So today I arrived home after completing my first ever Buddhist retreat. Where the hell did that spring up from, you ask? Although I have been known to undertake adventures completely spontaneously, this one happened to be pre-meditated (well, it wouldn’t be a Snickerstoast blog post without a terrible pun now would it?)
After discovering the marvellous benefits of yoga whilst living in Paris, I wanted to go one step further and learn how to meditate. I’ve always been curious about alternative therapies and practices that help to improve people’s sense of wellbeing. I’d also been doing a bit of reading into Buddhism and although I didn’t venture into the more complex stuff, the main values and beliefs seemed pretty appealing. Because I’d been banging on about it so much at home, my wonderful parents went ahead and booked me onto a four day retreat at the Manjushri Kadampa centre, in the Lake District. Bless them, they do so well to indulge my constantly changing fascinations! After a pretty turbulent year with lots of uprooting, I hoped that the retreat would restore my natural balance in some way. Yet, I couldn’t help feeling slightly apprehensive; having never done anything remotely like this before, I didn’t have a clue what to expect! On the journey there, I vowed to keep an open-mind and just embrace the whole experience.
And what an interesting experience it turned out to be…
Firstly, the location was absolutely incredible. Housed in the magnificent Conishead Priory, the building itself literally took my breath away. Grand and Hogwarts-like from the outside, yet remarkably cosy and warm on the inside, I couldn’t quite believe that this was going to be my home for the next four days. Originally a hospital for the poor, Conishead Priory has been everything from an aristocratic mansion to a convalescent home belonging to the Durham miners. It stood empty between 1972 and 1976, before being bought by the Kadampa Buddhist group. This period of stagnation had led to dry rot and general disrepair, meaning that the Buddhists had to set about completely restoring the priory to its former glory. With such a rich history, the place had a very unique character and it was absolutely fascinating to think about all the different people that had passed through its doors, throughout the centuries.
The priory also happened to be set in acres of lush, green woodland, leading down onto the ruggedly beautiful Morecambe Bay. Teeming with horses, squirrels and wild rabbits, it’s hard to convey in words just how peaceful and natural it felt. It was an absolutely magical setting and it felt a million miles away from any kind of stress or business. My photos really don’t do it justice!
But enough about that, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Of course you want to know whether I was spiritually healed or if it turned out to be a load of tosh.
Well, the first thing I will say is that there is definitely something special about meditation. Admittedly, some practices didn’t exactly go to plan. There were times when I couldn’t stop fidgeting. There were times when multitudes of random trains of thought flooded into my mind, completely clouding my focus. However, on the few occasions when I did manage to fully concentrate on my breathing and on pushing away all of my noisy, distracting thoughts, something really amazing happened. I truly did feel a sense of inner peace. It was a unique state of relaxation, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. It was like a wave washing over me, lifting me up slightly so that my physical body felt irrelevant. For a few moments, everything felt perfectly still and I felt perfectly content, not thinking about anything, but just breathing, just existing.
Now some of you cynics out there might claim that this was all psychological. Like the placebo effect, I simply imagined this feeling happening, because I was wanting it to happen so badly. That could well be the case. In fact, it probably is. But what does it matter ? The sensation felt as real as any other sensation, so as far as I’m concerned, it was real.
This was the main thing I wanted to gain from the retreat. I wanted to have the time and space to explore meditation, to see for myself if I felt anything from it and to see if it could help me feel more in control of daily challenges and stressful situations. In this respect, I’ve definitely come away feeling empowered that meditation is a powerful tool, one which can definitely help us and strengthen us.
But of course, the retreat was more than just an insight into meditation, it was also an introduction to Buddhist teachings. Now in this respect, my overall impression is not so overwhelmingly positive…
I’m agnostic and I’ve always being curious, yet cautious of religion. Evidently, it is a force of both good and evil in the world. Having never been christened and through attending secular schools, I’ve always tried to look at religion with a critical eye.
Buddhism appealed to me because it isn’t presented as a religion as such. Rather, it’s a life philosophy, offering practical, spiritual guidance that we can apply to our daily lives in whichever way works for us. Or at least, this is what I believed it to be.
The Kadampa tradition in particular is presented as such – the word ‘Kadampa’ meaning action. Indeed, some of the teachings covered did make lots of sense and did seem easily applicable in a practical sense.
I agreed with the following :
- There can be no happiness without inner peace
This teaching is talking about material, superficial happiness. We are constantly looking to material possessions, other people, food, holidays, hobbies, etc. etc. to make us feel happy and fulfilled. But of course, these things are only temporary and only fulfil us for so long. On the contrary, if we overindulge in these things (i.e. too much food, too much emphasis on others), we may even start to suffer and feel pain. Buddhism claims that the only ‘true’ happiness (a consistent, unchanging happiness) comes from within. This means being spiritually happy and having a sense of inner peace and inner strength.
- Feelings are delusions
In one of the talks I attended, the teacher compared our feelings to passing clouds in the sky. By analogy, if the sky represents our sense of self and clouds represent our changing moods and feelings, we can rest assured that behind our moods, we are pure, just as the sky is pure, behind the clouds. This teaching is helpful in showing us not to beat ourselves up – for example, just because we experience bursts of anger, we do not need to label ourself as an essentially angry-natured person, who has been built this way and cannot change. Buddhism claims that feelings such as anger and jealously are delusions, because we hone in on the worst and negative points, greatly exaggerating these things, whilst missing the bigger picture. Therefore, to combat these feelings, we need to step back, be in control of our mind and say to ourselves, this is almost like an hallucination, it is not the accurate picture of what is really going on. We can then let go of it, just as the wind blows away a cloud, leaving a clear sky and thus, a clear mind.
- With laziness, we shall accomplish nothing
Now everyone knows that this one is true. Everything in life takes effort and even though sometimes we feel like hibernating under our duvet and never coming out, we have to force ourselves to get out of bed and get on with it. Whether its spirtuallity or gathering up the energy to take the dog out everyday, we need to be motivated and never stop trying our best.
Okay, so this is starting to sound a little preachy…definitely wasn’t my intention. But to sum up, these were the three teachings which really stood out to me, which seemed to make the most sense. Indeed, I am going to try and recall these as often as possible, in order to inspire me whenever I feel down, unmotivated or frustrated.
So now onto the juicy part…the certain things which set alarm bells ringing, which didn’t quite seem to add up. Here’s my list :
1. All the teachings came from one single source
All the teachings were read from books by the spiritual founder of the the Kadampa tradition, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. These were the only books available in the entire centre. I mean he looks like any cute, happy, butter-wouldn’t- melt spiritual leader, but it did feel a bit cult-like at times. Everyone seemed to be subscribing to the interpretation of this one man, without even considering or examining the alternatives.
2. When the Dalai Lama got mentioned, shit got weird
I was on a guided tour of the house, when someone happened to mention the Dalai Lama and asked whether he was involved in the NKT (New Kadampa Tradition). At this point, the monk, who had been previously been so smiley and upbeat, adopted a grave tone and expression. He then proceeded to criticise his political activity and presence in the public eye, painting him as the black sheep of Buddhism almost. He suggested that the Dalai Lama, through his actions, had veered off the spiritual path and could no longer be respected as a spiritual leader.
It seemed strange to me that a Buddhist monk would so blatently criticise anyone, let alone a follower of Buddha Shakyamuni’s guidance. And upon doing some research on this (after coming to the end of my technology/wifi ban!), I came across dozens of articles claiming that the NKT had actively taken part in violent protests against the Dalai Lama (which seems to go against everything they believe in). I even stumbled upon groups calling the NKT a cult and claiming that Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is in fact, a clever and powerful dictator.
From my personal perspective, after spending just a few days in the NKT bubble, it genuinely seemed that both the ordained and laypeople were extremely happy and that their lives had been richly enhanced by Gyatso’s teachings. But of course, this apparent ‘dedication’ could have been evidence of indoctrination.
I am obviously in no position to judge this. I am by no means an expert, nor an investigative journalist. Speculation isn’t helpful, so that’s as far as my questioning goes.
I have to apologise as this blog post really is all over the place and it probably doesn’t make any coherent sense to anyone reading it! I didn’t really intend this to be an entertaining piece – it was more just for me to make sense of this very poignant experience.
To conclude, I will definitely take away the positive elements I’ve already mentioned and continue to practise meditation as frequently as I can. As for becoming a nun (although I definitely joke about it often enough!), I don’t think I’m quite ready to make that leap just yet…
There are still many unexplored avenues and many unanswered questions, but I’m grateful of this small insight I’ve had into very unique world.