Thursday, 31 October 2013

Retreat part 2: Timetable

There were three 40-minute meditation sessions a day, with the first one at 6.50am.  (Yes, you read that right.)  The second one was just before lunch and the last one in the early evening.   Most of the meditation was of the sitting down variety, but we got a few chances to do walking meditation.  I really enjoyed this, not least because the likelihood of dropping off mid-session was vastly reduced.  My only difficulty was that, because I was moving super-slowly while staring at the ground, I was frequently assailed by the thought that I must look like a stoned zombie, and then I wanted to giggle.  I know, I know: everything that arises in meditation can be used as an object of mindfulness.  All the same, trying not to laugh when you know you're really not supposed to...

The girl second from the left looks like she wants to laugh and she's wearing robes.
This gives me hope.

On the last morning, we took chairs outside and meditated while the sun rose over the valley beneath us.  *sigh*  Good times.

Between morning meditation and breakfast at 8am, retreatants carried out their allotted tasks.  My task - which I shared with another lady - was taking care of the cats and chickens.  For me, this was fantastic.  I loves me an animal.  In fact, I loves me an animal so much I don't even eat them, which was helpful when it came to the Barn's diet* .  I may have enjoyed the retreat much less had I been put, say, on laundry duty.  For years, I was convinced that as soon as I got a mortgage I would (by virtue of the immense wisdom that I would undoubtedly have acquired by that point) be able to fold fitted sheets.  Alas, here I am at 42, still struggling with pillowcases. Chucking around kibbles and chicken-feed?  That I can manage.

Silence was kept from 9pm each night until 9am the following morning.  The exception was Wednesday, when silence extended from 9pm on Tuesday night until 9am on Thursday.  I found that tough, but was told that most Buddhist retreats are completely silent and that if you so much as fart, they hit you with a stick.  (OK, I made that last bit up.)  This made me glad I had come to the Barn for my first retreat.

Now, those of you who are sharp of mind (or who have drawn a timeline) will have noticed that we had to carry out our morning tasks in silence.  I confess that I found this frustrating.  Although it is possible to convey "you fill the water dispensers while I clean the shit out" using only hand gestures, in my view this is akin to wanting to reach a spot three paces away but deciding to get there by climbing the nearest tree, getting winched into a helicopter and then parachuting down to your desired destination.  It is inefficient.  I'll admit it: I occasionally cheated.

Most days there was a meeting at 9am, to discuss practical matters or to share how we were getting along.  This was followed by working in the Barn's organic garden or, if you were on lunch duty, preparing food. 

Lunch was at 1pm, just after the second meditation of the day.  Afternoons were free.  Well, they were free in the way that school study periods were "free" - you were supposed to be doing personal practice.  My personal practice involved a lot of napping, reading and walking in the countryside; I think my fellow retreatants did similar things.  However, the retreat coordinators seemed fine with this and at no point was I hauled into an office, told I'd never amount to anything or given detention.  So it wasn't that much like school. 

There were several talks by visiting speakers during the week.  These generally took place at 5pm and were followed by dinner at 6pm.  Dinner was supposedly a DIY affair, but our group tended to eat together before going on to the evening meditation.  Evenings ended with drinks and socialising until silent time began at 9.

*I'll deal with the Barn's philosophy and rules in the next post.

Oh go on then I'll write about the retreat. Part 1

A few people have asked me for details, so I agreed to blog about it.  Look at me, caving into peer pressure.  I'll try to give you enough information to let you decide if it's something you fancy doing yourself.  I'll also do it in a series of posts, to avoid you getting teal deer syndrome.

Off we go then.

Location gorgeous.  It's a converted barn sitting high on a hill (like a lonely goatherd), overlooking the river Dart.  Here's a view from just behind the main building:

Pretty nice, huh?  I nicked this photo from the retreat centre's website, which is here.  So if you are tempted to indulge in a spot of retreating after you've read my accounts, surf over and take a gander.

The nearest town is Totnes.  For those of you who don't know, Totnes is where crystals go to retire and the plug sockets emit not electricity but reiki.   The townspeople even successfully managed to prevent Costa Coffee from opening a branch there, so they are Powerful People Indeed.  (That said, I can tell you from personal experience that it's quite hard to track down a fluoride-containing toothpaste in the local shops, so I'm not sure how powerful their teeth are.)

If you're turned off by that kind of thing, don't worry: the retreat centre is a good ten-minute drive out of town.  If, on the other hand, you love that sort of thing, you can bookend your non-materialistic retreat with some serious consumerism.

I went into Totnes with a friend at the end of the retreat and managed to emerge with nothing more than a pumpkin seed-coated sourdough spelt.  Go me!

Saturday, 19 October 2013

My Exorcism

I've called this "My Exorcism", but the truth is that it was just one of my many exorcisms.  I grew up within a branch of Christianity that views demonic infestation as a potential cause of anything from homicidal tendencies to mild lumbago, so exorcisms were fairly common.

In this instance, however, the demon to be removed was of a most serious and sinister nature - homosexuality.

I had returned home from university the previous Christmas and confessed to my mother that I was ... well, I said bisexual.  Anyway, we were all very upset by my non-straightness (including me), so it was decided that I should be exorcised, and that the exorcism should be led by my parents' friend from church, Lynn Harper*.  Lynn had known me for several years, had prayed with me before and was very fond of me.  Also, she would completely understand what I was going through, because she was an ex-lesbian.

Now I have to say, I was not wholly convinced of the ex-ness of her lesbianism.  She was quite masculine and, at the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, I had seen her shoes.  To me, they did not scream "footwear of a heterosexual woman".  Also, I mentioned that she was fond of me?  Yeah.

Nevertheless, she and her team of demon-busters were nice people and Lynn had a superb selection of biscuits, so I was up for it.

As it turned out, the exorcism was short and uneventful.  A few shouts of "Get out, in the name of Jesus!", a bit of a sniffle from me and it was time to put the kettle on.  Other exorcisms had involved crying, screaming, fist-banging and a hell of a lot of mucus.  I have my theories as to why I used to cry so much and none of them have anything to do with demons.  Still, this one was unexpectedly devoid of drama and over very quickly.  Indeed, if they'd been in the mood, the team would have had enough time left over after my exorcism to take a pop at the evil spirits that kept making Lynn's dado rail fall down.

For about a fortnight afterwards, I shunned my biker jacket and jeans in favour of floral skirts, thus proving that while the foul demon of homosexuality may temporarily have been dislodged, the foul demon of poor dress sense was still firmly in place.  And in the long run?  Well, back then I defined myself as bisexual, whereas now I'm a full-on gay.  So perhaps there was a genuine exorcism that day; they just chucked out the wrong thing.

*Name changed to protect the misguided but essentially well-meaning.