Retreat into Glory Patti Whaley. This is a sample from 'This is my Story: Voyages on the Sea Of Faith', a collection of personal memoirs by SoF members, edited by Teresa Wallace.

In the summer of 1997, I took a long and much-needed holiday. I wanted to go somewhere quiet and cook for people, not in a professional way, but simply because preparing food always has a relaxing and therapeutic effect for me. A friend who knew that I had an interest in Buddhism recommended a small retreat centre outside of Limoges that needed a part-time cook, so I went there, not really knowing what to expect. I was very warmly welcomed, and spent most of my free time as an unofficial participant in a "dathun", a month-long intensive meditation and instruction retreat for lay Buddhists.

The retreat managers were kind enough to let me hook up my e-mail so that I could stay in touch with the Sea of Faith electronic-mail discussion list. From time to time over the next two months I wrote to the discussion list about the retreat, to try and capture what it was teaching me; the following excerpts are selected from that correspondence.

Dear SoFties

I promised a few lines now and then to let you know what it's like to retreat for two months to the French countryside.

I'm in a small chateau being renovated by a community of Tibetan Buddhists. My job is to cook one meal a day; otherwise I'm free to join in the Buddhist practice or not, as I choose. A formal retreat will start soon; meanwhile I'm learning the workings of the kitchen, the garden, and the dining room. The countryside is beautiful; my bedroom looks out over a pond and a group of mature beeches and chestnuts, with fields and hills in the further distance. No one bothers to close the doors of the chateau at night; at first I felt very unsafe and vulnerable, but now I like it, although I'm still careful not to step on the toads that wander in after dark.

Tibetan Buddhism has extravagant pantheons of deities, "hosts of father gods and mother gods", manifestations of all sorts and kinds, and more magic stories than you can shake a stick at. They believe in reincarnation and have extremely specific ideas on exactly what happens between one life and the next. I haven't yet sorted out whether they see these matters as "real" versus a sort of symbolic environment within which the practices of meditation, prostration, and instruction take place.

This particular centre belongs to the Shambala community. What would interest SoFties is that Shambala attempts to create a "secular" tradition for Western lay people, incorporating Tibetan Buddhist practices and values without using Buddhist deities or religious structures. So the teachings focus on values of compassion, gentleness, openness, appreciation, living in the present moment and seeing whatever arises as material for growth and practice. To that extent the transition from "religion" to "secular spiritual practice" works well.

At the same time, they treat their Rinpoches (enlightened teachers) in a very exalted way—there are separate dishes for the Rinpoche's visit, you must take your shoes off and bow if you go into the Rinpoche's room (whether he is there or not); at a certain level you must receive "transmission" from the head of the lineage; and so on. There are many rules: do not put your chant book on the floor, put it on your meditation cushion; light the candles from left to right; people who are meditating cannot be in the same room as people who are prostrating and so on. There is a lot of secrecy about the higher levels of instruction. While there are no "deities" as such, there are invocations to mythical figures from the ancient legendary kingdom of Shambala—rather like invoking King Arthur, as I understand it. It looks pretty religious to me.

When I ask people here what distinguishes secular practice from religious practice, I get rather vague answers. I'm intrigued by that vagueness, by the inability to define when a practice becomes "religious". But perhaps it isn't too important to draw a clear line; the main thing is that what they have tried to do with Buddhism is something like what some SoFties would like to do with Christianity.

In my free time I meditate—or, I try to meditate. SoFties on this discussion list know that I think SoF theological exploration is good, but we need some form of spiritual practice for non-realists, so meditation interests me. It's quite difficult, not because it's physically difficult to sit still for two hours but because it's tedious, and it's hard to discern right away what I'm getting out of it. The point of this style of meditation is to become aware of thought processes and how they distract you from awareness of the present moment. Perhaps at some later point my subconscious will start to bubble up and things will get interesting, but in the beginning, watching myself think is like picking through a mediocre rummage sale, full of odd forks, wornout shoes, and tacky gifts you wish people had never given you.

Dear SoFties,

I've been reading Dakota, by Kathleen Norris, an American poet who moved from New York City to a very small town in western South Dakota, where she found—to her surprise—that both her writing and her spiritual life began to flourish. She became interested in the monastic tradition and is now an oblate at a Benedictine community; as she writes about Dakota life and monastic life, you get a sense of the relationships between the two, both characterized by barrenness and space and silence.

SoFties would particularly enjoy the chapter called "Monks at play", which discusses not only the traditional playfulness of the monks (pillow-fights!) but how the whole way of life and the liturgy itself is a form of play. "Monks become like good children playing at being good...behaving 'as if' constancy were possible in this world."

"Play so powerful that it can absorb adults, becoming their way of life, may have a meaning that children's play lacks. While there is an analogy between a child calling a chair a horse and a priest changing bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, there is also a difference. In play, we create and manipulate the rules; in liturgy we act out something that has been handed down to us, and in making it our own we are also responding to the mysterium tremendum. Taking the playful aspects of liturgy into account, we need also to recognize the utterly serious attitudes and intentions of those involved, and the serious effect it has on them. For the monk the play of liturgy is a means of conversion, a way of life. In its deeper satisfactions it confers an abiding sense of peace."

Perhaps that relates to what I'm trying to do here, getting used to the form of play that is called Tibetan Buddhism, seeing what its effect on me will be and whether there is any of it that I can take home with me.

What I particularly like is the silence; how quickly we get to know each other when we don't talk! It makes me think that much of what I say when I first meet people (where I'm from, what I do, who I work for, what I like) is a way of controlling what they should think about me. To be together without being able to hide behind my roles and personas feels quite naked; I have to let them draw their own conclusions.

Dear SoFties,

In response to my letter Graham Rooth [a member of our e-mail discussion list] wrote:

"I was struck by the idea of 'play' in your recent letter. I realise that I am unable to play in the way described. There is now too much culturally-engrained irony in my make-up to allow 'willing suspension of disbelief' for more than a few minutes at a time. While this may protect against immersion in cults, it's also responsible for a certain aridity in my spiritual life. What is the post-modern, non-realist response to this predicament?"

I've been mulling over this...I don't have an answer yet. But here are some thoughts.

Now that we're in a formal retreat, we are using a particular form of Buddhist play called oryoki. Oryoki is a ritual monastic meal, a very formal arrangement of time and space and motion. The exact method of serving, eating, cleaning your bowl, wrapping up your oryoki set, and even tying the final knot in your linens, is all strictly defined. There is a lot of bowing and it is crucial to know when everyone should bow and when only certain people should bow. People must be served in a certain order. The Buddha bowl is treated differently from all other bowls. Nothing is wasted. Everything is synchronised. All this must be done without a word being spoken, but it is not solemn; when something unexpected happens there is usually a lot of giggling.

I find it completely satisfying. It is much easier than meditation, but it is meant to instill the same virtues of mindfulness (complete attention, not letting your thoughts wander) and awareness (of what other people are doing, of your environment). You notice things very quickly—self-consciousness, impatience, greed, but also humour, tolerance, and the intense colours of vegetables against a black lacquer bowl.

Yesterday our teacher said a few words about "playing with the form of oryoki". This idea of form has a lot of resonance for me, because a well-known and well-loved form has a deeply comforting and almost hypnotic effect on us that is very hard to explain. There are differences depending on whether the form is completely abstract (sonata form, oryoki), or tells a particular story (the eucharist, tai chi), or involves a competition (chess, baseball), and in my current mood I find that abstract forms are the best, where there is nothing to "believe in" and nobody to compete with.

Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird that "ritual is a sign to your subconscious that it's time to kick into action", which sounds right but doesn't really explain why it works that way. Perhaps the practice of giving the conscious mind a pleasing pattern to occupy itself with somehow clears a space for the subconscious to move into center stage. In any case I agree with Graham that there's a certain spiritual aridity in not having any forms to play with. The difficulty with Christianity is that all our forms are intensely credal and verbal. We don't have any abstract forms, so we can't invoke the subconscious without acting out some traditional dogma. Some people are comfortable acting out the stories in an abstract or dramatic way (without having to "believe" them) but for other people, it's a real sticking point.

Meanwhile there is still the struggle to meditate. I'm in a phase of self-disgust—I never realised how much time I spend reliving old wounds ("reheating the past", our teacher calls it) and creating strategies and imaginary dialogues for the future—anything other than paying attention to what I'm doing at this exact moment. Once you've realised that you do this, you begin to notice it all the time, not just in the meditation room. The payoff is that once you realise it, you at least have the opportunity to stop.

Dear SoFties,

Thank you so much for your letters and thoughts about Zen, prayer, etc. Here's some more fuel for the fire:

Mostly we've been doing an introductory meditation involving "resting with the outbreath" and recognizing the ebb and flow of thought and emotion in the mind. The point is not to attain a state without thought (though sometimes there are such moments) but to gain some independence from thought, to see its insubstantiality, and to examine your own interpretations and motives, in as nonjudgmental way as possible.

Now we're learning a more consciously directed form of meditation called Tonglen, which is meant to develop compassion and generosity. In Tonglen, you bring to mind a specific situation where you feel blocked, angry, resistant, or resentful. You take upon yourself (on the inbreath) the heavy, dark, sticky quality of these emotions, and you give away (on the outbreath) whatever feeling of peace, rest, openness, calm or acceptance you have to offer. After a certain point, you shift to a more "universal" experience—i.e. recognizing that all beings experience anger, resentfulness, pain in the same way that you do, and again giving away whatever peace and openness you have to offer. The intent is that you should see clearly your own role in creating whatever suffering you are experiencing; that you see that all beings suffer as you do; and that you consciously develop the ability to respond with openness to that suffering.

This particular form goes through four steps, which may feel quite artificial at first. In explaining this our teacher spoke of "playing at" or impersonating a meditator; if you think you are not a "good" or "real" meditator, just do the form anyway, and eventually you will become a meditator in spite of yourself. As they say, 90% of success is just showing up! And yes, even I, whose greatest fear about meditation was that I would never get beyond thinking about whether I would have time for a shower today and what kind of soup to make tomorrow, am beginning to see a little bit what this is about.

Dear SoFties,

I've been reading When Things Fall Apart by the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. You'd particularly like the chapter called "Hopelessness and death". In Buddhism hopelessness is very important; it includes acceptance of futility and meaninglessness; working with things as they are rather than expecting things to change; giving up the hope of an escape from working with life as it is. It reminds me of Kierkegaard's belief that only after accepting the absolute futility of life can one learn to love God and become an individual.

Pema carries this a step further and relates hopelessness to non-theism. She says:

"The difference between theism and non-theism is not whether one does or does not believe in God. It is an issue that applies to everyone, including Buddhists and non- Buddhists. Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there's some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us...From this point of view, theism is an addiction. We're all addicted to hope... Non-theism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves...In a non-theistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning."

This really hit home with me. I've often joked with Buddhist friends that the reason I have trouble working in my office job is that I haven't completely given up hope yet; but the joke is true, and serious. The hope that if I behave a certain way or work a little bit harder, things will change and somehow will get better, the people in the office will be less angry at each other, has to do with my own remnant of theism, my sense that things ought to somehow "work out".

My meditation has good and bad days. I've come to see what a relief it is to let go of an obsessive thought pattern and relax into my outbreath for a moment, like slipping into a warm scented bath after a long day. So why do I jump out of the bath scarcely a minute later, racing after some new imaginary problem? My mind is like a child who is tired but refuses to go to sleep. But this, too, this exasperation with my "monkey mind", is something that I learn to accept, forgive, and let go.

Dear SoFties,

In the last week of this program, we did some new rituals, sometimes with words but mostly without. The first was the most astonishing, possibly because it caught us off guard. It sounds banal if I explain it, but you must imagine the effect on us novices of weeks of silence and meditation in a very confined space; how intensely we see who is generous, who is struggling, who is angry, who is shy; and how we all sit on cushions facing a small black chair which is used only by our teacher. So at the opening of the last week, without warning, the teacher said that we would begin with a small exercise: each person, in any order, would stand, walk "as slowly as you dare" to the teacher's chair, and sit down; bow; look at your fellow meditators, and be looked at by them, for what you gauge to be 30 seconds; bow; return to your cushion. Whoever feels like it is his or her turn will go next. And so on. Don't speak. Look at each other.

I can't possibly convey how people were revealed and transformed by this. Some were embarrassed and giggly. Some were terrified. Some were a wee bit cocky. Some looked at the class as if they had never really seen it before. So we returned their bows and accepted whatever they had to offer. Everyone looked very fragile, and very precious. I suddenly understood what Thomas Merton must have felt when he walked through streets of New York City: "It is just impossible to tell people how they are all walking around shining like the sun."

In terms of ritual, it was completely silent; it referred to nothing outside of itself; it only required that each person put himself or herself on the line for a moment, and that the rest of us take that moment to see the sacredness of that person; you could put into it, or take out of it, whatever you wanted. Someone has written that in order to make good ritual, you simply have to take as simple a gesture as possible and repeat it over and over and over again. Perhaps that is what is going on here, but it could only take place in a particular space that already had some meaning for us and with a group of people who have been working very intently on learning to pay attention and not judge.

Our teacher joked with us later: What will you tell people you did at your retreat? you walked to a chair? you sat in the chair? so many weeks of meditation, and at the end, you sat in a chair? how much did you pay for this?

The participants of the retreat have left now, and I will stay only a few days longer. I continue to cook every day. My hands are covered with tiny cuts and burns, but my cornbread muffins are legendary. The last instruction from my teacher was not to think about returning to London; the more I could be completely here, without strategies for the future, the better I would be able to cope with that future when it comes. I'm trying to follow that instruction.

All best wishes to you; or, as the Shambala community says at the close of each meditation, "may the dark ignorance of sentient beings be dispelled; may all beings enjoy profound, brilliant glory".