7.00am a bell rings. We gather together downstairs in silence cradling cups of tea before the morning’s meditation session. A period of guided meditation and then breakfast, again in silence. At 10.00 we meet again downstairs and run through the itinerary for the day. The period of silence ends and we discuss the day’s walking options: an easy, intermediate and hard guided walk across the Trossach hills; or simply make up your own walk (just make sure you let someone know where you’re going).
A typical start to a day on the hill walking and meditation retreat at Dhanakosa, just outside Balquidder by the beautiful Loch Voil. “Beautiful” is going to be a word we all end up over-using this week but it’s hard to find too many other superlatives that adequately describe our setting and surroundings.
This is my first time on retreat, barring the previous week-but-one’s Urban Retreat organised by the London Buddhist Centre (LBC). That was an opportunity to experience the atmosphere of a retreat whilst still engaging in your normal life. It was bookended by two full days at the LBC, various meditation classes and other events during the week; a useful indicator of what it might mean to be on retreat. Being at Dhanakosa is quite different though: I travelled from London to Edinburgh, then to Stirling, took two buses, ending up at Kingshouse where I waited for the subsidised taxi to complete the journey. I am now in an ex-hotel by the shores of Loch Voil, the nearest settlements a good half an hour’s walk in either direction from the gates.
I’ve been meditating for about a year or so now, although only really regularly since attending a class in February, moving on to semi-regular classes at the London Buddhist Centre. A retreat seemed like the next natural step for me in order to “deepen my practice”—or more realistically to give it a good go without giving in to the myriad distractions of my everyday life. What particularly appealed to me about this retreat was the fact it was combined with hill walking which is something I’ve come to love over the last couple of years or so; not only that but I know I would struggle with a week of just meditation.
I admit to having felt a little apprehensive about the retreat and some of the things I thought I might find tough I did. I’m quite a solitary person—not in an anti-social way (I hope) but certainly someone who’s happy to spend a lot of time on their own. So, suddenly being immersed with a group of strangers for a week was a little challenging. But, we all got on and respected each other’s privacy—no-one expected anyone to be sociable—we were on retreat after all. It was easy to get a little bit of time to yourself either by sitting in the designated quiet room or just taking yourself off for a walk in the grounds.
The walking was amazing. I spent the first few days with a residual cold so stuck to the intermediate level walks but was fighting fit to do the last difficult walk up Ben Vorlich, my first Munro. Unfortunately the meditation didn’t feel so successful—I tended to swing between my two extremes of agitation and sleepiness. I can’t say if I felt more agitated on retreat than normal but I suspect I was just more aware of it; the wonders of mindfulness. Or maybe it was simply “stuff coming up”, a phenomena we were told that tends to announce itself about three days in.
Being on retreat also gave me the chance to reflect on my engagement with Buddhism to date. For most of my adult life my world view has been that of what might be called scientific humanism or scientific naturalism. I’ve had a strong aversion to anything “spiritual” (whatever that really means) or the supernatural, outside of reading ghost stories. Before I went away I can’t say I felt entirely comfortable with the religious aspects of Buddhism but saw it more as a kind of “framework” or set of tools for living, somewhere between a philosophy and system of psychology (one of our retreat leaders referred to aspects of Buddhism being “falsifiable”). I didn’t come away from the retreat feeling like my ideas were fundamentally challenged—in fact reading Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs during the week helped put my attitudes in the wider context of secular Buddhism.
On the last full day of meditation we were encouraged to reflect on what we took from the retreat and what we might want to carry forward. I found it more useful to concentrate on the question rather than brainstorming answers which is what I’d usually do in that kind of situation. However some things did become clear to me, some more surprising than others: it wasn’t a great shock for instance to confirm that spending time outdoors was important to me, but more surprising, given my natural introversion was that I enjoyed the sense of community and felt that this was something that was missing in my day to day life.
Being on retreat was a very positive experience and definitely one I’d recommend. I’m hoping to go back to Dhanakosa—in fact I’m eyeing up the photography and meditation retreat next April.
One evening before the last meditation session of the day I take a short walk: I look up at the night sky and clearly see the constellations (not that I can name them with any confidence) and something moving: maybe a satellite, maybe a shooting star.