Thursday, June 20, 2013

Why can’t it be like this all the time?

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow*

 “Are we all clear about what we expect to get out of this?”
The accent is American and the tone starched, with just a hint of boardroom efficiency to sharpen it. Five pairs of eyes regard the speaker, who has snapped her iMac shut and is sliding it into her satchel.
“They’ll probably confiscate that. In any case, there’s no signal.”
The voice is deadpan
“But I’ll need it … to catch up with some work in the evenings. There are legal cases in London I have to prepare for.”
Incertitude has begun to crinkle the starchiness.
A softly spoken dark-haired woman suggests that to find a signal she should follow the nearby path over to a not-so-nearby field with cows in it, where she might be lucky. Crucially, she adds,
“But it depends on which way the wind is blowing.”
I’m sitting at a picnic table in warm late afternoon sunshine on the recently mown lawn of Gaia House Buddhist Retreat Centre. In a couple of hours the five day silent retreat that I’ve come here for will commence. The young American woman is quiet now, tapping her impeccably manicured nails on her brown leather satchel.
A couple of the other retreatants recommend that she forget work as it will undermine the potential to make this retreat into a life changing experience. She turns to me,
“Well, why are you here?”
Unable to think of a sufficiently profound reply that indicates how futile it is to have a results-based approach to a Buddhist retreat, I mumble ...
“Just to be here, that’s all.” 

A few seconds later the American swings the satchel over her shoulder and strides purposefully across the lawn in the direction of the field. As she recedes, one of my companions at the table wonders how she’ll fare on this, her first ever retreat. Earlier she had mentioned how stressed and angry she’d been for months, to the extent that even the most trifling annoyance could provoke an outburst. A retreat in Gaia House, she hoped, would be the antidote to the toll her fast-paced and relentlessly driven lifestyle was taking on her. I reflect that it was brave to commit to five days of silent meditation without having much, if any, prior knowledge or preparation. This young woman did not appear to be the “typical” retreatant, not even first-time retreatant.
         A few yards away from our picnic table I’m astonished to see a couple of rabbits, wild rabbits, snacking on the lawn. One of them hops into the shade of a nearby tree and proceeds to leisurely groom himself. I glance across at his mate, who has fallen into a sudden snooze. Peace, I suspect, undoubtedly comes dropping slow here.
Over the next five days Munchkin and his mate constantly claim their space on the lawn. They seem oblivious the mass of retreatants doing either Tai Chi, sun salutations or silently pacing back and forth, engrossed in their walking meditation. I’m intrigued by the rabbits’ apparent fearlessness, but I do notice they have “boundary issues”. Should one of us come any closer than five paces, they break into a bunny hop canter, putting a few metres between themselves and the interloper. If rabbits can look miffed, then on these occasions Munchkin and his mate look somewhat miffed.

         This is not my first time here and when I step into the meditation hall that afternoon a sensation of peace fills me that whispers, “You’re home now”, dispelling the residues of stress from my bus-plane-bus-train-taxi journey to Gaia House. It’s a feeling that remains with me throughout the ensuing five days of silent meditation. Its soothing presence is more powerful than any of the transient psychodramas or aches and pains arising from sitting cross-legged hour after hour, and I’m grateful for this. Previous retreat experiences have not been so benevolent.
In the silence I discover that the guardedness I brought in with me still retains its hold on my heart. On that first evening I eye my companions in the meditation hall with some degree of circumspection, wondering about their motives for being here. And then the woman on my left turns and smiles broadly at me as we rise from our cushions. My heart softens and opens to her and to the rest of my companions, to all eighty of them. At that moment a sense of connectedness takes root and flourishes over the coming days. It needs no introductions, polite exchanges of information or outpourings of the soul; none of this breaks the silence of Gaia House but communication is ongoing at some level, a much deeper level. There’s a shared sense of being among us which renders words unnecessary.
Inner peace and, if I’m honest, basically having nothing to do except meditate, opens my mind more fully to the beauty of the landscape around Gaia House. I meander through the gardens and woods, lingering over the scent of a flower, over the subtleties of colour as the evening fades into night, over the softness of the breeze as it moves through the forest and I surrender to the cacophony stirred up by the vastly extended family of crows nesting in the trees at the back of the centre. When a goldfinch alights on the rock formation in the centre of the pond just a couple of metres away from me, I remain motionless, indulging in the luxury of an unhurried encounter with Nature. As I sip my first cup of tea, prior to early morning meditation, a cuckoo calls in the distance; decades have passed since I last heard that sound. Not even the crows are awake this early and I can’t resist asking myself, “Why can’t it be like this all the time?” 

         In the final days I find myself glancing frequently toward the back of the meditation hall, to where the young American woman sits. Occasionally she’s not there, but more often than not she is. Right now she’s sitting with her head buried in her hands and her crumpled posture betrays her exhaustion. But she’s still with us and I haven’t seen her head over once to that far off field with her iMac. I wonder whether she’s pondering our teacher’s question, “What’s stopping me from being happy?” and where the answer, if she finds one, will take her.

* W.B. Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree


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  2. Hi Karen,
    I have just been reading your book : Living inside The Revolution. My name is Chris Emms and I am writing this comment as I hope that you can help me.

    It has long been an ambition of mine to work and live in Cuba as you did. An English Translator job with Granma has been advertised by The Cuba Solidarity Campaign here in London ( .) I have completed the application and sent it to the email at the bottom of the application as well as posted it to The Granma offices in Havana. I am yet to receive a reply and have contacted literally every Cuban contact that I have including The Cuba Solidarity Campaign who posted the ad and The Cuban Embassy in London. Noone has been able to check for me whether the email address is correct or provide me with an alternative means of contact for the persons responsible for the application at Granma. Do you have the contact details of anyone who could please help me? I am itching to make sure that my application has been received as I really want the job! I am fluent in spanish having grown up in Malaga, Spain and have been involved in The Cuba Solidarity Movement since i was 15. Do you have any other tips for finding work in Cuba too?

    I really loved your book. Thanks for sharingit with The World. Have you thought about getting it published? I am pretty sure that Manifesto Press (run by The Communist Party of Britain) would be interested.

    Thanks and I look forward to hearing from you.


    Christopher Emms