A week of silence in Devon

Posted on June 15, 2014 by Toothpicker There have been 0 comments

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Main: The 13th century Grade I listed West Ogwell Church; bottom right: Gaia house


Not long after I returned from Asia, I went to Devon for my first week-long silent meditation retreat at Gaia House, a well-known Buddhist meditation retreat centre which was a former convent. Although I have been meditating regularly for the a number of years and have been to various group meditation retreats including weekend silent ones, I still found the idea of not communicating, reading nor writing for a week rather daunting.

The reason why I wanted to do this particular retreat was because of the retreat teachers, Martine & Stephen Batchelor. I have read some of Stephen's books and articles, and I found his agnostic and secular approach towards Buddhism stimulating and appealing. As someone who has issues with hierarchies and institutions, for years I struggled to fit into one particular Buddhist institution/organisation even though I found the Buddhist teachings, ethics and meditation immensely beneficial. I was particular bothered by some Buddhists who apply the dogmatic attitude from other religions to Buddhism. Personally, I don't regard Buddhism as a religion nor merely a philosophy. From what I understand, Buddhism is essentially a practice and training, it is about our direct experiences rather than a theory or a dogma.

Martine and Stephen's teachings are scientific (In fact, Buddhism has many parallels with science), rational, practical and most of all, contemporary. They emphasise the importance of Buddhist ethics/values while using meditation as a practical tool. Instead of treating the four Noble truths as a set of doctrine or rules, Stephen suggests that they can be viewed as 'tasks' to be performed in our daily lives. His thought-provoking insights may not be accepted by many traditional Buddhists, but they resonate well with me.

Judging from the popularity of their retreats (they have been leading this since the 80s), talks and books, I know I am not the only person who has difficulties with the traditional approaches and institutions. Their retreats are free from religious rituals and chanting which suit me well too. While some people like to call themselves secular Buddhists, I don't think a label is necessary as it ends up segregating and confining people into boxes, which I think is pointless. Our constant need to identify ourselves with certain groups is an act that confines and limits us, and ultimately leads to unnecessary conflicts and discrimination.


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The first two days at the retreat were extremely difficult as I was not familiar with the surrounding and sharing a room with four strangers without direct communication was an awkward experience. Yet the most challenging part was the long sitting meditation sessions (about 6 hours per day excluding the walking meditation), which caused much aches and pain for all of us.

Nevertheless, things started to change on the third day, and instead of counting the days/hours (and wondering why I was torturing myself), I started to lose track of time and began to 'enjoy' my experience while accepting the aches and other uncomfortable feelings. During one listening meditation session, I was able to detect sounds from five different birds outside, which I found quite exhilarating as it seldom happens in the city.


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When friends asked me what I did for a week without talking, reading nor writing, I said, "Aside from meditation and walking... NOTHING!" I did not even take photographs until the last day as I did not want to be occupied by the act either. The best thing about these retreats is that they allow us to just 'be' rather than 'do' as we are so preoccupied with doing and thinking these days that most of us have forgotten how to 'be' anymore. Our culture today does not celebrate idleness, so the idea of not doing anything sounds completely absurd to many. Yet with my work, I always have to be 'connected' and so it was a liberation for me to enjoy the silence, idleness and nature without distraction from the outside world.


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Martine and Stephen's teaching styles are distinctively different, Stephen is rational, articulate, philosophical and thought-provoking with a sense of irony; whereas Martine is light-hearted, engaging and practical, yet they complement each other very well. Their emphasis on how to creatively engage ourselves in different situations is perhaps one of the reasons why many of the retreatants (I later learned) are from the creative industry. At the end of the retreat, they reminded us that the most important aspect of the retreat was to apply what we learned and incorporate it into our daily lives. Having been to many meditation retreats before, this was by far the most challenging yet fulfilling and much clarity was gained during and after the retreat.

After spending so much time in nature, I almost did not want to leave... I loved walking in the countryside (even though I did get lost one day and ended up in the nearby village asking for directions), and spending time observing nature and sheep (they are quite adorable). And after I got back to London, I noticed that my senses were stronger than ever, not only I could detect odour from my surroundings (not recommended on tubes and other public transport), but I could even differentiate layers of different sounds! Though it was a challenging retreat, it was also extremely rewarding and I would most definitely do it again in the future.


This post was posted in Travel, Nature, Buddhism & meditation, England and was tagged with meditation, nature, Buddhism, Devon, retreats, mindfulness