From the 13th – 23rd October I led a retreat on The Open Heart at Dhanakosa Retreat Centre, which is a wonderful venue on the banks of Loch Voil in Scotland. The retreat was full, with a mixture of experienced practitioners and some quite new people. So I had to adopt a scatter-gun approach, presenting things so that there would be something for everyone.
In the early days of the retreat we focused on grounding ourselves in the present moment, using a lot of body awareness. I was encouraging people to try to see/feel their way beyond labels to their actual experience. Our minds have a natural tendency to want to save us time and trouble. So when, for instance, you want to become aware of your foot, your mind goes: ‘You know what your foot’s like. You needn’t bother going to the trouble of experiencing it again. Here’s a mental image I prepared earlier. So now you’re free to think about something else entirely.’ In that way we live in a world of labels and mental images, and don’t come into the aliveness of our actual experience.
We spent quite a long time focusing on ourselves, which might seem strange for a retreat on The Open Heart. But I thought it was time well-spent, as so many people in the West struggle with issues of self-hatred or low self-esteem which make it very difficult to open your heart to others. So we explored our direct experience of our bodies with a kindly, sympathetic awareness. Once we’d established a sense of that, we focused on the feeling of kindly awareness itself, and let it take us into a deeper experience of our hearts, and the natural goodness that is there, waiting to be revealed. That led us naturally into well-wishing and loving-kindness for ourselves and others, so the middle part of the retreat was focused on loving-kindness meditation – inviting all other living beings into the warm ‘heart space’ that we had found.
In the last few days we threw open the doors and windows of our hearts to all our experience, just sitting with an open heart to whatever our experience was in the moment – the sound of a bird outside the shrine-room, a memory, pain in our knees, anything that was happening.
As well as sitting we also did walking meditation: either on the Dhanakosa lawns or outside the grounds by the loch. In the evening we did various pujas and chanted mantras. We focused on Buddhas and Bodhisattvas associated with the Lotus Family in Tantric Buddhism. The Lotus Family is particularly connected with love and compassion.
As so often, I was very moved by watching people on the retreat working with themselves. There were several people there who were having a very challenging time in their lives. Meditation isn’t a way of avoiding the pain of such things – like climbing out of your experience into some blissful attic of the mind. Instead it encourages you to turn towards your experience, however pleasant or painful, and helps you discover that you have the resources to meet whatever your life brings, and gradually to see things as they really are, which will eventually free you from that suffering altogether.
For me the retreat felt very spacious, and I had time to go for walks and do Chi Kung down by the loch. Leading was made easier and more enjoyable by having my old friend Jnanasiddhi as support. I was particularly grateful to her for doing meditation reviews. Dhanakosa is well-organised as well as very beautiful, and Dhiraka (who did the bulk of the day-to-day organisation) was both friendly and quietly efficient. And Vajrahridaya’s cooking was worth the journey from Cambridge in itself!
So it was a very successful event. At the end people were encouraged to fill out feedback forms. All the ones that I saw gave 5 out of 5 to both the facilities and the teaching. (I would have given myself 3 ½ out of 5, but then I’m a perfectionist…)
I’ll be back at Dhanakosa in 2007, from the 14-28 September,to lead a Total Immersion retreat. It will be almost entirely in silence, with the opportunity to do plenty of meditation. I’m very pleased that Padmadevi has agreed to support me on it.
If you like the sound of Dhanakosa and want to see what other retreats and courses they have to offer, then you can visit their website.