I had been living in Burma for several months when I headed over the border to India and north to McLeod Ganj. I was off on one of those Western rites of passage - the Buddhist retreat. The retreat went for ten days. I lasted barely two and the truth is I was at the cold mountain retreat for just two hours before I thought, "I'm an atheist, get me out of here!"
The problem was that is was all so very very dour and I just wanted to keep laughing out loud. Yes I know that for most people the search for enlightenment is serious but I just kept on finding it absurd -which admittedly hardly fit the spirit of why we were there.
To be honest, on my way to north India I was doing some serious mental house keeping about my own world view and had spent quite a bit of time the week before pondering this. The night before the retreat I had a classic "dark night of the soul', where I scared myself witless thinking about deep stuff, and maybe I had enough heavy contemplation for the time being.
Or maybe in the end, I truly am what many Buddhists would call a "closed mind". The retreat had the exact opposite effect on me that it was supposed to: I had over the previous few days and weeks and months hardened into even more of an atheist, believing that pragmatism and actually doing something about situations is more the go. My grandfather had once said to me "greater are the hands that work than are the hands that pray" and it always stuck. When I saw a sign at the retreat that urged everyone to repeat something called the Golden Mantra 1000 times "as this will stop the killing and bring peace in Iraq" I was bamboozled - it seemed to me to be such a cop out at the worst, muddle headed at best.
There was a ban on talking, and eye contact was discouraged but I managed to find everything funny. One young fellow retreater was given the job of wandering around the compound banging a gong 10 minutes before the beginning of each class. He was dressed in a hippy outfit par excellence (including a ridiculous pixie hat) bashing away at his gong. I just had to catch a glimpse of him and wanted to laugh out loud. I was biting the inside of my cheeks every time he padded past me, banging away.
On a silent walk (strolling around the grounds contemplating the true meaning of our existence) I was heartened to see two women hiding in the bushes away from authoritarian eyes, gossiping their heads off. I so wanted to join them but knew I couldn't gate crash. I just knew they weren't discussing spiritual issues, more likely whether or not they should have bought that Tibetan carpet at such a good price down in the town.
Now to prove the depths of how shallow I really am, I also couldn't get into the prescribed retreat outfit. In my defence it was very very cold. But how I ended up wearing toe socks is as big a mystery to me now as it was then. I will spare you further sartorial details but let's just say I was wearing a blanket as a poncho. My word, I am grateful we weren't allowed mirrors.
Some very serious western nuns and monks sat serenely in the courtyard. I broke the rules and spoke - just had to ask one of them - who I knew to be American - how the Presidential elections were unfolding. Had a winner been declared, I asked? She looked at me with what I assume was pity and declared that such earthly concerns were certainly no concern of hers.
That was it. I folded and decided this was not the way I would find my inner happiness. Among other things I desperately needed to know who had won the election. I went to the office, past the signs which encouraged us to be kind and compassionate to ourselves and each other. I walked in and admitted failure and said that I need a taxi to take me back to the town.
Compassion was hard to find in the office. Bickering, blaming and moaning broke out among the European staff. "Well I just can't find any money right now to give you a refund....this is very inconvenient...." griped one person. Another started whining about an absent office manager. "Bloody Sabine should not be having showers at this time of the day, she should be here!" Someone else started bitching to me about how chaotic the place was and that no one told anybody anything . Sabine appeared, fresh from her shower and talked about me like I wasn't there. "Well I'm not giving her a refund because it's out of office hours" (It was 11.30. A sign indicated that office hours were 9.30 - 12.30). Someone else retorted, "well I have been working hard and you've been off having a shower, so it's not as if we didn't try and get it done" ....meanwhile outside, all the retreaters were wandering to the sound of a soft banging gong, searching for inner peace and contemplating the Golden Mantra.