It was a grey day when I arrived at the Vipassana retreat venue. The building was a large grey Victorian affair with two wings extending back. As it loomed forbiddingly in the rain another fear wormed its way into my consciousness:would I be warm enough?
Rain speckling my duvet as I lugged my gear up the shallow stones steps to the double doors and entered the high ceilinged vestibule. Across the tiled floor a wide carpeted stairs lit by a tall stained glass window led up to the second and third storeys. A corridor to the right led to the womens walking area, one to the left led to the kitchen off which was the dining hall and a temporary registration room.
It was the only low ceilinged and carpeted room in the building, its walls were hung with oil paintings of self-satisfied looking men. There were two large vintage tables with thick carved legs and covered in protective cloth, various wooden chairs with padded leather seats as well as two sideboards as well as screens pinned with information and notices.
It was this room to which I would come every evening along with four other students who had various troubles with hearing or language to listen to the evening talks via personal stereo in an effort to combat my hearing difficulties.
Our meals would be laid out in a buffet outside in the corridor from where we would carry it on trays to the dining hall to eat in silence at large round formica tables sitting on mis-matched bucket chairs whose legs scraped and echoed off the stone floor under high-silled windows, net curtains fuzzily hinting at the sky and walls hung with posters urging healthy eating.
I registered, handed over my wallet, camera and phone and received my room number. My room was upstairs in the left wing along a brown linoleumed L-shaped corridor that was painted a pale yellow, hung with large round lights and lined with the doors to about twenty five two-bed rooms as well as showers and toilets. The mens wing, a mirror of our own to be blocked off once the silence began.
My room was small but high ceilinged. It was clean and bright with a high sash window and a radiator beneath. There was a bunk bed, a sink in the corner and a bin. I dumped my gear and went for a wander hoping against hope I wouldn’t have to share but that was not to be..
The meditation hall was on the third floor in an old chapel, a pleasant and bright space with a dark polished wooden floor and a beamed ceiling. A double arched window in front of which the teacher would sit on her white clothed dais dominated the room.
In the mornings while it was still dark and the only light was from a standing lamp beside the teachers seat, its light falling on her bent head, casting her white robed figure into shadow while the forms of my fellow meditators sat still in the half light, even the rain and the wind that beat on the diamond panes could not disturb the deep peace that hummed in the hall.
To my relief the floor was laid out with squares of foam for each meditator and a smaller foam block to sit on. There was a pile of cushions and a pile of blankets outside the door from which I took two small crescent pads to support my knees. Others took as many combinations of cushions and blankets that they thought they would need.
Over the course of the retreat many mats would begin to look like the nest of some giant neurotic bird, the blankets in a rumpled c-shape where they had been dropped from stiff shoulders onto the piles of cushions. Thinking of it now maybe they were more like foxholes, the cushions like spiritual sand-bagging against who knows what bombs.
We left our shoes outside and the discarded footwear told of the diversity of the people within:furry Ugg boots, tiny ballet pumps, fleece lined leather boots, trainers, brown lace-ups, slippers, Crocs and a pair of ankle wellington boots with cartoons printed on them.
Outside the meditation hall was a small conservatory that mirrored the mens conservatory in the other wing. At breaks we would sit and stare out over the fields to the hills beyond or at the sky with its ever-moving clouds or at things that no-one else could see. As the retreat progressed I looked across at the men too in the way you would look at exotic creatures you are not used to seeing.
Two storeys below us were our designated walking areas. The womens area was walled, a sort of a small cloister with thin wrought iron pillars supporting a slanted roof over two sides to protect from the weather and a small patch of green lawn in the middle. I thought I would miss the outdoors but in the event I did not.
After I had looked around I returned to my room to find that my room mate had arrived. She seemed nice but then thats the way with many people. They often seem nice at first…