Dechen Choling means “Land of Bliss”. This is where I had the pleasure of staying for a week on a Writing and Meditation Retreat at the Shambhala Buddhist Meditation Center in the forests and hills of Limoges, France.
My sister, who is Buddhist and practices the Shambhala tradition (a tradition of meditation that goes back 2500 years to the Buddha himself) gave this week to me as a gift. Here I met so many people who wanted to find peace and calm from the chaotic frenzy of their lives and space to write. Some flew across an ocean to find this, while others journeyed from Paris or London or Berlin.
I found being surrounded by other writers for a week to be extremely powerful. Writers gathered to write and meditate sharing their work from policy to poetry to personal testimonials to racy young adult fiction. The retreat was led by meditation instructor and writer Susan Piver and was a week that opened my heart and mind to the power of meditation and mindfulness practice.
We stayed in an old château that Chögyam Trungpa (the man who brought this form of Tibetan Buddhism to the West) chose himself: the trees, the fields the walks and the building itself holds a special energy. Even the lake, which was built by the former owner for his wife, is in the shape of a heart. This facility is run by volunteers who meditate and practice while also maintaining the building.
When I arrived at the retreat, I felt a strong resistance inside me, a kind of feeling that one has when you really don’t know what you’re getting into. Maybe I will be converted? Maybe this will really not relate to me? Maybe while meditating I will get up and run away screaming?
But I decided to just accept the the process and the practice and to see what happens. I know what my greatest challenge is as a writer is focus. Purely sitting in the chair and writing is my enemy. And yet, I am a writer. How odd. So I thought, what could hurt but some meditation. I’ve heard it can do great things!
Well my experience at Dechen Choling was far from what I imagined. It was a week that felt like a lifetime (in a good way!)
Susan began our journey by leading us in meditation or doing shamata. This is a form of Tibetan Buddhist meditation that involves sitting meditation and a one-pointed approach. By putting attention (one-pointed) on your breath while you sit, you allow for spaciousness of the mind to open up; in doing so you also give yourself the freedom to have any emotions, thoughts or worries.
The work is not about being a blank slate and pushing yourself to let go of emotions. It is actually the opposite: it’s about finding a gentleness in yourself, a softening of the heart and an acceptance of any emotion or thought that you may possess. By allowing your mind to stay focused on the breath as best you can, I found that any worry or thought became part of a bigger whole. For me, in my experience, the meditation helped me get perspective.
After we meditated we would journal, writing whatever crazy, terrible, wonderful, heroic thoughts that were rumbling in our heads. Then we would find a little space somewhere and write quietly for two hours. This process was repeated after lunch, where we also had time to share insights or talk about our process.
With this daily routine of meditation I found that I could see what I was doing in my work in a more clear and precise way, and I found that if one day I didn’t write at all, I didn’t panic. And because of this the next day I would be a flowing stream of words and thoughts and ideas. In Chogyam Trungpa’s The Myth of Freedom he says:
I find this paradox so insightful, in that through the acceptance of ourselves we are able to find the other parts of ourselves: by me accepting my unfocused self one day, I found focus the next day. Gentleness can really breed a kind of freeing from yourself.
Within all of this self-discovery was also the strength of the group itself. I heard many times someone mention how powerful it is to be in the company of other writers. Writing is so solitary, and is a kind work that involves being open and delicately observant to the world. This position in society that one occupies, the outsider, can be very isolating and lonely. Each evening we would share our work and listen to the reaction of our fellow writers. This was truly a gift!
Every night we went to sleep in bunk beds beside the misty landscape, we told jokes and laughed about our lives and shared stories in a way that rarely happens amongst people. We visited an American artist nearby who had build a theatre out of a barn and creates soundscapes, we walked through the fields speaking about love, life and heartache. We had a dance party in the evening and encouraged each other to keep writing and working. It was not a support group, but rather, supportive human beings enabling each other to walk along the path of their lives with confidence.
I’ve learned that Shambhala is about a lifestyle, a softening of yourself, an opening of yourself to others and finding within the meditation and mindfulness practice a way to imagine a new kind of self and ultimately a new world.
The gift of contemplation was probably the kindest thing I have ever received (thanks sis!)
I highly recommend a retreat like this one, to rebalance oneself. We are all still in contact sending words of encouragement in emails, and we all hope to meet again next year. Many of us also tune into Susan Piver’s Open Heart Project, which you can as well, where she leads weekly meditations and dharma talks online.
Of course one cannot replicate this place anywhere else, but I find that I am beginning to bring meditation into my life, and I hope that this will stay with me throughout my life.
Photography: Coleen MacPherson