Clerestory

Gaia House Retreat

April 28, 2020

Last week I did a five-day home meditation retreat in the Sŏn (Korean Zen) tradition. It was taught by Martine and Stephen Batchelor.

This was the third retreat I’ve done since I began meditating in 2017. The big difference was that it was conducted at home, over Zoom, as so many things are these days, and not at a retreat centre. Previously, I’d done a weekend retreat through the London Buddhist Centre at Vajrasana in Suffolk, UK, as well as 10-day Goenka vipassana retreat at Dhamma Vaddhana in the high desert of California.

I’d always wanted to go to Gaia House in Devon, but never managed to sort out the logistics.

This was my first Zen retreat. They welcomed everyone, and you could freely attend whichever sessions you wanted. For me, the retreat involved staying silent for five days, which meant no news or email or messaging or reading, and meditating 4-5 hours per day (full schedule below).

Why would you do this to yourself?

I figured we were in lockdown, so what better time to burn five days? But I also thought that it would be a useful time to make mental progress.

Meditation has been really transformative for me. Though I am not a naturally happy person, I am consistently happier than I was before my last retreat, which was just over two years ago.

Meditation has lasting benefits for me, even though it has also been disruptive/tough during periods of progress. Overall I figured I might come out of it with more happiness/equanimity during a difficult time, and that maybe it would give me some insights, which I think it did.

Korean Zen

I learned a lot about Zen. Both the Batchelors have serious knowledge of several traditions, including Tibetan (Gelug), Theravada, as well, of course, as Korean Seon, the tradition in which Martine Batchelor was a nun. Interestingly, in spite (or perhaps because) of having done intense philosophical/theological training as a Tibetan monk, Stephen has come to a rather anti-intellectual viewpoint.

Both Seon and Zen are derived from Chan, which I vaguely knew, but I learned that the word Chan is derived from jhana which means “meditation” (as well as referring to the fun bliss states). In other words, Chan practitioners considered themselves the “ones who meditate” as opposed to the more philosophical traditions that had arisen to debate things like metaphysics and epistemology by the 6th Century AD, when Chan began. In that sense, it’s a form of fundamentalism, as it went back to the basics of what the Buddha taught — a millennium before that, around 450 BCE.

This seems to happen routinely in any tradition (just think of Christianity’s periodic Great Awakenings in America), but I hadn’t realised that Zen was an example of this. As I understand it, Theravada remained relatively untouched by the changes brought by Mahayana Buddhism, but the Thai forest tradition (which was where I started with Buddhism) still intended to bring Theravada back to pre-sectarian Buddhism.

It seems like the stripped down versions of Buddhism appeal more to Westerners, presumably for their relative lack of focus on things like deities and the cycles of rebirth, and for their focus on meditation. Stephen Batchelor in particular believes that what the Buddha taught was strictly ethics and meditation, and essentially nothing to do with metaphysical or theological claims.1 He has become a strong proponent of Secular Buddhism, after having left his Tibetan Buddhist monastic life.

If it matters, despite meditating, I don’t particularly consider myself a Buddhist, but if I were to be one, I suppose I would have to identify myself as a secular Buddhist too. I find the Buddha’s insights tremendously useful, but have no real interest in organised religion, rituals, or traditions, except as a strictly intellectual exercise. I find that theories generally make little difference to the practice of meditation, just as theories about exercise make little difference if you don’t do the exercise. That’s not to say that guidance doesn’t help though. But there’s a difference between instruction and dogma.

The practice

The practice we undertook for the week is called hwadu (Hua Toa in Chinese, wato in Japanese), of which I knew nothing. It’s somewhat similar to koan practice, which I’d also never done, but unlike koans, questions which typically change over some period of months or years, a Seon practitioner is given a single hwadu for life. They are also shorter and less riddle-like than koans.

Over the course of the retreat, the question/hwadu was “What is this?” You were supposed to bring back attention to that question constantly, as an investigation to inquiry in the moment. Unlike a koan, it is not supposed to have a right answer, or any intellectual answer at all, but to be posed as a full-body interrogative, to provoke a sort of child-like wonder at the nature of experience itself. In that sense, it is an insight practice, though the Batchelors seemed to view it as a hybrid concentration practice as well (this could also be said of the breath, though notably not of noting).

They also advised two other practices, to be changed at will. These practices were mindfulness of breath, and awareness of sounds. I found the latter particularly useful.

I had never had instructions to switch freely between objects before, and I found that this suited me much better than attempting, e.g., to focus just on the breath for 45 minutes. In practice it’s what I do anyway; some visualisation concentration, maybe some time with the breath, body-scanning, metta bhavana, or other interrogative practices.

The teaching

Both of the Batchelors, as well as Tony O’Connor, who hosted some of the sits, were profoundly knowledgeable, compassionate, helpful, and wise throughout. I was seriously impressed by their ability to host a Zoom call with 200-300 people, give a brilliant talk, and then get through many of the questions asked in chat with such serious insight, intelligence, and patience. I took notes furiously and will be working through those in the coming week.

It was as intense as a normal retreat

I was surprised to find that it was pretty equal in intensity to the 10-day silent vipassana retreat I had done. On that schedule, you meditate around ten hours per day, potentially slightly more with walking meditation. So I thought that this schedule, with only around four hours per day, would be much less intense.

I was wrong. Partly this is because a lot of the effect seems to come from noble silence (about which more below). But I was also writing, doing strenuous exercise, and fasting, all of which are forbidden on Goenka retreats.

Now I can sort of see why they’re forbidden, as they seem to intensify an already intense experience. And I think that in some way, it’s the total silence and isolation that has a bigger effect than the number of hours of practice. Given that Goenka takes total newcomers to meditation, it would probably increase the odds of breakdowns. I did not have a breakdown, but as I’ve said it was intense.

Here was my schedule for most of last week:

  • 04:30-05:00 wake up excited, make coffee
  • 05:00-07:00 yoga, meditation, writing
  • 07:00-07:45 Zoom group meditation
  • 07:45-09:00 sprints/silent walk
  • 09:00-10:30 Zoom sitting instructions, meditation, questions
  • 10:30-13:00 walking meditation, bodyweight exercises, writing
  • 13:00-14:00 lunch (only food)
  • 14:00-15:30 Zoom dharma talk, questions
  • 15:30-19:00 write, meditate, read the Zen books
  • 19:00-19:45 Zoom meditation
  • 19:45-23:00 write, read zen books, meditate a bit more, feel disconsolate/despondent, struggle to sleep

So I probably overdid it. Still, I was happy to learn I could be so excited on such an early schedule.

Meditation itself seems to prevent sleep

I was surprised to find that exactly like on Goenka, I could not sleep more than a few fitful hours per night, even with all the exercise and exhaustion. This is a commonly noted feature of meditation retreats.

I figured this effect on previous retreats was due to being away from home, in an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar people and practices. I did not expect the effect to occur meditating in my own home, sleeping in my own bed, without strangers around.

In fact, this was Goenka’s recommendation for how to meditate. He said everyone should meditate two hours per day, and when people balked and asked him how they could find the time, he advised them simply to sleep less.

I’ve never heard of anyone besides Harari actually doing this, nor have I ever been tempted to attempt it — I laughed when Goenka suggested it in his lessons. But it is interesting to know that a few hours of meditation does seem to cause one to sleep less. Whether that’s sustainable or a good idea is another question.

Phone screens break mindfulness

This wouldn’t have surprised me as a general point. But in this context it did, since I was using an old wiped phone with just a meditation timer installed, in airplane mode with the screen in black and white.

Even with those settings, looking at it was somehow deeply distracting, even though I never got on the internet or read the news or anything. Maybe it’s conditioning, or maybe it’s a property of the device itself, or maybe some combination. I felt like the phone sucked me in, and I would end up fiddling with settings or stupid things like that.

This did not happen when I used a computer, nor when I wrote on paper or read books.

One consequence of the retreat is that I’ve decided not to use a phone unless I absolutely must. I’ll still use it for phone calls. But I’ll keep screen usage to a minimum. Since I’m stuck in the house, there’s nothing I can do on the phone that I can’t do on a real computer, and it’s usually quicker on a computer anyway.

Writing was very tough

I found that insight practice and writing do not go well together.

It does not seem to break mindfulness, at least not in the way that the phone seemed to; it was more that writing was taxing in precisely the same way that insight meditation was.

Journaling and reflections were fine, and useful, but trying to compose/edit writing intended for anyone other than myself was a struggle. I suppose both are about paying rapt attention to minute details.

As a result of this combination, over the course of the week, I managed to exhaust myself. I was uncharacteristically drained and unable to do much for about three days afterwards.

Physical exercise is also mental

Like meditation, exercise can be tiring, particularly if you can’t sleep. Nonetheless I did yoga, cardio (running/walking), and strength training every day. I think I thought that it would stabilise my mood.

I found yoga and walking complimentary to the insight practice, but both sprints and strength training seemed challenging, maybe just depletion of energy or willpower. I sort of think Goenka is right to forbid strenuous exercise.

Fasting might not be a great idea

I decided that during it I would eat one low-carb vegetarian meal per day, at around 1pm, after finishing all exercise for the day.

This turned out to not be enough food, and is one possible reason that the retreat overall was so intense. I half-remembered Daniel Ingram having noted in MCTB that fasting amplifies things. I figured it would be fine, or that it might even be a good thing, leading to more rapid practice. Looking up what he said now, I sort of wish I had re-read it:

When on intensive retreats, there are a few basic ways to sail a bit too far out there too fast. The first is to stop eating. It is true that there is a long and glorious tradition of people fasting when doing spiritual practice, but generally they do so because they want to bring on severely altered states of consciousness. Fasting when meditating is an effective technique for doing this. Should you be doing insight practices, altered states are not your intended focus, and so these are more likely to be distracting than helpful. Further, severely altered states of consciousness can sometimes be very disruptive and hard to process, leading to what might be considered by some to be temporary insanity. If you are the sort of person who would drop LSD when out in public, then the altered states that fasting might bring on would probably not be a problem for you. On the other hand, if you are on retreat with other people, consideration for the fact that they may not want to deal with the potential side effects of your vision-quest is warranted.

Then again, as I was silent/on my own anyway, I might well have ignored it even if I had re-read it.

At Goenka, I stuck to a two meal schedule (breakfast and lunch), with no fruit in the evening (which is allowed for beginners). Even that was tough. Meditation definitely burns calories, and fasting also intensifies emotions/stress, and maybe interacts with serotonin.

Noble silence

I live with my partner, so noble silence was more optional for me than it might be for people alone in lockdown. We agreed that we wouldn’t speak (to be honest I suspect she was grateful for my silence). We stuck to it. I also didn’t read email or messages, though I did write a bit here.

I turned off my phone on Monday, and did not use screens except for the Zoom calls, to write, and Insight Timer. So I did not read the news or social media, which was great.

I also read the Tao Te Ching as well as some of the three books that the Batchelors wrote and recommended for the retreat:

I missed my partner

Strangely, since we live in the same house, and during quarantine are more cooped up than ever, I found that I missed my partner a lot. This was one of the benefits of doing the retreat during lockdown, that it was a true break from each other, more like my going on a five-day trip than it feels when she is gone for work.

Perception of time

As on the longer retreat, meditation and silence seemed to affect my perception of time quite a lot. I would think, for example, that I’d forgotten to take tea out of the kitchen an hour ago, then look and see that it had only been one minute. Or I’d find that I had meditated for thirty minutes when it felt like thirty seconds, though this was less frequent.

Though the seconds seem to pass extremely slowly, the days were full and full of effort, and did not seem to go either slowly or quickly.

The community

On the final Zoom call of the week on Friday, we had a breakout session in which we got about ten minutes to talk to people about how it had gone. I spoke to an Italian woman who had known the Batchelors for years and was scheduled to be on the original in-person retreat at Gaia House. She had been in lockdown alone for much longer than I had. There was also a woman in the Lake District. Both were kind and it was really interesting to hear how it had gone for them, as we all had different rules for ourselves and experiences, though everyone was very positive.

I only wish we’d been given a little more time in the Zoom breakout. A good reminder if I ever host such a call.

My mind both wandered and did not wander

At times I had torrents of what felt like intellectual insights, and later would be writing furiously. At other times I had a strange blankness, my mind would be so tired that I would just be staring blank and thoughtless.

I would recommend a retreat

Despite all my talk of exhaustion, it was a great experience, and I feel calmer, less anxious, and happier. I’ve also had what felt like breakthroughs on intellectual and emotional questions. I would recommend a home retreat to most people, including people who are fairly new to meditation.

A friend sent me this link which I read before the retreat, and I’d definitely recommend giving it a try, even if just to get a break from the news/social media these days. But I’d say, stick to yoga/walking meditation rather than strenuous exercise, try to sleep, and eat something. Finally, I think it’s important to keep in mind that it may be just as intense as going on a real retreat, so you should plan accordingly (not quite sure what you’d do, besides bearing it in mind as you plan).


  1. I do disagree to some extent with Batchelor that the Buddhist claims are only ethical. Batchelor is pretty explicitly against the progress of insight, i.e., progress towards enlightenment — which in some forms I am as well, and I understand why he finds it more expedient to focus on ethics over enlightenment. On the other hand, I think it would be hard to argue that the Buddha didn’t believe that there was some kind of progress towards an end goal, i.e., greater insight into the three characteristics and the four noble truths than one started out with. I also think that that progress, i.e., the stages of insight, do correspond to something real (which are mental/neurological events, neither ethical nor magical). But anyway, that’s a theoretical quibble and was not at all important in practice.


Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I live in London. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.