Homesickness, Hunger, and Bees

I’ll start this by saying; if you haven’t read part one yet, follow this link here  and catch up.

Second piece of housekeeping; apologies for keeping you waiting for part 2.  Life flew past in the last two weeks, although it’s not really a justification – especially given the fact I just spent another 4 days water fasting and sitting on the sofa, but I chose to write about the fasting experience instead, again.  So where’s that post, Chris?  I wasn’t happy with it, so haven’t posted it, yet.  The weekend before that I was down in Melbourne watching the tennis.  You get the picture.  2019 has not got off to the productive writing start I was hoping it would, but such is life, right?  I’m not sure Tony Robbins would be as convinced by that justification.

So as you may recall, I endured an internal dialogue of nonsense for a forty minute meditation session on the Friday night, then slept like a log.  I woke up on the Saturday morning to the sound of a small bell being rung outside my small bedroom.  As my conscious slowly returned to me I realised where I was, and all of a sudden felt like I had left the modern world and taken up residence in a monastery.  Which I kind of had.

I got up, showered, and dressed (no yoga pants or brown long-sleeved t-shirts – I had some rather fetching grey shorts from Zara and a plain black tee – I figure enlightenment does not demand a certain sartorial style – it’s bigger than that, people).

I make my way to the dhamma, making uncomfortable eye contact with the other meditators (if you can call us that, I definitely don’t feel like one yet).  We take our seats and the guru/son-of-a-brickie enters the room and invites us to commence.  That’s it?  No guidance, just go figure it out.  Oh god.  Now I have to say that this first 40 minute session of the day (there are scheduled to be 8) is a breeze.  My internal chatter continues, but it’s tolerable, almost enjoyable, and I feel a few moments of blissful calm that make me hopeful for progress across the weekend.  I don’t bother to open an eye to check the time, and I don’t wriggle around in my seat trying to get comfortable.  It’s OK, it’s probably no less enjoyable than laying in bed and reading a book.  The bell rings to end the session and we make our way to breakfast for steaming porridge and fresh fruit.

Except I’m fasting, remember, so no porridge, or fruit for me.  Instead I’m having a warm cup of peppermint tea.  Yay.  The rest of them sit silently and slowly, mindfully spoon porridge into their mouths.  I watch them for a while, interested to note how slowly everyone is eating, it’s quite hypnotic to watch.  After a while I can’t bear it, and so take myself outside to drink my tea.  I sit on a bench and watch the trees blowing in the breeze.  Quite nice this.  Could get used to this.  Maybe I’ll leave Sydney behind and take up the monastic life.

I’m snapped out of my reverie as the bell rings to indicate it’s time to return to the hall for our next practice.  Right, so, at this point we’ve had two single forty minutes practices.  This session before lunch is two hours, split into 3 iterations.  Sitting meditation, walking meditation, then back to sitting again.  Thank god for the variety.  I’m quietly (have to be) optimistic that this is going to go well after the dawn edition.  I sit down full of hope and expectation.  Here’s what went down:

Right, Chris, you can do this, let’s start with the breathing.  In, out, in, out.  Easy does it, not too fast, not too slow, don’t control it, yeah, that’s the ticket.

Ok, this feels pretty good, the chair feels comfortable again, maybe I just needed to get used to it a bit.

What’s that?  Why am I thinking about my sisters?  Aww, they’re good eggs.  Love em.  I wonder what they’re up to right now?  I miss them.  Why do we have to all live so far away from each other?

Because you moved to Australia over three years ago, obviously, idiot.

Hmm, I know, but I think it was the right move, I mean I was restless at home, and I really like where I live now, more than I liked South London.

This is true, but you did leave behind all of your family and closest, oldest friends.

(All of a sudden I’m struck with homesickness, the type I haven’t felt in ages, and it is a deep, rotten homesickness)

I really love my friends and family back home.  If I stay in Australia our lives will continue to move apart in opposite directions.  Eventually there will be no going back.  

FUCK! 

Now, I’m going to be honest here, this was not easy for me.  I have occasional pangs of homesickness every couple of months or so, but they’re usually fleeting.  This lasted for the entire two hours.  By the end of it I felt something like desperation, or mourning even, for the life I left behind when I upped sticks and moved down under.  By the time the two hours ended I was completely and utterly emotionally drained, and had no idea what to do about it.  I had ruminated over faces, memories, and past experiences, both joyful and painful.  Over and over again.  I simply could not stop it.  When I had first looked at the schedule on Friday night, and noticed that we had lunch after meditation and then a two hour rest, I had chuckled at the notion of rest.  Why would rest be needed after two hours of sitting and thinking.  Now I knew.

Lunch was unmemorable, given I didn’t eat it.  I was now approaching 40 hours without food, and I was desperately unhappy.  About the lack of food, about the homesickness, and about the fact I wasn’t any closer to spiritual enlightenment.  It felt like I was moving backwards, not forwards.  I retreated to my room after a mug of tea, closed my eyes and prayed for sleep.  Thankfully it came, and I napped for a short while.  I woke refreshed, calmer, and ready to try again.  So here we go… back to the hall.

Chris, you twat, come on, we can do better.  This time, think about how much you love your life in Australia, take off those rose-tinted spectacles.  You left Blighty for a reason.  You wanted something different, you got it, enjoy it, stop focusing on the negatives.

[Tummy rumbles]

God, I’m hungry.  Why didn’t I eat some of that vegan coconut curry they all had at lunch?  It smelled amazing.  It looked amazing.  Why are you even fasting you knob?  What are you trying to prove?

Ok, I’ll make a deal with you, oh belly, oh chum, if dinner looks as good we’ll cave and tuck in, OK? Deal.

Fuck homesickness, ridiculous waste of thought.  Now food, there’s something I can get on board with… Wait, why is it so god damn hot in here?  Oh yeah, it’s peak summer and 33 degrees outside this wooden hut.  Why have I got a blanket on my legs, take it off, I’m starting to feel sweat run down the small of my back.

[takes off blanket, quietly]

That’s a bit better.  I mean seriously, I own a sauna, I’m used to heat, but this is horrible.  You know what would make it better?  A nice chocolate ice cream.  Mmm. No, wait, an ice cold cider straight from the back of the fridge.  And a steak, and chips, with chimmichuri, and mayo.  Oh and a side of mushrooms, roasted in garlic butter.  Get in my belly.

Stop it, you’re torturing yourself.

This is crap.  Why am I here?  It’s 33 degrees, you live by the beach, you could be chilling on the balcony listening to tunes, sipping a cold one, and be far more relaxed and comfortable than you are right now.

Stop it, you’re torturing yourself.

When’s that darn bell going to ring so I can go slowly plod around the gardens and look at plants and insects and shit?  I’m done sat here thinking about food and ocean breezes.

Why are my legs cold?

Where’s that blanket?

The bell rang and out I went, silently, as ever.  Feeling glum, and now, very hungry.  The hunger has thankfully replaced the homesickness.  Also I felt gratitude for my sauna.  I don’t have a sauna back in England.  Point to Australia.

When the afternoon session finished we had another 2 hour break before dinner.  Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what I did during that session.  I think I laid on my back and stared at the ceiling for a good portion of it, as my room appeared to be the coolest spot in the retreat centre that I could find.  I remember watching bees going about their work in the lavender plants for a while too, which was strangely comforting.

The bell rang for dinner, and the zombie army made their way back to the dining hall.  I lick my lips hoping for leftover curry from lunch…

Tomato-fucking-soup

My least favourite of all the soups.  Seriously?  It’s just watery tomato ketchup. SERIOUSLY? I don’t even rate ketchup all that much.  I haven’t eaten in 50 hours and this is what I’m presented with.  Fuck that, I’ll have a peppermint tea.  Rejected, I leave the dining room and make my way outside to go sit on a wall under a small tree, holding my warm beverage to my heart, trying to warm the coldness inside.

Something strange happened as I sat under that small tree.  I looked up at one point and noticed it was filled with small worker bees, buzzing around doing their thing.  Since I was a child bees have filled me with dread, despite the fact one has never stung me.  Normally my reaction to a bee’s presence is to flap my arms at it, and if that doesn’t work I try to get as physically far away from the bee, without it being too obvious that a grown man is running away from a bee.  Despite the very obvious fact that that is exactly I am doing.  Instead, this time, I feel something that feels like joy.  I watch the bees peacefully, and feel like I’m part of this harmonious scene.  We’re friends, no one is attacking, or running, or flying from anyone.

Meditation.  Cures bee phobias.  I am, at least for now, no longer an apiphobic.  Maybe this wasn’t a waste of time after all.

Part three to follow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Buddha and Back Pain

It was 15:18 as the train pulled out of Sydney Central Station, on it’s way to the Blue Mountains, to the west of the city.  I haven’t taken a train ride in Australia that’s longer than thirty minutes in duration, so this a somewhat interesting journey.  Speeding through Sydney’s outer west you quickly realise not all of the city looks like the beach and cafe-laden Eastern Suburbs, the palm tree glitz of Circular Quay with bridge and Opera house looming overhead, or the pretty tree-lined streets of Paddington and Woollahra.  Nope, some of what is out here is pure grot.  I quite like the look of it.  South London boy, innit.

After two hours of a slow upwards chug I arrive in the mountains, and the climate has changed dramatically.  What was a slightly overcast day down by the beach, has transformed into a biblical storm in the mountains.   I arrive at the quaint, old-world train station in Medlow Bath, a tiny town nestled in amongst the trees.  Look at this station – quaint AF:

medlow bath train

As the black rain clouds gather menacingly overhead, the rain has already started to fall as I step off the train and on to the platform.  Medlow Bath plays host to a magnificent view:

hydromajestic views

It also boasts the BMIMC (Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre) and I’m here to attend a two day silent meditation retreat.  I’ve been intrigued by the idea of undertaking a ten-day silent retreat (where you literally say, read, and write nothing) for a quite a while now, but I figured it was just good sense to do a shortened version first.

Just as I am looking up at the clouds, realising I am about to get drenched, a small woman tentatively runs up to me, hair soaked from the precipitation, and asks me if I’d like a lift to the centre.  She’s a little bundle of nervous energy, and I gladly accept the ride.  I like mountain people.  I also love the air out here, it’s clean, crisp, a bit cooler, and it smells of an impending storm.  I love storms and this one feels like it is about to deliver a corker.

My nervous chauffeur drives me the short journey to the centre, ushers me inside and nervously shows me around the place, whilst nervously explaining the etiquette of a silent retreat.  I don’t feel nervous – a spot of silence is probably just what I need.  She leads me down to the male accommodation block and invites me to choose a room.  They’re all the same, eight small rooms, each containing a single bed, a 1970s-inspired bedside table, and a simple cupboard of two shelves with no doors. Oh and a small plastic red chair.  I choose room number 3.  I like the numbers 3, 6 and 9, but 6 was already taken and 9 didn’t exist.

I get myself settled into room 3, which takes all of about two minutes, and then head back to the dining room.  A modest dinner of leek and potato soup is served shortly after.  This is a wrench, as I am now 22 hours in a water-only fast, which I have decided  to extend to Sunday night.  But I really like leek and potato soup, it’s possibly my favourite of the soups.  I watch mournfully as the other attendees spoon the gloopy wholesome goodness into their gobs.  I make myself a peppermint tea and realise that this is why overweight people struggle to stick to diets.  Note – if you want to read about my four day fast click here

Oh, I should point out that no phones or books are allowed during the stay, and talking is requested to be kept to an absolute minimum – it’s called ‘noble silence’.  It’s only two days though, how hard can it be?  Talking is permitted during this opening soup hour, but after that it’s quiet time.

Shortly after 7pm we head down to the Dhamma (meditation hall) for an introduction and one shot at meditation before bed.  The manager of centre goes through the tedious stuff about emergency meeting points and cleaning duties, then hands over to the teacher for the weekend.  Turns out the bloke I’ve been idly chatting to over dinner/peppermint tea is the teacher, a Buddhist monk who has been studying it for over 25 years.  I thought he seemed to know a lot about this stuff… He is not what you would think a Buddhist monk would look, or sound like, at all.

The teacher is an English chap, mid-forties, short grey hair, reasonably trim, with the look of a man who doesn’t work out all that much, but doesn’t gorge himself on food or booze either.  He has a Southern British accent that I later find out is from Sussex, and it is distinctly working class in tone, and vocabulary.  I love this.  Who expects to go to a tiny little Buddhist retreat, in a tiny little town, in rural New South Wales, to find the practice led by the son of an English brickie?

He opens the introductory talk with a rather long winded description of what we should aim for, and hopefully take from the weekend.  It’s slightly amusing to me to hear this content coming from that voice, I assume he knows his stuff though, because I haven’t a foggiest what he’s talking about.  Whilst others in the class nod encouragingly, I’m left scratching mine.  Most people are sat cross-legged on the floor, however I’m sat up in a chair at the back – hate to bang on about it, but I broke my ankle 4 weeks ago and it’s simply not capable of that angle yet.  The first meditation is due to be 40 minutes long, it starts and that’s it.  Silence.  We’re off.

I’m sure many of you will have dabbled in guided meditation, the likes of which are found on apps such as Calm and Headspace.  Well, that’s what I was expecting here.  Instead there is just silence.  It seems the instruction was contained in the introduction which I failed to understand, and largely couldn’t hear due to the raging thunderstorm outside.  I sneakily open an eye to see what everyone else is doing, they all appear to be meditating.  I close the eye and figure I better just get on with it….

Except, well, get on with what?  I figure I’ll go rogue and see what I can muster up on my own.  The result is pure mental carnage.  I jotted down some of what flew through my head after that first 40 minute session.  It went something a little like this:

“Hello, here we go, fairly sure I’m going to be the fastest person to reach spiritual enlightenment, can’t be that hard, and I’ve got a blog, and I do yoga, sometimes, and I’ve been to a cacao rave thingy (link here)… The Dalai Lama aint got nothing on me.

Hang on, is the Dalai Lama Buddhist? Or is that Hinduism? No, don’t be ridiculous, definitely Buddhist.  So who’s Buddha?  I think the Dalai Lama is to Buddhism, what the Pope is to Catholicism.  So Buddha must be like Jesus.  Yep, let’s go with that.

This seat is quite comfortable, firm, but not too firm.  I reckon I’ll be quite comfortable on here for the weekend.

That holiday in New Zealand was bloody good fun.  Would it have been better to have just done the South island though, and left the North Island for another time?  No way, wouldn’t have had New Years in Wellington, or the ferry over to Picton.  Definitely the right call.  God, I wish I was on that beach in the Abel Tasman right now, much better than this.

Ooh, I think I just had a few seconds of blissful nothingness there – I feel very calm, I think I did.  Right, let’s do more of that.  How did I do it?  Fuck! I’m going to be a meditation superstar, this is a piece of piss!

On second thoughts, this seat is a tad uncomfortable, not sure I’m going to be happy on here for the whole weekend.

(wriggles around in seat)

Oh, I need to make sure I pay that parking ticket that we picked up in Wanaka.  Should I pay it?  I mean, it’s in New Zealand, will they care?  No, definitely pay it, you don’t want to be stopped at the border if you ever need to flee Australia for some reason.  Why would I be stopped at the border?

Shut up, Chris.  Focus on the meditation.  Superstar remember?

Oh yeah, sorry, right, what I do?  Should I just focus on the breathing then? Yep, let’s go for that.

In…..Out…..In…..Out.

Am I breathing too fast?  Feels like I’m breathing fast.  I’ll slow it down.

In……….Out……….In………Out……

Nope, I haven’t got enough oxygen here, speed it up.

Argh, for fuck’s sake this seat is really quite uncomfortable.  I’ll add a cushion tomorrow.

(forgets to breathe at all)

Breathe, god damn it, breathe.

I wonder how long we’ve been going now?  Feels like for ages.  Is it cheating to check the clock?  I’m sure it’s fine.  Time is probably almost up anyway.

(opens one eye and looks at the clock, quickly shuts eye)

WHAT-THE-ACTUAL-FUCK! How have only 8 minutes gone past? I’ve got to do this for another 32 minutes?!

Oh good god, tomorrow is going to be a nightmare.  I should have eaten the soup.

And on it went, just like that, all manner of inane drivel spouting back and forth in my head.  Eventually the forty minutes was up, and the son of the brickie rang the bell to signal that it was time to retire for the night.  I often struggle with my sleep, but I went to bed at approximately 8.45pm and slept the sleep of the gods.  Obviously something to be said for fresh air, relaxation, no food, and probably most importantly, a complete cut off from electronic devices.

..and that’s where I’ll leave it for now.  I’ll write up day 2 and 3 soon.  Stay tuned.

Ps.  Happy New Year to everyone reading this.  May 2019 be a winner for all of you.  Or will you be a winner for 2019…..Think about it.