5. My First Retreat


My first retreat.

Just before I went on retreat I went to visit a famous Psychologist. My other brother, who had been suffering from severe depression for a decade, wanted to introduce me to the man who had been helping him, so that I had an alternative to the Meditation route. I was very open to suggestion. I went to visit the man. Within five minutes of being in his office I was told that I was in a critical condition and that I should immediately go to rehab. He suggested a centre called ‘The Bridge’ in the USA. He believed that I needed a period of constant medical and psychological care to give my body a chance to revive itself and to relieve me of the anxiety that I had suffered as a result of my body’s meltdown. He suggested that stay there for between four and eight months. He was convinced that, if I did not, then I was at risk of a break down and my body finally packing up on me. He also strongly advised that I did not go on retreat, believing that it would not provide any solution to a life-threatening problem.

But I decided to go against his advice, and I made my way down to Herefordshire to a retreat centre called Poulstone Court to undertake my first retreat.


Poulstone Court

Meeting my teacher for the first time was a life changing moment. He was not at all what I had expected. When one thinks of meditation teachers they tend to think of either one of two stereotypes: the first is the old, grey haired Asian sage. The second is the eccentric, spacey Western New Age hippy. Burgs does not fit into either of these categories. He is a very cool, magnetic man with a kind face and a big surfer like mop of hair. He looked at me, laughed, told me that he had not seen anyone in quite such a state since a city worked he knew who had spent 10 years in the banking business, and told me to calm down. We were then introduced to the retreat.

The rules were simple: The retreat lasted for 7 days. It was to be held in complete silence. You could ask the teacher the occasional question but other than this there was no talking, whispering, reading, writing, singing, watching TV, using the Internet or listening to music. You were allowed to Meditate, do Chi Gung, eat, sleep and go on walks. That was it.

I was ushered to a cushion near to the back of the room, where I would cause the least disruption to the other mediators, some of whom were very well practiced.

Burgs came into the room, accompanied by a Yasavati Sayalay, a Malaysian nun of the Burmese Theravada forest tradition. Her and Burgs had met when Burgs lived as a monk in Burma. She was also a student of Pa Auk Sayadaw and had also completed her meditation practices.

We were asked to begin by practicing Anapanasati: Mindfulness of the Breath. This is a meditation practice that can take you from an absolute beginner to highly skilled meditator. It is even possible to reach fourth Jhana through Anapana- one of the most attained meditative states of Samatha Meditation in which your mind becomes completely absorbed in its object of meditation in the most subtle of ways. The idea is simple. You place your mindfulness at the tip of your nose, and you feel the in breath, then feel the out breath. You do not allow your mind to waver from its object of concentration. You do not think about the breath. You do not imagine the breath. You simply feel the contact of the breath with the tip of the nose. It is harder than it sounds.

I sat on my cushion. It was the height of winter and was freezing outside, with very low heating inside. Every other meditator in the room was wearing a thick jumper and many of them complemented this with a blanket wrapped around them. But I was sat in a t-shirt. And I was sweating, horribly overheated. I had never before paid any attention to what was actually going on in my body. I did not know that it was possible. I did not believe in energetics, chi or meditation. But, as I now sat and tried to settle my mind on the tip of my nose, the floodgates opened. I was hot, dizzy, and my energy was so all over the place. Although I was sat completely still, as I began to feel my disorganised energy, a seasickness came over me. It was like being on a small dinghy in the middle of a Bermudan storm. My whole body was in agony. My knees were locked, my leg muscles tight and painful and the muscles in my back throbbed. My head itched and the internal furnace became hotter and hotter. It was the closest thing to hell that I had known. I moved and fidgeted every five seconds, huffing, puffing and letting our vast sighs. I began to become aware of the frustration of some of the less practiced meditators in the group, who were becoming increasingly frustrated by my antics. At one point, on the first day, I became so hot that I felt that I was going to pass out, and so started to take my trousers off in the middle of the sit. Burgs noticed this, gave me an extremely quizzical look, mouthed ‘are you okay’ and then, looking equally as puzzled yet, as always, endlessly peaceful (if not slightly amused), he continued his meditation. He has reminded me of this occasion frequently since.

The third day was the hardest thus far. I felt very little progress being made in my sits and was becoming increasingly frustrated. It was not supposed to be this difficult. I was supposed to pick it up with ease. I should have been enlightened by now, or at least well down the past.

The conceit of the beginner meditator knows no bounds. There are monks and yogis who disappear into the jungles and mountains for fifty years to progress in their meditation. And yet, in the West, we feel that it is something that can be mastered in a week. We are so used to the quick fix, to getting what we want exactly when we want it, that we have all but lost the patience that will watch a skill progress over a lifetime. We no longer know what it is like to spend years slowly working towards achieving something. We want it now. This is what the Internet, television, populist politicians and an ever-increasing appetite for consumption and seemingly limitless sense of entitlement have led us towards. And it was this very mind set that was now cramping my mind, smothering my experience, shaking my heart base and causing me to silently fume with anger.

I began to feel sick and delirious. I had a migraine that lasted for three days, (I had never had a migraine before) and I had a fever of over one hundred degrees. I asked the teacher for advice. He told me that this was the unwholesome Kammic reactions and disorganised energy surfacing, and to try to sit with it with equanimity, so that it would naturally dissolve and return to nothingness. The thing about equanimity is that you need it to get your concentration. However, in order gain equanimity, you first need to get concentrated. It is a huge catch-22 and can only be surpassed through careful, peaceful observation and calm abiding.

Burgs assured me that on the sixth day we would end our Vipassana practice and begin our Metta, or loving kindness practice. At this point the aches, pains and delirium would end and I would find peace. Until then I would just have to put my head down and crack on with it. I followed his instruction, borrowing aspirin and melatonin from fellow meditators who took pity on my pathetic state. I had an interview with Burgs and Sayalay and discussed my lifestyle in Hollywood. This was a completely foreign concept to Sayalay, who said that I needed to seek out Keanu Reeves and ask him how he has managed to maintain such a respectful, peaceful and mindful career. Suffice to say, I never did meet Keanu Reeves, but her advice about love, peace and contentment with everything as it is were invaluable and have helped me walk some of the more difficult parts of the path.

The sixth day came, and we were about to begin our Metta practice, and I was still feeling like I had been run over by an oversized lorry. I again approached Burgs, who this time gave me a proper looking at. He told me that the energetic centres in my back were completely closed down, and that I needed to open them. I was to meditate in my back, trying to feel the energy there, helping the centres to open once again. The bell chimed for the next sit to begin. We all sat, and Burgs began to introduce the next sit. But he stopped, and looked at me. “This next sit is the final Vipassana sit of the retreat. Ignore the instruction I gave you a moment ago. Instead, continue with your Vipassana. But, just before you do this, look at me”. I looked into his penetrating eyes, and, in that very moment, my life was changed unrecognisably. I felt a magnetic pull towards him and was frozen still. I could not move at all, paralysed. But there was no fear there. I felt a lightening bolt hit me, straight from Burgs. It was a feeling that I had never had before. Suddenly my whole body felt alive, electric, euphoric. I felt as if I was sitting underneath a shower that was drenching me from head to foot. This was not an imaginary shower. I could feel it. An energy that I had never felt before had been reawakened from a long sleep. The channels had reopened and, although he did not tell me that this was what was happening, I felt it, as clearly as I could feel the floor underneath me. The ecstasy was unbelievable. The closest that I had ever come to it was when I had taken far too many ecstasy pills at a rave. But this was much more intense and completely peaceful.

Burgs looked at me. “That’s better” he said. And we began our meditation. I sat for two hours without moving, deeply concentrated, sinking into the stillness, all of the pain and frustration gone. I was left with only the peace.

After this sit I stood up and went to make myself a cup of tea. I did not notice that my legs had lost their heaviness, and that I was walking properly again for the first time in over a year. I was too caught up in the newly found peace. It was not until the retreat ended the following day that I truly noticed the impact that this moment had had on me. My legs worked. I no longer limped; the pressure in my head had gone. Yasavati Sayalay, the Malaysian nun, took a photo of me when I was not looking at the train station. She later sent it to me in an email. I saw a different me for the first time. Peaceful. Completely contented. Happy.

May all beings be happy.

One Response to “5. My First Retreat”

  1. Kirsten Baker
    20. September 2013 at 18:01

    What an amazing experience. I just found your blog googling Burgs having studied with him for about 2 years now. I too found him having had a complete breakdown and meeting him was the turning point into healing.

    Great to hear about this incredible experience – very inspiring.

    Much metta.

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