A Four Day Retreat at Gaia House

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’.

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What Are We Waiting For?

The talk which I took along for Thursday night’s meeting of the Newport Soto Zen group was by Catherine McGee and entitled “What Are We Waiting For”.

It prompted this thoughtful response from Sylvia…………………..

I went to sangha last night and someone brought a taped talk with this title. It struck me, that though the talk was about practice and enlightenment, it applied to everything. Of course, practice and enlightenment are potentially in everything too.

We plan our lives ahead, as if we are always waiting for the next thing. That blocks us in the moment.

THIS IS THE MOST COMMON CAUSE OF UNHAPPINESS.

That joy of being alive in any given moment is the point of mindfulness, it is why we study and practice our meditations, practice watching our breath. To be mindful is to be actually living our lives, not vicariously glancing at others for comparisons, or over our shoulder at the past, or gazing into the future.

Future Gazing can be the most insidious of all since it keeps us moving forward, what will my next best piece of writing be and how will it be received, when I get to this point then I can do that, when I have worked out then I will feel better.

NONONONONONONONONONONONONONONO!!!!!!!!!!

That is all completely topsy-turvy and utterly illogical for two reasons.

1. IF you always make your enjoyment of your life conditional you will probably never reach true happiness and only experience fleeting moments because there will always be the next thing to achieve or complete or accomplish.

2. YOU are missing the chance of being happy right now- yes right now, regardless of the problems in your life or what is making you unhappy, you can change that right now.

External issues cannot make you unhappy, or happy even, unless you give them permission to do so.

Just occasionally they can mount up to an avalanche and take you unawares, making your resilience buckle under the strain. But even then happiness in each and every moment is a choice. We can be stressed out by the enormity of it all but we can also choose to stop and take a mindful breath and enjoy that moment of life just for its own sake.

When the monks in Tibet were being tortured by the Chinese authorities to rescind their practice, they did not. They were able to surpass the physical agony being inflicted upon them and still feel more concern and compassion for the torturers. Losing that capacity was their greatest fear. That is something I have taken as a deep lesson in life.

When my back went a couple of years ago, arthritis and two collapsed discs, I was in an enormous amount of pain,plus my compensations had pushed another disc out of place further up. I decide to consider this example deeply and meditated on it in depth. on most people’s scales that would be considered a major ‘ouch’.

I found I too could transcend the pain if I just accepted it. Instead of struggling against it and rejecting it, I found there was a rhythm to it, the pulses of the neurons, so I watched those instead, and their rhythms became soothing. I used my breathing a lot and found the releases of endorphines very pleasant indeed. I could suddenly understand the so-called religious people historically who used to keep their bodies semi damaged through hair shirts and self-flagellation. It feels quite transcendent.

So I viewed my back as a source of both pleasure and pain. I have since had some medical pain relief treatment which was supposed to last 3–6 months. Eighteen months later on and I am almost pain-free. I have done a deal with my back. I won’t put it under any more strain if she doesn’t hurt me more than necessary to remind me to take better care of her. It is working well for both of us.

But life I have just got on with, including continuing my passion for gardening and dancing to my husband’s band, and loved every minute. If I’d put a condition on being able to do those things when my back stopped hurting, I would have missed out on many extra joyful moments in those months. I have decided to be happy in each moment as far as I was able to, which is pretty much most of the time.

AS you will know if you have read any other articles of mine, I am also post PTSD and can still get triggered. This is a very unpleasant occurrence, my body locks down into a sort of rigid defensive position and I become somewhat paranoid and distrustful of life, and especially whatever or whoever it was that triggered me.

I have learned that focussing on being happy in the next moment gets me out of it more and more quickly. I have now read that I am doing the right thing since I need to retrain my amygdala to be less sensitive and decommission all the stress related systems further e.g. cortisol and adrenaline, whilst simultaneously increasing the happy ones like dopamine and serotonin. 

Guess what, being mindfully happy in the present moment is the best way forward. Mindfulness actually heals nervous systems broken from abuse and trauma. 

Furthermore, if you can then reframe those experiences into a positive, it challenges the cognitive retreat into paranoia and distrustfulness and what is basically a whole chronic fear package. It transforms it into a positive opportunity or even better neutralises it into a ‘just what happened, not real any more’, i.e. it was and now it no longer is. 

I also take the Tibetan monks example and work on having compassion for those who trigger me, firstly to dissolve the fear-based reactions I get when I encounter the triggers further, and secondly because I genuinely understand that they are also on their own journey and will make mistakes and have to shed dark underbellies full of their own trauma and other negative emotional historical experiences before they can be free of the energy in them which triggered me. Having taken that journey and of course being still on it, I understand how hard it is sometimes to see what your next area of effort should be directed towards. Until it hits you in the face of course, then you are or should not be in any doubt this is next. I will come to them also. 

SO yes I need to lose some weight, improve my fitness levels, get more organised, clean my potting shed up and tidy all the pots that are needing to be put away until next years seedling rush. I have a huge list of things I really need to get on with for my bees, for my family etc, etc etc., even for myself. But in this moment, I am not waiting for anything — I am thoroughly happy just doing one of them, which is to write up this thought train to share, and then it is …. oooh I have so much to chose from for next, but I shall let that develop out of the now ending when I hit publish. Because by then it will be a new ‘now’ to be exquisitely happy in for that opportunity to get something done. And in between, a few mindful breaths to remind me of the joy of clean air and life itself. 

I am so glad I made the effort to go to that Sangha last night.

West Wight Sangha’s Summer Meditation Retreat

Just a quick reminder that it now only three weeks until West Wight Sangha’s Summer Meditation Retreat! The retreat runs from 10 o’clock on the morning of Sunday the 15th of July to four o’clock in the afternoon.

For anyone who hasn’t been before, we are at Yew Tree Cottage, Weston Road, Totland and you can ring me on 756884. As is now our usual practice we’re looking to evenly balance the morning and afternoon sessions so we’ll be having lunch from 12:30 finishing at 1:30, so it would be nice if you’re only coming for the morning or afternoon to stay or come at half twelve and join everyone for lunch…… usual format of bringing vegetarian food to share. Also feel free to bring any readings that you would like to share.

Please let me know if you intend coming so that I have some idea of the numbers.

 

Walk With Me comes to Ryde

I’ve just heard from Angie that the film Walk With Me will be showing at Ryde Commodore on Saturday, February 3rd at 5pm. The film is about Thich Nhat Hahn and is narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch.

It would be great for as many people as possible to be able to see it, so ring round friends re: lift sharing.

SYNOPSIS

“Slow down and breathe. This contemplative journey follows in the steps of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh and is a rare insight into life within a monastic community. The sun rises. Everything is calm and still. Life is beautifully serene as Benedict Cumberbatch’s composed, meditative voice reads an extract from Thich Nhat Hanh’s early journals. So begins Max Pugh and Marc J Francis’ (Black Gold, LFF2006) fascinating and immersive exploration of what it means to devote one’s life to mindfulness. With unprecedented access to the famous secluded monastery of Plum Village in the South West of France, Walk With Me captures the daily routine and rituals of monks and nuns on a quest to develop a deep sense of presence. It is an insightful rumination on the pursuit of happiness, living in the present and our attachment to material things – a welcome remedy to the stresses of city life and a world in turmoil.” 

Laure Bonville, London Film Festival

West Wight Sangha’s Winter Meditation Retreat

Hi Everyone,

Just a quick reminder that it now just two weeks until West Wight Sangha’s Winter Meditation Retreat! The retreat runs from 10 o’clock on the morning of Sunday the 21st of January to four o’clock in the afternoon. For anyone who hasn’t been before, we are at Yew Tree Cottage, Weston Road, Totland and you can ring me on 756884.

As is now our usual practice we’re looking to evenly balance the morning and afternoon sessions so we’ll be having lunch from 12:30 finishing at 1:30, so it would be nice if you’re only coming for the morning or afternoon to stay or come at half twelve and join everyone for lunch…… usual format of bringing vegetarian food to share. Also feel free to bring any readings that you would like to share.

Please let me know if you intend coming so that I have some idea of the numbers.

Be well, Steve

Excitement in Totland!

We hold our Sangha meetings weekly on Tuesday nights form 7:00 to 9:00. Last week we were bemused by the sound of nearby sirens and wondered what was occurring and where.

This, from this weeks County Press…….

Car flipped 

A MAN was taken to St Mary’s Hospital following a car crash in Totland. 

Emergency crews were called to Weston Road at 8.40 pm on Tuesday after a car flipped over and ended up on its roof. Fire crews made sure the scene was safe and one man was taken to hospital by ambulance.

That was just up the road from us. Who says nothing newsworthy ever happens in Totland!