Tag Archives: retreat

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Life, Death and Gardening

Husband has found a novel way of dealing with pests in the garden. He eats them. Though he’s not keen on slugs (he ate one by accident and it took two days to cleanse his mouth of slime), he has developed quite an appetite for snails. In Catalunya, where we live, snails are a delicacy. So when they proved to be the culprits who were munching all the tender, young plants in our community garden, he started collecting them up. He feeds them on carrots until their poo turns orange and then fries them with garlic.

At Gaia House Retreat Centre in Devon, I discuss pest control with Will Newitt, the Garden Co-ordinator. His approach to slugs is to pop them into a container with some greens and then tip them out some distance from the centre. “It’s a real way to explore non-violence”, says Will.

Will Newitt at Gaia House Garden

I’m at Gaia House on a work retreat. Five hours a day in the garden, four hours on my cushion. It works well, not least because my body is so tired that my mind is happy to sit still. Engaged so fully in the physical world, I notice how joy arises from simple things. The sensation of warm sun on my back as I push tiny potential lettuces into pots. The chatter and squawk of crows. The excitement as seedlings I have sown emerge as bright green shoots. Will explains that the garden relies on volunteers like me to make it work. “Often people will compliment me on the garden and I accept the kindness of that, but it feels a bit fraudulent, because I’m just here for a very short amount of time. It’s whoever comes in who actually creates it. It’s many people over many years, with open hearts and with a sense of care and loving kindness and joy for what they are doing. I think that contributes something precious.”

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Seedlings emerging

Working in silence, I become more aware of how this cycle of being recreates itself. The garden only grows some of the food eaten at the centre, but their scraps are returned to the earth as compost, which enriches the soil to produce more food and the cycle begins again. As I harvest the last of the sprouting broccoli, other helpers are preparing beds for the next crop. Slowing down, I begin to notice the cycles everywhere. In the rhythm of day and night; the cooking and eating of lunch. Beginnings and endings. “When you really stop and look”, says Will, the teachings are there in every moment.”

Gaia Garden Greens
Gaia Garden Greens

Will remarks, too, on how friendly the wildlife is here. ‘I feel they are drawn to this place because it’s a safe haven. They’re not scared.”  I, too, feel safe to dive deeply. Stripped of all the doing in my normal life, there is plenty of time to simply be. I feel content with this. It is enough. I am not seeking excitement, nor entertainment, nor distraction. I am not even seeking ‘liberation’, but it occurs to me that this might, in fact, be something like it.

Meditation Hall at Gaia House
Meditation Hall at Gaia House

In his talk one evening, the teacher, Stephen Batchelor, speaks about solitude. On a retreat, he says, we seek solitude amongst others. Alone with our thoughts, feelings, sensations, we have an opportunity to slow down, to watch our breath and feel the beat of our heart. At this time, he suggests, we come close to the fragility of our own life. We understand that any moment, it might end and we will come face to face with death. He directs us to the walking room, where a real skeleton sits in full meditation pose.

Skeleton at Gaia House

As if to reinforce the teaching, the following day as I am sitting in meditation when I hear a thud at the window. I look up just in time to see a dark shape fall away. A fluttering blue tit looks down, a quizzical tilt to its head. I get up and go outside to find a thrush, lying face down, wings spread. Reaching out towards the bird, not yet sure if it is alive, it startles awake and hops into the undergrowth. The following day, underneath one of the apple trees I find a thrush. Its body is stiff, wings tightly folded. Will and I agree to leave it there for a while and I garland the body with dandelions, strung together in the way I wove them as a girl. Bright yellow encircling the small, dead form.

A fallen thrush
Fallen Thrush

Back in our garden in Catalunya, I meditate amongst the rows of vegetables. In the warmth of the midday sun, I arrive briefly at a place of stillness before words bubble into my consciousness. Limpiar. Cuidar. Plantar. Esperar. Weed. Care for. Plant. Wait.
With this simple set of gardening instructions, the land speaks to me. But then wait, there is more…”Don’t forget to Disfrutar!”
Enjoy. Don’t forget to enjoy.
Because who knows when we will be halted by our own fly-into-the-window moment?

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Festa mayor parade winds through village of Sant Pere de Ribes, Catalonia

Building Resilience through Connection

In Buddhist circles, January is traditionally a month for retreat. It is the time of the monsoon, when the nomadic life of Gautama and his disciples was hampered by the rains. Instead of their usual pattern of roaming and teaching, they stayed in one place, waiting out the weather until the spring allowed them to once more take their message to the villages. With Husband away for 10 days visiting family, I decide to engage in a self-retreat, committing to stay in one place, more or less, until his return. It’s a way of connecting deeply to myself, but I’ve also been thinking that it’s a way of building resilience.

At the beginning of my retreat I impose boundaries, choosing the lines I draw between ‘normal’ and ‘retreat’ life, making an intention to limit those habits which I know take me away from my present state of being. I decide, above all, to limit my use of media. For me, there is no better tool for producing a sense of FOMO – or missing out on something, than trolling through Facebook! In addition to this, I commit to a daily practice of those things which enhance my sense of being present. Yoga and a daily walk – to bring me into my body. Meditation, to quiet and centre my mind. I add in a writing practice, to exercise creativity and ground my energy, but I promise myself that I will not expect productivity, which helps me approach it in a relaxed way.

The retreat begins as usual, with me  feeling very tired. It’s as though in the very act of turning my attention inward, I come face to face the effort of daily life. I sleep more in the first day and on the second, I really enjoy the stillness and softness of a warm home and little activity. On the third, my energy starts to rise and I feel surges of spontaneous joy. My walk takes me through the local village, which is celebrating the Festa Mayor of Sant Pau. What strikes me now about these festivities is how they manage to include the whole community. How everyone takes such pride in their role. An hour before the parade begins, I see people dressed in traditional costume walking purposefully through the village. Their white shirts and pants are immaculate, contrasting impressively with the bright red and blue of their shoes, belts, cravats and headscarfs. Small bells attached to their ankles jingle excitedly as they walk. There is a sense of anticipation in the air.

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Festa Mayor Sant Pere de Ribes

In Catalonia, no festival is complete without a correfoc, a ‘fire run’, evolved from mediaeval street theatre. Bands of young people dressed in painted hessian cloaks hold aloft fireworks which rain sparks onto the crowds lining the street. Their hoods are adorned with bright red horns, their clothing painted with images of demons and fire. It’s not hard to work out the symbology. This is an ancient standoff between good and evil. These devils are followed by dancers, clearly from the same origins as Morris and Ceilidh dancers, leaping and jumping and swinging each other around, or bashing sticks one against another with a force that suggests the moves, like the katas in karate, mimic combat. Each crew of ‘devils’ is accompanied by an ear-splitting samba band. Each set of dancers by jovial pipers. The whole procession lasts an hour or more and winds up with a moving maypole attended by male and female young people and topped with an extremely lifelike owl. Back in my retreat space, I can hear the sound of real owls hooting in the forest around me as fireworks resound through the valley.

hermitage procession
Procession to the hermitage of Sant Pau

Maintaining my retreat intention, it seems fitting to join the celebratory mass at the hermitage the following morning. The day breaks cold, gray and rainy and as the same parade weaves out from the town centre, plumes of smoke from fireworks fill the damp morning air. The sinister sound of drums moves closer and closer, the fizz, splutter and bang of explosions creating a stir in the atmosphere. I am reminded of the noise and clatter of Tibetan horns, bells and symbals as the buddhas are summoned for a puja. Up close, it can be an unnerving experience. There is little doubt that the spirits are responding, for when the monks play like this, the room crackles with energy. This morning, two new players have appeared in the throng. A woman and a girl in the same fireproof gear join the head of the procession, but instead of demons in yellow and red, their cloaks are painted in white and blue with angels and doves . Amongst the noise and hubris of bedevilment, they make a calm case for the  peace and innocence.

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Triumph of good over evil?

Inside the church, where it is standing room only, I am moved to contemplation. The choirmaster conducts a willing congregation, producing melodic harmonies which rise past the elaborate chandelier to the simple arched ceiling. Outside, the dancers continue the procession, filling the space outside the church with a party atmosphere. A makeshift bar is doing a roaring trade in patatas bravas and beer. It seems that the whole town is here and everyone, from the smallest child to the greyest elder has a costume and a role to play.

correfoc youngster
Everyone has a role to play!

A week later, I walk the same path past the hermitage and out into the vineyards. I am accompanied by three other ‘pilgrims’ on a small yatra, a meditative walk, mostly in silence, to celebrate Imbolc, the beginning of Spring in the Celtic calendar.  Empty shells of fireworks litter the path and along the way we pause to take in the scent of rosemary and thyme growing abundantly in the wayside. All through the fields, the vines are bare, stretched out and prepared for leaves that will soon appear. Warm rays of sunshine have broken through the early mist and we peel off layers as we walk. Pink and white almond blossom, thronged with happy bees, gives pause for reflection.

In challenging times, these resources will create resilience.

Connection to self, connection to each other and connection to nature.

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Almond blossom Imbolc 2017

 

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