This weekend I've submitted myself to a Meditation Retreat at a local Buddhist Centre, part of the tedious journey of personal development afflicting all middle youth like me.
It's not in fact much of a retreat for me, as I'm an outpatient, sleeping and eating at home and twiddling my thumbs during the generous tea breaks provided in the daily sessions. Twiddling ones thumbs in a Buddhist Centre in fact means eating a lot of the not especially healthy but vegetarian foods that seems to be favoured by the Buddhists, slouching on sofas and wandering in the mud of the lovely if unkempt grounds.
The apparatus of the North Wing Meditation Room is the same shrill, corporate blue of the local kerbside recycling boxes: we don't kneel or sit cross-legged, instead we sit on a conference-style chair with a matching blue foot cushion. Unfortunately this (relative) comfort leads to many of us novices sleeping instead of enjoying a 'journey out of our transparent skins made of light' and it is the distraction of the surrounding snoring that in fact is my meditative undoing. The aesthetics of the place fascinate me: a significant and vast mid 19th C mansion dotted with huge Buddha casts and paintings, each with its offering of packeted vegetarian foodstuffs in front. One could eat for a year from these - I wonder what happens to those rice cakes, the elderflower cordial, the halva when they are past the sell-by date? A resident lay Buddhist gives us a tour but it seems an idiotic question to ask.
Nevertheless it's a fascinating day: Fat is not a Buddhist issue: the monks' robes are - after all - one size fits all, and they freely admit that the banning of stimulants and alcohol leads to a love of chocolate and cake. Most course attendees are women of a certain age and a certain size, so we are all compatible. The state of the gardens attest to a certain lack of physical activity as the Buddhist norm - ah, the limited power of prayer when it comes to weeding.
Our main teaching monk resembles Lenny Henry, except that she has a natural gift for comedy. At one juncture in the soothing babble about business of mind and meditative objects she mentions her predilection for meditating on rhubarb, for the reason that it so repels her and thus offers her a suitably potent meditative focus.
I'm there more for the eyes-shut meditation than the Buddhist theory, which in any case seems only gently promoted (noone speaks above a loud whisper here). The exception is a singalong to a dreadful dirge written by the Centre's founder that punctuates the day. It reminds me of then Church tried to go cool in the late 70's (in some places - like Coniston - it got stuck there) - long hair, guitars, songs not hymns etc. The Founder Monk should have stuck to the day job of promoting world peace, for sure. All I recall is that this Buddhist version of 'All things bright and beautiful' includes the line 'My body is a wish fullfilling jewel' and that we were required to sing (most of us whisper in embarrasment) along with a backing tape at least twice before meditation. Clearly if you know the song by heart - as the monks did - this in itself becomes a kind of sung meditation, as they are no longer squinting at a laminated songsheet with typos, as we novices were. To them this song can become abstract, ritualistic, reassuringly timeless. Oddly this song is our only shared sound and I find myself wishing from some kind of group 'Ommmm' to drown out the snores, coughs, yawns and wheezes that so put me off.
Finally I'm reminded of a recent visit to the church I attended all through my youth, now with my frail mum in her wheelchair. Despite her illness and fading memory, and though it was nearly 25 years since the sung service was a weekly part of my life, we both sailed through the complex Episcopalian Communion bits and bobs, neither of us needing the booklet (which she can no longer read anyway). I can now see that this might be as close to meditation as I've ever been - the confident ritual, the beauty of the language and music, its familiarity cleansing the mind and even offering the body some relief in the gentle seesaw of kneeling and standing. My hand rested on my mother's shoulder as she repeated softly 'Take, eat, this my body, it is broken for you'. The power of these words melded with my intimate physical sense of her - somehow still robust - won't ever leave me.