As promised in my earlier blogpost, the Lawyer who sold her Mercedes, I am sharing for this first time in public an inside glimpse of my life in a solitary retreat for the curious readers. I only ask that you read with an open mind as I am sharing my inner chamber experiences.
First let me set the context, the retreat protocol I followed is based on the ancient tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism as recorded in texts. All realised masters before me took the same path. I was guided personally by my late Guru, His Eminence Chogye Trichen Rinpoche, a precious enlightened yogi of our times. Rinpoche was known to be the hidden yogi and spent 80% of his life in meditation. I undertook these retreats at my free will with delight and with one single motivation: the wish to benefit and alleviate the sufferings of all beings who had once been my mother.
It may seem unimaginable to many, including my family and friends that an outwardly westernized woman could shut herself away in a room in Kathmandu, with completely no contact with the outside world to meditate on a particular Buddha for three months at a time. But this was what I did, three times.
To date, I have accumulated 5,800 lifetime hours of meditation. Ideally, doing a retreat in the mountains would have been ideal, but I wanted to be close to my late Guru so I did my retreats in the bustling mountain town in the guesthouse of his monastery.
‘KPI’ for hard-core solitary retreats
There are many forms of Buddhas. Each has their “niche” if you like. The three main ones are the Buddha of compassion, the Buddha of wisdom and the Buddha of power. We retreat from the world so our mind goes inside as we focus on the practice and meditation on a particular Buddha. The ‘key performance indicator’ of a retreat is to meet a certain number of mantras, and we vow not to leave the retreat until the number promised is done, e.g. two or three million.
My daily retreat rundown
My days started before sunrise at 3.30am, with four sessions of sitting. The first to be completed by sunrise, the second between breakfast and lunch, the third in the afternoon, and the fourth in the evening. Each session consisted of meditation, visualizations and mantra recitations, which I counted off beads. One session took about 3-4 hours. My days ended around 9 pm. I ate only one meal a day before noon, along with tea and water, so I was essentially fasting.
Total exclusion to the outside world
During the whole period of the time, the retreat was “closed” with all windows covered so you can’t see outside and the outside world can’t see you. My meals were brought to me by an attendant, but I dined alone. I had a limited circle of people we can see during the retreat such as my Guru, my attendant and a doctor. I can take messages from my family through my attendant but no direct contact. No phone, no internet, no TV. nothing. You can say that my retreats have gotten me ready with the covid-19 shutdown!
Movements in the retreat
Prostrations, Qigong, yoga were my exercises, to give me a break from sitting in the lotus position. Prostrating to an outer form is a skillful means to wake up your inner self, like knocking down the brick wall or peeling an onion. So, I spent a lot of time breaking down my stubborn walls and peeling sticky layers of my onion. I have successfully completed 100,000 times of full body prostrations (see video below) during my time in Nepal and it is a practice I continue to do every morning to this day.
No cushy options
Living the retreats was no cushy options. I was not allowed to move from my seated lotus position for hours at a time in the session, not even to use the bathroom. Cleaning the room, bathing (although I did get an exception on this one from my Guru), cutting hair and nails, washing clothes and bed sheets were all part of the prohibited protocol!
A materialist mind is an unstable mind
In our daily lives, we focus on our jobs, lovers, money, fame- all the material/external things – and we lose touch with our inner selves. We become disconnected from ourselves. The goal of a retreat is to dedicate time and space for one the single purpose to connect with ourselves – allowing for healing, transformation and awakening.
The limitation of a materialist mind is that it is unstable, because its happiness is built around transient physical circumstances. Mental illness affect both rich and poor , which is a clear indication on the limitations of this approach.
In a retreat we are shifting our focus from outer to inner, from material to mental or spiritual dimension. We are training in the mental and spiritual causes of happiness.
If we are willing to look inside, reconnect with our inner self and remember who we are, we stand a good chance to ultimate healing, transformation and enlightenment. Everyone has a Buddha-nature or the seed of enlightenment – within them. Just as there is sesame oil in sesame seeds. It’s just that we often can’t hear our inner selves in our busy mundane life, or perhaps we ignore them.
Staying with the uncomfortable edge
Even though I was determined to complete my retreat and deliver my promise for the greater good of all, I had problems adjusting to the complete block from the outside world. Sometimes I wanted to break out and run away! I think I screamed many times from my seat too, especially at the beginning. I experienced a roller-coaster of emotions from the more disruptive ones such as anger, frustrations, hopelessness, blame, and to the more friendly ones such as hope, faith, joy, love and bliss. I experienced my dark side but I knew they were parts of me that needed to be witnessed and held, so the practice is to stay with the uncomfortable with self-compassion and friendliness and the longer I stayed the easier things got. This was how I transformed my ‘shadow’ from darkness to light. All emotions are but a manifestation of the same underlying energy.
The unwavering wish to benefit all beings
Honestly, I didn’t miss stuff, sometimes I’d get hungry and wanted other food, sometimes I’d think of what I wanted to do in the future. I asked myself if there was anywhere else in the world I’d rather be, and the answer was no!
The whole point is to journey inwards and meet your shadow, leaving no stones unturned. When things got too intense, I would ease off on my practice and instead I read biographies of past masters for inspiration, recalled my Guru’s instructions, I drew and colour mandalas, wrote in my journey to let things flow and did more movement -Qigong and Yoga.
But most powerful of all, I reminded myself of these things- how fortunate I was to be gifted with the ability to do retreats, how the sufferings and pain endured by everyone (myself included), the kindness of my spiritual father and blood parents, and my unwavering wish to benefit all beings, and then I prayed and prayed and persevered.
And before I knew it, I completed my mantras.
After being shut off from the world for a three-month period, I was instructed to come out slowly. I recalled feeling anxious too to return to the world! It took me a few days to leave my retreat- physically and mentally.
The first thing I did leaving my retreat was – yup the city May kicked right back in- I checked-in to a hotel and took my first bath in three months, cut my nails and plucked my eyebrows. Then, the next day, I put on clean clothes and went to my favourite pizza restaurant for dinner!
There is no doubt that these ‘hard-core’ retreats gave me the solid foundation I needed to take my practice to the next level, and I continue my dedicated practice once a year in a mini-retreat.
However, it is not about how many retreats and mantras we have done, how much money we donate or how many temples we have built, for these are skillful means and tools to help us heal, transform and awaken. Because if no inner transformation have been made, then we are missing the point. If we are not waking up from our deluded perception of reality, if we continue to have a distorted world view, we are missing the point.
The point is to get closer to us, to come home to our true innate essence of Great Love and space. We can do this from moment to moment. Even a 5 minutes of mindful breathing is a retreat!
If you are seeking a therapeutic yoga teacher to co-regulate your nervous system and help you heal your blocks, do check out about my private 121 offerings, available in person and online. I also offer 30 minutes no- obligation discovery call!
p.s. taking pictures was “prohibited” during strict retreat, the two pictures were taken at the start and end of the retreat, as an exception. I am sharing them for the first time in public.