'Retreat' by Tim Parks
Short fiction from the April issue of VICE magazine.
Photos by Sarah Palmer
He had been speaking about it for years. She was sympathetic. It was part of his attraction in the end, part of his being older and more substantial than men her age. So shortly before the wedding it was agreed they would go on a retreat together. It would be a kind of pre-honeymoon, but also a reversal of what honeymoons are, since at the retreat they would neither sleep together nor even talk to each other. They would emerge refreshed and even "purified," he said, though she was not entirely sure what he meant by that. Shortly after which, there would be the wedding and the honeymoon in Brazil. It was an ideal arrangement.
Initially, Amanda had some difficulty explaining to her family that she would be out of touch for a week. No, she couldn't even text. Those were the rules of the place, she explained over the phone. You stepped outside life for a week to get a clearer view of things.
Her mother, who liked to touch base with her every day, thought it sounded like a prison.
"Alan wants to go, and I want to go with him," Amanda said, all the time smiling at her future husband across the table. And she closed the conversation.
"But I don't want you to go just because I want to go," he said. "If you don't really want to go yourself, you'll hate it." He had seen this any number of times, he told her, people who had been pressured to go to retreats by friends, then loathed it and bailed out on day two or three.
"It will be a prison, if you're only going for me."
"I only said that for Mum," Amanda laughed. "She'd never understand I really want to go for myself. Sitting still for a week. She'd think I'd gone mad."
"But she's happy to believe you've just been kidnapped by an older man?"
"Not happy, but that's what she thinks!"
They joked about her family and made love lavishly the day before traveling. Their relationship had been a fairy tale of easy happiness from the day he burst into her life and stole her heart. Or vice versa, as he would have described it. They simply hadn't spent a moment apart.
The monastery was actually a farmhouse on high ground some 20 miles north of Carlisle. They arrived by train and taxi from London. The sleeping quarters were in another house 100 yards away. In the afternoon, participants gathered here to be told the timetable and the regulations. Wake-up was at five. Men would sleep on the ground floor, women on the first. Breakfast was at seven and lunch at 12, after which there would be no more food for the rest of the day.
"At this evening's puja, very shortly, we will take the vow of silence," their organizer said, a handsome woman in her 50s. "It's called the Noble Silence. But not the Stupid Silence. If you're ill or there's some kind of emergency, then for heaven's sake, speak. And of course, if you feel you need help, you can always sign up for an interview with Madewela, who will be leading the retreat."
"Let's obey the rules to the letter," Amanda said afterward. There was just time for a last walk together before the first puja and the vow. They set out on narrow track across the hillside. "It'll be tough not talking, but I can't see the point of coming if we cheat."
Alan was pleased that he hadn't had to make this clear himself, but wondered again if she was only saying what she knew he wanted her to.
"How's your bedroom?" he asked.
They were five to a room with mattresses on the floor, she said. It would be fine.
At a bend in the road they had to pull hoods over their heads against the wind. They laughed and embraced and looked each other in the eyes.
"Hard to believe it's August."
"Hard to believe we'll be in Rio in a couple of weeks!"
Across the flattened grass and waving trees, the wind brought the sound of a gong.
The meditation hall was airily beautiful. A large black Buddha sat at the front above a white table with candles and incense. To either side were generous flower displays. Lilies mainly. Eight shaven-headed monks in orange robes sat cross-legged, facing one another. Farther back, the 20 or so participants arranged themselves in rows on mats and cushions, looking between the monks toward the Buddha whose right hand was raised in tranquil blessing. Overhead were skylights, to each side French windows. The breeze pressured the glass, and from behind closed eyes, sitting on his cushion, Alan could sense the light coming and going as clouds scudded across the sun. Amanda had taken a place in front and just to the right of him. He could see her slim back but not her face. Which was perfect. He would be able to judge, he thought, if she was OK, without being disturbed by eye contact.
Alan had been to retreats before, but by day three there was no doubt in his mind that this was the best. The atmosphere was wonderful. Having the monks present at all the meditation sessions helped enormously. Mainly in their 20s, the young men came to the hours of sitting with evident pleasure. Their joyous stillness seemed to perfume the room, so that even when experiencing fierce pains in his thighs and ankles, Alan was able to cling to their composure and sit through to the end. He felt proud of this, proud that he hadn't abandoned his cushion for the chairs at the back, as some of the meditators had. It was always interesting, he thought, that you could feel urgent pain and profound serenity at the same time; there were even occasions when the one seemed to depend on the other. In the long silence, morning and afternoon, he concentrated on letting all trace of verbal thought dissolve from his mind. After all, there was nothing he needed to think about. His career was on track. In his late 40s, life was sorted. After a troubled first marriage, happiness lay ahead.
And then there was this spiritual side to things. More and more as the years passed he had a powerful sense of… What? How could you put it? "This-ness" was the only word that came to mind as he pulled on his shoes on the porch after a wonderful session and emerged with the others into the bright blowy light of Cumberland. This-ness. Life is nothing more, nothing less, than this. This body, this breath, this windswept countryside. Why on earth does it take us so long to appreciate how simple it all is! But where was Amanda? She had already set off for lunch.
Amid the general tranquility, there were, it was true, a few irritations. Alan didn't much appreciate the chanting they did at the morning and evening pujas. It was fine when the monks chanted in Pali—that had a hypnotic solemnity about it—but less so when the meditators were supposed to join in, in English, reading from a sort of chorus book. Alan tried a couple of times, but the words were too embarrassing. One couldn't chant in modern English. There was something dreadfully devout, he thought, or creepily churchy, in the voice of the woman to his left who invariably dressed in full meditation regalia with Oriental smock and black linen trousers. He felt uncomfortable.
During the night, one of the younger men in the room snored loudly. Alan wouldn't curse the fellow, he had a supply of earplugs. Still, he lay awake, on his thin mattress on the floor, listening to the man snort and wheeze, wondering when sleep would come. There was also a problem in the morning with the bathroom. After he had his breakfast—a bowl of yogurt, fruit, and cereal—he really needed to go. But the man who cleaned the downstairs bathroom, for all participants were assigned a daily household chore, did it right after breakfast and took so miserably long that the gong would be sounding for the next session before he had finished. Alan had to dash in and be done in the space of a couple of minutes. It wasn't conducive to your equanimity.
Then there was the older woman who pushed to be first in the lunch queues, taking more food than was due, so that when, on three occasions, Alan had been last, there was very little left for him but the long wait till the following morning. In general, though, Alan was pleased that he was not heaping his own plate as some people were. He would have lost weight by the end of the week, he thought. It was not a bad idea when you were marrying someone 20 years your junior.
He was also pleased that Amanda seemed to be fitting in perfectly. Her experience of meditation prior to the retreat had been restricted to a few minutes at the end of yoga lessons. He had feared she would find the many hours sitting too painful, or too boring. Too intense perhaps. He had feared a crisis, anger, or tears. Instead she kept her place on the cushion, morning and afternoon, with no more than a little fidgeting from time to time. It was reassuring.
And she kept the Noble Silence. The second morning presented the couple with the first opportunity for breaking the rules. Alan was hurrying to the meditation hall after his bathroom visit. Amanda was walking more slowly ahead of him, and he could see the movement of her hips below the loose trousers. There were about 50 yards to go, slightly uphill, along the narrow country road with a hedgerow to the right and a low stone wall to the left.
He caught up to her. They were alone. All the others were already in the hall. They could easily have whispered a few words without disturbing anyone. How's it going. Love you so much. Can't wait for Rio. But though she turned her head a moment when she heard footsteps approaching, she immediately turned away as he arrived and kept her eyes averted. So they walked, side by side, for a few steps, very aware of each other's presence, but without exchanging so much as a glance. They slipped their shoes off in the porch and silently joined the others. Alan felt immensely proud of her. She had completely understood the spirit of the thing. What a woman he was marrying!
After another two or three occasions of this kind—at the sink washing teacups, or under the washing line hanging towels to dry—this pride became colored by a slight anxiety to know what was going through her mind. She was almost too self-contained.
On the fourth day, for example, he had occasion to watch her during the rather bizarre pre-lunch rigmarole that characterized this retreat, something he had never experienced anywhere else. The monks ate in the old front parlor of the farmhouse, beside the meditation hall. To the right as you entered from outside was a small raised dais where the two elder monks sat beside a white Buddha. Otherwise the space had no furniture at all. The other monks sat cross-legged on the floor by the wall opposite the door, each on a small square of orange cloth and surrounded by bowls, cups, cutlery, and other tableware, though of course there was no table. In order to move, or simply stay where they were without knocking things over, they had to be constantly alert, constantly wakeful and mindful, which of course was what Buddhism was all about, Alan thought.
Once all the monks were in their places and the retreaters likewise, sitting on the floor at the other end of the room, the monks chanted together in Pali, rehearsing versicles and responses, occasionally bowing from a kneeling position to the Buddha seated behind the dais. Every time they bowed—and whenever leaving or entering the presence of a Buddha the monks would bow three times, always from a kneeling position—they were obliged to hold on to a kind of extended lapel of their outer robe to prevent the material from falling forward over their shoulders. Again everything seemed arranged to demand maximum attention. After the chanting, they stood up and filed one by one, each carrying his large pewter bowl, into the kitchen behind the parlor, where they collected their food and drink from the buffet. Returning, they placed their food on the floor, knelt and bowed three times, then very carefully resumed a sitting position, until, at last, one of the elders struck a small gong and they were permitted to eat. Only then could the retreat participants go to get their food.
On this occasion—perhaps the fourth or fifth day—Alan had arrived a moment late and, not wanting to disturb, since the chanting had already begun, sat down immediately beside the door, his back to the wall. This way he found he could look at Amanda to his left as she sat between two other women, all three absorbed in watching the monks' extenuating ritual. Certainly she was very beautiful, Alan thought, though without her makeup, of course, here at the retreat, and in the baggiest and drabbest of clothes. Her long blond hair was alive with natural waves and curls, her jaw was strong and lips firm and full, her forehead high. All that was familiar. But there was something new too: an intentness about her flesh and an ease in her seated posture that he didn't remember seeing before. Suddenly, he had the distinct impression that despite their two years living together he did not really know her. Had they spoken together, of course, had they looked into each other's eyes and smiled, he would immediately have fallen back into knowing her. But in the silence and separation of the retreat she was a stranger, and when eventually they went for their food, Alan took his out to the bench at the front of the house, while she went round to the back of the house where people sat on the low wall by the vegetable garden.
After the long day's meditation, the evening lectures, Alan found, were rather disappointing. First there were 30 minutes of puja, then Madewela would talk for an hour or so. These were occasions when you hoped to learn more about the practice of meditation and Buddhism in general, not to mention the vexed question of how to maintain a routine of meditation in ordinary life. But Madewela—who despite his exotic name, assumed at ordination no doubt, very likely hailed from Manchester or thereabouts—didn't have much to offer. He was handsome and personable. He had the physique du rôle—a tall gaunt body, 40ish, strong cheekbones, and bright eyes. His robes sat elegantly on his torso as he swayed very slightly while he spoke. But rather than preparing an organized series of reflections, he would simply ask the meditators to leave written questions in a basket in the porch; then, sitting beside the table at the front, with the black Buddha blissfully equanimous behind, he pulled them out one by one and tried to answer them. Which might have been OK, Alan thought, if the questions had been halfway intelligent.
"Many psychologists are beginning to use mindfulness as a form of therapy. Does Buddhism have a contribution to make to psychology? Can meditation be considered a substitute for analysis?"
Alan had an idea that the person who had put this question in the bowl must be the same man who was so slow about cleaning the bathrooms in the morning. He was a smallish, vigorous fellow with tight curly hair and a pinched intellectuality stamped on his face. He didn't bow to the Buddha when he took his place in the meditation room and didn't join in the chanting. He was keeping himself apart, Alan thought. He was there for intellectual reasons, to observe, not to put himself on the line. Madewela's response to the question was so long and inconsequential as to be impossible to follow. Only in conclusion did he make the obvious remark that if you were going through a personal crisis and needed an analyst, then you needed an analyst and that was that. Alan couldn't have agreed more. He remembered that moment in his own life all too well. Amanda, he noticed, who had never needed an analyst and very likely never would, was following Madewela's words with great attention.
The monk fished another question.
"On my first retreat I definitely attained the first jhana and experienced vitakka and other ecstatic states. But now I can't seem to recover these experiences. What should I do?"
This was a show-off question, Alan thought, very likely penned by the young woman with the Oriental smock. It deserved short shrift. Instead, Madewela engaged in his own form of exhibitionism to reply, discussing at great length the various technical terms for different ecstatic states. Alan found it hard to keep still; when you were actually meditating, during the day's various sessions, intensely focused on your breathing and body, it wasn't too hard to relax and keep your position. You were in the zone. But when you were listening to a talk, disagreeing with a talk, your mind inevitably engaged, and as a consequence, your body needed to move and fidget. The monks, Alan noticed, but also one or two of the more experienced retreaters, kept their eyes closed through the talks, sitting serene and expressionless, as if there were nothing to listen to, and it was just another meditation hour. In a way, this was enviable; on the other hand, what was the point of there being a talk, if you didn't listen and feel involved?
Amanda, like himself, kept shifting position, gathering her legs to one side then the other as she attended to Madewela's words. When she pulled her legs to the right of her cushion, turning a little to the left, he could see her in half profile. She was deeply absorbed. For whatever the content, there was something charming and even beautiful about Madewela's manner. Something hypnotic. He hypnotizes himself, Alan thought, with his own quiet charm. In the event, the monk talked for so long that once again there was no time to consider the question Alan had penned. The evening closed with the usual chanting, and the scrap of paper remained, unanswered, in the basket.
But on the fifth day, when he had lost hope and even interest, Alan's question came out.
"Why should we go on sitting cross-legged if we are in pain?" Madewela read. There was a faint irony in his voice, perhaps. "What is at stake when we decide to do this? Or not to?"
"Well," the monk began with a wry smile, "many of you have moved from your cushions to chairs at some point during the week. So I presume you were in pain, or at least uncomfortable. Others of you have stayed cross-legged on your cushions, so I suppose you are quite at ease, or you are die-hards!"
Alan did not like the tone of this. He wondered if Amanda would realize that the question was his and a rather better question than the others that had been asked so far. A question that went to the heart of why they were here, of what the experience actually was.
After some mandatory initial waffle about distinguishing a serious physical problem from mere sitting pains, Madewela at last said something interesting. Or rather two things. "If you observe a pain quietly and carefully, without bringing any energy to it, you might find it is not so painful after all. You can handle it. And then you could ask yourself: Why do I always suppose I have to be perfectly comfortable? If we cannot accept some discomfort, how can we imagine we will ever learn stillness and equanimity? We will just keep moving around trying to be comfortable."
On the morning of the sixth day, Alan faced his greatest temptation to break the vow of silence. In fact, it was something of a miracle that this did not happen. Participants at the retreat were not allowed to read material they had brought from home. Novels or magazines. But they could take books from the monastery's small library. They were all books about Buddhism. Some were new editions of ancient texts, but for the most part, they were modern memoirs and fashionable manuals of mindfulness. People would choose a book from the library and take it into the conservatory, which, being a sheltered suntrap on the south side of the house, was the warmest place to be when you weren't meditating or tramping the paths to and fro across the hillside.
Alan had decided not to read at all on the retreat. He wanted his mind to be as free as possible from thoughts and wordy reflections. But he loved sitting in the conservatory. In particular, sleeping badly as he did, he liked to go there very early in the morning, even before the gong sounded at five, bringing a cup of tea with him from the kitchen and settling into a wicker chair to watch the summer dawn. It was a very beautiful moment of the day when he was absolutely alone and his mind and the world absolutely still, except perhaps for a hedgehog that sometimes appeared in the little rockery outside the windows. The creature moved quickly and stealthily, then settled for a while; moved then settled. What was it doing? Alan wondered. Feeding? On what? Insects? Its movements seemed at once dainty and solemn, full of the pathos of intense animal being. "May all creatures be happy," Alan muttered. "May all creatures be filled with joy and joy for the joy of others." The animal stopped still and gazed around with suspicion. "May all creature be free from all attachment. May all creatures be free."
The old Buddhist formula, which had always seemed rather vague and ingenuous to him, suddenly made complete sense in the summer dawn watching the stealthy hedgehog, and for a moment, Alan himself felt full of joy and empathy for the animal. But even before the words had died on his lips, somebody came into the room. Or rather someone who had already entered the room scraped a chair and sat down. He turned, and it was Amanda.
She must have seen him already, before shifting her seat, yet she immediately covered her face with a book. Since she was hardly an early riser at the best of times, Alan could only assume that she must have slept badly. At once he wanted to ask her what was up. He wanted to show her his concern. He wanted to share the hedgehog with her and talk about his joy. He wanted to discuss Madewela's reflections on pain, which were by far the most profound things they had heard this week, he thought. We mustn't expect to be entirely comfortable. Above all, looking to her across the conservatory in the pale early light, he wanted to say, Tomorrow is the last day, love. Tomorrow evening we will be in each other's arms. There would be the train to London, the wedding, the flight to Rio. Happiness.
But Amanda was quietly forbidding. It seemed she wanted to keep the Noble Silence to the end. She was reading a book called The Still Forest Pool. Her brow was wrinkled in concentration. For 15 minutes as the daylight strengthened and brought out the gold in her hair and the blue in her eyes, Alan sat and watched his wife-to-be across the conservatory and felt again that he did not really know her. Eventually, another retreater came in, sat between them, and sipped rather noisily from his mug of tea.
"Is it possible ever to be free from all attachment?"
Alan had written his name on the list of those seeking an interview with Madewela. He was one of 12 names—Amanda's was not among them—and his appointment came after lunch on the sixth day, in the little library. A card was hung from the doorknob outside—no entry, interview in progress—and as soon as they were seated, Alan told the berobed monk that he just did not see how it was possible to free oneself from all attachment. Speaking for the first time in a week, his voice was oddly hoarse and low. He had come to a number of retreats, he said, over the years, and much appreciated the silence and the focus, felt drawn toward some deeper kind of lifestyle. Certainly the experience had helped him through a painful divorce. But he doubted it would ever be possible to be free from all attachment. To be alive meant to be attached.
Madewela was cheerfully matter of fact, sitting back in a dilapidated armchair.
"The path is not easy," he said. "We are talking about years of dedication."
"But do you feel you've attained this state?" Alan asked. "For example?"
"We're not here to discuss my situation," Madewela replied gently, "and least of all what I imagine or presume I may or may not have achieved."
Suddenly Alan felt frustrated, even angry. Why had he come on this retreat? Why had it seemed so important that Amada come along with him?
"But do you believe that if you don't achieve that detachment, when you die your karma will return, reincarnated as something else? Someone else?"
Madewela noticed that the mood had changed. He sat up in his orange-brown robes and looked at Alan intently for some moments. "Yes," he eventually said. "Yes, I am sure it is so."
The vow of silence was lifted at the end of the morning session on the seventh day. But they still had to have lunch together. Everybody wanted to speak to one another. There was an intense outpouring of social energy. Nothing serious could be said between Alan and Amanda.
"All well?" he asked anxiously when she was beside him for a moment.
"Fine," she smiled. "And you?"
"Good, yes," he said. "Not too much pain?"
"Lots." Her smile took on a hint of wryness. "But it didn't matter somehow."
Then they went to lunch. There was a brief return to silence while the monks chanted and went through their bowing rigmaroles. After which they ate separately, talking to all the people who had been silently around them through the week, and whom they would never see again. Alan asked one of the monks for details about sending a donation to the monastery.
So it was only on the train when they had settled in their seats with their luggage above them in the racks that Amanda was able to open her heart. "I feel a bit disorientated, Al," she said.
He found this sudden vulnerability endearing. "Retreats can do that," he reassured her. "It'll pass in a day or two. No worries."
The two were sitting side by side with the back of another seat unpleasantly close to their knees. She was near the window and looked away to distant hills. When he took her hand, it stayed limp.
Eventually he asked: "What's up, love? Tell me."
"You haven't decided to withdraw from life and turn Buddhist?" he tried to laugh.
She shook her head, but then said: "Perhaps that's what you'd like to do, Al."
"Are you joking?"
The train raced through a cutting. At last she half turned to him. "I'm sorry, Al, but I think I should go to Mum's for a couple of days. I need to think things over."
"I beg your pardon!" He was incredulous. "We're getting married next week. A hundred and more guests at the reception. We have a flight to Brazil the day after. All booked and paid."
"So what would you be thinking over?"
She hesitated. "I observed you a lot at the retreat."
"You hardly looked at me at all," he objected.
She smiled now. She seemed more herself. "Don't take it badly, Al. I was sitting just in front of you. I could feel your presence. Every time I came into the meditation hall, you were already in your place, sitting eyes closed. Every time I left, you stayed on after the gong. Every time there was chanting, I heard how you joined in a moment, then stopped." She sighed. "I felt your disapproval."
"The English words were pretty pathetic, weren't they?"
"A bit, yes."
"They were awful."
"People were sincere, though."
Alan felt a growing sense of anxiety, "And?"
"In the lunch queue you huffed and puffed."
"People were taking so much to eat."
She smiled. "They were, yes."
"So there you are."
"And you huffed and puffed in the evening talks."
"You know what I'm like when people take so long to get to the point."
"You're you, Alan."
She turned to him and took his hand now. She turned it over in hers, apparently with curiosity, as if it were something quite new. Alan waited.
"It was very beautiful," she said softly, "sitting in the silence for all those hours."
"It was. That's why one goes to retreats."
"But the more beautiful it was, the more I felt there was a sort of space opening between us."
She sighed. The train leaned into bend, and a small station flung by. Alan tried to adjust. He mustn't just bulldozer her.
"I think I know what you're saying," he acknowledged. "I felt it a bit too sometimes. That you were far away. It must be some kind of natural reaction to being around someone and never speaking to them."
"I began to feel there was a sort of pool between us," she continued, "a broad calm lake, and we were on separate shores, with all this water between." Her voice had become rather dreamy. "Then about the fourth day, I realized I wasn't really noticing you so much. You'd got so small in the distance. It was a gradual thing. And when I did, it was… well, a disturbance."
"A disturbance?" he repeated blankly.
"I felt disturbed, yes."
"I'm sorry, Al, that's what it felt like." She sighed. "You remember the morning in the conservatory? Seeing you already there when I came in… it felt like a burden. I didn't want you to be there."
"And so?" His voice was hoarse.
"I don't know. I suppose I wondered if I really loved you."
That was too much. Beside himself, Alan jumped up from his seat and walked swiftly through the train. Everywhere people were laughing and texting, watching films on their laptops, helping children with puzzles and coloring books. It was the holiday season. The train swayed and rattled. Happiness seemed the norm. Only he was distraught. Only he was in misery. Passing from one carriage to the next, he saw the emergency stop lever and contemplated it for a while. Penalty for improper use, it warned. Eventually, he found the buffet car and brought back two cappuccinos. Perhaps it was just a bad dream.
And so it turned out. Amanda drank her coffee, phoned her mother and her sister, then began to talk about how irritating it had been sharing a room with the woman with the Oriental smock. "A complete narcissist. Always doing these extreme yoga positions in the middle of the floor in a tight body, so we'd all look at her." Very soon it was clear, the moment of emergency had passed. All the same, over the coming weeks and months, on his wedding night first of all, then on the beach in Rio, but also in the humdrum evening hours after they had cleared up the dishes and sat on the sofa to watch TV or to read, Alan thought often about Madewela's advice: "If you can contemplate a pain steadily, without bringing energy to it, you may find it's not so important after all." The problem, of course, was that the "if" was a big "if." Amanda had been sincere when she spoke of his being a burden to her; she had married him with a doubt in her heart. He had felt it. And every time his mind returned to that, pain got the upper hand. It would not be contemplated coolly. Or worse still, as soon as he did manage a moment's cool contemplation, he would begin to ask himself if she wasn't as much a burden to him as he was to her. They should have thrown off all attachments, perhaps, and followed a different path, different paths. But that thought brought so much pain that he had to get up at once and move about the room.
"Don't you want to watch?" she asked, surprised. It was their favorite series. "What's up?"
Alan hesitated. He was standing in the middle of his beautiful living room, completely lost. Automatically, he went for the fridge.
"Let's open a bottle of wine and get cozy," he said.