My Highlight of 2012: a 5-day Silent Retreat at Bodhi Khaya

I was fortunate enough to secure a last-minute space on the long-weekend silent retreat that Sue Cooper facilitated at the beautiful Bodhi Khaya in the run-up to Christmas, and it has got to rank up there as my number one experience of last year.

2012 was a year of huge change and upheaval for me, on many different levels, what with moving house twice, the loss of my very precious Granny, and a number of other personal challenges. So when I read about this retreat, entitled ‘Finding Balance in the Midst of Change’, I leapt at the opportunity to attend – even though it was just a week before it was due to run. Sue very gently let me know that it had been booked out for months already, but assured me that she’d get in touch if there was a cancellation. I can’t recall the last time I put as much energy into willing this to happen as I did that week, and with just days to go, I got the beautiful phone call to tell me that there had indeed been a cancellation, and I’d better pack my bags.

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I’ve attended a semi-silent retreat before, with Cheryl Lancellas of SA Yoga Safaris at the Blue Butterfly Resort in Tulbagh (with my yoga besties, Nicole Shea and Leli Hoch) but never anything as intense as this promised to be, so there was an element of apprehension as the time drew closer, however this was replaced by a huge sense of relief, gratitude and curiosity as the day dawned. As I took the turn-off to Bodhi Khaya, between Gansbaai and Stanford, it struck me that this was exactly the road on which our very special family friends, the Harrods, used to own a farm called Grootbos (next door to what is now a game reserve by the same name), and as I drove into the actual gates of Bodhi Khaya, I realised that this was, indeed, the farm that the Harrods had owned a number of years back. It was an emotional realisation and led to an overwhelming feeling of coming home, of belonging, of being safe, and of being exactly where I was supposed to be. The last time I’d been on the farm was around 1998 or 1999, just before I left to go to London, and yet it felt like yesterday. At the time, I was in the process of getting over a very painful breakup, and I remember how the peace, quiet and beauty of the farm and its surrounds were like a balm to my raw emotions. And here I was again, feeling decidedly delicate, and once again almost felt that my breath was taken away by the natural beauty of the place.

The retreat was the most amazing, uplifting, healing and enlightening experience that I have ever had. The silence was simultaneously challenging and beautiful, and I honestly have never been in a place that appealed to my senses on so many levels and in such an intense manner. The crisp white bed linen, the green of the trees, the flavours and textures of the exquisite food that we were presented with each day, the blue of the sky, the silky feeling of the water in the two mountain ponds, the pinks of the water lilies, the breeze on my skin as we did Chi Kung under the swaying trees, the smell of the incense as we sat down to each of the many meditation sessions that took place each day, the sensation of the grass crunching underfoot as I walked to the horses’ paddock and the roughness of the path as I walked the labyrinth, the feeling of my yoga mat underfoot as I practiced every day, the sound of the chickens clucking as I lay on my back looking up at the clouds in the day and the sound of the night jars as I lay on my back looking up at the stars at night.. perhaps it was the silence that seemed to enhance everything about the long weekend. Whatever the reason, it was a tonic and a privilege to experience.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, of course – being alone with one’s self for such an extended period of time, and without all the usual distractions, means that you have no choice but to sit down with all the different emotions and issues that may arise, look them squarely in the eye, and figure out how it is that you are going to move forward embracing these things rather than trying to push them out of the way or pretend that they don’t exist. It was a safe and nurturing environment in which to do this, and I came away from it with a deep sense of peace and acceptance, as well as forgiveness – for others that I may have been harbouring anger and resentment towards for a long time, but specifically forgiveness for myself, for all the ‘wrong’ decisions and actions that I may have made and done in the past, and that I’m no doubt still going to make and do in the future. The theme may have been ‘finding balance in the midst of change’ but one of the biggest things that I got out of it was a rediscovery of what it feels like to be kind and compassionate towards myself. Sue, wonderful Sue, refers to ‘holding oneself in an embrace of compassionate awareness’, and this is something that I have carried with me every day since I got back.

On the last day, when we were permitted to talk again, I found that I just wasn’t ready for it. The chat seemed so noisy, so superficial, so intrusive. It took me a number of hours before I felt that I was ready to re-enter the ‘normal’ world, and to leave the magical playground of Bodhi Khaya / Grootbos behind, but of course life doesn’t stop – even though it did feel like a period of suspended reality – and now the on-going challenge is to attempt to maintain the same level of awareness, consciousness and mindfulness as I walk through my regular life. I have already signed up to go to Sue’s next silent retreat in the run-up to Christmas this year, and I cannot wait!

by Nicci Cloete

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“Shall we become yogis then?”

From 29 October to 6 November 2011 Ken Holmes presented a retreat called: Buddhist Yoga of Body and Mind: the Nangpi Yoga of Kalu Rinpoche, at Bodhi Khaya.

The word yoga conjures images of contortions that stretch the limbs. Buddhist yoga, it turns out, is designed to stretch the mind.

The inimitable – indeed, lovable – Ken Holmes, esteemed director of studies at Samye Ling (the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West), took his seat in front of the shrine on our first day, rubbed his hands and with a provocative glint in his eye asked: “Shall we become yogis then?”

Those who’ve met Ken will understand when writers, like myself, must first indulge in a physical description. The profusion of hair makes the most indelible impression – a mop of grey the colour of wisdom; curly locks like cornucopias of knowledge; wrathful eyebrows that hint at the role of grand dharma protector. It’s like he skipped reincarnation and just walked straight out of the 19th century.

It was also as if he’d brought a spot of Scottish weather with him, a fitting backdrop for the work at hand. The anachronistic clouds and rain and cold seemed to complement the significance of what we were there to learn, and proved little cause for complaint thanks to the downright cosiness of even Bodhi Khaya’s dorm rooms.

Forest Shrine

The unique series of yogic exercises that we proceeded to learn over the next eight days were devised in Samye Ling by the great Kalu Rinpoche for the special benefit of a Western and lay audience. They are informed by Kalu Rinpoche’s own experience, as well as the non-secret portions of some of the yogas practised on the traditional (and unbelievably intense) four-year retreats. As such, its aspects go from the beginnings to the end of Tibetan Buddhist practice, using body and mind in a way that speaks to both halves of the brain simultaneously. It starts with the basics (itself calling on a big mind, an open heart and a level of compassion that stretches the imagination), builds up through classical compassion exercises (like tonglen) and moves on to channel and chakra work in the inner, visualized body of light.

The mindful movements were relatively unchallenging (except, perhaps, for those who attempted to include the headstand). But each move had its own place within a wider contemplation, and in this way practitioners were able to actually embody some of the insights of the Buddhist view. In the words of Kalu Rinpoche: “Dharma is not like a speech – if you don’t practise it, it remains as it is, just words.”

Our deepest thanks to Ken Holmes, whose devotion to the Kagyu tradition and the purity of authentic dharma is a true inspiration.

Written by Albert Buhr, who is a regular visitor to Bodhi Khaya.