Aruna Giri Meditation Retreat, June 2019.
Maitripa Centre, Healesville, Victoria
This may be the only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept.
Back in January I decided that this year would be the year I’d finally do my first residential meditation retreat.
So come May (when resolution was fast looking like another statistic), when my husband asked, “What do you want for your birthday?”, I said, “Ooh, maybe you can get me that retreat I said I wanted to do.”
A quick Google search revealed not only was there a retreat coming up that was pretty close to home and not exorbitantly priced, it was on the same weekend as my birthday. Whoa. Done. I signed up, paid the money and wondered for the next couple of weeks how I’d go spending three full days not uttering a word.
FRIDAY JUNE 7
My 42nd birthday
Happy birthday to me! Melbourne had put on a gorgeous winter day. I loaded up my car with my suitcase crammed full of warm comfy clothes, some cushions and blankets, and an emergency sleeping bag – I do not want to be cold this weekend.
The drive out of Melbourne into Healesville was stunning. Winter sun-kissed vineyards and winding country roads were the first taste of a deliciously simple weekend ahead.
Arriving at the gates of Maitripa Centre, a quirky retreat facility started by Tibetan Buddhist Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche IX in 1997, I gave myself a quick pep talk (remember your beginner’s mind), and made my way up the long gravel driveway.
There at the top stood an impressive white stupa, some basic, rustic accommodation and a lush green valley.
The three sheets
I headed to the check-in desk where a deadpan young man named Daniel gave me my room key and explained monotone what ‘the three sheets’ were for. (One for the mattress, one for under the doona and one for above.) Interesting.
The tiny room was neat, clean and more than adequate for just me, myself and I.
Now, what did he say about the sheets again?
I unpacked, successfully made the bed, checked Facebook one last time (and dozens of lovely birthday messages) and took a selfie with the stupa. No texting, phone calls or social media now for the next 72 or so hours.
Let’s see who’s here.
After checking out the loos and orientating myself around the property I headed down to the kitchen, met Katie who would be cooking our meals for the next three days, and discovered a lounge room where some like-minded strangers had started to gather. With the talking ban not yet imposed, I took the opportunity to introduce myself.
There were all sorts of people here. Serial retreat-goers and first timers, semi-regular meditators and those who’d never practiced a day in their life. There were city folk and country folk, male and female, although majority women – 70/30 if I had to guess.
But I wasn’t there to count.
At 6:30pm our meditation leader, Aruna Giri, rounded us up in the yoga hall. Thirty of us stood in a circle as Aruna officially introduced himself and chef Katie; we received more instructions from deadpan Daniel (who let slip a hidden sense of humour) and I found myself aware of a pretty loud analytical brain.
Mmm this Aruna Giri. Straight-faced, quietly spoken, serious kind of guy. Unusual. Bit mysterious. I actually don’t know anything about him. Why didn’t I read any reviews about this guy? He could be a serial killer for all I know. Interesting…
That’s enough judging! You’re here to let go of all that.
Where’s the meat?
In the eclectic kitchen dinner was served, or rather; we queued to serve ourselves. A giant pot of soup awaited us to be ladled, chunky minestrone I think, with a buffet of crusty breads.
Retreat food has a reputation for being delicious and I was definitely not disappointed.
I made my way to the dining hall and sat down next to an enthusiastic young country grandmother with facial piercings. She’d driven more than four hours to be here. I glanced over at her plate and there piled high were all the crusts from her crusty bread – she’d left them behind like my 12-year-old still does! (And I was secretly eyeing them off like I do my daughter’s every morning.) She gave me a look and a smile and I asked “How are you enjoying your soup?” to which she exclaimed, “Where’s the meat?!”
Ohhh, sorry, I thought everyone knew. It’s a no-harm kind of vibe this weekend.
After the meal we washed and dried our own plates and headed to the meditation hall to kick start what we were really there for: silence. But it wasn’t just silence. It was focus, and the freedom to practice discipline, and for me, most specially, the camaraderie of being alone, together.
Perched on our red cushions, the circle took up the full perimeter of the hall and we commenced with a short five minutes of silence and some words by the still-enigmatic Aruna. Then, one by one, all 30-or-so of us introduced ourselves and why we were there.
Many of us were there purely for the silence. There were meditation teachers who wanted to do some actual meditating instead of teaching for a change; there was a computer guy who looks at screens all day long, and his elderly mother who doesn’t speak any English. There was a husband and wife duo; she’d done some yoga I think, he’s a super busy guy who’d never meditated a day in his life. And everything in between.
Our first silent meditation session wrapped up by 9pm and I was tucked up in bed between the ‘three sheets’ by 9:30pm ready for the 6am gong to follow.
SATURDAY JUNE 8
I’ve always felt 6am was closer to the middle of the night than a reasonable time to get out of bed, so when the wake up gong chimed outside my door, it was a rude shock.
And within minutes I had a throbbing headache.
I reached for the Nurofen but was mindful enough to stop myself. Let’s just wait and see what happens for a change.
Into the meditation room we all filed, docile and dreamy; except for me whose headache was feeling more like a nightmare. But we’re waiting to see what happens.
The hall was dark just as it was outside, all but the cosy flame of one tiny tea-light glowing in the centre of the circle. We took our positions for 60 minutes of silent, unguided meditation.
This meditation started off like many of mine do – sit, fidget, yawn. Wipe eyes, reposition, stretch neck. Legs out in front, yawn, legs tucked behind, wipe eyes. Cross legs, sit up straight, slouch back down, tilt head left, tilt head right. Yawn again.
And then suddenly, without warning, stillness and concentration and the ahhh moment. Except for the headache. That was still there.
By the end of the hour, I was feeling awake and pretty cosy, headache mostly subsided and ready for the next session: 90 minutes of yoga.
But as we got into gentle stretching, breathing and some downward dogs, my headache returned with a vengeance for one last hurrah, pounding from the inside of my forehead and temples, trying desperately to get out. So when yoga was finished, it was straight back to my room for some compassionate pill popping with my friend Nurofen. He’ll put both of us out of our misery.
Hey, at least I tried.
After some soul warming quinoa porridge, spiced stewed fruit, coconut yoghurt and a sprinkling of seeds, we were free to do as we pleased for a bit.
Free! I could do exactly what I wanted – no kids, no bosses, friends, husband or mum needing anything from me. No pressure to make small talk with my fellow retreatees, not even to make eye contact. So what to do? Well let’s see. How about curl up by the heater on the well worn armchair, close my eyes and feel my breath going in and out? BECAUSE I CAN! And 30 minutes of that was exactly what I needed to help the Nurofen kick in and work through the tiredness of a 6am wakeup call – and a lifetime of busyness.
By now the chilly air had thawed a little and the sun had come out, so I made my way up to one of the picnic tables at the top of the property. I sat up on the tabletop, legs dangling down heavy and free, and angled my face up towards the sun. I let the warmth of the sun wash over me like I’d never felt her warmth before.
THIS is what a retreat is all about. Indulging in these simple pleasures, engaging with nature – because you CAN, you have TIME. And when you’re stripped away of talking and all your to-dos, you get to tap into the magic that is simplicity.
And hey, it helps that it’s a clear blue-sky day and the winter sun is blazing.
Hit by a truck
After the 11am meditation session, which I settled into far more easily than the first; lunch, and some more free time, it was time for our 3:30pm sit.
And this time fatigue hit me like a truck.
Just like a drowsy driver on a long and straight, boring country road, I was zoning out. Although, thankfully it was just my falling body jolting me back to attention and not the impact of a hundred-year-old tree.
But the instruction is to accept this state as it is. Just be with it, don’t resist it. So I did. I said to myself, It’s not a crime to be tired. It’s actually no wonder you’re tired. You rarely get a chance to stop like this.
It was a sleepy 40 minutes and that was OK.
The exuberance I felt for free time earlier in the day was hijacked by a new feeling in the afternoon: boredom. And a little bit of homesickness.
I hadn’t spoken to anyone in 20 hours by now and my mind had had enough. So it started talking to me. Like a little parrot perched in between my ears, it started doing what parrots do: repeating itself.
“Aruna Giri. Aruna Giri. Aruna Giri. Aroooona Giri.”
Over and over again, the parrot was whispering our meditation leader’s unusual name into my mind’s ear.
“Aruna Giri. Aruna Giri.” But why? Are you even pronouncing it right? “Aruna Giri. Aruna Giri.”
On and on it went. Until the dinner gong sounded and mind felt satisfied to put parrot to bed.
That was weird.
SUNDAY JUNE 9
After a solid eight hours’ sleep, the 6am wake up call was less a smack in the face and more like a fun friend knocking on the door for a day of adventure.
Our first meditation began with music; sounds of an Indian sitar and chanting. It’s not what I’m used to in meditation but the beginner’s mind I’d packed for the weekend could enjoy and appreciate it all the same. I could already feel how much easier it was to get still and centred after a full day of mindful silence.
The sun was out and it was another brilliant winter day. Each meditation session was deepening, as was the acceptance of everything. Time was gradually becoming a vague idea rather than the thing that usually propels my every thought and move.
The 11am session was especially serene; dopamine flooding my body, so I decided to stay in the hall for an extra 30 minutes… I was on a good thing here! One other person had the same idea, and whether or not he was experiencing pleasure or pain, I hope he felt as comforted as I did sharing my experience with one other.
Following another delicious lunch and an afternoon shower, I took my yoga mat out onto the sun drenched lawn with my journal and started writing. Bit by bit over this weekend ideas I’d been toying on the outside world were gaining clarity. Disappointments I’d experienced were being dissolved. The process of slowing everything down simultaneously gave rise to acceptance of cold hard truths but also, acceptance of myself.
Before dinner I headed down the lounge area but decided to stand outside in the crisp air — so much sitting had happened already! Feelings of loneliness and boredom returned and while I sipped on my ginger tea I reminded myself: Be here in the body. Here where you are. There’s nowhere else you need to be, nowhere else you can be right now. So be here.
That vegan brownie
The dinner gong broke my reverie with the promise of something new: another yum home-cooked meal by the incredible Katie!
So far this weekend we’d eaten such good, clean, vegetarian food – three meals a day and fruit for snacking if we wanted to. So when I walked into the kitchen to find something different – a chocolatey snack alongside a hearty soup – my stomach did a little flip!
If I’d learned anything at all this weekend, it was to SAVOUR moments while they are here. Be with them. Fully. And boy did I savour that brownie.
It was decadent chocolate and warm; gooey on the inside and crunchy on the outside. I ate it slowly, letting the crunchiness dissolve into the gooeyness and swathing my tastebuds with the sweet, chocolatey flavour. I stayed with every mouthful until it hit my stomach. Within minutes my body realised this was something unusual, and if it could sing, the dining hall would have heard the most joyful aria. “LAAAAAAA!”
Must remember to eat all sweet treats like that.
Afterwards it was my turn on kitchen duty and if only I could talk. I wanted SO BADLY to tell Katie how amazing that brownie was.
MONDAY JUNE 10
Our final day! Silence would be broken after lunch but I was in no hurry to get there. I decided to get my camera out and take some photos around the property, gathering evidence of the beauty of all the life around me and marvelling at just how lavish nature is – a luxurious kind of ordinary.
On that final morning of silence I felt content, at ease and happy.
At 12:30pm we gathered in the meditation hall for a final sit; a loving kindness meditation led by Aruna. Bliss had been gradually accumulating day-by-day and this was a perfect way to finish things off. When the gong sounded, silence was officially broken and to me, there was a light, buzzing energy in the group.
Aruna started chatting, getting us back into talking mode. And after 90 hours on mute, what were the first words out of my mouth? A joke about how AWFUL that vegan brownie tasted.
Laughter ensued and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced my own smile quite like I did. A ridiculous rubbery grin like one of those sideshow clowns; lips stretched, elasticy and upturned, teeth, gums and all.
After three days of ever deepening stillness, introspection and quiet, this laughter was THE most magnificent feeling. A feeling of pure joy, of connectedness with people I barely knew, of ecstasy in fact. A real kind of ecstasy that explodes out your chest from the deepest parts within. The kind of ecstasy one can only dream of experiencing in the wee hours of a darkened nightclub.
Just as it took time to get used to not talking, it definitely took some time to get used to talking again. I just wasn’t interested in chitchat. I ate my lunch pretty quietly, packed up my room and checked my key back in with deadpan Daniel. We all then returned to the meditation hall for closing circle.
It was interesting to hear of everyone’s experiences. Those who decided to share used words like grateful, pleasantly surprised, harder than I thought, not as hard as I thought. And even those who admitted to having thoughts of “this is dumb”, “this is not for me,” were still glad they’d come.
Thank you, Aruna.
We said our farewells, I hopped in my car and headed home. Back to reality. When I walked in, hubby was watching the footy with beer in hand and my girls were doing their own thing.
This familiar scene somehow felt alien now.
We sat around the dinner table and in turn I asked my family how their weekends were. I noticed how easily I could sit and listen to everything they were saying without the need to do something else at the same time, or hurry them through their story so we could get onto the next thing.
But the polarity of my post-retreat awareness versus a lack of theirs hit me in the face when they all got up and left the table and not one of them had asked how my weekend was!
I’m not proud of what happened next.
Cue the rant!
“Umm, hello, is anyone going to ask me how my weekend was? I’ve only been gone for 3 days.” Sarcasm dripping.
My husband stopped, said, “Oops, sorry!”, continued to clear the plates and tell our youngest she hadn’t eaten enough dinner, and proclaimed that he can listen to me and do all these things at the same time.
“I don’t care! Everyone come and sit back down and be present for a change while I tell you about my weekend.”
I told them as much as I thought they could handle before they burst with distraction.
Like I said, not a proud moment.
TUESDAY JUNE 11
Whilst I’d expected to have some interesting experiences on retreat; perhaps some blissful moments and some uncomfortable ones too, I was not prepared for what I experienced on my drive to work.
My mind completely and utterly blown. Right. Open.
It’s hard to articulate the feeling. As I looked out over my steering wheel at the road and cars and sky before me, the top of my head felt like it had been opened up like a gift box. But the treasure inside? NOTHING. Absolutely nothing.
And by nothing I mean a sense of complete clear headedness, of deep acceptance, of razor sharp clarity… A clear blue sky without a cloud, or a bird or wind. A curious feeling like nothing really matters.
Back to reality
Aruna had advised us to take things easy on our reintegration with the real world and I soon knew what he meant. Scrutinising spreadsheets after three days of allowing thoughts to simmer down is, well, rough!
Must remember that for next time.
And there’s definitely going to be a next time.