found the joyful power and cleansing strong practice gives me.  I made time to make things I’d been intending for months: the jewellery I play with, the lip balms and facial oils that give me such nurturing pleasure.  My study time every day was devoted to re-familiarising myself with the Devanagari script.  Everything was more vivid, painted in clearer light, and so was the deep delight and calm these mysterious letters give me.

On the 2nd of January, I followed my timetable until 10:00 and then got in my car and drove to visit my friend of the Christmas pudding, on his land in the countryside of west Wales. I ended as I began, bemused in my car, temporarily lost.  But the day was beautiful and I found my way and had a perfect re-introduction to the world in the company of  kind, gentle people, walks in woodland, planting a Yew tree, eating good food, body work and yoga adjustments and massage practice coming to remind me of what I do, and Kashima (a sword practice) in the winter sun coming to remind me of what I love.  I felt open and raw and totally filled with overflowing love that day. 

I reach to touch the memory of that when life separates me from it.

A couple of days after the end of my retreat, one of the friends from my west Wales re-emergence was staying with me.

“Why do you do it?” she asked.  I can’t remember what I replied at the time, but it didn’t feel satisfactory.

On reflection, I realised it boils down to what I wrote after my first Vipassana retreat in Cambodia in 2010.

The first noble truth of Buddhism is the reality of suffering.  Compare that to the foundation of Vedanta, which is that everything is Brahman and that the nature of Brahman is saccidananda (pure being, pure consciousness, pure bliss).  By nature, if only we can uncover it, we and everything in this universe are pure bliss.  That is our essence and our nature.

All the contemplative traditions teach us that bliss is not dependent on external circumstance but is an internal state.  When I engage in more extended meditation and contemplative practices, I’m able to connect to that aspect of my nature, if only fleetingly.  And carry some of that deep joy into the realities of daily life, which at times feels anything but blissful.

So on we go for another year.

Wishing you, as always, oceans of bliss,

from Lucy, with love x