Set in a former convent among the gentle hills and woodlands of South Devon, Gaia House offers a sanctuary of contemplative calm open to all. Founded in 1984, Gaia House is the only non-affiliated retreat centre in Britain which offers guidance in different meditative disciplines from the Buddhist traditions. Their retreats are designed for both experienced meditators and beginners, of any faith or none, who seek to cultivate a path of wisdom and compassion. All retreats (with the exception of the Family and Friends retreat) are held in silence and explore the essential themes of calm attentiveness, equanimity, insight, peace and freedom.
Friday 14th to
Sunday 17th October 2001
By Tony Barton
All rights reserved. Copyright and all other intellectual property rights contained within this document belong to Tony Barton (The Author).
You must not copy, store or otherwise reproduce the whole or any part of this document without the express written consent of the author.
Arrivals this Way
The U2 song “It’s a beautiful day” is booming out of the car speakers as I blast down the M5. I never used to be a big fan of U2 but their latest album is brilliant and this track sums up the way I’m feeling, it really is a beautiful day.
The sun is surprisingly hot considering it’s October, October the 12th, the day after my 47th birthday. I can’t believe I’m 47, there’s no escaping it, I really am middle aged, in fact, I’m not far off 50. Mind you, I haven’t felt so good in years. There’s been some big changes in my life recently, not least being the fact that I’m now happily unemployed for the first time in 24 years. And today I’m on my way to Devon for a quiet weekend, well silent actually. I’ve booked myself on a Buddhist Retreat at a place called Gaia House. A first.
At the end of the M5, I take the Torquay signs and head towards Newton Abbott. It’s about 3.30pm on Friday afternoon and I’m earlier than I’d intended but it’s not a problem. It’s such a great day that at least I’ll be able to enjoy the sun when I get there. The blurb said to get there before five so I’ll have at least an hour to look around
As I go through Newton Abbott, I keep my eyes peeled for the Ogwells, East and West. It’s not long before the busy roads are left far behind and I am heading deep into the peaceful Devon countryside. About a mile past East Ogwell, I spot a sign for West Ogwell, the home of Gaia House. As I drive through the village, the roads get narrower and narrower. A hundred yards past the last house in the village, I see a sign for Gaia House, a little wooden sign on a tree at the end of a drive.
I have arrived.
At the top of the drive is a large but very plain, grey building. I don’t feel nervous, just curious as to how this is going to turn out. I’m not exactly what you’d call target audience for this kind of place. The Jag seems a little out of place here. The car park is a small field at the top of the drive. There aren’t many cars here yet so I park on the grass in the top corner of the field. The loud music in the car and my own little private travel world is about to end and a new world is about to begin.
Taking my small weekend bag from the boot I make my way towards the entrance to the house. I pass a couple of youngish looking lads, they’re both in their mid twenties and dressed like students, I feel a little too smart in my black jeans and sensible dark blue denim shirt. This place reminds me of my youth hostelling days back in the 70’s.
I peer inside the entrance expecting to see some kind of reception area but there’s no one about. There are lots of signs though. In fact there are signs just about everywhere. One loudly announces that the rule of the house is silence. I had read that this was a silent retreat but it never occurred to me that it was to be silent at all times. I thought it would be turned on and off, as and when required. The contrast between the noisy journey down and the reverential atmosphere of this place could not have been more stark. What on earth have I let myself in for?
The smells in the hallway are quite distinctive, they bring back memories of school kitchens, overcooked vegetables and smells you can’t quite place but they make your stomach churn. Definitely an institutional sort of smell. It came as no surprise to me when I later discovered that this place used to be a convent. Not that I have much experience of convents, it just felt like one.
A large sign declaring, “Arrivals This Way” greets me with it’s large red arrows. It points down the long cold stone floored corridor. There are more signs along the length of the hallway. If the people responsible for all this signage ever get jobs as town traffic planners we’d never get lost again. The signs lead me into a large room where I meet my hosts for the weekend.
I am standing in front of a small registration table. The lady behind it smiles at me as she asks my name. She is about thirty five and looks exactly how I imagined people at Gaia House would look. She’s wearing a big multi-coloured jumper, a flowing floral patterned skirt and her hair is dark and frizzy, loosely tied in a ponytail. No make up of course. She checks my name against a list and confirms that I’ve prepaid; she then asks me which work duty I’d like to sign up for. There’s a work duty rota laid out on the table in front of us. There are various boxes with headings like, “Gardening” or “House Cleaning” or “Vegetable Preparation”. She suggests that I might like to sign up for “Washing Up Duties”. Maybe she didn’t think I was up to some of the more demanding duties around the house.
The work duties were mentioned in the literature I had received about Gaia House so this did not come as a surprise to me. Everyone who stays at the House agrees to contribute one hour’s work each day. This is one way to keep the costs down but it is also in keeping with the whole philosophy of the place. Whilst we are all there to put life on pause for a while, that doesn’t mean that the necessities of living are also put on hold. Work is valued in this environment and it is all part of achieving the right balance between mind, body and soul.
Gaia House is not exactly a typical weekend retreat. It’s unlikely that you’ll see people here swanning around the grounds wearing fluffy white bathrobes and ridiculous white slippers. No facial scrubs and body rubs here, and no outrageous bills either. This weekend has cost me £65. For that I get two nights accommodation and full board plus a guided introduction to meditation on the subject of “Genuine Acceptance” by someone called Christina Feldman. In fact, had I chosen the lower tariff, I could have paid only £45. The choice of tariff is at the visitor’s discretion, you choose the tariff that best suits your means.
As recommended, I take the washing up option and am proudly entered as the first name in the box. She explains that my first duty will be after the evening meal tonight and then I will do the same on Saturday. Sunday will be free because the programme finishes mid- afternoon. Seems fair enough.
Next, I am shown the way to my room by a slightly elder lady who is all smiles and sweetness. I have worked with women like this before, once as a student during a vacation job in a library, and then again when I began my career in the voluntary services in Liverpool and London. They are invariably intelligent, middle class, no frills, no make up and tend to be pretty much self sufficient when it comes to men in a “who needs them” sort of way. A stereotype maybe, but we all tend to conform to behaviour and dress codes of some kind. I wonder what my dress code says about me, smart casual with a hint of hippy perhaps.
The woman who shows me the way to my room takes me down a maze of corridors and points me to the “Garden Wing” which is to be my home for the next two days. I am on the second floor, Room 26. I walk up the stairs, it’s all very Spartan. My room is the last room on the corridor. Inside the room are a bed, a washbasin, and a very small table with a wobbly light on it. There are also about five hundred flies. The flies are tiny and they’re crawling all over the ceiling by the open window. My room looks out onto the sun drenched garden. It’s not a bad room and to be honest it’s pretty much what I expected.
Gaia House literature of various kinds has been left on the table by the bed. I notice a sheet headed “Ethical Practice”. It states that guests are expected to comply with a number of ethical practices while they are staying at Gaia House. These include no intoxicants, no sex ( with or without partner! ) and respect for all living creatures. This last rule reminded me of my childhood when I had been fascinated by an Indian religious sect called “Janes” ( no doubt spelt differently but it sounded like this ). The fascinating thing about this sect was that their religion forbad them from killing any living creatures, not a fly or a flea. It occurred to me that if I complied with the Ethical Practice rules of the house then I too would be a “Jane” for a weekend, another first. The five hundred flies swarming on the ceiling were awarded an instant reprieve. I left the window open for them and in view of the fact that I had spared their lives, I hoped that they would have the courtesy to vacate my room by the time I came back.
I left my bag unpacked in my room and made my way back towards the dining room where I had just signed on. As I walked down the corridors, I was able to take in more of my new surroundings. In keeping with the house rule of silence at all times, there were big notice boards in the corridors with information for the residents. If you wanted to communicate with a fellow retreatant then you could leave notes for each other on these boards. I envisaged hastily scribbled notes with “Hi, how’s things?” and “Good, what about you?” being posted here.
When I return to the dining room, I make my way to the hot drinks corner of the room. There are a couple of people making a brew so I wait until they have moved on. I’d rather explore this area at my leisure. The layout is simple, there’s a small table and behind it are shelves containing a myriad of assorted jars. On the table are a couple of plastic Tupperware type containers, one is full of clean teaspoons and the other, dirty. There is also an extensive collection of tea strainers. These people are serious about tea. The jars on the shelves look fascinating. They are all neatly hand labelled. Each of the jars is crammed full of dried leaves of various descriptions. The jars are labelled with both their contents and their medicinal qualities. There’s peppermint for fresh breath, fennel for flatulence, jasmine for insomnia; something for everyone and everything. Dozens of jars stuffed full of wonderful herbal substances.
The Ethical Practice guidelines had been pretty clear that intoxicants of any description were banned on this weekend so whilst this lot looked like a well stocked Marijuana Shop, I can assure you that it was not. I decide to give these herbal delights a miss and reach for something more familiar. The jar is marked café Hag, not the original label of course, this one is handwritten like the rest of them. I feel a bit of a fraud, I wonder if people will notice and question my retreat credentials. Sod it, it may not be very adventurous but I fancy a nice cup of coffee. It is decaff afterall.
I take my coffee outside, through the little door from the dining room that opens out onto the big lawn that stretches across the width of Gaia House. There are a few picnic style tables and benches and solitary chairs laid out on the lawn. A few people are already out there basking in the sun’s rays. It’s very quiet. People seem to be making an effort to find their own space. There certainly aren’t the huddles of people you usually get at the start of a course. That awkward time when everyone’s keen to get to know each other, or rather, you don’t want to be caught standing around by yourself like Billy No Mates. I decide to go and sit on one of the benches, there is already a young black guy sitting there but I sit at the far end so as not to disturb his quiet contemplation. He reminds me of the missionaries I had encountered when my eldest brother Stephen went to a missionary training college. They seem to have a floaty, slow, gentle sort of presence that you rarely find in the real world. Being here was quite a culture shock, suddenly thrust into an alien world where everyone was so bloody nice. It made me feel restless; what on earth am I doing here? I really don’t fit in at all. It’s like being on a church outing. People like this always make you feel like swearing loudly and being totally obnoxious. I know I’m the one with the problem but I can’t just help it. Perhaps it’s something to do with having been made to go to church when I was younger. Needless to say, I refrain from any anti social behaviour and decide to explore the grounds. At least I’ll be doing something.
As I walk around the gardens, I begin to appreciate the peace and quiet that surrounds the house. In it’s former life, Gaia House had been a convent. It had only been used as a retreat for something like ten years. The garden at the back of the house was fascinating and whereas the front lawn was wide, flat and open, the rear was enclosed and sloped up steeply towards the fields surrounding the house. There were pathways going off in all directions. I took one of the paths that lead up to the far corner of the garden. There I found the Gaia House walled kitchen garden. There were big black and white signs on the gates at the entrance to the garden instructing users that all tools must be washed before returning them to the tool shed. I pushed open the gates and ventured in. The garden was about the size of a small football pitch. It looked rather tired; the onset of Autumn had taken the spark out of it. From the open beds sprang straggly vegetables. Between the beds were fruit trees and bushes. I couldn’t really make out what any of them were but I had a feeling we would be sampling the delights of this garden before too long. Very organic.
The rest of the garden was equally fascinating. I had time to explore all the paths. My favourite path disappeared towards the fields at the far left corner of the garden. As I crunched along it gravel surface I came across a small clearing which revealed a dilapidated old gazebo. Inside were a few brightly coloured but rickety old chairs and an equally tired looking wooden table. It was a real hideaway and was obviously a place where visitors to Gaia House could escape for quiet contemplation. The beautiful, uninterrupted views across the surrounding countryside were an added bonus. I stood there for ten minutes taking in the late afternoon sun. The Gaia House effect was beginning to work.
“Have you come far?”
By the time I have completed my garden exploration it’s time for the house tour which is scheduled for 4.30pm. I walk back to the house and make my way to the dining room. By this time the room is quite full and for the first time I am able to meet my fellow retreatants. There are only about a dozen of us in this group. More people will be coming on the weekend but this tour is for newcomers to Gaia House.
The group are a mixed bunch but they all look like they should be here, I feel slightly out of place. The woman with the frizzy ponytail who signed me in is leading the tour. She takes us from the dining room past the kitchens. This explains the sickly smell of cooked greens in the entrance hall. From there we meander past the communal washing up area and on to the Hermitage Wing where the long term retreatants live. She warns us to be particularly quiet around this area in order to respect their need for silence at all times. It all seems a bit mysterious. Who are these people? Why are they doing this? How do they get so much time off work? Some of the long, term retreatants would be here for ten weeks, ten weeks - can you imagine it?
As she shows us all the different parts of Gaia House, no one speaks. This is really odd because you feel obliged to say something, if only to show you’re listening. I find myself saying
“Yep, OK, Yep”
as she opens a door to explain something
“…and this is where you can leave messages…” or
“…you’ll find walking boots stored here”.
After a while I give up trying to be grateful and polite and join the rest in silence. To be honest the tour is pretty dull. Our guide is apparently humourless. Is it all going to be like this I wonder?
By the time we finish our tour it’s time for tea. It soon became apparent that the main meal of the day was lunch and the evening meal at 5.30pm was just a light tea. I joined the queue. We all stood very quietly in an orderly line working our way towards the tables at the far end of the dining room. The table at the far end hosted a range of large urn like pots. Beyond the pots was an area for bread and an array of jars containing spreads and jams.
As the queue neared the end of the line of tables, it split into two so that people could help themselves from both sides of the table. Before we reached the tables though, we all helped ourselves to a bowl, a spoon and a knife from the large cabinet that we passed en route. As I moved closer I was able to see what delights were on offer. The large cauldron like pots contained steaming hot soup. The colour and consistency were somewhat unusual, a sort of bluey grey thick sludge, but it smelt all right. I took one of the many ladles that was standing in the pot and helped myself to a good bowl full. Next came the bread, I waited patiently as those in front balanced their soup bowls whilst trying to quickly yet unhurriedly spread margarine or jam on their bread. Everyone’s on their best behaviour. Two slices seemed to be the norm so that’s what I took as well. I managed to butter the bread without dropping everything but gave the jams and assorted spreads a miss. Balancing my soup bowl, plate, two slices of brown bread and my cutlery, I made my way to one of the tables.
I sit down opposite a bloke who looks quite interesting. He is about sixtyish with long grey hair, a craggy lived-in face and lots of big yellow teeth. A bit of an old hippy type. I noticed him before outside in the garden and wondered who and what he was and why he was here. At first we don’t say anything, there isn’t much talking going on anywhere in the room and everyone seems to be a little wary of breaking silence. No one’s really sure whether or not the silence rule of the house applies to us. It’s soon apparent though that it isn’t because people are starting to talk. The usual questions,
“Is this your first retreat?
“Have you come far?”
“Have you been here before?”
Yes, not really and no I think to myself.
As the chap opposite obviously isn’t going to be the first to talk I ask him, rather originally,
“Is this your first retreat?”
He tells me that he has been quite a few times and if he could, he’d come more often. As he opens up a bit more, he tells me that he was originally from Manchester and he feels very lucky to be living in Newton Abbott now, only twenty minutes from Gaia House. He seems like a nice bloke, bit of a rough diamond. It strikes me that he probably has more reason to be here than many of us.
I tell him that this is my first time on a retreat and I don’t know what to expect, but it all seems a bit weird. He reassures me that the first time he had come on a retreat he had been so freaked out by the whole thing, especially the silence, that on the Saturday night he had packed in and gone home.
“I went straight to the pub to get pissed,” he said.
“Couldn’t handle it, didn’t think I fitted in at all, but the truth was I was running away from himself, couldn’t bear to face up to stuff”
Since then though he said he’s come a long way. He told me he had been transformed by the experiences of meditation, not in a mystical way but just that he had found new meaning in his life and he had learned to like being with himself more. He told me the good thing about the whole experience is that it is a journey that never ends.
It was good to hear this from someone who had obviously been around a bit. He seemed to be just an ordinary bloke who had got something extraordinary out of meditation, something that gave real meaning to his life.
More typical of the rest of the people on the retreat are the two ladies sitting next to me. One is about fifty, wearing a baggy t-shirt and leggings. She’s from Wales. The other lady is about seventy. She looks like your favourite aunty. She’s from Bude in Cornwall. They are both very nice, and they’ve both had been on retreats before. I got talking to them for a while. They ask me,
“What made you come on a retreat?”
A good question, I thought to myself, why had I come on a retreat?
The main reason was curiosity. I had for a while now been interested in Buddhism. As meditation is such a fundamental part of Buddhist practice, I felt drawn to find out more. One of the books I had read was by one of the benefactors of Gaia House, Stephen Batchelor. His book, “Buddhism without Beliefs” had made a big impression on me and I had written to him asking for advice on where I could learn more. To my surprise he had replied and suggested I try Gaia House. Hence being on a retreat for the very first time.
I was happily chatting away to my new friends when one of the Gaia House managers came up to the table to ask if any of us was meant to be on kitchen duty. I should have been there ten minutes ago so this wasn’t a great start.
When I got to the kitchen most of my working party were already gathered. Sarah, the manager, was holding a large manual from which she instructed her new recruits on the art of washing up at Gaia House.
The kitchen was one of those vast Victorian kitchens, little changed for at least forty years. You would not believe the number of signs and labels. Everywhere you looked there were signs; on the drawers, on the fridges, over the sinks, on the door; everything had a label. Once Sarah had run through the basic drills, she left us to get on with it. If there was anything we were unsure of to we were refer to the kitchen manual she had been using. Tonight, she said we could talk, if we really wanted to, but tomorrow night we would work in silence. And one other thing, tomorrow, could we all get there on time.
Once she left, the six of us were like a bunch of naughty school kids when the teacher has left the class. None of us could believe the detail of the washing up briefing we had just been subjected to. This lot seemed pretty normal and for the first time since I had arrived at Gaia House, I had a good laugh.
The amount of washing up was unbelievable. How on earth could thirty people make so much washing up? We’d only had soup!
All the leftovers were put into special plastic containers, from the drawers marked “Plastic Containers”. The containers were labelled with the contents and the date. “Bluey Grey Soup, Friday 12th October” should do it. They were then put in the right hand large fridge for leftovers, as opposed to the left hand fridge, which was for fresh produce. A place for everything and everything in it’s place.
Even with the six of us it took over half an hour to get the job finished. Thank God we won’t be doing Sunday lunch.
Having completed the kitchen duty I felt more relaxed about the people on this weekend with me, they had been a good laugh.
But now there was to be silence.
In fact there was to be silence from now until 3pm on Sunday.
Fasten your blankets
My first meditation sitting at Gaia House was quite an experience. It was schedule to begin at 7pm.
The meditation hall was at the end of a short corridor. Before you reached the hall there was a recessed area to the right where you left your shoes. It was apparent by the rows of shoes neatly laid out that I was one of the last to arrive. I took off my shoes and walked softly towards the big heavy wooden door of the hall. It was already dark outside and I felt a real sense of expectation as I entered the hall. The room was awesome.
The lights were low and an orangey glow bathed the assembled gathering. There were about forty people in the room, sitting on the floor, facing the front and in total silence. Mats were laid out at neat intervals across the hall, most were already occupied. I spotted a free mat over to the left of the hall, about fifteen rows from the front and about four from the back.
I sat down, slightly self consciously. Most people had a blanket of some kind wrapped around them. Strange, it wasn’t cold. They also had cushions that they were sitting on. I seemed to be rather ill equipped by comparison. Not wanting to move from my place I resolved to discover the secret of the blankets and cushions later on.
It was a beautiful sight though and a great feeling, I was there and that was all that mattered. As I looked around, I knew that this was going to be special. There was no sound, everyone was sitting or kneeling facing the front, most had their eyes closed.
Perfectly peaceful, this really was the start of my weekend retreat.
Christina Feldman came into the hall unannounced. She walked quietly down the centre of the hall in her stockinged feet. I watched her as she sat down on the shallow steps at the front of the hall. Behind her was a simple display of a Buddha and beautiful purple flowers. She quietly wrapped a shawl around her shoulders. Nothing was hurried, all was peaceful and calm.
When she spoke, the sound of her voice came as a surprise. I hadn’t expected the transatlantic accent. Christina welcomed us all to Gaia House and quietly but confidently explained the purpose of our being there. She captured the mood beautifully, inviting us all to use this time as a gift to ourselves. To use the space we had created in our lives to let go of all the rush and buzz of everyday life. To allow ourselves the luxury of just taking time out, to be ourselves, to be present in the moment. She reminded us that in our everyday lives we spend most of our thinking time in the past or the future. How much time do we actually spend thinking about and being aware of the present? Sounds so simple doesn’t it? Being aware of the present is so important because in reality we are only alive in the present, the past has gone and the future has not yet arrived. She encouraged us to try and let go of the past and the future while we are on this retreat so that we can enjoy the moment – the present moment.
In order to help us with this, it is important to quieten the mind in every way possible. One simple way to achieve this is to observe a code of silence. In Buddhist philosophy, silence is seen as a gift, hence the term “noble silence”. Christina encourages us to use this opportunity to quieten our minds. This can only be achieved if we can reduce the noise in our heads from the constant internal chattering and stop talking. Take away speech and you remove so much anxiety. No need to worry about being a sparkling personality, about being funny or intelligent or saying the right things. For the first time I appreciate that silence is not just a quirky affectation of this retreat, it is actually an essential ingredient for effective meditation. I had a lot to learn.
There is nothing difficult or particularly mysterious about meditation. The fact is that anyone who has ever found themselves just standing in the park or sitting on a bench and just stopping for a moment to take in what’s around them has meditated. We have all taken time out of our hectic lives at some time to do this. The real difference is knowing and beginning to understand that we can build on this simple pleasure so that it becomes an important part of our everyday life.
You don’t have to be weird, or a hippy, or Madonna or anyone else for that matter to meditate, you just have to try it. In some ways it is similar to daily praying although the difference for me is that I don’t believe in a God and therefore I have never found prayer something I could do regularly. For me meditation provides an opportunity to take time out of each day to just empty my mind of all the clutter and to stop for a moment. It provides the space to focus on my life and what is going on in it. It does take practice but anyone can do it, you just have to try it and see what works for you.
Christina’s talk makes me realise how fortunate I am to have this time to myself. It is not often that we afford ourselves the luxury of an hour of quiet contemplation, yet alone a whole weekend. I am glad I am here.
As Christina finished her introduction, she led us into our first meditation. We started by getting ourselves comfortable. Some were sitting cross legged, some were kneeling on special stools, some sat on chairs at the side of the hall, most had blankets wrapped around them. We started by focussing our attention, becoming aware of all the sensations in our bodies; pressure points, your heel against the carpet, your bottom pressed against a cushion, the warmth of your hands resting on your knees. To begin with just becoming aware of the sensations in your body. Once you have begun to be aware of what’s happening in your body you can then bring that focus more specifically to your breathing. To feel your chest rising and falling with each breath, to sense the air being slowly inhaled through your nose and the cool sensation as the air is exhaled over your top lip. To feel your stomach rising and falling with your breaths. To feel your skin as it brushes against your clothes. Small movements and sensations that would normally go unnoticed. Focussing on the simple act of breathing is a good way to calm your mind. It’s something we do thousands of times every day, with no thought, with no effort, but it is always there. Being conscious of each and every breath is to be conscious of being present in the moment.
By now we are all well on the way to calming our minds and being released from the noise of the day. We can forget about any small worries, or big worries we may have, we can forget about everything and just focus on being present in the moment, present with our breathing as it slowly rises and falls. But we can still be aware of what is going on around us. We can hear the crows above the hall, cawing in as they fly around their rookery above the Gaia House gardens. We listen to the night sounds. We return to our breathing, always returning to our breathing because no matter where we stray with our thoughts for moments or minutes at a time, we can always return to our breathing as a way of returning to the present.
Try it, it is a wonderful way to relax.
Don’t expect miracles, you will have all sorts of thoughts flashing through your mind when you start. You will probably tell yourself this is ridiculous, what the hell am I doing this for, I hope no one can see me, but it doesn’t matter, such thoughts and distractions are perfectly normal. The important thing is to get yourself totally relaxed by focussing first on your body sensations including all the sounds around you, then to focus on your breathing. Allow yourself the chance to be still so that you can focus on your breathing, maybe only for one or two breaths to begin with but notice how quiet your mind can be in those few moments. Meditation is part of Buddhist practice, everyone has to practice. There’s no such thing as being “good” at meditation or ”bad” at meditation, it’s just a case of whether you can find the time and the space to meditate or not. After that it is all about practice and exploration.
That first session in the meditation hall was a moving experience and I felt very much at one with myself and delighted that I had decided to come on this weekend. I hadn’t known what to expect but I had somehow been drawn to find out if my interest in Buddhist teachings was real and sustainable. I have always been interested in the spiritual side of life but never found anything that had made sense to me before. I have also always wanted to be seen as “normal” and not drawing attention to myself. My upbringing was very much about conformity and I have always tried very hard to fit into whatever group I have been in. The problem with that though is that sometimes you fit in so well, you end up being invisible. By coming on this weekend I had made a real statement to myself that this Buddhist path of enlightenment was something I wanted to do and I really wasn’t going to worry too much if anyone thought it was weird. In fact what I found was that the people who did know I was going on a Buddhist retreat were fascinated by it and wanted to know more. They may not have wanted to do it themselves but they could understand the appeal. If tonight’s journey had been anything to go by then I felt I had made the right choice and I was already looking forward to the rest of the weekend.
After we drifted slowly out of the hall I headed for the main front door. I needed a walk, I also needed to call home. Christina had warned us that if we wanted to make any calls, then we should really get them out of the way tonight so we could get maximum benefit from the silence. I had gone back to my room to retrieve my phone before going out. I didn’t want to make a call home, I was so enjoying the calm that the meditation session had left me with and phoning home seemed to be an intrusion on that calm.
As I reached the bottom of the driveway that led up to Gaia House, I guiltily turned my mobile on. As the green light display flickered, the phone started to vibrate and ring. A message for me. I rang the answer phone number to retrieve it. The message was from Tricia, my wife. Apparently I had driven off to Devon with her car keys. Oops.
It wasn’t such a big deal really but I felt really stupid and there was bugger all I could do about it. I phoned home to face the music. My daughter Charlotte answered the phone, cheerful and breezy as ever. She said that her mum was out but she and her friend Steff were busy cooking pizzas. The stereo was blasting away in the background at full volume as Steff screamed with laughter at something. The noise down the line was deafening, didn’t they realise Daddy was on a silent retreat!
Charlotte reassured me that Mum had not gone ballistic about the keys, although she did find it strange that I had also left the driver’s door window half open. Charlotte was none too concerned so I told her everything was fine and to tell her mum that I’d ring in the morning.
Charlotte cheerily shouted goodbye and put the phone down. Peace again, but somehow not quite the same peace as before. Christina was right about noble silence, mine had been ignobly interrupted.
I wandered back to the house and made my way to my room. Number 26, at the end of the corridor. The flies had all settled down for the night, most still on the ceiling but many had decided that the wash basin would make a nice change. I shut the window to keep out the cold night air and smiled to myself my new ethical code of practice meant I couldn’t lay a finger on them. Perhaps I would be a “Jane” one day afterall!
I got myself into bed, pulled up the covers and closed my eyes, funny old day really. It was only 9.15pm on day one at Gaia House but I was ready for some shut eye.
If only I could talk
Had a great sleep. No dreams that I can remember. Strange, normally I have lots of dreams
Woke early though and feel really cold, too used to central heating, but it’s OK, woke before 6am.
Getting up sounds from the corridor outside and in room next door
Official wake up should have been at 6.30am - not sure how we were meant to know. First get together of the day is a “sitting” in the meditation hall. Put same clothes on, no point in worrying what to wear, dress to impress isn’t exactly order of the day at Gaia House.
As I leave my room it’s dark and quiet everywhere, no radios, no talking, just silence and stillness.
Get into the meditation hall to find most people already there.
Full room, people tee pees made of blankets, a really peaceful and beautiful sight and feeling, people drifting in silently and taking their places, the same places they had the previous night.
I feel privileged to be here, Christina walks quietly into the room down the centre, no sound, just muffled footsteps, she takes position in front of the beautiful Buddha statue surrounded by flowers and plants.
She slowly wraps a shawl around her. I wait for her to speak but she just closes her eyes and joins the stillness in the room as she starts her first meditation session of the day.
As she does so, I close my eyes and sink into the rich peaceful tranquillity of the moment, my breaths, the sounds of the early morning, the birds awakening, the rumbling stomachs, the drifting thoughts between awareness of my breathing, the pureness of the experience and the simple joy of it all.
Time just goes into a different zone when you meditate. After hours or maybe minutes, we hear the soft chimes of a gong gently bringing us back to reality. But a different kind of reality because this is Gaia House.
We all stretch a little, some show off supple yoga moves. Then we file out slowly and silently, I wait patiently while others find their shoes from the intriguing collection of loose sandals, flip flops and ethnic footwear. Robotically, I follow the Gaia House guests towards the dining area for breakfast. I don’t know about the rest of them, but I’m hungry.
As we pass the crockery and utensils cupboard, we each select a plate, a bowl and a spoon. Looks like muesli for breakfast, but about six varieties, pour some into my bowl and then dollop a big spoonful of pure white yoghurt on top and then some milk. To top it all off, a lovely big drizzle of golden honey. There’s loads of fruit on the tables, but it doesn’t look too good even if it is organic.
Take the first seat that is available, no one else on the table but it hardly seems to matter, no one’s going to be talking, they’re silent, I’m silent. What bliss, no inane breakfast banter,
“Muesli's nice isn’t it?”
“Wonder what we’ll be doing today?”
Just silence and the sound of people eating, munching on muesli, everyone alone with their thoughts. I can stare into space if I want to - and I want to.
I feel comfortable in the silence. I have a real sense of anticipation about what the day has in store.
I wash up my bowl and spoon. Everyone washes up their own bowls and spoons in the communal washing up area. The ubiquitous signs are plastered all around the washing up area.
“Hot and Soapy Water” over two of the bowls and “Hot Water with Steriliser” over the third, “Dirty T Towels” over a small plastic container. You can’t go wrong.
No one speaks, very orderly, wait softly for my turn at the bowls. Manage to follow instructions.
Guiltily catch the eye of one of my co-conspirators from last night. We steal a smile at each other with a look that says, “Whoaaah - this is very weird”
It’s now nearly 8am, been up nearly two hours already, what to do next? Check the Saturday schedule that is pinned up on the notice board, every hour of the day is accounted for in one way or another. Start at 6.30am and end at 9pm, a full day. Most sessions are either shown as sitting or walking meditation. I know what the sitting meditation is, we did that last night, I wonder what the walking meditation is all about?
The next activity on the schedule is a work period starting at 8.30, not really sure whether this involves me or not. As there’s no one to ask and it’s only just gone eight, I decide to go for a walk along the road at the front of the house down the drive.
I take my mobile with me, not strictly in keeping with the instructions of the house but I need to ring my wife Tricia to reassure her that I have found the missing car keys. Once out of earshot of the house, I phone home.
She seems to be in a good mood, not always guaranteed, and she tells me that they have all had a good laugh at the fact that I had gone off with her car keys. The kids had thought it most amusing that their stupid father had “done it again”. Maybe if I hadn’t lost the spare set of keys a couple of weeks earlier it would have been easier to forgive me!
I tell her a little about what has happened so far, not much really, it’s difficult to convey what this place is like without it sounding too weird, you need to be here. But I do tell her that I won’t be able to phone again as silence must be observed throughout the weekend. She says something about silence being golden. She asks if this weekend is going to take me to a higher plane, I think she means it.
Unlike me, Tricia doesn’t agonise about life, she just gets on with it. She has been very understanding and supportive of my spiritual exploits over the past 18 months.
I have been on a voyage of discovery for some time and this visit to Gaia House is just another step along the way. It has been a gradual journey, no rushing and no real sense of direction, just a belief that it was going somewhere positive. It was important to me that she didn’t dismiss what I was doing; in many ways this journey was important for both of us.
I turned off the mobile - pleased that the call had gone well.
Back to the house, now what's this work period about then? It’s nearly 8.30 and people are walking off purposefully in all directions. For some reason I am feeling surprisingly stressed. That’s not meant to happen here, where’s my inner peace gone?
I can’t talk to anyone so how am I meant to find out what happens next? Maybe the man with the grey pony tail and the Starsky and Hutch cardigan will know. He’s hanging around the notice board as well. I gesture to the 8.30 work period and indicate to him that I don’t have the foggiest idea what that means for me.
He looks vacantly at me and smiles benignly, love and peace oozes from him but not much practical help to a desperate novice retreatant like myself.
In a mild state of controlled panic (is that possible?), I decide to make a move before it’s too late. I head off up the corridor following a group of stragglers who seem to be on their way somewhere.
I’m with them.
The last of them are just kitting themselves out with big green wellies and exiting the house via the porch to go into the garden. I’m wearing what might just as well have been slippers for all the use they’d be in the garden. But nearly all the house wellies have gone so what the hell am I going to wear? I can’t possibly go out there in these ridiculous things. God this is stressful. There is a pair of green wellies left, but they’re patently too small for me. But when you’re desperate, you’ll try anything – even the impossible. The rest of the group are already gathering outside for their instructions. I slip my slippers off and start to force my size nine feet into the size seven boots; it’s never going to work.
And then, to my huge relief a guy leans over to me and utters the magical words,
“If those are too small for you, you’re very welcome to have these, I’m not using them”.
Thank God for that. He was obviously so moved by my pathetic attempts to get my feet into the ridiculously small boots that he was prepared to help and even more surprisingly – he had spoken. I felt a bit guilty; I had this guy down as a Gaia House weirdo. Every time I had seen him since arriving here, he had been in a world of his own and seemed to take the whole thing far too seriously, but now I just wanted to give him a big hug. I won’t be so quick to form judgements about my fellow travellers in future. What a top bloke.
Equipped with my new and rather large boots (they must be a good size eleven), I waddle out to join my adopted chums who have formed a circle in the courtyard for their morning briefing. Surely someone will to notice that I am an impostor.
Apparently not. They’re all too intent on listening to their instructions. People are generally very well mannered here and far more concerned with their inner peace than other’s misfortunes. This was just as well really because my inner peace had been shattered and I stood before them a broken and silent man. But they didn’t know that – I seem to have got away with it.
The team leader explains that we are the gardening crew and that we will all be allocated different tasks for our hour-long duty.
The gardening crew!
It’s then that I realise that I am definitely in the wrong place. I am a washer upper not a gardener. What is more I have already done a duty the night before and will be on duty again this evening.
I want to put my hand up for permission to speak but it would be far too embarrassing. Perhaps I should just nonchalantly stroll off.
This is ridiculous. I am a grown man but I feel like a small child that has strayed into the wrong class on their first day at school. And all because I can’t bleeding well talk. I decide to bide my time while I hatch my escape plan.
The first job of weeding goes to the young black guy. He’s so eager to please, always smiling at anyone who will smile back.
Most people here ignore such pleasantries and avoid eye contact. It’s a good idea because even this simple form of visual greeting is a form of communication that can detract from the gift of silence.
I may have been silent on the outside but the internal brain chatter was non-stop. I couldn’t believe how stupid I had been; it was if I was having an out of body experience. Stressed out, wearing oversize wellies, in the wrong working party, sworn to silence, waiting for my gardening task to be allocated. If only I could talk.
The group follows our leader up to the kitchen garden. We stop outside. She asks for a strong volunteer who doesn’t mind a bit of physical work.
I am, somewhat surprisingly, one of the youngest members of this little party so I think about volunteering. Thankfully, there is an authentically young bloke among us who does the decent thing and gets in first. Our work leader is extremely grateful and no wonder.
He’s just volunteered to move a few hundredweight of horseshit. The local farmer has unceremoniously dumped it over the hedge and the whole lot needs moving to a more accessible place so the gardeners can get their hands on it. The young guy smiles awkwardly at his good fortune and heads back down the garden to put on some heavy-duty overalls – he’ll need them.
Next up are the volunteers for hedge repairing. Another three gone. There’s only four of us left. The old guy in the scruffy sports jacket gets the nettle removal job, and the other two volunteer for some planting.
Which just leaves me.
“Right she says, I think I’ve got just the job for you, follow me.”
We start to trudge across the garden.
It’s at this moment that I seize my chance and make a break for freedom. It’s time to reveal my awful secret.
I break silence.
“ Listen, I know this sounds stupid but I’m not sure I should really be here”,
I start, rather pathetically,
“You see I was on kitchen washing up duty last night and I hadn’t realised this was another working party until it was too late”
She stops in her tracks and looks at me in disbelief,
“Well you’re right, you really shouldn’t be here, this isn’t a work camp you know, there are much better things you could be doing ”.
As conversations go it wasn’t much but it meant a lot to me.
What a relief, I was free to go. My ordeal was over.
I make my way back to the boot room. I can’t believe how stupid I’ve been. Silence may be golden but as I had just proved it can sometimes be a pain in the arse. I slipped off the big black boots the good Samaritan had leant me and eased on my slippers. I was careful to put his boots back in exactly the same place. It seemed important somehow.
The magic garden
So let’s see, it’s now 8.45am and the next scheduled event isn’t until 9.45am in the meditation hall, that means I’ve got an hour to kill. At Gaia House there’s no such thing as “killing time”, time is seen as a gift, every moment should be cherished. So now I’ve got lots of moments to cherish I’m a bit stuck to know what to do with them. Your options are a bit limited here - no talking, no radio, no television, no books, just a big old house, a beautiful garden and miles and miles of beautiful Devonshire countryside and little old me with my new found awareness of all things peaceful and calm.
I resolve to make the most of my gift. An hour to do whatever I want. Perhaps I will just be. That’s allowed here, in fact it’s positively encouraged. To be alone with my thoughts, to explore, to just stop and breathe, to savour the sounds, smells and sights of the garden and it’s hidden treasures. Normally these thoughts would not have occurred to me but this was no normal place, this was Gaia House. I had permission to be weird.
I make my way back to the Gazebo I had fallen in love with the day before. The gravel path crunches beneath my feet. The little shelter has a glorious view. I stand by the hedge and take in the view. I can stand here as long as I want, I don’t have to rush back anywhere. It’s another really simple pleasure that can be savoured. Sheer bliss. There’s no chance here of my peace being shattered by impatient kids shouting,
“Come on dad, it’s boring, let’s go,”
Well I’m not. I’m staying and it’s wonderful. In contrast to yesterday’s brilliant sunshine, this morning there’s a blanket of mist quietly resting on the hillsides in front of me. The air is fresh and damp. The cows in the field below me are huddled together around the feeding trough, steam rising from their warm breath and bodies. It’s a quiet day for then too. I hope they realise just how precious their gift of time is.
The minutes float by. Just standing there - not moving – silent - taking in the peace and tranquillity. Nothing more, nothing less..
Occasionally the silence is broken by the loud squawking of rooks overhead as they noisily go about their business. The mist to amplifies their calls as they echo across the valley.
In the far distance I can just hear the low throbbing drone of some kind of generator. It’s an alien noise in this natural landscape. I wish it would stop but I choose to let it be. It is a part of this moment whether I wish it to be or not. An important learning from meditation practice is to accept distractions and unwanted intrusions into the moment. As soon as I accepted the noise of the generator into my experience it miraculously faded from my awareness. If I had fought it, the noise would just have got louder.
I stood there for ages until I felt the need to move on. There was no need to keep an eye on the time either, the next meditation sitting would be announced by the chimes of the Gaia House bell. Once the bell sounded all the retreatants would obediently stop what they were doing and return like zombies to the House.
I do worry about what’s happening to me here – I’m just glad no one I know is here to witness it all. But they’re not here and that’s why this is actually such good fun. I have permission to act weird and I am thoroughly enjoying it. If I want to stand naked in the middle of the garden with my eyes closed chanting mantras then that’s up to me. It’s not embarrassing, it’s not strange - well it is actually but no one here is going to say so. Pots and kettles.
Edited up to here
It’s not time to return yet so I continue my journey around the garden. I discover a beautifully crafted hideaway announced by the white stepping stones footsteps. The sweeping brushwood that led you into the cosy den with it’s tree stump seat. Someone had put a lot of thought into making this mini retreat something special. I’m not an expert in Feng Shui but this seemed to have all the right ingredients. I resisted the temptation to sit there and ponder, it didn’t feel right, so I moved on around the garden exploring as I went, the nun’s graveyard, so basic and simple, the wooden gravestones, bearing the names of the nuns who had led such simple lives there and who had no doubt died just as simply.
It seemed appropriate that Gaia House had previously been a convent and that its present occupants were continuing its spiritual life. Just like the nuns before them, its present visitors were using this place as a silent retreat from the bustle and the busyness of the modern world. Whilst the large cross that had previously adorned the end of the building, had been removed, there remained a clear impression of where the cross had been. The chapel used by the nuns had now become a meditation hall, no longer used for prayer but still a place of quiet contemplation. A place where we could think about our place in the world.
Learning to walk
The next sitting began at 9.45am. Christina talked to us about acceptance, of ourselves and of each other. So often we find it difficult to accept ourselves for what we are, for who we are, to love ourselves with warmth and kindness, to stop judging ourselves harshly, to stop telling ourselves what we should be, what we should be doing. Acceptance allows us to embrace who we are, to understand who we are, to learn to accept ourselves and to accept each other.
Christina talked about the principle of Meta Meditation, of loving kindness, to ourselves and to all beings. We repeated a prayer, which touched me deeply.
“May I free of danger, May I be peaceful, May I live with ease”
So simple, these words meant so much to me, not like prayers I had repeated mindlessly in Church, these words touched my heart and my soul. I felt safe, the kind of safe you experience as a child when your mother holds you in her arms and tells you that everything will be all right, it will all be all right.
This loving kindness prayer was extended to our friends, our close friends and those friends with whom we may have been having some problems. I knew who they were. And we wished that they too might be free of fear, live their lives peacefully and with ease. And then finally we embraced all beings.
“May all beings be free of danger. May all beings live their lives peacefully. May all beings live with ease.”
It felt good to offer these thoughts to friends. We are all looking for the same things in life, we are all looking for happiness. We all want to rid ourselves of suffering and anxiety in our lives. What I wish for myself, I should wish for my family and friends, for my enemies and for everyone, it is a universal wish that we should all be free of fear, that we should all lead peaceful lives and that those lives should be lived with ease.
Such wishes sound naïve but if we really believe them to be desirable and possible then we should aim to change our lives in any way that makes them more attainable, and that for me is what Buddhism is all about, a practical life guide to achieving greater happiness.
It seemed strange that the events of September 11th had not been mentioned once in any of the discussions in the meditation hall. It was now a month since that day In the week prior to coming to Gaia House had come the news that “we”, the West, had commenced bombing raids on our enemies. The wounds that we were inflicting on ourselves as a human race were gaping wide open and we were all affected whether we liked it or not. We were not hiding from the world on this retreat, far from it. It felt as though we were preparing ourselves for a more active role in society once we had taken time out to consider what that role might be.
I had cried on the 13th September as I drove home from visiting my nephew in Hereford, not for myself or for the thousands of people who had lost their lives in the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, but for all of us as a race. How could we be so stupid? How could we be facing war again?
What would our response be? That was the real question.
Everyone feared the worst. The West would find it almost impossible to stand back and consider alternatives to acts of revenge. Payback was on America’s lips, someone would have to be made to suffer for this blatant and shocking assault on the “civilised” world. And this was my real fear, that this could be the start of something very, very major on this planet, my planet, our planet. I cried for the fact that we were so uncivilised. I cried because I knew that out of this suffering, there would be more suffering, where is the freedom from fear, the peace and the ease in that?
As Christina finished her talk on compassion we moved silently into another period of meditation. We feel our bodies relax, we become aware of our breath and we begin to hear all the sounds from outside the meditation hall and listen to the silences in between. Space and calm as my mind reaches out again for the comfort of those beautiful words of compassion. Is it really 45 minutes later that the soft echoing sounds of the gong gently bring me back to the room, I stretch along with my fellow meditators in the hall as we return to the room.
The next item on our schedule for the day was “walking meditation and I was intrigued to find out more about this. Whereas in sitting meditation, the focus of concentration is breathing, in walking meditation the focus is on walking. Just as we take the act of breathing for granted so too do we take the act of walking for granted. It is only when we are unable to walk for some reason that we appreciate the immensely complex sequence of actions that enable us to walk. By slowing down the movement to conscious, perceptible minute actions walking meditation allows us to focus on the enormity of a single step,. In this way we can both reconnect with the senses in our bodies and also connect with the Earth we stand on, literally a connection that we take for granted. Walking meditation enables us to get in touch with ourselves and the earth we inhabit. A bit heavy maybe, and indeed that was what was going through my mind, afterall we had only just finished quite a heavy session. I already felt quite emotionally exhausted from the previous session and the thought of further mental exertions didn’t appeal to me, did we really need to go straight into another heavy session?
But I was here to learn, so as we drifted quietly and obediently out of the hall I found myself, quite to my surprise, turning immediately left into the walking room, yes that’s right there was a room set aside just for walking. I entered the room to find there was one other person in the room, he was a youngish man who I had decided, in my judgemental way, was a bit of a hippy in his baggy linen style trousers his beard and his dreadlock pony tail. He was also a very practiced meditator judging by his excellent lotus position. He seemed to me to be an expert and was pretty accomplished at this walking meditation malarkey. I walked past him to find my own walking space. There had of course been detailed instructions on the door of the walking room inviting you to walk across the room rather than up and down it, I think this was to do with good space management.
The room was about 40 feet long by 20 feet wide. There was a big window filled with plants facing me as I contemplated my first walking meditation. The floorboards were new and the overriding smell in the room was of new wood. The rest of the room was bare. The room was in sharp contrast to the rest of Gaia House, which smelt of cooked veg and was far from new. I stood against the wall and closed my eyes, I needed to gather myself together before I could attempt this new type of meditation. I was now quite at ease with myself and I stood there collecting my thoughts or rather discharging them, I was aware of more people entering the room, I didn’t open my eyes, I didn’t really want to know who else had come in, it was nothing to do with me and I was focussing on making a go of this.
After several minutes I decided to go for it. I slowly raised my right leg a fraction. I was surprised to sense the muscle movement in both my legs, I pushed further and became more aware of the significant weight transfer that was taking place as I lifted my right foot off the floor and took all the weight on my left leg, my left foot creaked under the burden and with my eyes shut my sense of balance was severely impaired, my right foot reached for the ground, relieving some of the pressure on my left and restoring a sense of balance, this walking thing is harder than I thought. As my right foot takes my weight a loud crack sounds from the bones in my left foot that aren’t used to this kind of treatment. The room has now got about seven walkers in it moving slowly up and down or should I say across. Everyone is experimenting to see how different steps feel but everyone is dedicated to their practice, I found my attention wandering and coming and going in waves, it is possible to totally lose yourself in feeling the movement of every slight movement in your body as you slowly cross the room.
Some people have stopped to absorb and to prepare for the next effort of walking across the room, and it is an effort both mental and physical but it is also a real lesson in how what at first can seem and look totally ridiculous teaches you the value of literally slowing down not just to a walking pace but a pace of a sloth, perhaps slothfulness is not such a vice afterall. I’m not sure how or why or when I decide that my walking meditation is over, like many things on this journey of discovery, you just feel the time is right and you move on.
It’s only 11.15 on the first day and already my head and body have been to places they had long forgotten or never been to before, what else does the day have in store? More sitting and walking meditation before lunch, another session of each. My next walking session I take outside in the garden. I feel more exposed out here, in the seclusion of the walking room it felt OK to place one foot ever so slowly in front of the other as I learned to walk again, but out here it feels more exposed, less communally supporting.
As I look around the garden I can see there are people involved in their walking meditation, some moving quite quickly (relatively) others feeling every centimetre of movement as they connect with the earth and themselves. Most impressive is the tall, thin man with the woolly hat and the glasses. He is walking very deliberately bare foot around the pond. Each time he reaches an overhanging branch from a tree he puts his hands together as if in prayer and bows deeply from the waist, still in this position he then takes a few steps forward until he is clear of the overhanging branch when he stops and stands upright again as he moves off placing one bare foot slowly in front of the other as he feels the wet, cold stone pavings and leaves beneath his feet, I think about going barefoot myself but I’m struggling with just the slow walking bit so the bare feet will have to wait for another time when I’m feeling more confident, perhaps next time I will be wearing the woolly hat. I bet it will feel good, sort of advanced walking meditation for beginners. As I walk round in front of the house the wide lawn spreads out in front of me, people are dotted all around, I can see about six people each in their own meditation space moving around like, well like zombies really. I notice a car driving past the main entrance, the driver is some fifty metres away but I smile as I see him craning his neck to get a better look at the sight that meets his eyes, he can’t quite believe what he is seeing, and why should he, it’s not every day you see lots of people apparently in a trance walking as slowly as a snail. What on earth is this place, it must be some kind of home for the physically and probably mentally impaired, funny to think that almost the opposite is true and the evidence is being demonstrated right before his eyes, another example of not judging people by appearances.
Eventually I find a little privacy to try my own outdoor walking for the first time. I am beside the nuns graveyard, it feels good as I try for the first time, not the same as in the walking room, this time I’m much more conscious of what my feet are treading on, the grass, the leaves, the moss, the dampness, a beetle appears, this really does feel like reconnecting with the natural, maybe that’s the point. Just as I’m beginning to get restless in my walking and lose concentration I am saved by the bell which signifies that lunch is ready, it’s been along time since breakfast so this is most welcome. At the front of Gaia House there is a small doorway that leads directly into the dining room, as I walk around the front of the house I witness a scene straight from a B horror movie, as the aliens are called to their master. No one wants to rush to the lunch queue, it’s difficult and not conducive to general mindfulness to move from a snail’s pace to a gallop so everyone is very, very slowly making their way to the entrance to the dining hall, people from the paths, from the main lawn, from down the garden, all making their way, drawn to the dining room by the sound of the bells, I hoped that the man in the car could have seen this, he may well have phoned the police.
Lunch is served
This is my first lunch at Gaia House and I queue in eager anticipation of what vegetarian delights have been conjured up by the kitchen staff, last nights soup was interesting although it wouldn’t have scored highly on appearance, so what was lunch going to be today? As I stood silently in the queue I see people going by with their plates stacked high and carrying bowls full of salad. It’s difficult to make out exactly what they’ve got on their plates but whatever it is it seems to be hot and they obviously like it. There seems to be little attempt at abstention for these vegetarian fellow travellers. As I near the plate and cutlery cupboard I decide to forgo the pleasures of the salad so I just take a plate and a knife and fork. As I approach the table I try to make out the handwritten sign by the food. I think it says something like Tofu, mushroom and leek crumble with nuts, sounds OK, although it doesn’t look too wonderful, same kind of bluey grey hues that coloured last nights soup.
I spoon three reasonable sized helpings onto my plate, the tofu looks like lumps of white soft fat, I hope it tastes better than it looks. Aah, the next thing along is a big tray of potatoes, they are chunkily cut in halves and look half baked, not the only thing in the room I muse to myself, so I take a good helping of the potatoes but not too many, I don’t want to be seen as greedy and anyway I view this weekend as an opportunity to cut down on my food intake as I’m always trying none too successfully to lose a few pounds. Next to the potatoes in another large flat tray are what looks like more potatoes but this time much smaller, maybe some kind of new potatoes to complement the half baked variety, so I spoon a few of them onto my plate as well, next along are the huge cauldrons of vegetables, of the green variety. There are three cauldrons awaiting me, I’ve seen the girl in front of me wrestle with what looks like some relation of the broccoli family as it comes out of the pot trailing it’s juices, dripping wet, no nicely shaped florets here, just bloody great straggly masses of stalk and some light green flowering tops. I bravely put a token stalk on my plate, laying it gently over the bluey grey veg crumble thing. Then to the next pot, this one’s full of white cabbage, no problem there apart from the fact that it has been hewn into large unappetising chunks, what is it with those veg choppers in the kitchen, do they give them axes to chop the stuff up? I spread a few stalks onto my plate, but this is as far as it goes, I have already decided that a rather rough looking salad out of a huge plastic bowl accompanied by some kind of healthy dressing is not going to add a lot to my meal experience, so I bypass the rest of the delights on offer and make my way to a table to sample these culinary delights.
I sit down next to a few of the ladies, who I don’t know at all but they seem to be tucking into their meals so it can’t be all that bad. I start with a piece of the broccoli, if that’s what it is, mainly because it’s obscuring my view of the crumble, I slide a piece of the tofu onto my fork and rather hurriedly transfer it into my mouth. Mmmm not too sure about this, not a lot of taste but a lot of texture, kind of sloppy, smooth and like soft cheese and hot with it, perhaps the mushroomy, leeky, nutty, crumbly thing will be better, but first I’m going to reward myself with one of those reassuringly normal looking spuds, yes that’s better, looks like potato, tastes like potato, not sure how it’s been cooked but it tastes fine so who cares, wish had taken more, in fact a whole meal of just these potatoes seems like a good idea now. Next I try the other potato looking veg on my plate, now I have more time to examine them I discover that thy are actually some other kind of root vegetable masquerading as potatoes, they are almost translucent and my knife slides through their soft wet flesh, what the hell are they? I think of cooked radishes but surely not.
Oh ugh, that is truly awful as I try my first one. These things are fowl and on closer examination I notice that all of the chunks of this veg I have on my plate have skins that are covered in blemishes and holes, it’s those veg choppers again, are they deliberately trying to poison us? I rapidly demolish a couple of potatoes to take away the taste and the memory of the potato impostors and decided that enough was enough. I am not a fussy eater, ask my family, but I have to say that this meal was not the greatest advert for vegetarianism, I mean I am actually quite keen on vegetarian food and my previous encounters had all been good but this was not one of them, sorry Gaia House cooks to be so critical, perhaps if I hadn’t been so mindful of what I was eating I may have thought differently but the only good thing about this meal, apart from the potatoes, was the fact that my diet was going exceedingly well. Who knows what will be in store at the next meal? Perhaps I should rescue that ham and cheese sandwich left over from yesterday’s, was it really only yesterday, journey, a delicious brown Hovis sandwich with lots of lovely pickle on it. I guiltily scrape my lunch into one of the plastic bowls below the sinks and wash up my plate and knife and fork. I spot my fellow conspirator from the first night washing up duty and for a moment break silence to confirm that she too thought the meal had been inedible, sometimes it’s good to talk.
After lunch I needed to get out. We were surrounded by beautiful countryside and the weather was just unbelievable for the time of year. I had seen various walks marked on a map on one of the notice boards. Now seemed like a good time to go. I had over an hour until the next session. Leaving the building by the front door I walked past the car park and up to the church which was adjacent to Gaia House. The path started at the back of the church which faced onto open fields. I climbed the first stile. It felt good to be out of the house and on my own. I love the open fields and I could see fields stretching for miles ahead of me. The path across the fields was clearly visible and I set off over the hill. The sun was hot, t-shirt weather in October! As the church and Gaia House slipped out of view I stopped by a gate to take in the view and also to plot my path through the boggy mire on the other side of the gate. As I turned round I noticed someone at the far end of the field I had just crossed, someone else had had the same idea. As she approached, I recognised her, she sat a couple of rows ahead of me in the hall. She was a striking looking girl with short blonde hair. Even though we were miles from the house I wondered whether I should speak or just let her pass. She was wearing a very sensible large pair of green wellies, jeans and a white t-shirt. I had once again come out ill prepared for a tramp across fields full of cows. We exchanged a few words and she offered to give me a piggy back through the quagmire that lay the other side of the gate. It was a good offer but I turned it down. No sooner had we exchanged smiles and a few words than she was striding off across the field. Before long she was a small speck in the distance.
Having circumnavigated the worst of the swamp on the other side of the gate I made my way to a reasonably dry patch of grass and sat down. Looking around me all seemed so peaceful. The rolling hills, the blue sky, the cows tearing with their tongues at the grass. What a great feeling. How lucky am I to be here this glorious weekend?
I returned to the house refreshed after my walk. I was ready for the next session. I was also looking forward to meeting Christina for the first time. One of the meditations this afternoon is to be replaced by an open discussion with our leader Christina Feldman. I am looking forward to this as it will give us a chance to talk for a while. The meeting is at 3.15pm in the library.
The library is a lovely room with comfortable, welcoming, lived-in furniture roughly arranged in a circle. The sun is blazing through the windows, a truly beautiful autumn afternoon. I felt relaxed as I slumped onto a settee near one of the big windows that looked out on the front lawn. I was first in the room and was looking forward to a change of routine.
Christina was next in. Her talks at the start of each meditation session had really impressed me. She spoke without notes. She had a confidence and an ease that made it easy to listen. Her words were wise and knowledgeable. She had so much to give and she was so generous with her knowledge and patience. I was truly grateful to be able to share time with her in the meditation hall and now to meet her in person.
And here we are, in the room together, just her and me. I haven’t spoken for a while and feel comfortable in the silence. She speaks first,
“ What a beautiful day, you’d think it was Summer”.
Is that it? Are we going to discuss the weather?
I think I prefer silence
As we discuss the weather, the rest of the group strolls in and take their places, each choosing a chair that seems to be for them.
There’s a very quiet, shy looking woman opposite, about 30ish I’d guess. Then there’s the youngish bloke who was with me on kitchen duty, he looks OK. Then there’s Kim, the girl who I occasionally sneak a few words to, she’s young and slim and attractive and much more bubbly than anyone else in the House. Bubbly is not really what this place is about and I think she’s finding it hard to cope with. She’s about 28. Next to her is another girl, maybe a bit younger. She dresses very much the part, lots of crazy patterns all clashing madly. Next to her is a more mature looking girl about 30ish who has loads of colourful patches on her jeans and a big head of curly brown hair. How little I know about any of these people in this room. The fact that we don’t know each other doesn’t seem to matter. There is an air of calm in the room. No one looks embarrassed or awkward, there is a genuine sense of acceptance about each other and for once judgements seem to have been suspended.
Christina invites questions. Anything we want to talk about. What a great opportunity. I have a question but I don’t really want to be the first to go. I don’t have to wait long though for someone else to take the lead. My mate Kim pipes up with her question, well it’s not really a question really it’s more of a full frontal assault on what we’re doing here.
“I’m not really getting into this” she said, “I’m really not finding it easy to meditate. I can do it on my own, but I can’t seem to get into it in the hall with everyone else there”.
What does Christina think?
It’s strange really because the question or observation made by Kim seems almost an act of disloyalty. But Christina is not flustered by it. She speaks slowly in her Canadian drawl smiling as he replies. Not a patronising sort of smile, just a smile that softens everything she says, a confident smile that seems to start right inside her. She acknowledges Kim’s dilemma, it’s not always easy to relax into meditation with a group of new people. She encourages Kim not fight it too hard or be too hard on herself, it is all new and she needs to take time. Perhaps there is a middle path, that she should try to find, a bit of give and take. I’m not sure that Kim buys into the answer, she seems angry and uneasy with the mellowness of everything here, she is a doer and she wants to be getting on with her life. I guess Christina would say she needs to get in touch with the cause of her anger and frustration, and I guess Kim would say, “Bollocks!”.
Now it’s my turn.
I want to ask something profound but I don’t feel comfortable exposing my more private thoughts in front of these people. Maybe that’s something that will change as I grow in confidence. The truth is I didn’t really have a deep and meaningful question. There was something I was struggling with though. I was finding it really difficult during meditation to both “let go” and at the same time be “aware”. This seemed to be something of a paradox to me. Whenever I “let go”, I found myself drifting off into a wonderfully relaxing sleep, when the only thing I was aware of was of feeling tired!
I wish I could remember more of her answer but when she was talking directly to me I was feeling far too self conscious to listen to what she was saying, I think she said that I should try to sit up straight and consciously change my breathing pattern. She also said that I should not be too concerned about “missing” any moments of insight gained through meditation as they would be self evident, even in a drowsy state of awareness. My question was a very practical one, but it was reassuring to know that my experiences were not uncommon.
Other questions followed in a similar vein. The young studenty bloke, was having trouble focusing because his leg hurt during meditation. Christina advised him to try some different postures and to experiment with cushions and kneeling stools.
This was actually quite useful because I had been wrestling with the same problem. I had found sitting cross legged on the floor most uncomfortable but had been trying to work through the pain as I had read that this was part of the discipline of the meditation. I was relieved to hear that the aim was to make oneself as comfortable a possible. If pain did arise during meditation, then we should try to accept it, understand it and work with it. The good news was that pain was not prerequisite for successful meditation. Christina pointed out that in fact there was no such thing as “successful” meditation, there was just meditation. Sometimes it would feel better than other times but every time we meditate we learn something, whether it is about patience or anger or pain.
Next to ask a question was the quiet rather studious looking girl with patches on her jeans. Her question was far more profound than how to deal with physical pain. She was a personal retreatant living in the Hermitage wing. Her question concerned the depth of some of the fears she had encountered during her meditation. How could she cope with them because they were so deeply disturbing?
Christina reassured her that you can never know what will emerge during meditation especially when you are on a long retreat. Sometimes you will discover things about yourself that you find uncomfortable. That is the benefit of a longer retreat because the level of enquiry in your meditation is that much deeper. In many ways this is to be encouraged because it is through learning about oneself that one moves along the path to enlightenment. Awareness of our fears and understanding them were key to making progress.
So now everyone, apart from other quiet girl opposite me had asked a question. Christina was aware of this. She gently turned to her and said “ And how are you finding it?”. I was glad she had invited her to speak. She was quiet and unassuming. Christina was aware of her needs as well as the other more assertive people in the room. How can we manage to find the time to meditate was her question.
She was a busy mum with a young and demanding family and really struggled to make any time for herself. This was a big issue for everyone and Christina had already touched on it a number of times in her talks to us. We are all so busy with our hectic lives, doing things that we consider to be important, that we don’t leave any time for ourselves. It seems impossible most days to even find a spare half hour just to stop and think about what we are doing with our lives. We are so busy getting on with living that we forget to question or consider the way we are living our lives and whether we are happy. We all know that life is precious and that we only get one chance but how many of us ever stop to catch our breath and take a look at where we are and where we want to go.
I once did a brilliant exercise which really brought this home to me. It was a form of meditation where you visualise being an old man looking back on your life. I actually wrote a letter to myself, from the 80 year old me to the 45 year old me, gently observing what was going well in my life and those areas where I was unhappy. It was clear from these revelations that there was much in my life that left me unfulfilled. After that experience I resolved to make a number of changes in my life, all of which have brought me a greater degree of happiness and inner peace than anything I had done before. It was a powerful reminder that life is all too short and that you really are the master of your own destiny if you can find the time to determine what that is.
Christina had heard the question about finding time many times before. She recalled the answer given by one of her teachers.
“About an hour”
and then adding as an after thought,
“unless of course you’re very busy - in which case I’d recommend two hours”.
Armed with new confidence from the session in the library with Christina and friends, I resolved to try out a more comfortable meditation position in the hall. If pain was not mandatory then I was going to try and avoid it.
The little ante room at the back of the hall houses all the cushions and blankets and stools for meditation. I select a kneeling stool, I think that’s what they’re called, and a smallish rectangular cushion which I think will work rather nicely with it. I take my place in the hall, behind the bearded man with the bald head and the check shirt who sits cross legged under his blanket. Then there’s the young studenty bloke on my right with the glasses and the goatee. These are my neighbours in the hall and whilst we have never spoken I feel a certain affinity with them.
We have all kept the same positions from the very first time we came into the hall. Seems like weeks ago now but in reality it can only be about eighteen hours. At first I had hoped that I would be able to move nearer the front. I had had so little choice on that first session as to where to sit because I had been late getting in. But now I realised how pointless this would be, there is no need to be anywhere in particular in this room. To have changed places would have been very annoying for someone else as they too would have had to move. I was happy with my seat, it may not be front row but it didn’t seem to be detract from the experience. My new stool and cushions are a great success. The first thing I notice is how straight my back is held in this new posture. The pressure on my knees is entirely different as well, much better, at last no pain. I’m beginning to learn the tricks of the trade.
By now going into the meditation hall had become an experience I really looked forward to. I had got over the initial weirdness of it all and was now able to relax and enjoy the experience. Not a far out type experience but just a new feeling, a feeling that made you glow on the inside. During Meditation I would sometimes open my eyes and take in the scene. Forty people all totally silent, not a sound to be heard. All these people come together as kindred spirits. It was very unusual and very special.
Come 5.30pm it’s time for tea, time to queue up again. My worst fear is that we will be finishing off the leftovers from lunchtime. Maybe they’ve created a tofu, mushroom and leek soup. To my great relief though tonight’s offering is edible. A delicious vegetable curry soup with more of that gorgeous brown bread. I treat myself to a liberal helping of crunchy peanut butter, organic of course. The peanut butter jar sits alongside a host of other jars containing a mysterious array of things that are no doubt good for you but look disgusting. Dark brown pastes, fawny coloured yeast products full of organic goodness. I’m not ready for them yet. One step at a time.
After I’ve polished off the soup and one of my two slices of brown bread, I’m still hungry. I check out the queue at the tables but it’s still quite long. I don’t like to butt in and jump the queue, everyone is very mindful here and I don’t want to disturb anyone’s karma (man). But I do fancy something lovely on my remaining piece of brown bread. And there on the table in front of me is the answer to my prayers, a delicious jar of gooey honey. I knew how Pooh must have felt.
Having washed up and taken a stroll around the grounds, the rest of the evening is spent in meditation. Come nine o’clock we are finished for the day. What a day, so much has happened since waking at 6am this morning, I don’t feel sorry to be going to my room at this time at all. But before I do I take a stroll down the driveway towards the main road.
It is pitch black save for a half moon. I feel my way along the driveway taking in the cool evening air and feel a deep sense of well being as I inhale the beautiful scenery. The fields opposite roll away into the distance. There is an evening mist hanging over the landscape. Clumps of trees are silhouetted by the moon against the dark night sky. I can hear an owl, the sound so clear and distinct even though it must be at least a mile away. The sound carries perfectly and I take a mental snapshot of this beautiful night scene. I stand there long enough to savour the moment before I reluctantly turn to head back up the driveway.
Back to my not so cosy but very functional little room. Tucked up in bed at 9 o’clock on a Saturday night, how times change!
Lost and found
I sleep well again, and it’s not so cold as I have a towel on my bed as well as the two thin blankets. Again no dreams. Very odd because at home I dream all the time. Usually anxiety dreams about work relationships or dreams when I’ve failed to do something. All that peace and karma must be working.
This morning there’s an alarm call. A very gentle alarm call in the form of quietly jingling Tibetan bells. This is one of the work duties that has been assigned to one of the retreatants. They move up and down the corridor and then onto another wing to wake the others. A very peaceful awakening to the day. As I’m already up and dressed, I can’t think of anything better to do than go down early to the Meditation Hall. It’s 6.40am. We’re not due to start our first sitting until 7 but there’s no point in hanging around, it’s still dark outside and I don’t fancy a walk in the garden.
As I slip my shoes off to leave them on the racks outside the hall it‘s apparent that I am one of the first down this morning. The second actually, judging by the lone pair of sandals abandoned on the floor. I gently open the door to the hall, the mats and blankets and cushions are all neatly lying in their places waiting for their owners to return. Over on the left hand side is a lone figure wrapped in a blanket enjoying the solitude of this early Sunday morning. Strangely enough the lone figure is my next door neighbour, the man who sits right in front of me in the hall. I quietly tip toe across the carpeted floor and settle into my kneeling position behind him, seems ridiculous with all that space around us but I don’t want to upset anyone by taking their place. So it’s just the two of us alone in the big hall. Silently and peacefully going about our meditation business.
What a great way to start the day.
As I sit there with my eyes closed, I can hear people drifting in, one by one at first and then a faster flow as seven o’clock approaches. I hear the rustling sound as people make their meditation nests. By seven everyone has taken their positions and Christina has once again resumed her place at the front of the hall. No noise, no fuss just a beautiful silence.
The first sitting of the day completed, we meander along the corridors of Gaia House to the dining room for breakfast. I’m hungry and really looking forward to some more of that delicious muesli with the yoghurt drizzled in honey. Breakfast is over quickly and I check the schedule for Sunday, not bad, no sittings until 9.45am. Today is different though because we finish at 3pm. The meditation sessions this morning are followed by a talk from one of the Gaia House managers, then lunch, then a chance to buy books and tapes in the library. It seems odd to find commercialism creeping into the weekend. One last sitting at 2.15pm and then time to go home at three o’clock.
It’s now coming up for 8 o’clock so I nip back to my room, grab my towel and wash bag to go for a shower at the far end of the corridor. Showered and refreshed I decide to go for a walk, and explore the area a bit further.
On the previous morning, I had turned right out of the driveway past the old church and down the lanes but if I turn left, I would go back into the old village of West Ogwell, a tiny hamlet really of no more than half a dozen cottages
No sooner had I passed a few of these pretty cottages than I was back in open countryside with fields on either side. A big public footpath sign beckoned me. I could clearly see the path across the fields rising up towards the clump of trees I had seen in the moonlight on the night before. The home of the hooting owl. This looked ideal.
I set off across the field, tip toeing through the cow pats. As I reached the brow of the first hill, a young brown and white calf stood in my way. I stopped, not wanting to scare the poor little fella. I’ve always had a thing about cows, ever since I was a small boy. One of my earliest childhood memories was staying on a farm at a place called Foremarks in Hampshire where my granpa and granny lived. I stayed there with my brothers for a number of weeks while my dad recovered from a nervous breakdown I can vividly remember being out in the fields with the farm workers bringing the cows in for milking. I even loved the smell of them. Such big creatures but so docile.
Here I was face to face with this nervous little calf, just him and me on the same path. He stared at me through his huge brown eyes flanked by ridiculously large eyelashes. Less attractive were the ugly plastic squares bearing a number which were unceremoniously stapled to both his ears. Number 404 your time is up. It made me think about eating meat, or rather it made me think about not eating meat.
He was a cute little calf and he was getting bolder by the minute. He bravely took a few more steps towards me. I smiled to myself, what a strange sight this must be as the two of us shared an early morning chat in the middle of the field. We were being watched by the calf’s mum about 20 yards away. She was absent mindedly watching the two of us whilst her other offspring was knocking three bells out of her underside as he greedily pushed, shoved, sucked and bumped her udders. She didn’t seem to mind a bit though. Perhaps we were providing a welcome distraction for her from her bruising mealtime experience.
I moved on past the battered wife and her demanding offspring and made my way across the field to the next stile. Across this field in the far corner, I could see a house and a big white and black sign on agate in front of it. The sign said Private Property Keep Out, but it seemed the only exit from the field so I walked over towards it. As I got closer I could see that the sign was in front of the house and did not stop my exit from the field.
I climbed over the stile to find myself on a deserted country road, the footpath seemed to end here. It was far too early to turn back. I had come out for a decent long walk and there was no rush to get back, it was only 8.50. I looked up and down the country lane and decided that going right looked the most promising, no idea where it went, but the chances are that it would probably loop back to the village at some point. And if it didn’t then no real harm done, getting lost out here would be a positive pleasure. There’s no one around at all, I haven’t seen anyone since I left Gaia House.
The lane was sheltered both sides by high hedges which occasionally parted to reveal a gate into a field. Apart from a few cows, the occasional sheep there was nothing about, just me and my walk., It was a wet morning, not raining, just damp and drizzly. The air smelt fresh and full of wet country smells. Crows cawed in the distance and the occasional shriek from a hunting hawk broke the silence.
The road carried on for miles. There were no decisions to be made about which way to go, I had no choice but to follow the road. I was less sure now that the road would loop back towards West Ogwell. We seemed to be heading off in a totally different direction altogether, but I was resigned to follow the road wherever it went. If I got lost then I couldn’t think of a nicer place to get lost, so why worry.
As I walked I found myself thinking about some of the lessons of the weekend,
What had I learned?
What did I really think about all this meditation stuff?
Would any of this affect my life?
So many questions.
It was a good time to go on a weekend like this though because I had reached an interesting crossroads in my life. My career was on hold, my family was growing up and I was coming to terms with being forty something. I needed time to think. I needed time to think about what I wanted out of life now. I had worked extremely hard for the past 25 years. I had never expected to get as far up the career ladder as I had. I had never expected to have earned so much money. It had all just happened. Bigger jobs and bigger money had come as a pleasant surprise to me, they were not my goals in life, they had just come about because I enjoyed what I did and was reasonably good at it.
But now all that was behind me.
I had resigned from my position as Deputy MD of a national marketing agency in August because I had had enough and because I could afford to. It was a big step but I was ready to take it. Now it was time to take stock and work out what happens next.
One conclusion I had already reached during the weekend was that much of what I had achieved in my business career had been with half an eye on what others thought about me and my achievements. I had always been looking over my shoulder for approval. I had always done what was expected of me. Even now I was aware that I was imposing other’s expectations on my next move rather than doing my own thing. It was this train of thought that got me thinking about what I really wanted to do, not what they wanted me to do. As I walked down the country lane going nowhere in particular it seemed an ideal time to work some of these issues through.
It occurred to me that if I was going to stay in the same line of business then I’d really like to experiment with an agency on a really small scale. Not set out with huge ambitions, not aiming to outdo what I had already achieved in my time with TMS, not trying to go one better, but rather just trying to do what I was good at and working with people I wanted to work with. I got to thinking about just me and a good designer, I already had someone in mind.
And that led me to a major breakthrough, rather than work with a good creative designer, why shouldn’t I be the good creative designer? I have always been passionate about design and have worked with some very talented and some not so talented designers. The frustration for me had been that my title said that I was a manager and therefore I managed, I didn’t create. Managers manage and creatives create, it’s simple. Simple but so restrictive, why shouldn’t managers be creative, and if creatives want to manage then why stop them? The labels we give ourselves cause big problems.
I knew that I could be more creative given the opportunity. There were plenty of examples of my creative work. My photographs; the collages I had made from postcards; the copy I had written for brochures, work that I could be proud of.
So what’s to stop me being a designer. This was pretty exciting stuff, quite a breakthrough in fact. People would say I’d lost the plot but if I really wanted to do it and there was some evidence to say that I wasn’t completely crap at this creative thing then why not? Sod it, I’ll show them. I’ll go to college to learn all the design programmes, it can’t be that hard. I’m talking to myself now, convinced that I’ve made a major breakthrough,. If anyone saw me they’d think I’d really lost it.
I have been walking now for over an hour and haven’t seen a soul. A bit further along I come to a crossroads. The signpost presents me with four options. I don’t recognise any of the names and there certainly isn’t an Ogwell of an East or a West variety. I briefly consider going back the way I have come but that seems ridiculous. In the end, for no apparent reason, I decide that straight on is the most logical choice.
Down another long hill and up the other side. As I’m going up the other side I hear the sound of a car coming over the hill in front of me, the first sign of life since I set out. I put my hand up to wave the car down, conscious that whoever was in the car might be a little wary of being flagged down on a deserted country lane at 9.15am on a Sunday morning. I obviously manage to convey that I am not a murderer as the young man driving the blue Escort stops and winds down his window. I ask him if he knows which direction for any of the Ogwells. Unfortunately, he’s not from these parts and is of no help whatsoever.
I carry on up the hill, it’s pretty warm and my t-shirt is wet through with sweat. I’m just thinking how good the combination of long walks and all the veggie food must be for me, when I hear another car approaching. This time it is coming up behind me so I cross the road to get on the driver’s side and put my hand up to wave him down. At first it looks like he will stop but as he gets closer I can see that he has no intention of stopping. He indicates that he’s turning left further up. He definitely had the I’m not going to stop for you, you might be one of those loonies from Gaia House about him. So I carried on up the hill and not much further up there was a turning into a farm and about fifty yards up the drive was the driver getting out of his white pick up truck. I ventured a few steps up the drive. As he saw me coming, he shouted something at me and waved his arm aggressively to clear off. I shouted to him,
“I just want to know which way for West Ogwell”
This seemed to reassure him as he realised that perhaps I wasn’t going to murder him afterall. He shouted back that I was miles away and I needed to go back to the crossroads and turn left, keep going and eventually I’d get to West Ogwell,
“It’s a long way” he said. Not a problem I thought, at least I would be walking in the right direction. I had had enough of walking for the sake of it, I wanted to be heading back now. Afterall I had cracked my “what to do next” problem and I couldn’t wait to get back, not that I could tell anyone but it seemed time to get back.
Back to the crossroads then. It was a long way. It was also very hilly, so by the time I got to the signpost I was relieved that my next turn would be heading me in the right direction for home. As I was walking along, mulling over the wisdom of my earlier thoughts on my next career move, I again heard the sound of a car approaching from behind. To my surprise it was the old white pick up truck. I moved over to let him pass, I didn’t fancy being accidentally run over, but to my surprise the driver slowed down and beckoned for me to cross over the road to his driver’s door,
“It’s still a long way” he said in a deep Devonshire accent, “but you’re very welcome to climb in the back of the truck if you want and I’ll give you a lift. You could sit in the front but as you can see there’s no room, not with all this junk in ‘ere”
What a turnaround. Fifteen minutes ago he had treated me like a murderer! I thanked him kindly but said I was more than happy to be walking this morning and I wasn’t too fussed about how far it was.
He gave me some more detailed directions to make sure I didn’t take the wrong route and then off he chugged on his merry way. It was strange that such a transformation had taken place in such a short time.
Half an hour later I was home, West Ogwell at last. It had been an interesting and rewarding walk though. I returned with a real conviction that I knew what I was going to do next in my life. A designer at long last!
Prepare for landing.
It was now ten o’clock. I knew I had missed the beginning of the 9.45 meditation sitting. I was contemplating what to do for the next hour until everyone came out of the hall. Perhaps I’d go and make myself a brew in the dining room, but to be honest I didn’t really feel like being alone again. What I really wanted was to talk to someone about the fun I had had on my walk and the fact that I really thought I’d come up with an idea that was very, very exciting.
Instead of heading for the dining room I turned towards the meditation hall. Slipping off my steaming walking shoes I walked up towards the hall quietly turning the handle of the big wooden door. You weren’t really meant to go into the hall or leave it during a meditation session but I felt compelled to ignore this rule.
As I entered the hall, I was delighted to see that Christina was in full flow. Everything she said seemed to be so rich with meaning and relevance I was eager to hear what she had to say this morning. Luckily there were a number of chairs right at the back of the hall, so I was able to slip in at the back unnoticed. It was great to sit down, I could feel the sweat trickling down my back. It felt like coming home and I felt very privileged to be there. I took in the scene, the comforting presence of all the people in the room, not exactly friends or even acquaintances but they were an important part of my weekend.
I can’t remember what Christina talked about because it was not long before she finished. Soon we were all deep in another meditation session. It felt like cheating being perched on my chair, not at all mystical but it was just as effective and definitely the most comfortable position yet. No muscle aches, no toes going to sleep, no aching back.
Once this session was finished, it was off to the walking room for some more of the slow walking meditation. I had been outside nearly all morning so the thought of doing my walking indoors appealed to me.
I was first into the room and had the luxury of choosing where to walk. It took a while to acclimatise to the surroundings. I just stood there with my eyes shut standing facing the windows in the middle of the room. People were coming in and finding their own space. When the moment was right I very slowly, mindfully started to walk across the floor. I experimented with different paces and different feels. Sometimes it felt good to open your eyes and just stare at the floor as you picked your way ever so slowly across the pine floor boards. The dark hard knots and flowing grain of the wood made amazing images . You don’t have to be stoned to appreciate things like this, just in a state of heightened awareness. This is exactly what both drugs and meditation achieve. For me though the natural high is far more impressive and so much more enjoyable. As someone who has smoked a few joints in his time, I can appreciate the fact that drugs heighten awareness and bring new dimensions to many experiences but I am also aware of the crippling frustrations that accompany them. The feeling of being trapped and having to wait for the effects of the drug to wear off before being back in control. This experience in the walking room was far, far superior to any drug induced high.
After the walking meditation there was a real sense that we were running out of time. It felt like that moment on holidays when you realise that it won’t go on forever and time has started closing in on you. We were now into the closing ceremonies of this extraordinary weekend. We all filed back into the hall for briefings before lunch from Christina and one of the Gaia House managers. Christina spoke first.
In her gentle way she reminded us all of the Buddhist custom of Dana. Essentially Dana is the act of showing your appreciation by making a donation. Gaia House and all the teachers and staff are reliant on the generosity of visitors to make up their income so that they can continue in their work. It seemed a small price to pay for such an inspirational experience. Christina had indeed been inspirational on this weekend retreat. I had never heard anyone like her before. Her ability to convey what is truly important in life was so refreshing. Her calm and untroubled presence was a lesson for us all in the benefits of following Buddhist practice. Finally she advises us to go gently when noble silence comes to an end this lunchtime. I have mixed feelings about the end of the silent period, in many ways that has been one of the most powerful catalysts for change on this weekend and I’m not sure that I want to break the spell just yet. She’s right, we should be careful about how quickly we break silence.
Next up is Monica to tell us about the sales of books and tapes in the library and to remind us of some domestic duties before we leave Gaia House. It’s like the end of term and there’s a sense of both sadness and joy at the prospect of leaving this unusual place.
Thank you for flying with Gaia House
Lunch is an unusual experience on this last day. We all queue up as normal but there is an air of expectation as we are no longer sworn to silence. There are a few short conversations in the line but most of us seem reluctant to speak. As we take our food to the tables for the last time there is a little more consideration about where to sit, who did I want to talk to?
I sit down next to my meditation neighbour, the young guy with the specs and the goatee. He acknowledges me and seems pleased that after sitting next to each other all week, we are at last able to say hello.
He tells me he has been on quite a few retreats, some in India. Obviously an old hand at this kind of thing despite his young years. How do people that young get so involved in spiritual things? I envy them. It has taken me over forty years to get this far.
On my left is the blond girl who I had met on my walk on Saturday. She and a friend have come up from London for this retreat and she too has been before. The talk is all about how we have found the experience and where we are going next. For me it demonstrates the inadequacy of words to convey what this has all meant. It’s good to talk but it’s also very limiting.
After lunch I go back to my room to pack my bag. I take out the Hoover which is stored at the end of the corridor for a bit of a token burst over the carpets. The sheets have to go to the laundry and that is about it. Goodbye room 26, you have served me well, and not a dead fly to be seen. My ethical practice has been beyond reproach. Those Jains would be proud of me.
From there I head for the library. There are hundreds of books and tapes to choose from but I resist the temptation to over indulge. I have so many books at home that I haven’t read yet that it seems pointless adding to the collection. Let’s keep it simple. I buy one book by Christina on the principles of meditation. It will provide me with practical guidance when I get home.
One of my last actions is to try and capture some of this place on film. I have brought my camera but so far have not felt inclined to use it. I want to have a record of some of the memorable experiences I have enjoyed here so I start by sneaking into the meditation hall. To my relief there is no-one in there. I guiltily take a few shots of the room, the Buddha statue at the front and the beautiful plants decorating the front steps. Next I go out into the garden and rather hurriedly find all the special places that have been a part of my weekend. The view from the gazebo, the stone shrine, the hideaway, the garden pond with the Buddha statue. I take shots of the front garden and the front of the house, none of this will do it justice but I feel a need to take some of this back with me. My final picture is of the big wooden sign at the entrance to Gaia House. It reads,
Inquiry – Meditation – Compassion
This would be a good reminder of what I had learned during my short stay here. I would be back one day to experience more.