In recent years the practice of meditation has become much more mainstream and for some people it is becoming a part of their everyday life. Meditation retreats in particular are especially popular, where you are in meditation and silence for long periods of time. I recently had the pleasure of attending a Buddhist meditation retreat at Jhana Grove and had an absolutely wonderful weekend.
My background with meditation
I practice meditation on a regular basis – I’m a certified meditation teacher, so it would be strange if I didn’t. I meditate every day and sessions run anywhere from 15 to 30 mins with up to 3 sessions per day. Meditation is extremely beneficial to our well-being especially for stress management, reducing our susceptibility to some illnesses & diseases, developing mental awareness, becoming more calm and relaxed and as a means for enhancing a positive mindset. Meditation makes me feel calm and peaceful, improves my clarity of thought and concentration, and on occasions makes me feel energised. That aside I was keen to delve deeper into meditation and to experience prolonged meditation, something difficult to do with the distractions of everyday life. For Buddhists, meditation is not part of life it is a way of life and it seemed obvious to learn from the masters. So with much enthusiasm I booked my first Buddhist meditation retreat.
The Jhana Grove Retreat Centre is situated in a valley of the Darling Scarp in Serpentine, about an hour drive south of Perth CBD. It is nestled among bushland and is the perfect place for a peaceful and calming retreat. Check-in starts from 5:15pm on Friday and the retreat ends 3pm on Sunday.
Noble Silence starts after dinner on Friday night and continues until Sunday afternoon. Noble Silence means no talking or non-verbal communication of any kind – no signals, no written notes and definitely no external contact by telephone or internet.
In addition you have to follow 8 precepts:
- To refrain from intentionally taking the life of any living creature (yes that includes bugs & insects).
- To refrain from taking what is not given.
- To refrain from any sexual activity: no physical contact or intimacy.
- To refrain from dishonest speech.
- To refrain from using alcohol or non-medicinal drugs (includes smoking).
- To refrain from eating after midday.
- To refrain from dancing, singing, playing music, and wearing cosmetics, perfume, and jewellery.
- To refrain from using luxurious beds and seats.
There was a daily itinerary, however it was quite flexible. We were encouraged to attend all Ajahn Dharma talks but other than that we could do as we please as long as we followed noble silence and the 8 precepts. Sounds easy enough.
How to meditate the Buddhist way
Ajahn Brahm describes the basic method of meditation in three parts. I’ve included a very brief summary below, if you want to read more you can find it on the Buddhist Society of Western Australia click here.
· Sustained attention on the present moment
· Silent awareness of the present moment
· Silent present moment awareness of the breath
· Full sustained attention on the breath
· Full sustained attention on the beautiful breath
· Experiencing the beautiful Nimitta
· First Jhana
And so the weekend begins….
I arrived at 5:30pm after driving an hour in peak hour traffic… definitely in the mood for some peace and serenity. Checked in to private room (surprisingly very good), chose a seat in the dining hall and placed my meditation gear in the meditation hall (that was my posse for the whole weekend). Quick chat with fellow mediators, some soup & bread at 6:30pm, introduction with retreat manager (lovely lady) and then the silence began.
At 8pm we had our first Dharma talk, followed by a 30 minute guided meditation. I had been practicing the Buddhist meditation method for the last week and was already having some great results so was really looking forward to the first meditation. I had never done meditation in a group setting apart from guided meditation at the end of Yoga sessions, so I wasn’t sure how it would go.
My first Buddhist meditation begins… start with the present moment, gently take in what’s around me: hmmm there’s a lot of people in here, shuffle to the left, shuffle behind me, another shuffle – oh people please stop moving – you are supposed to be still & silent, more shuffling argh!! did someone just fart? I’m sure that sounded like a fart, OMG surely not! maybe it was someone’s seat squeaking. I think there should be 9 instead of 8 precepts, the ninth “to refrain from farting in the meditation hall”, ok focus… a few wise words from our teacher, greatly appreciated... my mind is calming and becoming still... seriously - now someone is snoring!! ok ignore it – ahhh it’s stopped… nope he’s starting again. Dear wise, kind Ajahn please tell him to stop!! zzz, zzz, zzz - nope he’s not going to stop, ok just focus on the pleasant sound of the crickets outside – that’s much better. Now pay attention to my body, what is going on with me right now... Ajahn "The meditation is almost coming to an end..." what are you kidding me!! wow that’s got to be one of my worse meditation experiences ever.
Unfortunately when I got back to my room and tried to go to sleep things only got worse and I had a very restless night. Not a good start to the weekend.
Despite a terrible night’s sleep I rose at 5am with a positive attitude and started with a 30 minute walking meditation. The walking meditation was a great way to practice mindfulness and get the body moving at the start the day. After the walking meditation, I attended a guided meditation in the meditation hall… much better, success!! The meditation hall was much quieter than the previous night, much less people and no snorers or farters.
When I was travelling around Australia some of my favourite times were when we were off the beaten track… when we traveled across the QLD border on our way to Alice Springs we stopped at a station, after we set up camp I remember pausing to take everything in – I looked around at the trees and noticed how still they were, then I just listened and heard nothing, absolute silence, it was so peaceful and beautiful. I heard birds in the distance and as they passed overhead I could hear the sound of their wings flapping. I felt so happy and lucky to be in such a peaceful place.
How I felt on that day, was how this meditation made me feel in that moment, the absolute beauty of the peaceful breath and silent mind. Thoughts did come to my mind but they were heard with such clarity – like the sounds of the birds wings, and as quickly as the sounds of the birds wings came & gone, so did my thoughts. The calm, stillness and peacefulness gave me an overwhelming sense of joy and happiness, like nothing I’ve ever felt before, it was a wonderful experience.
For the rest of the day I had similar meditation experiences. I did most of the meditating in my room as I found I was able to get into a much more deeper meditation being alone. In between meditations I did some bush walking, such an amazing place – beautiful wildflowers and lots of kangaroos and birds about. I remember being so happy, smiling as I walked through the bush and felt so grateful that I was able to experience that present moment.
Saturday evening I felt inspired to do a long session and knowing that the Ajahn Dharma talk would commence at 8pm I went to the meditation hall at 6:15pm and meditated for 1hr 45mins. It was a really good meditation, I was able to "sustain full attention on the beautiful breath" for a long period of time and felt an enormous sense of happiness. Mission accomplished.
Unfortunately on Sunday I didn’t get a lot of time to meditate, I had a sleep in and didn’t get out of bed until 6:15 am. Still managed about 3 hours of meditation but spent quite a bit of time cleaning – the retreat is run purely on donation basis, so part of the requirement is to clean your room and clean up common areas according to the roster. A lot of short meditations of 20 to 30 minutes between times of eating, cleaning and fulfilling roster duties. At 1:45pm we had our last Dharma talk for the day, handed in our keys about 2:30pm, I chatted to a few people about my experience and was on my way home by 3pm. Retreat finished!!
Questions you may have:
Do you feel hungry? You don’t eat after 12pm on Saturday (yep no dinner with the exception of cheese, chocolate, ginger & lollies – not sure why this is acceptable and never bothered to find out). That aside there’s plenty of good vegetarian food for breakfast & lunch so I never felt hungry at any time. More than enough food for everyone.
What about the wildlife? Yes there are bugs, insects and spiders… there were a lot of millipedes and we had a resident Brown Snake hanging out in the garden. It’s Australia - you’re in the bush, so no surprise!!! Remember no killing any animal so if you get any bugs or spiders inside your room you have to leave them there or gently take them outside. Strangely enough I found myself watching every step I made when I walked around the grounds and bush, ensuring I didn't kill any living creature – mindfulness was definitely engaged.
Do you get uncomfortable sitting for long periods of time? If you’re not used to it I suspect so, for me it was ok as I do a lot of meditation sitting on the ground. I found that once I reached a deeper meditation the slight discomfort just disappeared. I didn’t feel any pain or soreness afterwards but I guess everyone is different. They do have chairs if you’re not keen to sit on the floor or if you have back or other issues.
How much does it cost? The retreat runs on a donation basis – you pay an upfront bond for your room which is refundable when you leave or alternatively you can give this as a donation. You're welcome to give a donation exceeding this amount and I'm sure it's greatly appreciated.
What do you wear? Comfortable, loose fitting clothing – no sleeveless shirts, no tight shirts or pants, & bottoms below the knees. Not everyone followed these rules strictly but they were close enough.
To sum up the retreat in one word it was AWESOME. The meditations were much more intense than I'd ever experienced before, the atmosphere of the retreat was serene and the Buddhist monks were such humble and kind people, and although I don't necessarily agree with all their beliefs they were very inspiring and insightful. The only issue I had was the retreat wasn’t quite long enough – perhaps another 2 or 3 days would have been perfect. I definitely would attend these retreats again. In the meantime I have a 10 day Vipassana retreat to look forward to, I'm attending this in January 2018. Blog post will follow at the end of the retreat.