The Non-religious Religious Retreat

I went on a retreat of my own volition.

I know. I’m just very in touch with my spiritual side. Everybody says it, you don’t need to point it out. In reality, there was a lot of white lies that got me trapped into doing this. The illusion pretty much melted as soon as I got there.

The illusion? A trendy little camp which focused on mindfulness and being chill around nature. Wow. I love being chill and there’s nature too?! Well, actually I have quite a lot of that outside at the moment. Wait. Let me check. Yes, I can confirm that there is nature out there. Trendy too? Ok, my outside is not overly hip. I’m in.

I was told this was to be a non-religious retreat. It was not a non-religious retreat. The smoke gave it away. Burning pine. I didn’t want to believe it though. It could have been a pine barbecue. But no. This was a ceremony in a shrine room covered in pictures of smiling old men.

Yes. That is the Buddha.

I looked around the room. There is a lot of old people I thought. I was quick, my perception sharp. There was a lot of old people. I hear what you are saying. Old people can still be chill. So I gave it a chance. I took up a pillow and did the generic cross your legs to act like someone who has studied the art of meditation pose and waited for our teacher.

One of the smiling old men made a cameo. An Irish version. A pasty, little Buddha with a smile pasted on his face. Oh and the iconic gong in his left hand. This was our teacher. I’m certain that the only thing he learned during his extensive training in India was how to use that gong. And, boy, did he like to use it.

It’s the most powerful thing that I have ever seen. Drop your guns. Drop your knives. Drop your nukes (on second thought, place these gently on the floor). What you need is a gong.  It just takes one hit for absolute silence. Well, I’m lying, On the retreat, all you could get was old person silence. The really uncomfortable kind where you can hear their bodies digesting or creaking. This sort of silence was only a problem inside but he made sure to make the outside times much worse.

We were taken to a meditation garden for an hour. This was a small garden and there was around thirty of us. It also happened to still be completely silent. For an hour we had to find a way not to seem awkward while walking around in circles. The great eye aversion game! If you meet someone’s eyes… nothing happens.

What did you think would happen? You turn to stone? That’s actually stupid.

The tension did rise for the time we were down there though. You could see people beginning to crack. Me? I was at the edge of the garden staring at this donkey that just couldn’t get up. I thought I remembered that if horses couldn’t stand they would die so I was severely worried. I was shushed when I tried to get my worries across to the others.

So much for the caring side of Buddhism.

The true motives of this weekend were revealed that same day. I opened the brochure to find this retreat classified under ‘contemplative walking’. It seems fine, right? I can walk. And, heck, I can contemplate too. The problems came when we began.

It was a silent walk. It was the meditation garden times 100.

There was a different dynamic going on this time. You could see that people were trying their hardest to seem profound out there.  Walking wasn’t enough. They’d wander over to the cliff edge and gaze into the distance. Sit on a high rock and look down at the sea. Crouch and brush a patch of flowers with their hands. You know what? I’m not going to try and seem better than them because I did exactly the same things.

I’m sorry.

It’s so hard when everything is silent. I found myself stalking ahead of the group to look for the most reflective spots and then setting up there in a meditation pose.

Meditation can have some strange effects but the guided sessions weren’t where I felt “centred”. I found my way into the donkey sanctuary. I mean I had to check if he was still lying there and if I could perform horse CPR or something (It requires a more forceful version of ‘Staying Alive’). He was fine but I realised I was now locked in with them. So, I went and found a little glade to hide out in (for the record, I am not scared of donkeys. I could have probably taken the four of them).

Now, we’re going to drop the little persona I have going to tell you this glade was actually beautiful. So, I found a spot that hadn’t been decimated by sheep droppings and took a seat. A cat joined me and I thought it was some sort of sign.

How could this cat have possibly walked the same path that a human had? Incredible.

You do get into that frame of mind when you are meditating. You begin trying to make things more deep then they actually are. I sat there for 45 minutes and kept on thinking that it was a life changing experience. It was not.

Now, I’ll have you know that this day was actually fantastic. The Sunday was where it began to drip downhill. My favourite old man turned out to be a traitor and died on the Saturday. Not really though. He just worked there and had to do work or something.* Selfish, I know. The second blow was the extended silent walk. This left me sunburned and weak. The third arrow to the chest was going on a run after all this. I actually did that incredibly dramatic pose where I pressed my forehead to the pavement because I just couldn’t go on. The pretty girl from the hostel happened to be driving past at that moment. This is me at peak performance.

I missed the dinner because of the run. I mean I wasn’t too excited for tofu but I did hear that food has these qualities that can make you feel better! The old people had dispersed while I was out and I was confined to the hostel for the remainder of the night. This is actually the most depressed I have ever felt. I found myself rummaging through bags to find celery, hurting and reading about being a buddhist. There were also volunteers in the kitchen so I couldn’t take out the contraband meat I had smuggled in. I mean I say smuggled but it was right in their fridge.

Oh. That’s probably disrespectful.

I was stuck with my bag celery at this time and I just wallowed in that hostel. I mean if that cat or a donkey had showed up it would have cheered me up. Instead, I was left with Nietzsche and some Rinpoche or other. Nietzsche is a bummer.

So, what have I learned from this experience?

Say yes to even more things. I mean I could look at this in a different way but I feel like these sort of ordeals are more important then anything. Where else am I going to be stuck with bag celery in a depressing hostel? I feel like these small and stupid things can add up and eventually, you’ll grow into a very wise old man. So, this experience goes towards my “wise, old man” fund. 

And, what do I feel about Buddhism?

I feel like their practices and teachings can actively make you a better person. Full stop. Taming your mind and becoming more centred are very important. I’ll pass on something that really stuck out to me.

Sometimes are minds are scattered between so many things that there is no one at home.

*I laughed every single time I read this without fail.

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