Tuesday, January 8, 2013


The stiller the mind, the more palpable the dazzling torrent of life becomes *

It’s 6.45 on a Sunday morning, the last Sunday of December 2012, and the forces of Mara** are besieging me. This is the third day of the siege and despite deploying and redeploying my powers against them I have to admit that Mara remains unvanquished. I’ve been at this juncture before – it’s something akin to a war of attrition – and I know from previous experience that determination and dogged persistence on my part will see me through this. “This” is a week long silent retreat at a Buddhist Centre in the south west of England.
I’m one of around 80 participants on an Insight Meditation Retreat at Gaia House in South Devon. This is my opportunity to eschew the alienation that tends to beset me in the run up to New Year festivities and to use this time more fruitfully. I’ve come here to develop a closer acquaintance with the workings of my own mind and the thoughts that so easily hijack it. Four teachers are here to support me and my co retreatants in our endeavours. Daily, they guide us in meditation, helping us navigate the immensity of our minds and harness our concentration in the quest to calm the conditions therein. Every evening they offer us Dharma*** talks, teachings from the earliest times of the Buddha himself, 2,500 years ago, up to the more contemporary stars of Western Buddhism. The talks, and I don’t say this lightly, are inspiring, uplifting and incisive.
Even Mara quietens down for the Dharma talks; there’s hardly a whisper to be heard, which gives me a chance to focus my concentration solely on the speaker. Guided meditations are more challenging, particularly during the lengthy periods of silence. Most challenging of all are the early morning meditations, which start at 6.45. Caught between drowsiness and the distractions that Mara tempts me with, I despair of ever staying fully present for the 45 minutes that meditations last. Despair, of course, is another distraction. So is doubt, desire, defeatism, etc., etc. Just about any thought that lures me away from my concentration on the breath is a distraction sent by Mara. The first two days of this retreat certainly provide me with what I came here for: an insight into my own mind. It’s chaos in there.
On the third day the onslaught of distractions begins to slow down a little. The pauses give me an opportunity to reflect on Mara’s strategies. Top of the list is unsolicited comments about other retreatants. Some are pleasant: Her trousers are very pretty; you should get some of those when we go shopping in the January sales. Do you think there’s a line in Buddhist fashion? Others less so: Look at those socks. The colour screams at you and, besides, I don’t think he’s changed them since he arrived. The arrangement of my co retreatants’ cushions/ zafus repeatedly attracts Mara’s attention. There are about 80 meditation mats in the hall and by Day 4 all of us are forced into frequently changing our posture to ease muscle and joint pain. Meditators struggle to make themselves comfortable and, consequently, their array of cushions, stools and blankets becomes ever more sophisticated. That looks more like a throne and that one more like a nest than a meditation mat. A plump lady rests precariously on a tower block of cushions I give her another ten minutes and then it will all collapse under her, like a stack of cards.  
At mealtimes a docile line leading into the dining room forms. Standing here I realise that most of my life is lost to haste and impatience. Fifty or sixty people sit around me eating lunch unhurriedly and the only sound to be heard is the clink of cutlery on plates. For me it’s a welcome relief to be free from the obligation to engage in polite talk with strangers and to relish this delicious vegetarian food with no distraction. I’ve come to realise that at no point on this retreat have I needed to talk and now I realise I don’t even want to. This silence is full of insights. The voices that whisper to me from the darkest corners of my mind during my everyday life outside of here, scream at me now from centre stage. Ghosts I thought I’d left behind weep, still distressed by the unhappiness in my childhood. They plead compassion and kindness. I’m not alone in my suffering. Nearly everybody looks worn out, both physically and emotionally. Some, I understand, are terminally ill.
         At lunchtime I lie on my bed exhausted. It’s mystifying how sitting all day, apparently doing nothing, saps my energy so completely. Yet it does. I fall into a deep sleep and when I wake, I’ve missed the afternoon bell. I walk into the hall, but the others are already on their mats and absorbed in meditation. Unwilling to disturb them, I remain at the back and observe the scene. Row upon row of meditators faces the front, where a statue of the Buddha presides. Absolute silence prevails. Just as in a church, there is a broad aisle running down the centre and … Wouldn’t it be funny if the Blues Brothers suddenly turned up – as in the film - and did forward somersaults down the aisle. I bet that would put an end to the silence.
         Mara’s new tactic, humour, briefly lures me into the trap. But I also have tactics. With each breath I count backwards, 10 – breathe – 9 – breathe – 8 breathe – Then Mara quips, she just slipped off the pile of cushions. Did you see that? – 7 breathe – 6 breathe – and so I strengthen my concentration. Don’t forget to buy some detergent when you go to Lidl on Thursday. I turn to silent chanting, Om, Om, Om, OmThis is wonderful! Have you noticed that we haven’t seen a single Christmas tree or Santa Claus since we arrived here. OM, OM, OM, OM, OM. A little later, I don’t know how much later, I find that my attention has drifted wildly and I’m thinking about… the execution of Saddam Hussein. How did I get here? What route did I follow? I’m bewildered. Seven days is not enough. I need seven months at Gaia House.
            On Day 4 my mind slows down and starts to settle, like dust after a storm in the desert. When meditation ends and the hall empties I am surprised to discover I remain seated, enjoying the novel experience of calm and equanimity in my mind. This silence, inside and out, soothes my soul. Mara is still there, of course, but I’m more alert now and don’t fall into the trap as often. Neither do I sleep at lunchtime. I’ve grown fond of my companions on this journey and, although I have never spoken to them, I enjoy the warmth I sense when they are around me. It feels odd to be separated from them.
When departure day arrives, I feel I’m leaving a place of sanity, a refuge, and promise myself that I’ll be back. As the car pulls away from Gaia House, I look up at this remarkable place, the sort of stately home Jane Austen would have chosen for her novels, and wonder how long it will be before my equanimity fades. Probably just as long as it takes until I see a Christmas tree or a Santa Claus.


*   Stephen Batchelor: Buddhism without Beliefs.
** In Buddhist texts Mara personifies the distractions and temptations that prevent human beings from practicing a spiritual life
***Buddhist teachings and ethics