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.
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