Dzogchen Beara Retreat Centre offers relaxation and stunning views as Hilary Fennel discovered over a week’s retreat.
As I arrive at Dzogchen Beara Tibetan Buddhist Retreat, I’m struck not only by the natural beauty of the place, but also by the atmosphere of profound peace.
I’m here for a silent meditation retreat: No talking, wifi, books, or phones for what sounds like a very long week.
It’s situated on the wild Beara Peninsula in West Cork, sitting high on cliffs with breathtaking views over the Atlantic Ocean. In 1973, Englishman Peter Cornish and his wife Harriet bought this farmland with the intention of creating a spiritual home for people of all traditions.
They gifted it to a charitable trust under the spiritual guidance of Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche. They now welcome everyone, of any faith or none.
You can drop in for their daily meditation class, a walk around the coast, lunch in the cafe, and a browse in the well-stocked bookshop. Alternatively, stay on site and take part in daily meditations or a retreat.
Whenever I mention my week, eyebrows shoot up at the word ‘silent’, which is strange, because it was the last thing I focused on until I was sitting on the floor on the first night, as course leader Andrew Warr detailed the weekly schedule.
Suddenly I’m scared. I realise I’m used to talking. I like talking. I talk to people for a living, for God’s sake. Will I go mad if I can’t communicate? How will I cope without text? Email? And my lists? I like my lists.
I ask a lot of questions about how silent is silent — is it like the no English rule at Irish College —will I get sent home if I speak? Andrew answers me patiently. And then we’re off. No talking for a week.
I’m with one of my closest friends and it takes hours for our giddiness to calm. We’re sharing a cottage, and spectacular ocean views, with four strangers. At first, it seems odd, rude even, not to chat.
But after some whispering — or Irish Silence as our German housemate drily comments later — we too shut up, and I find the silence easier than I could ever have dreamt.
Days are long, from 7.30am until 9pm. There are about 30 of us. We sit on cushions, chairs, or stools. People automatically gravitate towards their favourite spot; mine is by a window from where I watch the sun rise and then, hours later, set over the undulating sea, as we continue to sit in flickering candlelight.
The course consists of meditation sessions and classes which include video teachings by Sogyal Rinpoche and other masters. Our leader Andrew, a former lawyer, gently guides us through the week ably assisted by Olivier Riche, an IT consultant, and Veronica Nicholson, a photographer.
We can break our silence for questions during sessions and there are also regular breaks for walks. Delicious vegetarian meals are served and eating in silence feels awkward to start with but becomes bliss; you really notice how excellent the food tastes when you don’t have to think about what you’re going to say next.
Andrew explains how, generally, we waste our lives distracted from our true selves in endless activity; meditation is the way to bring us back to ourselves, by stabilising the mind.
Back straight, hands on knees, eyes open. We learn how to use supports, such as focusing on the breath, or an object or a sound.
I’d tried a little meditation before but I find the sessions very hard at first. My mind is full of thoughts. I try to focus on one of my hands — who invented nail varnish? I try to focus on my breath — who’s doing the breathing? Andrew has explained the subtle difference between sitting with a blank mind and simply being with whatever is. Too subtle, I fear.
We watch a teaching that compares the thoughts in our mind to a busy monkey, forever active. Usually, we either obey this ‘monkey mind’, making him the boss, or fight him. The suggestion is that during meditation we simply give him a job to do: To focus on the breath. This concept works for me. Gradually, I stop reacting to each and every thought. Once uncomfortable feelings and memories begin to surface, I try to just be with them.
By the week’s end, when Andrew tells us we can speak, I’ve nothing pressing to say. Neither, it seems, do those around me. Having spent 12-hour days in each other’s, albeit silent, company, I feel I know them. Slowly, we talk. Some are regular meditators, apparently healthy, happy individuals, others are getting over a bad break-up or an illness.
There are many retreats on offer, year round. Rates vary. On-site accommodation includes the cottages, a hostel, and a spiritual care centre where a care team offers support to those living through illness or bereavement.
Cottage rooms are from €45 single or €30 pps per night and hostel dorm beds €15 per night. There are plenty of local B&Bs. The rest of Beara is every bit as stunning as our perch: Nearby Castletownbere is there for pubs, restaurants, Sarah Walker’s gallery, or a boat trips to Bere Island. Eyeries too, with its gaily painted houses. Coastal walks from Allihees. Garnish for a swim on white sand.
And how have I fared since? I’m trying to do five minutes a day. Some days I don’t even manage that. I realise it’s not a quick fix, that to bring about profound, deep-rooted changes, meditation is something I need to practice and build up in the same way that I do physical fitness.
But I’m committed and that, I hope, is what will make all the difference in the end.
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