Towards a better me at a Buddhist retreat

by Cynthia Karena, Sydney Morning Herald, January 11, 2015

Melbourne, Australia -- The hardest thing about doing a month-long spiritual retreat is not the 6am starts but the inner journey, looking in the mirror at your inner self. And sometimes it's not a pretty reflection.

<< The point of a retreat is to get away from the distractions and attachments of everyday life.

Last October, I left the worldly concerns of life behind and travelled to the outskirts of Bendigo to concentrate on viewing life from a spiritual perspective.

I retreat from the busyness and madness of the world so I have the space and time to embark on an inner exploration and hopefully gain some perspective on my life.

This Buddhist retreat is a mix of meditation, prostrations (to show respect to the Buddha, and a humbling experience), and profound teachings by an amazing Tibetan Buddhist Lama.

This retreat developed my patience, not least having to live with about 200 people onsite, some who feel more entitled to special treatment than others. But who am I to judge? My internal critical rants quieten down as I listen to the teachings, realising that yes, my mind does need to be tamed and my ego demolished.

During the month, I felt, in no particular order, waves of anger, sadness, happiness, anxiety, inspiration, self-loathing, peace, and other emotions I can't put a name to.

So why did I put myself through this emotional and mental rollercoaster? In fact, it's the third time I've done a Buddhist retreat, not counting the 10-day Vipassana I did in India.

A retreat is not a holiday. I'm here to chip away at my ego, become a more compassionate person, and become less attached to all the shiny stuff I have in my life.

The point of a retreat is to get away from the distractions and attachments of everyday life. I want to find a simpler way of living. Another Buddhist lama, long passed away, says "detachment doesn't mean totally renouncing everything. It means that you loosen your grip and be more relaxed".

But sometimes it's difficult to quieten my mind. Even though I'm away from the usual distractions, I can't get away from my mental chatter.

But when I do achieve a calm mind, free from following every ridiculous thought I have, it allows me to focus on a meditation technique or deeply think about the teachings.

I noticed my impatience with others (who no doubt were also using me to practise their patience). It is mentally confronting to notice the more unappealing aspects of my personality.

For the last two weeks there is no eating after midday. I'm not sure that my mad scramble for my chocolate stash each day at 11.50am was in the spirit of the retreat, but I guess emotional eating is yet another issue I need to work on.

Back into the outside world I'm more calm, with a month of mental re-training replacing old habits. I hope it lasts.