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