A retreat in the woods

Ian Finlay describes a retreat which he attended recently in his own woodland

At the end of July the Tariki Trust’s yearly eco-retreat took place in the Rheidol valley near Aberystwyth. In the end there were only five people on the retreat including myself and Caroline Brazier who ably led the retreat.

Ian in his woodland

Ian in his woodland

This year there was a more overtly Buddhist theme, great importance having been put on forest retreats throughout the history of Buddhism, and we looked at some of the early sutras such as the Bhaya-bherava sutra in which Buddha discusses the difficulties of isolated forest retreats and the fear and terror that can arise if the mind is not purified.

I would not say that I experienced terror, but there were fears and difficulties aplenty. Some were purely practical, had I prepared the site properly, was there enough dry firewood, drinking water etc. We had also chosen (not deliberately) the wettest and coldest week of the summer so there were real physical problems but despite this we all managed to stay warm and dry most of the time and cook all our meals on the campfire outside.

Much of the time was spent observing nature closely, realising impermanence as the weather constantly changed, rainclouds racing across the sky in much the same way as thoughts and feelings race across the empty space of the mind. Buzzards and kites wheeled overhead, foxgloves and honeysuckle bloomed and faded, further symbols of impermanence. transient and fragile. Working with nature in this way we could see the impermanence of all things, how the mightiest trees would eventually fall, and decaying give their bodies to the fungi and other organisms, subject to the same forces of change as ourselves. We also meditated on the elements, earth, water, fire and air realising that nothing is as solid as it appears and all is interconnected.

By the fourth day I was feeling very clear, very present and confident, then came the solitary where we all went off to different places with sleeping bags, hammocks and tarpaulins in late afternoon to spend from then until the following morning alone.I had looked forward to it, feeling I would enjoy the solitude and I soon found a good place and set up camp quickly and efficiently. I then started to feel slightly uncomfortable, still four hours of daylight and what was I to do? Sitting in meditation and walking up and down past my site filled my time, but why was I so anxious to ‘fill’ it, does time need filling? I became acutely aware of my neuroses, my evasions and need for distractions.

As darkness fell I climbed into my hammock and felt a sharp pain in my back, the start of sciatica, a condition I have suffered from before. I am not used to hammocks and found it uncomfortable and difficult to move in with my increasing back pain. I lay as still as I could and listened to the owls. Late in the night it started to rain. Hard. I worried I would get wet but the tarp held and I was at least dry. I worried about the others, but after a sleepless night I stumbled out of my hammock and made my way back to camp. The others appeared, all had kept dry and were in good spirits.

My sciatica worsened and I experienced acute pain all down my right leg. My earlier feelings of confidence and clarity evaporated. I inwardly cursed God and the universe for the unkind fate that had dealt me such a blow.

A week later and my sciatica is easing and I see things differently again, as a great gift. The four noble truths, suffering and the way out of suffering. A practical demonstration of suffering which I could not let go of. I failed to find the way out, though I had been so wise  earlier talking about the space beyond body and mind, the unborn and uncreated. I cannot remember it exactly but there is a poem by William Blake about how easy it is to praise God when your harvest is in and your belly is full but it is a very different thing when it is not.

And I thought of Christ, the real message of the resurrection seems to me to be about overcoming suffering and death, not by rising again on the third day but by a total acceptance of it. ‘If this is my cup shall I not drink it?’  Can we say ‘yes’ to life, gladly accept all that it can throw at us?

The answer, I fear, is ‘no’ in my case. But I can practice with what I have now, the life and death of every moment, the sun, the clouds, the friends I have, and those moments where self is dropped and everything just is. And all with a little more humility, I hope.

All in all, a wonderful if challenging experience and one which I would thoroughly recommend to anyone.

If anyone is interested in eco-retreats or in using the wood for retreats, solitary or otherwise, please contact Caroline at Tariki or Ian Finlay.

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