Sometimes the only place to start is now – in the present moment, right here.
So here I am: on my sofa with Placebo blaring “It’s your age, it’s my rage,” slowly coming back to somewhere that approximates ‘normal.’
For the past 12 days I’ve been at Dhamma Dipa, the Vipassana meditation centre in Hereford. I finally did what I’ve wanted to do for 8 years: a 10-day silent retreat. And what a ten days! Over the next week or so I’m going to be exploring my experience through a series of blog posts – but for the moment I can’t quite see past the re-entry process, so for today I’m going to focus on that.
Coming into Paddington today was like Neo going back into The Matrix after being unplugged. It felt absurd, ridiculous, unreal: a very very bad joke. Why are all these people squashed into moving tin boxes? Why are they all rushing around? Why is everything so ugly here?
At various points during the retreat, when my mind wandered (as it did often during the 12 hours a day of meditation), I imagined arriving here and having sushi at Yo! But I never imagined it to be like this, scary in all the wrong ways. I never imagined it to feel like hell on earth.
I make it across the forecourt (just) and sit down at the sushi bar. I ate a bacon sandwich at Gloucester station - my first taste of meat in 12 days – and my stomach went into shock. It was sore and tense throughout the train journey, and I’m sure the meat was the cause. Perhaps having spent such a long time refining the senses and becoming more sensitive to the body’s finest sensations, meat simply isn’t acceptable to me right now.
The same is true of the sushi. I often use food to ground myself after intense experiences, but after a couple of platefuls I feel a bit sick. Yo! is not great at the best of times, but today it just tastes like shit. I carry on regardless, until I have 4 half-eaten plates in front of me. And suddenly I’m on the verge of tears, because I realise that I’m stuffing my face with food I don’t want, falling quickly back into the old patterns that have caused me to be overweight for nearly 30 years. Is all that work really going to be undone so quickly?
I slow down, Come back to the breath, to the body. London isn’t going to beat me without a fight. I’ve survived 10 intense days with myself and that’s got to count for something. I breathe and nibble at the food, trying to taste it, trying to enjoy it. But I knew on some level that animal flesh isn’t right for me today. I pick at the little plates some more and then leave.
Treats. I need treats. I go to M&S, which is usually guaranteed to cheer me up. But not today: all I can see is sugar, fat, meat, packaging. And everything was so unnecessarily expensive. This isn’t me being tight – I know today will be hard and I’m happy to splash out a bit – but it is abundantly clear that this conceit of luxury is just a thin wrapper for something else. It is the ego that’s being fed by these neatly wrapped trays of posh food, not the belly.
I opt for Sainsbury’s and buy a pile of seasonal veg instead. I’ve never made a winter veg stew before but how hard can it be? Suddenly I feel inspired to cook something wholesome and earthy, using veg grown in this country. Suddenly I care enough to do what I’ve felt I “ought” to do for a long time.
After the shopping I get on the Tube. It’s rammed. What is everyone doing? Isn’t Sunday a day of rest? Not any more, I guess – things are so bad now with “the economy” that people have to stay busy to distract themselves. Funny that they can still afford to go shopping. I feel people on all sides and I have to visualise a protective ring around me because I’m wide open, too open for this. If I can just get home, if I can just get home. Again I go back to the breath and do my best to stay equanimous.
Oxford Circus is carnage and the first Central Line train is rammed, so I ignore it in favour of one 2 minutes behind it. I get a seat and breathe, breathe, breathe. I can do this I can do this I can do this … like a mantra, like the sound of the train, like something I can’t quite put my finger on.
Just before Stratford I notice that Ollie, a guy who completed the course, is in the next carriage. I burst out laughing when we both get off at Stratford, and I catch up with him to say hello. We chat a bit about how weird our journeys back have been, then he goes off to his place in Forest Gate and I head through the shopping centre for my bus home.
On the way I am distracted by the insane cheery brightness that is Tiger. If you’ve never been to one I highly recommend it – they are to Ikea what Primark is to M&S. Half an hour later I leave the shop with a sackful of amusing, jolly, utterly pointless items and £18 less in my wallet. Somehow this moment of preposterous retail therapy has done the trick – my sense of humour is back and it feels a little better to be here.
And then I’m home. Home at last, home sweet motherfucking home. I love this place, my semi-public haven of Sacred Pleasures. I walk around for a while, taking it all in, getting used to the place, making friends with it again. Switch on switches, turn on lights – the things you do when you get back from a holiday. But this wasn’t a holiday, not in any normal sense. This was work – deep soul work.
Before too long I’m on the computer, working almost as fast as usual, trying to get as much done as possible before I run out of steam. I realise that I crave this constant distraction, this so-called connectedness that’s anything but. I feel my shoulders getting tight and I breathe again … breathe … breathe …
I manage to do some inbox clearing without getting too crazed, I only burst into tears once, and by 6 o’ clock I’ve had enough. So I go to the kitchen and start chopping. It feels wonderful. The veg feels almost alive as I chop it, and it is a pleasure to create something so hearthy and wholesome with my own hands.
When it’s all mixed up and simmering I sit in my bedroom and do my evening meditation. I am not convinced this will “work” here but it does – I have an incredibly intense time exploring my body’s sensations and manage to sit the whole hour with only a couple of minor distractions. By the time I’m finished I feel much, MUCH better. I get up, go straight to the computer again, think “fuck this” and have some stew instead.
And it’s delicious – just what I need. I need to feed myself, love myself, put myself back together with tenderness and care. I’ve learnt so much over the past 12 days and I need to assimilate it. I need to be gentle, to let things find their place. Ah……