As mentioned in an earlier post, hubby and I attended a meditation retreat at the beautiful and supremely peaceful Bodhi Khaya Retreat Centre outside the village of Stanford in the Overberg. During our 9-day retreat in early November, I took hundreds of photos. That place really is a paradise for a wannabe photographer!
Unfortunately, I lost most of my images during the transfer from camera to laptop to hard drive. You can probably imagine that this was devastating.
As one of the lessons we were taught on this Tibetan Buddhist Yoga and Meditation Retreat was to be more aware of the nature of impermanence and the suffering this causes, I thought this loss was ironically fitting. Not that it made it any easier to deal with, mind you! Thank the Heavens, we managed to retrieve the photos I had included in a slideshow I had prepared on the last evening of our retreat, to show to our teacher and fellow students.
Anyway, I thought you might like to be taken on a little guided tour of this beautiful retreat centre in the rolling hills outside Stanford and Gansbaai. For my birthday in July this year, we spent a weekend in serene Stanford, so you can read a little bit more about that area of the Overberg by clicking your way through the hyperlinks on that post.
But now, sit back, relax with a cup of tea, perhaps even a biscuit or two (as this is a slightly longer-than-usual post), and allow me to show you around:
Arrival at Bodhi Khaya
On Saturday morning, greeted by the most auspicious sight of a perfectly clear rainbow, arcing across the wind-blown skies of Cape Town, we picked up our teacher, Ken Holmes, from the Buddhist Centre in Kenilworth and headed through to Hermanus (whale-watching capital of Southern Africa), where we stopped for breakfast at Bientang’s Cave on the rocks overlooking the churning ocean.
From here we drove inland via Stanford, and shortly after, before reaching the coastal settlements of De Kelders and Gansbaai, swung left – further inland – onto the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve road. It’s a gravel road, luckily in fairly good nick with not too many bumps and potholes, though the fine reddish dust will sneak into every possible nook and cranny of your car.
A few kilometres after the Grootbos turn-off, the sign to Bodhi Khaya directed us onto a narrow sandy track between tall bushes, leading down into the valley below. Suddenly, the view opened up, and we found ourselves driving along between large paddocks, with a couple of horses grazing in the one. It was perfectly idyllic.
We pulled over in the parking area, where a number of cars had already assembled. David, in charge of managing this wonderful place, came to greet us, and Charlotte, who was responsible for all the logistical arrangements, directed us to our rooms.
Settling into our routine
There was just enough time for a mug of tea (and our first taste of Nina’s superlative rusks!), as we got to know our fellow retreatants, before our first meeting in the Meditation Hall. On a small table at the front stood a Buddha statue, surrounded by candle, flowers and offering bowls, there were loads and loads of meditation cushions scattered all over the floor, and colourful Tibetan prayer flags strung up on the eaves of the stoep were fluttering in the breeze.
Our meditation teacher, Ken Holmes, was visiting us from Kagyu Samye Ling Buddhist Centre in Scotland (the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West), where he is the Director of Studies. Fellow retreatant Albert wrote a lovely post summarising the teachings we received during that week, so I won’t elaborate on that here.
Over the next few days, we quickly settled into our routine: Up at 6h00, silent meditation for an hour, followed by breakfast, then back to the meditation hall for our first session of teachings. We stopped for a mid-morning tea-and-coffee break, had a second session of teachings, and then lunch at 13h00. After lunch, we had some time for ourselves, to go for a walk, to read something, or to have a post-lunch snooze. After mid-afternoon tea-and-coffee, we had a third session of teachings, followed by supper, and a final evening meditation, before bedtime at 21h00. Unused to going to bed at such an early hour, I was amazed at how tired we were – and how well we slept until 6h00 the next morning! Clearly, our bodies were catching up on many hours of lost sleep!
We had Noble Silence between 21h00 in the evening until 13h00 the next day, which was seriously challenging… well, for some of us.
Initially, it felt a bit awkward not to be allowed to speak in the morning, but then I discovered that my attention was shifting to my other senses, and that I was becoming aware of the various sounds, such as the scrape of the chairs on the floor, the splash of milk in coffee, the stirring of porridge in the bowl, the ker-chingg of the toaster, the clinking of knives on the plate…
And it was easier to notice the different smells – of the coffee, the fragrant cinnamon and sugar in the porridge – and the tastes – the sharp tang of the blackberry jam, the juiciness of the fruit salad, the crispy-crunchiness of the toast… By the end, it was actually very relaxing not to speak.
Early morning meditations
I confess that the 1-hour silent meditation in the morning was the hardest for me. I am not used to completely silent and unguided meditation, so sitting silently and quietly for an hour was hard.
In addition, I was really struggling with sciatic pain in my lower back and hips, and as the days went by, the long periods of sitting on too-soft cushions (we’d forgotten to bring our own harder cushions from home) became increasingly uncomfortable.
After struggling along for the first few days, I gave up on the silent sitting meditation, and went for an early morning meditative walk instead. I found myself really treasuring this me-time, and allowed myself the space not to plan ahead, like I usually do, but just to relax into the moment, and to be present in the present as much as possible.
Sometimes, I went down to the paddocks to watch the horses for a bit, or I’d walk up to the lily pond and do a slow amble around, noticing all the different flowers that were coming into bloom, and the different animals and insects going about their lives. I noticed, for instance, that the water lilies were tightly closed buds every morning, and that they only opened in the mid-morning when the sun had warmed them up. Every evening, each flower would curl up into a perfect bud once more, snug for the night.
I’d do some gentle stretches and exercises next to the lily pond, or I’d climb up to one of the outlook points and gaze across the valley. One morning, I walked the labyrinth, doing it as slowly and mindfully as possible, without letting my thoughts wander off on tangents, but shepherding them gently back again to the present, to this step, that step, left foot, right foot, in-breath, out-breath…
In my daily life, I tend to be in a bit of a rush almost all the time. When I work at my computer, I am constantly multi-tasking and switching between applications, checking my email, editing photos, writing a document, copying and pasting from one to the other. Remember the old days of computers, when you could just run one application at a time, because the PC was soooo slow? And where you could only have one document open at a time? It’s definitely not like that anymore!
Even when cooking, or doing the dishes, or vacuuming, or watering the garden, I often find my mind wandering, thinking about something that has happened in the past, or planning what I need to do next, or thinking about tomorrow, or planning an email that I need to write, or remembering a friend I need to phone for their birthday. I’m pretty sure that I had a far longer attention span when I was younger!
Relaxing into the moment
So it was very interesting to see the effects of being in such a meditative and spiritually charged space, and sharing this space with like-minded individuals under the guidance of an experienced meditation and retreat teacher.
Gradually, I felt my breathing slowing down and becoming deeper, and paradoxically lighter. I felt the rhythm of my heartbeat settling into a slower pulse, and all the worries and preoccupations with the past and the future, and of my life outside the retreat, falling away and dissolving. All that mattered was being here, being here now, right now, step by conscious step, breath by mindful breath.
Nothing to run from, nowhere to run to, nowhere else to be.
For the first time in a long, long time, I felt myself relaxing completely into the moment. It was profoundly healing on every level.
Noticing the small details
It really made me notice the small details:
- the gossamer threads of a spiderweb, sprinkled with glittering dew drops;
- the almost ethereal wings of a dragonfly as it alighted on a swaying leaf;
- the crystal-clear mirror of the perfectly still lily pond in the early morning light;
- the buzzing of bees among the pale purple lavender blossoms;
- the swish of the swallows as they swooped low over the water to catch their breakfast;
- the soft burping of a gathering of frogs on the rocks around a meditation pond;
- the fingers of light dancing between the trees as the wind caressed their crowns;
- a snail with an unusual spiral pattern moving painstakingly slowly across a rustle of leaves…
So many treasures were waiting in the present. Slowing down and pausing , the senses alert, was the only way to see them. And I found that the peace and tranquility were seeping into my photographs too.
Mind you, it wasn’t just the small things that stood out, but we also had memorable encounters with other, much larger, creatures.
The largest of these, without a doubt, were the four Nguni cows (bullocks? I’m not sure) who stampeded past the meditation hall one evening, as we were closing up and going off to our respective rooms. Someone must have left a gate open higher up the mountain, and the four rowdy youngsters with their very pointy horns had decided to see whether they could scare the living daylights out of us by charging past us. Well, it worked!
I still have very vivid memories of my own first encounter with these four beautiful looking painted cows when we attended a weekend meditation retreat with Ringu Tulku Rinpoche at Bodhi Khaya at the start of September this year.
I had decided to go for a walk on the mountain on my own – perhaps not the most sensible thing to do in the circumstances – but I was fairly confident that I would be able to follow a broad jeep track all the way around and back down again. It didn’t quite work out that way, though, primarily because there weren’t any helpful route markers.
The jeep track suddenly ended at an imposing gate, which commanded sternly “Please Keep Gate Closed”. On the other side of the gate, I could see four large cows (or bulls? I couldn’t see any udders… hmm), standing right on the jeep track, and staring back at me with, I felt, a rather defiant expression – “Yeah, you just dare to open that gate, lady, and you won’t live to see sunset…”
Yes, okay, perhaps I was being a little hypersensitive.
However, I don’t have much experience with cattle, apart from naughtily chasing some very laid-back black-and-white dairy cows on horseback in my much younger days (sorry, Mr Pett! it was just too tempting!), but these four looked extremely intimidating with their big and particularly pointy horns. And I wasn’t on horseback.
Unsure of where exactly the path down was, and whether I was supposed to walk past the cattle, or not, I followed a couple of other footpaths, in the vague direction of ‘home’, but they all petered out in overgrown grass or bushes, or simply dead-ended – with one ending right on the edge of a very steep-sided overgrown vlei. There seemed to be no way down.
(P.S. If you ever find yourself in the same spot, staring hopelessly down at this overgrown vlei, do not despair. Look straight down at your feet, take another step right to the edge, and look slightly towards your left, and you may just be able to make out a faint track in the grass, leading very steeply down the side of the slope. Thank you, dear husband of mine, for pointing this out to me – much later.)
Increasingly desperate (I had already missed one session, was too late for lunch – rumbling tummy, be still – and would be embarrassingly late for the next session if I didn’t get off this stupid mountain!), I retraced my steps back to the Big Gate once more. Man, do I hate retracing my steps!
What happened next remains a secret between me and those four painted cows or bullocks… Suffice it to say that I got past them somehow, though I did get a little muddy and a lot less inner-peaceful in the process, but I made it down to the meditation hall just before the start of the post-lunch session, out of breath and heart still pounding. Phew. Let’s not try that again, shall we?
Back to the Present
So when these four boisterous youngsters decided to pay us an evening visit, I was very grateful that I was not walking around on my own!
The next day, during our post-lunch siesta-time, hubby and I set off with Siri, a fellow meditator, on a quest “to photograph those cows – or bullocks, or whatever”! Siri reassured us confidently that she knew her way around cattle, and that she was quite fearless. Ah, bless her. 🙂 We picked up a big walking stick on our way. Just in case. Further armed with an artistically illustrated map of the property, we marched along the track past the paddocks, and through a gate into “the cows’ pasture”.
I should explain that this wasn’t the usual type of pasture, consisting entirely of vast swathes of green grass so beloved by dairy cows. Nope, there were trees and lots of bushes, and much of it was wildly overgrown – perfectly suited to concealing very large animals in fact. We trudged along the farm track, following its curve as it gradually ascended the mountain, and kept a watchful eye out for The Herd.
And then, just as we reached a gate in the fence on our left, where we would have to turn to go back home, we saw The Beautiful Painted Cows a couple of metres further up the slope towards our right, peering out from behind the bushes. They had spotted us, and were staring at us, whether curiously or balefully, I couldn’t tell. I snapped a couple of quick pictures, glad that I had my telephoto zoom lens on rather than the wide-angle lens, as the zoom allowed me to get close without actually ‘getting close’, and took a few steps closer to the gate, just in case they didn’t appreciate the paparazzi.
Hubby, displaying his customary nerves of steel and ignoring the protestations of the womenfolk, took the camera from my hands, and strode towards the Horned Ones (I was counting – that makes one, two, three, four…. eight very pointy horns!). He, however, was determined to get a better photograph, and impress his wife. He succeeded – on both counts. Fairly soon, though, not wanting to push our luck, we thanked the beautiful horned beasts for posing so obligingly for the camera, and retreated through the gate.
The entertaining chickens
Another group of quite different animals provided us with some more light-hearted entertainment throughout our retreat: the resident flock of chickens.Two of them were roosters – whom I nick-named Alpha and Beta – and the other three were hens (yes, predictably, these were designated Gamma, Delta and Epsilon).
Apparently, there used to be more chickens, but they had been eaten by a feral cat that was living in the surrounding hills. A horror story! (In fact, I actually saw the feral cat on our last morning, but was too slow to capture it on camera; it scarpered up the hill as soon as it saw me.)
As a result of what must have been quite a traumatic experience, these five seemed to be a very close-knit family, sticking together all the time when they were foraging outside the chicken-coop. The coop was right next-door to the meditation room, so we heard them all the time in our sessions. It was a most delightful distraction from aching backs, sore knees and pins-and-needley feet! Ah! The stories that were conjured up on my imagination by just listening to all their sounds! 😉
The roosters crowed frequently, though I noticed that not each crow sounded the same, which was interesting! The two roosters were very different: Alpha was definitely the alpha male, and very protective of his ladies. He liked to strut around, proudly sticking out his chest and arching his gorgeous tail feathers.
Personally, I rather fancied Beta, with his beautiful colouring and his evident longing to be part of the group, though he was often just on the outskirts. He had the most adorable red floppy crest that didn’t quite want to stand up straight.
Both the hens and the roosters also made the strangest little sounds, almost as though they were reassuring each other, or commenting to each other about something. I’d never really noticed that about chickens before!
One mid-morning break, we were sitting on the soft grass with our mugs of tea and handfuls of rusks, and the chickens came quite close… On an impulse, I crumbled up my rusk (sorry, Nina!), and shared it with them, trying to make the same soft and comforting ‘puck-puck-puu-ucck’ sounds that they made… much to my amazement, they responded, and came almost within reach of my hands, pecking at all the small crumbs.
Yep, this was definitely a memorable moment for me.
Goodbye to Bodhi Khaya
When Sunday came around, the day of our departure from this magical peaceful sanctuary from the world, I felt a little melancholic. Although the retreat had brought with it some challenges (I think all of us had to deal with various difficulties at some stage during those 9 days), it had also been a wonderfully restful and healing space-beyond-time. And it had been a privilege to share it with a great bunch of people, under the guidance of an inspiring, compassionate and insightful spiritual teacher.
I hadn’t felt so profoundly calm and joyful in years, and I knew it would be very difficult to sustain this in the world outside, with all its noise and chatter, and all its demands and sense of urgency. It would need a conscious commitment and daily effort not to be swept up by the whirlpool of 21st century life in a sprawling urban metropolis once more. (Alas, I haven’t quite succeeded…)
Re-visiting this special time by looking at the photographs (well, the ones I had rescued) and recalling some of the teachings we had received was a much-needed reminder that there really is more to human life than rushing from one deadline to the next, and ticking off one more item on an ever-growing to-do list – even more so, as we hit the start of December and the weeks leading up to Christmas and New Year with all its many social and family commitments!
So I’m going to take a couple of deep breaths, pour myself a cup of tea, and sit outside under a tree, listening to the birds singing and the bees buzzing and the wind swishing in the leaves, just for a little while. Would you care to join me?