I’m pretty highly strung. I can get wound up easily but I can also remain in a state of extreme excitement for long periods about the smallest of things. My housemate once described the ‘Three Elements of Rosie’, my three states of being; one of them, ‘excessive in nature’.
This, plus my slightly manic intent to excel in my new job, runs the risk of tipping me over the edge, so I decided to attend a Buddhist weekend retreat that my cousin Sanghamani was running, in the countryside. Sanghamani is an order member of Triratna, the Western Order of Buddhists.
I have meditated before, during Sixth Form exam periods, and found it extremely enriching. The Puja – ritual worship including offerings to the Buddha and chanting in Sanskrit – however, would tug at the hem of my comfort zone.
I began the weekend on edge and wound up tighter than tight. Planning a last minute trip to a conference in Geneva (my first work trip abroad and SOLO) with the global humanitarian community at the 11th hour was hardly the perfect start to my weekend of solitude and contemplation. My excitement and knowing there was nothing I could do until I could get back to London on the Sunday, pack and prepare with my notes, did nothing for my nerves. I was picked up and driven into the velvety black quiet of the country feeling, well a little bit sick.
The retreat was at a reclaimed farmhouse in the middle of the Suffolk countryside, surrounded on every side by field upon field. It was Ted Hughes-territory. We slept four to a room and ate in a proper dining room. It felt like a school trip for grown ups.
My cousin was nervous when I greeted her. Not only was a member of our ‘wacky family’ here to spy and report back, probably toppling her good vedanā (i’ll explain) at least into neutral territory, I was witnessing her lead her first retreat since becoming ordained two years ago. “You’re going to tell your mother i’ve made you join a cult!”, she whispered as we brushed our teeth in our pyjamas at the end of the day, feeling a little bit like we were on a sleepover. “I’m their undercover reporter”, I joked.
We entered the shrine room not long after arriving for our first meditation session. Whatever your beliefs, serious and proper meditation can do weird things to you. It can leave you feeling elated or it can leave your raw and vulnerable, depending on how you enter into it. Afterwards I felt sensitive, alert yet calm and more receptive to people’s feelings. Thinking about a conversation I had straight after with a man, I could quite easily have given him the wrong impression about my intentions, feeling keen to advise and give offers of help to a flailing start to his career. He later on asked for my number and I felt uncomfortable about my apparent vulnerability after the first session.
Saturday, rise at 6 for two hours of morning meditation in the shrine room (a cushiony womb bricked inside a stable). Except of course I slept right through the tolling bell and everyone coming and going. I am not a natural riser. I felt a failure.
After a breakfast of porridge (vegan, naturally), toast and fruit, we gathered in the shrine room again to seek out our ‘vedanās’. Vedanā refer to the pleasant, unpleasant and neutral sensations that occur when our internal sense organs come into contact with external sense objects and the associated consciousness. Sex, pleasant vedanā. Stubbing your toe, unpleasant. You get the idea. Neutral is harder; Sanghamani identified her armpits as neutral. Fair enough, I don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about them.
While the purpose of identifying these ‘feelings’ felt slightly pointless (what are we to do with the information?) I was absolutely determined to take the meditation seriously and after an hour, we took a walking meditation, unfurling as a group into a countryside that was suddenly startlingly beautiful. The air was a perfect cool contrast to the warmth of the shrine room, the leaves were crisp under foot and – now this is ridiculous – a deer skipped over-field before my very eyes. “This feels fucking weird”, I thought (not out loud, Buddhists literally never swear); I was aware in a way I never am in London, walking around with my head up my bum like any self-respecting city-dweller. And I could have heard a pin drop. No small feat since I am practically deaf in my left ear. I felt great.
Group sessions followed, more meditation and some discussions on the teachings of Urgyen Sangharakshita, founder of Triratna. Saturday evening closed with a nine stage Puja, which consisted of two hours of chanting in Sanskrit. I entered into the retreat very much open to all experiences and nothing changed during the ritual. I chanted and I didn’t feel uncomfortable. It just didn’t feel like my ritual. The same as I if I went to someone’s church on a Sunday. I’d sing the hymns but i’d would probably just be enjoying the organ.
Saturday night was a quiet one. Literally, twelve hours of silence. OK, not that hard when you’re not a natural group mingler anyway. And I read a lot of my book. Whether I looked inside myself and found my answers i’m…not so sure. I don’t think I was looking properly. I just did some needlework instead.
By Sunday, I was ready to go home. Having spent the previous day learning to be ‘present and aware’, meaning being aware of your body in the here and now and not seeking that next hurdle (definitely an issue I have), I was already rushing into my next adventure. The food was AMAZING but I also had to wash up and I could do that at home. Also, no amount of remaining ‘present’ or seeking out my vedanās was going to make me forget I was getting up at 3am to fly to Geneva.
I think my mum is relieved I’ve not become a Buddhist. I attended because I’m a bit more open-minded and I like exploring things outside my comfort zone. But I look for external experiences rather than internal signals. While Buddhism had clearly cultivated these retreatists into full and happy people for whom their practices and beliefs had given them guidance and inner strength, I don’t think I need an outside influence in my life, at this stage. My cousin has flourished in her studies and one retreatist was keeping his Seasonal Affective Disorder very much at bay with ritual, practice and study. Amazing stuff. But i’m pretty grounded already, despite my manic tendencies. I’ll stick to long lie-ins for now.