When you are ensconced in the world of the Lamas, doing a retreat is not much of a big deal. “He’s gone into three-year retreat”, “She’s doing a retreat of such and such a practice”, “I’m thinking about doing a short retreat at such and such a holy place” are all commonplace conversations in that world.
But, people outside of this realm have a bit of a hard time understanding what it’s all about. Just the idea of being locked away in a room all on your own, without contact to the outside world and doing nothing but meditation all day long are things that seem really radical, but in truth, it’s not really like that. Doing a retreat is where you constantly practice the mental exercises your teacher has given you to do. No more procrastinating or doing just a short practice in the evening because you’re tired from work, or would prefer to watch a movie; in a retreat, your whole life is dedicated to the ritual you must now perform and work on your mind.
The main body of a retreat is normally a schedule of three or four sessions per day, in each of which you will follow the entire set of instructions your teacher has given you through one whole period. Between those sessions, you can read, exercise, take rest, do other meditation practices you may have committed yourself to doing, and whatever else you may need to do to keep up with in the world. However, if you are really serious about doing the retreat to maximum effect, it’s good to stop worldly activities and give yourself that time to immerse into the teachings and meditation techniques, a step on the road to really changing dualistic habits into pure perception. However, when you have ‘gone beyond’ even conceiving of there being worldly things, versus a life of spiritual practice, then the two can merge and one can actually be ‘doing a retreat’ while in the midst of worldly affairs.
I myself have undertaken some fabulous retreats in some really interesting locations; at Mount Kailash, in the district of Mustang in northern Nepal, in tiny temples in small villages at the top of fog-filled valleys, and in the caves and crevices of middle hills. But, the retreat I’m going to recount here was probably my most important, as it was the first one I ever did. And I had decided that rather than waiting for an opportunity to go ‘somewhere’ for this retreat, I would simply do it in my own home, in Bouddhanath, which itself is a very sacred location.
Just to decide to undertake this retreat had taken me some time, too, as I literally had to extract myself out of a settled worldly life. I was faced with a very big decision, as I was in the final stages of signing a film contract to make five documentaries about handicapped children in the high Himalayas, for which I would have had a travel budget and large fee as remuneration. However, around the same time, something else was going on in a shadow realm, when one day, my teacher, His Eminence Chogye Trichen Rinpoche, asked me in a very clear manner if I had ever done ‘such and such’ a retreat. I replied that I hadn’t, to which he didn’t say anything. In short, he had planted a seed, because now I had to think about the fact that I hadn’t done this retreat and that I wanted to do it and had also thought about it myself, as I had seen others around me doing it. So I ‘Um-ed and Ah-ed’ and couldn’t find an answer to this dichotomy. To make this decision, I went to consult another Lama, asking him what he thought about me doing the retreat versus making a load of money that could keep me and my family covered for a while in Kathmandu. I don’t remember exactly what he said to me; something like, “If you’re only thinking about this life, then go for the money, but if you’re thinking about your whole existence, go for the retreat.” Anyhow, I came away convinced that I would do the retreat.
Once I had decided, I quickly sent a mail to the film person explaining that I wanted to focus on my spiritual practice. And then there was quite some preparation to do. As Rinpoche had suggested, I was going to be doing the sadhana (meditation practice) of the female deity Vajrayogini, whose practice belongs to the level of highest yoga tantra. This means that instead of visually creating the deity as separate from you in front of your eyes, you will actually imagine yourself as the deity and thus transform yourself into her and attain her qualities. This occurs on several levels, outer, inner, and secret, while visualizing your body as taking on the appearance of the deity, your speech as her mantra, which you recite as many times as you can in each session, and your mind, as actually being her mind. Each section has many little visualizations, recitations, and mudras to perform, aspects that in my case, the same Lama taught me in preparation for the retreat.
To imagine yourself as a deity may sound like a very odd thing to do, but there’s a reason for this, and it’s not to inflate your ego to the size of a god! The deity has many qualities, and visualizing yourself like this is nothing more than a symbolic gesture, as all the parts of the deity, including her body, hand implements, jewelry, and clothing have one or another spiritual meaning, whereas reciting her mantra stops idle chitchat and instead resonates deep tones into the system of your inner channels, and merging your mind with the mind of the deity is focusing in on perspectives beyond normal dualistic tendencies.
The same Lama who had pointed me towards the retreat also instructed me in the retreat practice, and then helped me buy all the items I would need for it, as there are many details of holy objects that my shrine would need, and aspects that I should be concentrating on at every session, and extra things to do on special days of the month. I had to buy a bell, a vajra (five-pointed ritual object) and a damaru (hand drum), and the Lama made me tormas (butter cakes) that have special shapes according to which deity practice is being carried out, for my shrine. I also acquired a vase whose top part was made of a peacock feather for sprinkling nectar water (with saffron) over my shrine after filling the offering bowls at the start of each session, and whiskey for the protectors. He then taught me how and when to play the bell and damaru, and the hand gestures that go with the different Sanskrit mantras that are included in these kind of highest yoga tantric rituals, and also the symbolism of each of the items being visualized on the body of the deity, which is now my body, and how and where to move the inner winds. I must admit that, to start with, I was really perplexed and had to write everything down!
It was a cut-off moment in my life. I had curtailed earning good money and had just enough to see me through the six weeks of my retreat, and then whatever would happen after that, would happen! I literally dived into this with an inherent trust and didn’t ask anything beyond what was necessary for me to know now. I also decided that the only person I would contact during this time would be my mother in the U.K., once a week, as I always did from wherever I was. I didn’t tell her about it, either, because I didn’t want her to worry about me, or think I had fallen into some cult or something. I mean, for a Western mind, locking yourself away voluntarily in your room for six weeks is quite a big step!
So I started getting into the retreat, and the first week, when I called her, she was different than normal, a bit excited. It didn’t take her long to tell me she’d decided that after receiving a small inheritance, she would give me a little monthly stipend to help support my progress in Nepal. This ended up being an absolute godsend, which allowed me to continue my study and practice of the teachings while my teacher was still alive. A BIG lesson stuck with me since that day that when you really follow your heart and do what you’re meant to be doing, then you really don’t need to worry about life’s general needs, as they will automatically be taken care of.
It also taught me to be able to trust in the way things are, and that I will be guided towards doing what is right, which is not always necessarily the most logical thing in the picture at the time!