I sit here from my computer in Hawkes Bay, amidst the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle, thinking how lucky I am to have found a refuge. A refuge that I can come to whenever I please, a refuge that is always there with warm welcoming arms, and a refuge that safeguards me from any wild happenings that are going on around me. The scaffolding of this refuge was built by the teachings of the Beginning Again Retreat at the Wangapeka Retreat Centre.
On the last day of January 2023, I rolled into the Wangapeka Retreat Centre feeling nervous, but mostly grateful that my rather burly Nissan Caravan had the gumption to get me up the steep incline of the sanctuary. I was welcomed by a small, one-and-a-half year-old teacher, Orla, and her mother Chani. The two ushered me to the tea station, a place I would later discover was my one true home. In finding a box of a close friend’s hand-blended tea (BeatTea©) on the shelf, my nerves settled, and I got the feeling I was right where I was meant to be.
This was the theme of my time in the Beginning Again Retreat. I had never done a meditation retreat before, nor had any experience in meditation. I was pulled to do it through my curiosity of what silence might be like, alongside an inkling that meditation was a good thing to have in my life. With absolute certainty, I now have a steady understanding of why.
Mark, Kath and Chani were kind enough to ease us into silence, which, for a novice like me was comforting. “We encourage you to ease back on reading and writing” they said and so I did. We were encouraged to slow down our body movements, walk slowly, take in the sensations under our feet. Take time with our meal, enjoy and savour what it looks, smells, tastes like, and ponder what effort it has been through to be there (Shout-out to Chrystal for being the best cook on the planet). Slowly but surely, my mind came to accept this new gentler and unhurried pace, and it thankfully responded by slowing down as well.
I must add a disclaimer here – in hindsight I can look at the week broadly and notice how with each day, my body and mind relaxed into “retreat pace”. With this however, I experienced a fair-few stalls, rev-ups, and general engine breakdowns along the way. Which brings me to the teaching itself.
Four times a day, I would take the (usually short but at retreat pace, long) walk through the forest of pine and Putaputawētā (marble leaf) to the Whare Wānanga, a spacious wooden house sitting atop a hill over-looking the Wangapeka Valley. There, Kath, Chani and Mark would be silently waiting for the rest of the rōpū (group) to arrive. Time was taken to the find the perfect cushion, low and behold, every time it was there. Here, I became familiar with a focused mediation on breathing and the intricacies of the practice through my own experience and through what was shared. I quickly learned that what I knew about meditation beforehand, did not encompass the full picture. Concepts of non-judgement and embodiment were vital pieces of the puzzle that made my aspiration, or reason for being there, so much clearer.
Twice a day, these meditation sessions were accompanied by teachings, discussions, and body sessions. One particular session springs up in my sometimes questionable memory. It was towards the end of the retreat. I was feeling calm, grounded, and in awe of a new way of perceiving the world when the veil of the critical mind is lifted. Mark, the facilitator at the time, was encouraging us through meditation to focus on our connection to the ground. I felt into the chair, the floorboards, the cement, the soil, and the clay that lay underneath. I sat here for a moment. After our twenty-minute meditation, Mark surprised me by bringing out clay in round balls, small enough to fit in your hand but large enough to feel the weight of it. He encouraged us to hold this clay, and ponder its origins. Ponder your origins. Ponder the meeting place between you and the clay in your parallel existences on the planet. I felt in that moment like I was holding a teacher, and in holding it in the presence that had been facilitated through a week of silence, I felt I was hearing the voice of the clay saying; “You are here”.
I came out of Beginning Again with a sound understanding of three main things.
One; a practice of meditation that I hold dear and with confidence, in the understanding that I have very little control over when the thinking mind chooses to take me away. Likewise, with when I realise, I have been taken away. And that is ok. Here, I tell myself kindly to come back to the body. Through practice, I will learn again how to experience life through the body, without the veil obstructing the view.
Two; the beginnings of an understanding that I am connected to everything around me. That I exist only because everything else exists and vice-versa. Through meditation, I can begin to sand-down the feeling of separation and exist instead in glorious union with the mauri. This is a big one, so I keep working on this.
Three; teachers come in multiple forms. From people with lived experience, to children, to clay, to leaves, to tea, to books, to birds.
On coming home, life has been stressful. Busy, chaotic, emotional, and for some around me, down-right tragic. For me and my whānau, Cyclone Gabrielle has taken out my uncle’s home, flooded much of the orchards that my dad helps to look after, and brought a tangible tension to my community. Thankfully, my family are safe, and my heart goes out to those that lost their people.
Disaster has brought about a very true and real sense of connectivity and how we help those around us. Currently my job in that web is to deliver marvellous baked goods from the ovens of the local rest home residents; to the community that are shovelling silt or camped up in evacuation houses. Its not a box of roses and there is a long way to go, but patience, acceptance, and the feeling of connection that was strengthened at the Wangapeka Valley have certainly helped.
Before coming to the retreat, my grandmother, a precious woman with a life of dedicated spiritual practice in Christianity, said something like, “There is a line. Above that line is my refuge. Often, I sit in my refuge, and I dance there. When thinking about others I want to help, I imagine them in their refuge, and they dance there too”.
Ngā mihi nui to Mark, Chani, Kath, Orla, Brandon, Chrystal and the other members of our little rōpū in the Beginning Again Retreat for helping me find my refuge. I hope that with time, this little refuge will keep getting bigger, one day to encompass it all.