I’ve been on many retreats over 35 years, some just a few days, others for months at a time. They have all informed and expanded my practice and perspective: some for a short period; others continuing to resonate years afterwards. Retreats with my teacher for the last 10 years; Bhante Vimalaramsi are definitely in the latter camp. Drawn directly from the 2500 year old teaching of the Buddha as described in the Suttas, his teaching is disarmingly simple, so simple that the biggest obstacle is to get out of the way of the practice. When we own this simplicity what unfolds is a completely different perspective on experience that leads to a deeper understanding of how to live a life of balance, connection and freedom and how we obstruct this.
This February I travelled to Penang in Malaysia to explore this more fully under his guidance. Located in the outskirts of Georgetown, where traffic is unexpectedly light and surprisingly courteous towards pedestrians, the centre is starkly juxtaposed between skyscrapers and dense forest. The welcome was simple and uncomplicated, the accommodation comfortable and unfussy with the sound of distant traffic drowned out by the call of monkeys and unfamiliar birdsong. Coupled with this, the soft heat of the tropics and the unfamiliar diet all made for a sensory recalibration; letting go of familiar patterns of thought and behaviour, a useful precursor for any mental recalibration to come.
There is something about being part of a group on retreat that creates a uniquely supportive environment. There were students from all over Asia and beyond, unusually many more men than women. There was no common language except that of a common intent and purpose. That was all we needed. The human condition is universal. We all understood why we were there and respected each other for it. For someone whose first 15 years of retreats were solitary I never tire of the palpable but unstated sense of caring and support such a group generates. It creates a safe place to be open and listening, to see and understand how our preferences for and against experience creates the feeling of separation and individualism, how we use the sense of ‘other’ to land all the inconvenient truths of our experience rather than take responsibility for them.
We are so used to justifying the way we are that it takes time and patience during the retreat for this to fall away. When it does we recognise the subtle and sometimes not so subtle tension it creates in us. Choosing to release this allows us to recognise the universally unskillful patterns we create in ourselves and others and the joyfulness that arises when we elect to do something different. Substituting the skillful for the unskillful can be as simple as smiling at the way our mind gets caught sowing the seeds for a new neural response.
There is little questioning about the value of retreat in Asia. However modern the outward appearance, however familiar some of the global brands and presentations there is still underneath it all the beat of a different drum. It’s understood that whilst it’s you who’s here, it’s not all about you. As the hours and days pass you too come to remember it’s more ‘we’ than ‘me’ and recognise our responsibility is toward this inter-connectedness rather than individuality.
And when it comes to an end, what then? Was it all just respite from a busy and frantic world and our life embedded within it? As the experience of a retreat passes into memory, what continues to resonate is the truth we felt about some aspect of the human condition wherever we find ourselves afterwards.