Last summer I spent seven days on a ten-day meditation retreat in England. With the background of the attack on Lebanon, it formed the matter of my first posting on this blog, called ‘Taking a Step Back from Taking a Step Back.’ (see http://qunfuz.blogspot.com/2006_09_01_archive.html) Although I found the meditation itself fascinating and beneficial, the atmosphere at the retreat was poor, and the ‘teaching’ of the guru, Indian industrialist Goenka, was dogmatic, undemocratic and unintelligent. Even slightly cultlike: silence was demanded, but still we heard Goenka chanting on cassette as we tried to meditate; linguistic thought was bad, we weren’t allowed to make notes, read, or ask questions considered impractical, yet listening to Goenka talk for an hour and a half on video every evening was compulsory. Goenkaism makes a big deal of not being a religion, of Buddhism not being a religion, but in actuality it has the full set of taboos and set explanations demanding belief, from reincarnation to the leader figure, to qualify it as a religion in the worst possible sense. I wasn’t looking for a new religion, but for an opportunity to learn more about meditation in a supportive environment. So I left on the seventh day, and I’m very happy I did. I’m also glad I spent the seven days there, but Goenkaism left a bad taste in my mouth.
This summer my wife and I spent a week on a meditation retreat at Gaia House in Devon. It has left me questioning all tastes. I mean it was good.
In her opening talk, Martine Batchelor advised retreatants to “be your own teacher.” That sentence alone is heresy for Goenkaism. It set the tone for the week.
Stephen Batchelor, author of “Buddhism Without Beliefs” and former Tibetan and Korean monk, presented a totally demystified and secularised approach to Buddhism. He described reincarnation and karma as part of the Buddha’s historical context in ancient Indian culture rather than as ideas intrinsic to the Buddha’s thought, and enlightenment as an attainable – or to use a metaphor he’d prefer, arrivable-at – goal, a way of experiencing that it is entirely possible to glimpse or inhabit, however temporarily. Batchelor’s Buddhism isn’t a series of propositions to be believed, but a practice, underwritten by a profound agnosticism which is both non-theistic and non-atheistic. Unlike Goenka, Batchelor doesn’t ‘explain’ for you what you’re supposed to be experiencing. Rather, he encourages you to heighten and intensify your state of questioning. Any open-minded Muslim, Christian or atheist could feel at home in this environment. I was fully engaged, intellectually and viscerally. Furthermore, the retreat offered a real ‘mystical’ experience – that of defamiliarisation, or just noticing. That of reversing, however briefly, your domestication.
Gaia House used to be a convent. Beside it is a preserved 16th century church, and a churchyard with graveslabs from the 1800s – providing relevant commentary on the conditioned, contingent, death-bound nature of the present moment. Footpaths run through Devon’s deciduous jungleland and fields. I missed the early afternoon meditation session each day and went for long walks which were themselves meditations. I saw rabbits and squirrels, kestrels and voles. Once I startled a large red deer, only a few metres away from me in a field. Being my own boss like this, making my own timetable, would not be allowed in Goenka’s scheme.
Inside, in the official meditation hall, I sat down to meditate in 45 minute bursts, and was quickly reacquainted with the fictional make-up of much of my thought. All the time my mind pictured people and voices I’d never heard, and which I usually never notice. One of the strangest was a blue eyed face turning suddenly and looking into mine. All the songs, all the staged discussions, all the banal fantasies which my consciousness consists of, or which obscure my consciousness. The songs in particular followed me around as I walked outside, or brushed my teeth, or swept the floor (there was a work hour each day).
Perhaps the songs were resistance to the listening meditation (introduced after breathing and body-awareness meditations), resistance to hearing what is actually here. I found listening meditation particularly effective. I heard the wind swelling and declining in the trees, and rain, birdsong, animals, cars, a plane, the coughs and groans of my and neighbouring bodies, the rhythmic thrum of blood in my ears. It all formed one polyphony, constantly and subtly shifting. At times I became aware of my calculations of distance as an effect that I was staging – every sound was sound waves breaking on my inner ear, however near or far, and although I could feel my ears the sound wasn’t physically present there – the sound was passing unobstructed from without to within, and there was no within, just emptiness. The part of me which categorised sounds as near or far also named sounds as sheep or tractor, and as good or bad – this commentator fishing objects from the stream. And as I practised, as I became a little bored of the commentator, his commentary became quieter and quieter until I was able, for moments at least, to forget about it.
After a listening meditation, although it had been very mundane sitting listening to normal sounds, I would stand up and notice that the veil of familiarity with which the world is usually cloaked, my domesticated perception, had lapsed. In nature there was transfiguration, or more correctly, in me. I wasn’t high; I was on the earth. I wasn’t absorbed in another world; I was properly aware of this one. The detail of trees. A veritably breathing bush. Cold air in contact with my skin. Me, the animal, shivering awareness of my own presence. This is vipassanna, seeing intensely. The meditation practice is the cultivation of vipassanna. Simply experiencing things in themselves rather than through the mediation of my commentary – those voices explaining, contextualising, reducing the real – allowed me a glimpse of wonder.
And Goenka, and so much organised religion, is about ‘explaining’ and therefore reducing and distancing. About commentary instead of reality.
After the listening meditation came a taste of Zen discipline. Stephen Batchelor told the story of a Chinese monk who walked to the monastery of a famous teacher. The teacher asked where the monk had come from, and the monk replied from Mount Song. Then the teacher asked, “But what is this? Where has it come from?” And the monk remained in that monastery for eight years meditating on the question.
It’s a funny-serious story. The meditation technique is simply to ask, once your attention is still, what is this? The aim is not to try to construct answers, but to experience and heighten the sensation of asking. It encourages awe and wonder, what a Muslim might call taqwa or God-consciousness. It’s what I do anyway in my most intensely alive moments, but I found this wonderful questioning resounding more loudly within in the days following the retreat.
Silence was imposed at most times, but free and wide-ranging discussion was permitted in group meetings and in private meetings with the teachers. In any case, the silence was a smiling silence. By the end of the week I felt I’d got to know the other retreatants, without language, without knowing where they came from or what they believed. And I enjoyed talking to them on the last day. There was a refreshing lack of new age people or ideas on this retreat.
My wife said that at the start she categorised these silent people into the ones she liked and the ones she didn’t, but by the end she felt she loved everybody. And another word on my wife’s experience there. She spent a lot of time lying in bed, and she broke the rules to read books – but the place was flexible enough to leave her alone. She’s a more conventional Muslim than I am, but felt very comfortable in the environment, and benefitted from it greatly, so much so that she wishes to return every year.
So I recommend Buddhist meditation to the extent that it isn’t a religion, but a signpost to living more fully in the world, to asking our questions fully. If Islamists can add a dose of Marxist organisation to their Islam without becoming Marxists in a religious sense, I’ll add some Buddha, and Marx (in a different way), some Shakespeare too, and so on, to mine. “Much silence and a good disposition,” said the Prophet Muhammad, “there are no two works better than those.”