Grounding the spirit and learning to love yourself

Dzogchen Beara is a welcoming retreat centre for anyone needing some direction in life, says Siobhán Cronin.

The upsurge in interest in Buddhism is no surprise to Matt Padwick, manager of the Dzogchen Beara retreat centre outside Castletownbere in West Cork.

Since Peter and the late Harriet Cornish bought 150 acres of rugged farmland on the Beara peninsula in the 1970s, and later donated it to a Buddhist trust, the numbers flocking to this special site, perched on a cliff edge, overlooking the Atlantic, have been steadily increasing.

But Matt says the centre shouldn’t be seen as exclusively Buddhist — it welcomes all religions, and anyone with an interest in spirituality.

“Things are changing so much these days, people are feeling groundless. They come here to address that. A lot of the people here are not Buddhists at all,” Mr Padwick says. “They come for spiritual direction.”

The idea of Dzogchen Beara, he says, is to make it accessible to the public. So the centre has a wonderfully perched café and bookshop for passing visitors to drop in and browse. There are residential cottages and hostel accommodation, and a state-of-the-art care centre, overlooking the retreat house, is used as a place of rest and renewal, offering a programme of residential weeks and weekend retreats for those facing challenges such as living with illness or disability, or experiencing loss and bereavement. It also holds seminars for care professionals.

Two years ago, Dzogchen received full planning permission for a new meditation centre, which will cost €1.8m. To date, €140,000 has been raised, with €1m needed before construction on the main building can begin.

Visitors are encouraged to enjoy the cliff walks and gardens and if they are a little more curious about the work of the centre, there are free, daily guided meditation sessions suitable for beginners.

Derek Mulligan, from Booterstown in Dublin, attended a recent retreat at the centre, to help him to come to terms with the death of his wife 21 weeks earlier.

“I just felt I wanted to go away somewhere and cry for a week,” he says, “and I was thinking of the Aran Islands. But I met a woman in Arc House in Dublin who said to me ‘That’s a great idea, but I know a better place’.”

So Derek made the journey, for the first time, to Dzogchen Beara, and signed up for a week’s workshop in ‘loving kindness’.

“I’ve cried constantly for the last six days — even before it started, I cried. But I feel it’s a very safe place, and I am surrounded by well-meaning people. I was brought up Catholic, but I find that, now, my faith escapes me.”

At Dzogchen Beara, Derek learned that it was okay to be kind to yourself. “It was a revelation to me, to be honest. I had the kind of job where I was constantly trying to be kind to everybody else. In the past, I would have said that being kind to yourself was selfish. But I realise now that it’s okay to spoil yourself, to love yourself. My self-esteem has gone up, but it’s something you really need to cultivate.”

Derek says that in Beara he found a group of people who had given themselves an “absolute licence” to be honest and open with the rest of the people in the group. “You cannot do that in ordinary society,” he says. “Here, the attention people give you when you are talking to them is extraordinary.”

After completing the week at the centre, Derek says he won’t be setting his sights too high for himself yet. “I am going to try and do ten minutes of meditation every day, and I am going to bring home a couple of things to remind me of here,” he says, revealing a stunning photograph of a sunset over the ocean. “That’s going to be my screensaver now.” He had also taken a small slip of a pale pink fuschia that was unseasonally blooming before its time.

“I’d heard about the dramatic location here, but it’s even more beautiful than I imagined,” he says. “I don’t want to become fanatical about it, but I would like to come back again. Before, if you had mentioned meditation to me, I would have said, ‘Going around thinking of nothing? Where’s the logic in that?’ But I think I have the hang of it now.”

Singer Eithne Ni Chatháin has been coming to Dzogchen Beara for many years, so is familiar with the routine. Part of her most recent workshop involved silence in the mornings, working up to a day of silence mid-week. “It’s really revealing,” she says. “It showed me that so much of what we say is totally irrelevant.” Eithne, who also teaches music, says she has discovered that both her pupils and the audience can pick up so much “subtle energy,” and how she relates to them has a huge bearing on a performance. “I feel I am geared up for going back home now,” she says. “I think I can bring some of the practice into my life.”

Andrew Marr has been giving ‘loving kindness’ retreats for eight years, and says that people find it useful to calm themselves. “It’s not an especially Buddhist idea, it’s really universal. We are not there to push a particular line, but it’s certainly the most popular retreat we do.

“A lot of people are very hard on themselves and tend to think everything is their fault. If we focus on the negative things happening around us these days, we cannot elevate the spirit, so we try to focus on healthy things,” says Andrew. “It’s not a cure-all, but maybe people will be better able to deal with things afterwards, because they will be coming from a different place.”

The centre’s ‘open welcome’ to all has been extended to Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, who will lead meditation in the ‘Healing Power of Presence’ weekend at the centre in May, when she will be joined by clinical psychologist Dr Tony Bates, who will lead the teaching element of the two-day workshop.

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