hot air balloon gaia house

A hot air balloon rises outside GH's walled garden

I’ve just returned from a silent zen retreat at the magical Gaia House. I would highly recommend GH. It is a former convent now run by Zen Buddhist practitioners. The place was very well run, the teachers were excellent, and there is something very special about the Devon countryside. Coming from N. America, we don’t have the same history of cultivation of our land, so that our nature and even our farms, are in comparison, very raw and wild. In Devon, you really have a powerful sense that the energy of the land has been processed by people over centuries and it is qualitatively different.

My retreat was a combination of chi gung and vipassana meditation instruction over 4 days, and then I stayed on for a personal, self guided retreat. I thought I would share some practical considerations for those considering a similar retreat for the first time.

  • Silence: This means, in addition to speaking, no reading or writing. Of course, at GH, no one is going to police you during the retreat, but it is best to refrain from language as this fuels your thinking mind. I thought this silence was very extreme in theory, but when I arrived, I found that I did not wish to read or write at all. This is because the silence serves to settle the mind, as if you have a jar of water full of sediment, and you are waiting for that sediment to settle. With total silence, the mind is free of disturbances and a new level of clarity and receptivity will occur.
  • Diet: If you are used to eating a lot of fatty foods, high processed sugar, caffeine, alcohol, etc. the simple retreat diet is going to be a shock to your system even though the food is all very wholesome and nutritious. It may also taste somewhat bland if you are used to strong spices and high sugar and salt content. Pay lots of attention to your body. I eat fairly healthy so I found the food delicious and quite close to what I would love to eat on my own. I did find that I needed a bit more sugar so always added honey to my tea, etc.
  • Intensity/chi gung: I chose the chi gung retreat because I thought it was all about mind-body integration. But actually, as it was taught, there was a focus on raising chi. Admittedly, I was fairly skeptical of the whole idea of holding chi balls, etc. So… apparently you don’t need to really believe in chi gung or understand it for it to work!! Don’t mess around with chi! The retreat had 3-4 30 min chi gung sessions and that was far too high a “dosage” for me and I had to seriously cut back. There was one exercise in particular that was like being a battery plugged in and 1-3 cycles of it was enough for me or else I’d be far too juiced up. So the take away here is a retreat is very intense in its dosage. Don’t be afraid to opt out if all that meditation or silence is too much for you. On the bright side, I now have a handy substitute for caffeine.
  • Breaking silence: When silence is lifted, people are suddenly abuzz with energy and the majority will want to talk to you. You might find this disturbing – certainly, as I was intending to continue my retreat, I didn’t want to stir things up too much. Just be patient and don’t speak much if you don’t want to. Physically leave if it’s too disturbing. To be honest, I found that people don’t really care about how you respond; they just need to express themselves to any sentient being that happens to be in their physical vicinity.
  • Group vs personal retreat: These are two very different experiences. Most notable is despite the lack of speech, having more people around means there is a lot of great energy buzzing about. With the personal retreat when the group had left, the grounds were much calmer and there is a stronger sense of commitment.
  • Prior meditation experience: I would not recommend a retreat for someone who does not have prior meditation experience. The meditation itinerary is quite rigorous and by my 4th 30 min sitting on my first couple days, I would get a kind of meditation fatigue – and there were 2 more sessions to go! It’s not easy by any means.

Baby kale in the garden nursery

A retreat is a wonderful way to deepen your meditation practice and your commitment. What it is not particularly good for, is a way to “get away from it all” and relax – because it’s about getting back into it all. A lot of personal things happened in the retreat that I am disinclined to share, but the one thing that became very clear to me is that there is a profound, stable and ever-present level of peace and being that so many of us seek and it is definitely there to find. For it is not contingent upon life circumstances and requires so little to attain. All this meditation and silence and paring away of certain life comforts may seem like so much effort, but when you consider the vast amounts of time/effort people invest in grasping for (often impossible) things like financial stability, being beautiful, finding that “happily ever after” romantic partner, achieving fame, etc. that ultimately, cannot bring a sense of the fullness of life and being, you realize that it is not much effort at all.