This weekend I was lucky enough to be able to go on a Buddhist meditation retreat in East Sussex. I have been on retreats before but never purely focusing on meditation and never within the context of Buddhism so it was a new experience on many levels.
My previous experiences of being on retreat have all been positive and transformational in some way and this one was no exception. In fact the last one I went on was my ashram adventure to India last year which was an incredible experience.
What really stood out for me from the outset on this particular retreat, and which everybody else commented on as well, was just how well everyone got on and how instantly warm and friendly everyone was. In truth I had been so busy in the lead up to going that I hadn’t had time to worry about the “social” aspect of it. Usually I would mull this over, worrying a little about whether or not I would connect with people, but this time there just wasn’t time to have any concerns about this and I just went with an open mind.
Upon arriving late afternoon I was greeted by two lovely ladies Anudaya and Sally who instantly made me feel welcome and showed me around the beautiful house that would become my home for the next 3 days. After dropping my things in my room I made myself a cuppa and joined a small group of people already sitting and chatting in the “library” room. We instantly shared our potted histories and I discovered I was sharing a room with two others including a fellow yoga teacher. Everyone was so open and conversation was flowing.
Once everyone had arrived we had an amazing supper prepared for us by volunteer chefs and got to know each other some more. The food throughout the weekend was incredible, prepared with love and entirely vegan. Not everyone on the retreat was vegan, or even vegetarian, but from conversations had over the weekend a lot of people would have been heading home at the end of the retreat with a more open-mind towards a non-meat diet.
Our first group meeting was a sharing of our backgrounds, who we were and what had led us there and then we moved over to the shrine room for our first meditation session and dedication ceremony. Having spent time in India last year I am used to (and love) the devotional element of “faith” centred meditation practices so I felt comfortable to openly embrace the opening Buddhist dedication and meditations.
Before moving onto meditation and an element of chanting, we spent time initially exploring comfortable seated positions for meditation – not everyone there had practised yoga before – in fact most had not – so a cross-legged or kneeling position was not comfortable for many. Some people sat on chairs throughout the retreat meditation sessions and others experimented with any number of cushions and props to find a comfortable seat. Overall I felt physically comfortable over the weekend but I am lucky to have had a lot of practise finding a comfortable position over the years!
I headed to bed straight after this first meditation session as a 6.30am rise was looming and I am not a naturally “morning” person!
I slept well, sharing a room with two lovely ladies – a fellow yoga teacher and a dance and PE teacher – each of us sharing a mutual desire to take time out of everyday life and explore meditation and Buddhism in more depth. The use of mobile phones was discouraged over the weekend so as my phone is also my clock (and pretty much everything else!!) I had no concept of time over the ENTIRE weekend so luckily we had a morning bell to tell us when it was time to get up or else I wouldn’t have had a clue.
First meditation session was at a reasonable 7am at which point we all headed to the shrine room. The main focus of the weekend would be two Buddhist meditation practices, Anapanasati, or the Mindfulness of Breathing, and Metta Bhavana, Loving Kindness meditation. I was familiar with the concepts of both practices as I have read a little about Buddhist meditation but I have never received the in-depth instruction that was received over the weekend. During this first 90 minute session we started with a gentle Kum Nye Tibetan Yoga exercise called “Loosening the Self Image”and then proceeded to break down the Mindfulness of Breathing which was divided into four distinct stages. I won’t go into the stages here as I intend to weave what I have learned over this weekend into my teaching in my general classes/workshops BUT the whole learning experience was definitely biased towards the “experiential” rather than the theoretical. Meditating for the lengths of time that we did over the weekend is no mean feat. Being left alone with your thoughts can be quite an intense experience in itself and the physical struggle of sitting for a long time was an issue for some, although for me my main struggle was trying to stay awake!! I discovered in no uncertain terms that I simply CANNOT meditate laying down and I could not – at this retreat in any case – meditate with my eyes closed. Laying down appeared to be a clear signal to my body to “please feel free to nod off” and closing my eyes meant “oh, how lovely, please feel free to take a nap” so a whole new world of “open eyed” meditation presented itself to me this weekend…
We had two more meditation sessions scheduled in on the Saturday, one after breakfast and then one later in the afternoon, which included an introduction to and practise of the five stages of the Loving Kindness meditation in addition to more practise of the Mindfulness of Breathing and it is surprising just quite how tiring meditating and being still can be! An additional 4 hours on top of the initial 90 minutes from the morning was spent exploring these meditation practices so you can imagine how exhausted we were all feeling.
There was free time in the afternoon, however, to explore the grounds or to relax in your room and this was much needed. Part of the “deal” of this meditation retreat was what in yoga terms we would call “karma yoga”. The retreat itself was not expensive and the cost was kept down on account of the team and leaders being volunteers and also on the understanding that the “retreatants” would contribute to the smooth running of the retreat. We each had to volunteer for at least two duties over the course of the weekend and this helped with the smooth running of the retreat and also provided an opportunity to connect with other people and just to feel like you were contributing and truly part of a community. I was on kitchen/clearing up duty the first night and then spent 40 minutes chopping vegetables the next 🙂
I did, however, have a chance to wander around the grounds and to get a sense of where we were. Even though Autumn seems to have taken hold since the moment we entered September there was enough sun over the weekend to really enjoy the beautiful surroundings.
After the afternoon meditation session where we went through both meditation practices again we had an earlier dinner. This gave us time to exchange reflections on how we had found the meditation sessions. What I found most curious was how each session felt different. In some sessions the meditation felt tough, my mind would wander, time would drag, I would be constantly battling slumber and in others I felt almost like I was having an epiphany, connecting deeply with the practice, time feeling like it was flying by and really enjoying the experience. There seemed to be no constant with the emotions and sensations that the meditation practices aroused.
In the evening we assembled again to listen to two of the team members telling us about why they had come to Buddhism and what it meant to them to be Buddhist. This was not intended, nor received, as a “preaching” session, more a sense of people sharing their journeys. Both speakers seemed to find in Buddhism, quite accidentally, what they had been looking for, it seemed to fill the missing piece of the jigsaw for them. As this weekend retreat was simply an introduction to Buddhism and Buddhist meditation there was no in-depth look at the Buddhist Dharma, or teachings, just a brief introduction.
After the talks we had a look at another Kum Nye practice called “Exchanging Self and Other” which involved working with a partner and getting a little out of one’s comfort zone. In all honesty I have been taken so far out of my comfort zone at so many workshops I have done over the years that this wasn’t too bad by comparison. It involved connecting with your partner, sitting opposite and gazing around them while they were gazing in the opposite direction around you. It was a little awkward – and some people found this more so than others – as you would connect through eye contact (and occasionally have to stifle the giggles) but luckily I had partnered up with one of my roomies so that made it slightly easier. It did feel like an intimate experience and a little exposing too but that is just because we are not used to “staring” so much in our culture and connecting so intensely through eye contact. Always interesting to try new things though.
We were then able to participate in a Three-Fold Puja where we repeated in call and response a set of verses in reverence to the Buddha in addition to a set chant during which time the team members gave offerings to the Buddha and carried out a ritual that was not explained but just experienced by the retreatants.
After this Puja and a short meditation we had to engage in silence overnight and until after breakfast the next morning. I think some people found this easier than others but as it was already late I – and others – just headed straight to bed. Difficult to wish people a good night though when not being able to talk!
Rising at 6.30am again and just under 2 hours of meditation in the morning before breakfast. We did include again a few movement exercises to warm the body before sitting but not to any great extent. Silence continued until after breakfast at about 9am. It was an interesting experience to hold silence in the company of others. Difficult to communicate obviously and it did feel a little anti-social BUT what was found generally was that it heightened the other senses and made you more aware of your surroundings too. Also, some of the retreatants – the older ones in particular – had mentioned that they had come to the retreat for a peaceful weekend and had found the conversations amongst each other to be a bit much at times so they relished the peace!
The library room had in fact been designated as a room to be silent in over the weekend so it was always possible to head in there if one didn’t want to chat to others.
After breakfast we enjoyed a walking meditation together around the grounds and then split off into three discussion groups to exchange thoughts on the practices over the weekend. This was also an opportunity to put any questions to the team leaders Sanghasiha and Pranyadevi.
We then were back to our Karma Yoga duties to all pitch in to clean up the whole house and prepare it for the next group to use. We were all assigned to various jobs – I was back cleaning up in the kitchen again – and then once completed we grouped together in the lounge for a closing session.
This gave us an opportunity to each offer our thoughts on the retreat experience as a whole and to thank the team for their input. Sanghasiha offered some interesting advice with regard to returning back out into the world, specifically “post-retreat grumpy syndrome” which I can identify with!
And then by 4pm we were all heading our separate ways, enriched and nourished by the experience of taking ourselves out of our everyday lives and immersing ourselves in something new and connecting with people with shared interests.
It was a very strange sensation to close the door of the retreat centre behind me and head straight back onto the M25!! That was quite a shock to the system. From zero to one hundred in the space of 15 minutes. I was lucky enough, however, to arrive home to the smell of dinner cooking and hugs from my other half and children so that made the transition a little easier. However, the next day it really did hit home, straight back into all the household chores in addition to school runs and being back to work and to teaching in the evening. It really made me realise just how cocooned we had been from the outside world while at the retreat but how that provided some space to just “be” which can only be a good thing.
All in all, despite having to re-enter the real world, the whole experience was an entirely positive one. I learned a lot, met some lovely people, ate some amazing food (which I didn’t have to cook!) and added another beautiful experience to my life that I will cherish always.