Archive for April, 2015

A couple of weeks ago I went to Gaia House in Devon for a silent retreat. My experience of meditation is limited – our antenatal course last summer was called Mindful Breath Birthing and was rooted (obviously) in mindfulness, and since then I’ve tried to meditate for 10-20 minutes each day, with many missed days and many aborted attempts where any state of peace and quiet seemed far away. So it was with not a little trepidation that I set off for Devon, wondering what I’d let myself in for. I was terrified of the silence (surely it would be awkward and embarrassing!) and that I wouldn’t be able to meditate properly and would show myself up as a novice.

I arrived on Friday afternoon and immediately felt relaxed. Weird, right? Gaia House is in an old convent and I used to teach in a monastery school; I think I just like religious houses. It’s quite an ugly building on the outside but the gardens are stunning (and practical – they grow all their own food) and the rooms and corridors are airy and quiet. It’s all quiet! There are people there on long term personal retreat so even before a group retreat has started, a lot of the building is silent. It’s a lovely, warm silence though. I had the afternoon to explore a bit which I was glad of as it made me feel more at home. The lounge is silent and is a beautiful, light, warm room. There were always people sitting there in front of the enormous windows, meditating or thinking or napping. The library is gorgeous (I want a library at home. Badly.) and similarly peaceful. On group retreats you’re not allowed to read but personal retreatants can do so if they wish. The dining room is large and bright, with white stone walls and big tables and benches. There’s a permanent tea/coffee station so you can help yourself whenever you need a drink, and I was relieved that there was caffeine on offer as well as plenty of herbal teas!

I was in a dorm of six women and over the course of the afternoon they all arrived and we were able to chat and get to know each other a little bit. One of the things I’d worried about was sharing a room with people I didn’t know and not being able to talk to them and so get to trust them, so it was nice to have the opportunity to talk to each other and find out what had brought each of us there. Strangely, three of us had been to the same university and done the same course, but at different times!

Supper was served in the early evening and was delicious. In fact, all the food was delicious. I had been worried (again – yes, I’d worried about a lot!) that the food would be awful because, frankly, I had visions of school dinners, but it was seriously good. It’s all vegetarian (and largely vegan) and all home grown. Amazing. I am not a wonderful cook and it was a revelation to me that vegetarian food can be so varied and so good. The food is all put out on a central table and people just help themselves – in the mornings the breakfast was enormous pots of porridge which was miraculously brilliant and not gloopy like it usually is when made in vast quantities, with loads of different toppings – local honey, homemade jam, nuts, seeds etc. Yum. Anyway, I digress. Foooood…

After supper we went to the meditation hall for the opening talk, which was mainly practicalities and introductions. The teacher was Yanai Postelnik, who is apparently quite famous in his field, not that I knew that at the time, and he was very warm and friendly. We had one sit of about half an hour (I picked a chair rather than a mat) and the silence started. Yanai said to us that it was ok to smile at people and be friendly while silent but it was also ok to not want to look at people at all, and so not to be offended if someone didn’t make eye contact with you, which was nice to hear as I was wondering about how social niceties would work when noone could talk. On leaving the hall at about 9.30pm I went to my bedroom/dorm and pretty much went straight to sleep. The other women in the room did the same and it felt quite companiable and not awkward like I had feared.

The whole of Saturday and the Sunday morning were spent meditating. Bear in mind I’d done a maximum of about 20 minutes at a time of guided meditation before this, and now I had 45 minutes of sitting followed by 45 minutes of walking followed by 45 minutes of sitting…and repeat. Nearly all unguided. There was also working meditation (washing up in my case) but that was only once a day. Otherwise it was sit, walk, sit, walk, occasionally stand, sit, walk…plus meals of course. This was seriously bloody hard. My bum was so numb by the end of some sessions that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stand. I switched around between the floor and a chair to try and keep my circulation going and tried desperately to meditate through the discomfort. There were 70 year olds in there who sat on the floor cross legged all weekend for God’s sake, and I could hardly sit in a chair for 45 minutes without my mind wandering off to whether this kind of back pain could be considered torture! I had flashes of peace and wonderful moments of pure tranquility and then my mind would realise that I was doing it and I’d mentally congratulate myself and so ruin it. I spent whole sessions day-dreaming and trying not to, getting increasingly frustrated with my internal inability to shut the fuck up. I missed my husband and children. I sat there with my eyes closed and wondered what they were doing and whether they missed me and I had a few tears about why I was so far from home, doing something so hard that I clearly wasn’t cut out for. I had been worried about the silence – my God the silence was the easy bit! The silence was wonderful. The meditation was fucking. hard.

And then, late on the Saturday I sat down to meditate and it just clicked. I closed my eyes and then the bell rang and it was over – and in the 45 minutes between the two I was totally at peace, just gently watching my mind. I don’t think I really understood what meditation was before that, despite the fact that I’ve been attempting it regularly for almost a year. When the bell rang I found myself sitting with a massive, ridiculous grin on my face and tears rolling down my cheeks. I wish I could achieve that every time, but I fear I have a very, very long way to go before that’ll happen!

On the Saturday night there was a Dharma talk from Yanai that was really interesting. Obviously meditation has its roots in Buddhism – and I am not a Buddhist! – but he took the philosophy and made it really universal and fascinating, regardless of personal beliefs (or lack thereof). I definitely want to learn more about Buddhism now. There was also the opportunity to have a meeting with Yanai (and briefly break silence) to ask any questions, should you want to.

There were a few moments each day where we were ‘off timetable’ so to speak, and because we couldn’t read or craft or talk (!), I either went for walks or napped or simply sat on my bed and looked out of the window. There were branches right outside that knocked against the window a little when the wind blew, in vaguely Wuthering Heights style, and I stared at them and their thorns for what seemed like hours over the course of the weekend.

On the Sunday afternoon we had a closing talk and the silence was lifted. I didn’t want it to end – it’s amazing how peaceful and clear everything is when noone feels they have to talk. I turned my phone on – I had 2 missed calls (from 2am!), 3 texts, 4 WhatsApp messages, 3 Facebook Messages, 28 emails and 31 Facebook notifications. Most of them were junk. What madness that we are so constantly ‘notified’ of things other people say and the majority of the time, it’s completely unnecessary.

We packed up our room and chatted about our experience of the weekend and as I stripped my bed I looked out of the window and realised that the thorns I’d been staring at all weekend weren’t thorns at all, they were little green shoots. And maybe it was because I’d spent the weekend (and the year) attempting to find meaning and peace and a way to grow, but it felt like a metaphor.


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