Updated: Sep 20, 2022
Following a lot of great personal disappointments in my life and a general sense that my neurotic, ever-anxious, depressed mind was going to be with me wherever I went, it occurred to me that I might as well take this white noise brimming psyche of mine somewhere with little distraction from itself to try and unknot it, or at least come to terms with it.
I've had a keen interest in Eastern thought for a number of years, so it wasn't a purely obligatory trip. However, I only ever really read about these states of equanimity and the practices that helped one attain them. I experienced pantheistic, egoless states whilst meddling with mind-altering substances in my early 20's, but everyone who too has dabbled knows that you hit a limit with these at some point, as your conditioned mind crawls back up after you come down, or worse, you risk psychosis following excessive reliance.
Originally intending to head to Nepal, logistically it wasn't viable due to leaving it too late for the malaria and hepatitis jabs, so I signed up for this week long Silent Zen Meditation retreat via BookRetreats in place of it. I spoke to Hamid over WhatsApp regarding my intentions, he advised me to establish a practice leading up to it with the aid of video links and book recommendations, and a month later after haphazardly meditating and soaking up what I could in terms of knowledge, I was Faro-bound from East Midlands Airport.
After an ice-breaking, late served meal with some of my retreat companions at a restaurant a five minute walk away from the Faro Railway Station the mini-buses and taxis were due to pick us up from, we set off and arrive after roughly an hour or so to the Karuna Retreat Centre of Sierra de Monchique, Algarve. More ice breaking ensued over an array of vegetarian food with our zazen instructor Hamid, our Yin Yoga teacher Helen, the people who cooked the food and maintained the place, and all the other retreaters. We chose our rooms, went to the zendo to hear out everyones reason for being there, were instructed briefly on meditation positions and given the lowdown on the schedule by Hamid, and then: SILENCE.
At first, having been so naive as to think that the silence would only abide during the meditation and yoga, I was terrified. 'What have I got myself into? Silence throughout the whole week? This will be interesting to say the least'. Lo and behold, it certainly was, but I am so relieved that the noble silence was maintained, otherwise I certainly wouldn't have reaped the gorgeous benefits.
Abiding in silence with others who were similarly there to seek refuge from the humdrum of quotidian goings on, the interconnectedness between us all seemed to reveal itself continuously as we meditated together, posed in Yoga together, ate together, walked together, washed up together, observed the mountainous landscapes together, and so on. No ones sense of egos were being fed by chattering. The compulsion to speak tending to arise from a tension in the head that moves you to tell people in various ways who you think you are in terms of your values, personal tastes, discriminations and experiences, all of that mental chatter has nowhere to go.
At first, this unfulfilled compulsion became somewhat torturous. My accumulated insecurities over many years bounced off the inner walls of my brain continuously over the first few days, with no outlet. It all culminated shortly before the end of my 2nd Yoga class on the 3rd day. I rolled up my Yoga mat, put it away, exited the zendo, found a relatively secluded place at the center and cried the rest of my tears out that were rolling down my cheeks already prior to exiting. I ran it by Helen through a note that I became overwhelmed by my lack of being able to keep up, explaining that I'd had focusing issues since I was a child. Rather than feeding my personal story with pity, she fed me something far more nourishing: the assurance that a release of pent up emotions was totally normal when you start practicing Yoga and hugged me.
At some point after that, not only did I begin to enjoy the bodily contortions of YinYoga to the beat of Helens wisdom transmitted via her heart melting voice and quieting presence, but a radical shift in my being occurred. As the ethereal, impermanent nature of my thoughts became evident, so did the fictitious nature of them. I realised that these self-generated stories about myself were the very abstractions that were obscuring the inner peace that was always there, that I felt I never deserved to access due to cultural conditioning, the conditioning that bombards you with perpetually oppressive impressions that you will only be a worthy member of society once you've attained X, Y and Z, or are at least in the overt process of attaining them.
In the capitalistic society that Westerners are born into, it tends to be the case that one over time - and rather relentlessly - is defined very rigidly from the get go. You are a valid member of society if you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps in order to become 'successful'. This so-called success usually implies chasing after status, material wealth, marriage, sex, mortgages, etc. While none of these are necessarily bad in and of themselves, if our society was one that functioned according to compassion as opposed to ego-driven striving and greed, these attainments wouldn't be a metric of how much you deserved peace and love.
When my thoughts loosened their stranglehold considerably during my time there, peace and love were no longer these overly sentimental, faux niceties that so many people espouse like hot air or qualities you could only experience on good acid trips. They were totally real. Eating meals and washing up became beautifully ritualistic, with this sense of ineffable togetherness, as if we were taken outside of time to celebrate life together in this fashion, like it was simply meant to be. The same feelings abided when we sat outside to gaze out at the mountains in awe, read or fuss the dogs that were roaming around, one of which most of the time accompanied us all for our nightly evening walk to a mountainside. This very feeling of unadulterated love was accompanied here by a chorus of crickets, filling every pore of my being with aliveness, and what appeared to be a farmer and his dog rounding up goats, the former beckoning the latter in a way that signified the infinite joy to be found in the ordinary goings on of life.
The talks that Hamid gave in the Zendo were unbelievably profound for me, not only because of the words uttered, but most importantly the presence and conviction with which Hamid imparted them. I never sensed any pretence or oneupmanship from him. His discourses on human suffering, the Buddha, koans, timeless quotes from poets and other numerous seers and his own experiences took on this divine quality, as if my own life was finally starting to make sense. Every second was utterly divine. I knew that life led me here for good reason. This is exactly where I was meant to be. I felt that right down to my marrow, and still feel it now as I type.
On the second to last day, the silence was briefly broken so that everyone could convey how they felt the retreat had affected their general sense of wellbeing. Being someone who struggles with brevity, in a rather ironic way of wanting to express how the shackles of my personal narrative have washed away in a sea of bliss, I rabbited on about that very narrative full of discomforting details that in my mind i was going to conclude with an emphatic '...but none of that matters anymore'. Understandably, due to time constraints, I was firmly but gently encouraged to wrap it up, so I cut to the chase. Subsequently, I felt a flood of insecurities grip me after what I felt was an embarrassing display on my part, but it wasn't long after we returned to silence that the bliss of being itself embraced me with its all encompassing love again. It helped that a number of my fellow retreaters went out of their way to assure me with gestures oozing love and understanding that the space I was inhabiting was still just as welcoming as it was before I opened up about my darkest days.
The next day, it was all over. After the closing ceremony where everyone who felt like they wanted to add more to the previous days summaries got to do just that - including myself, mustering up enough nerve somehow to contribute to my already dense monologue - we all intermingled with a collective sigh of relief as if we had all just traversed an entire lifetime together. It just comes to show that as much as words have their necessary place, they only get you so far. They are seldom sufficient in allowing you to connect to another beings true essence, which is of course also your own. Remain collectively silent for long enough, and the pretentious abstractions you foster shall wither away bit by bit to reveal what was always there: the interdependence of all of us. Living in the spirit of love is not merely a cute idea. It's truly the only way we can live in accordance with our ultimate, shared reality. All else is illusory fodder.