The following is an email interview with Simon, one of our Sangha members, who recently attended a retreat at Gaia House, a meditation retreat centre near Newton Abbott in Devon, offering silent meditation retreats in the Buddhist tradition.
When did you decide to go and why?
Had my eye on the retreat (‘Breath by Breath’ with Jenny Wilks and Jaya Karen Rudgard) from November last year and was keen to explore Anapanasati (Mindfulness with Breathing) in a retreat setting.
What preparations did you make, what did you need to take (or were, or were not allowed to take)?
I prepared by reading Larry Rosenberg’s ‘Breath by Breath’ on which the retreat was based. I needed to take a tent (I could only get a camping place) and half the contents of my flat, 90% of which was completely unnecessary. ‘A bag with a toothbrush and a comb in’ would have sufficed. And a change of clothes. . . .sun cream, bug spray etc etc [probably needed some earplugs as well]. We were supposed to leave our mobile phones in our cars or I think they had a safe if you didn’t trust yourself. That was a blessing: a four day tech fast.
How was your journey to get there (and back)?
The journeys, both there and back, were fraught with dukkha. I made a whistle-stop tour along the way to visit friends from the mainland, a coffee here, a lunch there, a quick visit to the dentist and hygienist and a six mile run around Dursley golf course for good measure (I stayed overnight at a friend’s). Driving across Dartmoor on the morning of the retreat was nice. I’d forgotten how beautiful it was, not having been for a good 10 years. Journeying home was hard work. Often after retreats as soon as you hit the main roads you want to go and hide under a hedge because, well, those lorries are big and noisy and vaguely terrifying. On this occasion, I was momentarily possessed of dhammic superpowers (concentration, clarity, equanimity) and found everyone to be wading through treacle whilst I waltzed through the Devon Expressway Esso like a veritable master of flow. Two hours of hollering to rock music (to try and stay awake) along A roads and a full (read: full-bladdered) 60 minutes in Southampton’s rush hour traffic soon brought me back down to migraine humanity on Planet Dukkha, where I belong of course, by way of a midnight ferry after curry with friends and a Leonard Cohen drive home to Insomnia Bay.
What type of course did you undertake and why?
The course was based on the Anapanasati Sutta and we went through one of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness on each of the days we were there: mindfulness of the body, of feelings, of the mind and of dhammas. I’d been studying the Satipatthana Sutta and there is a clear relationship between the two suttas. They pretty much cover the same ground and I wanted to put into practice what I’d been reading about in a formal setting.
What was the environment like and how did it affect you?
The environment was very pleasant and peaceful and conducive to practice. The weather was pretty much perfect. The animals (the birds and the rabbits) seemed to sense that we humans were not a threat and would beak/snout about among us as we did our walking meditation on the lawn. Relaxation and equanimity were more or less an inevitability.
How did you get on with the other attendees and did that change and if so why?
Vibrations were good between most people as far as I could tell. It was a silent retreat so it was all just smiles and bows and emanations of what I assume was mostly warmth. Everyone seemed calm and content. Although there was one chap who was seemingly doing all he could to control his long stertorous (was it Ujjayi?) breathing as if he was rehearsing for the part of Darth Vader in the next Star Wars movie. He was also, on the third day, taking rather noisy, possibly frustrated or even angry, swigs from his water bottle before banging it down on the floor. I think some notes of complaint were made and he simmered down a bit by the evening so those of us in his vicinity were able to return to our own breathing.
What did you get out of your time there; What changed?
A heady blast of piti and sukha and an all-too-brief glimpse of not-self. A sighting of The Ox methinks, though not seen since so no change there. The retreat was a timely reminder of the value of intensive practice. I came away incredibly relaxed, possibly even too relaxed. High as a kite in fact. Found myself wandering in retro headphones around Tennyson Monument at 5am the following misty morning singing ‘Wish You Were Here’ at the top of my Milarepa lungs.
What was your highlight and/or fondest memory?
Sitting next to a Danish supermodel.
What was the worst of it?
Sitting next to a Danish supermodel.
Marks out of 10 (multiple categories if you like).
8 out of 10. Minus 1 for the bloke in the next tent who woke me up several times in the middle of the night, apparently talking to himself, though I reckon he was on the phone. And minus another 1 for the Parliament of Crow’s cacophonous dawn chorus which was, to put it mildly, ‘not pleasant’.