Formless Meditation Retreat

Last week I attended my first ever week-long Formless Meditation retreat at The Hermitage Buddhist retreat centre in North Wales.

The week involved staying at The Hermitage and attending meditation sessions throughout the day and inspiring daily teaching sessions given by our teacher Lama Shenpen, who has nearly 50 years experience of meditation and the Mahamudra/Dzogchen traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.

Formless Meditation involves calming the mind (Shamata) and developing a questioning mind to allow insights to arise (Vipasyana)

It’s called Formless Meditation to distinguish it from other types of meditation that use ‘form’ such as concentrating on a Buddha or deity etc.

We were mostly very lucky with the weather and had some lovely warm, sunny days, which were perfect for walking round the beautiful grounds of The Hermitage during the walking meditation sessions. It’s so peaceful there, you can sit in the garden and hear only the birds singing, the tinkling of wind chimes and the gentle flapping of prayer flags.

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The quiet country lanes next to The Hermitage were also perfect for walking meditation and have lovely views of Snowdon and surrounding hills.

It was great to have had the opportunity to go for such an immersive, week-long experience. There were long periods of silence including several days in the middle of the week. I didn’t struggle with this, having more of a natural tendency towards being quiet! Some of the meditation sessions could be tiring, as it isn’t always relaxing to sit with your thoughts and experience, it can often be challenging.

The first time I visited The Hermitage for one of their regular meditation and teaching weekends, Lama Shenpen said in her talk that often we discover that the thing that is most disturbing our mind, is in fact our own mind! It’s very helpful and interesting to realise and notice this, especially when spending a longer time in retreat. It becomes a case of noticing and ‘being with’ whatever comes up.

I did notice at the start of the week a strong sensation of resistance to the idea of the retreat when it first officially started, which surprised me and was really interesting! I felt quite grumpy out of nowhere, about setting the retreat boundaries and not being able to check my phone when I fancied it, despite wanting to be there and participate!

That’s why setting your intention and boundaries is really important. As is aligning with your ‘Heart Wish‘ – a term we use a lot in the Discovering The Heart of Buddhism home study course – and asking for help to see the retreat through, using the liturgy we recite at the start of the retreat. It really helps us stay on course.

It’s natural to get these unsettled, rebellious and resistant thoughts and feelings during a retreat. It was reassuring to speak with more experienced retreatants to hear their experiences of this kind of thing and that it’s perfectly ‘normal.’

It was helpfully explained to me that it’s akin to Mara visiting the Buddha on the eve of his enlightenment: the stronger and deeper our intention and Heart Wish to step away from our ego mandala and Awaken, the stronger and more forcefully Maras (fears, doubts etc) can fight to retain their ground.

Sometimes with Buddhist practice, things can get harder, not easier for this reason! It’s as if a tug of war starts up between the part of us that wants to practice and awaken (our practice mandala or mandala of awakening) and the part of us that is happy to stay with what’s familiar and same old samsara (our ego mandala).

During the week of the retreat we could have interviews with Lama Shenpen to discuss our how it was going and ask any questions about what we were experiencing. She also held some very helpful question and answer sessions throughout the retreat. We’re very lucky to have such direct contact and guidance from such a wonderful and experience teacher. Throughout the week on the evenings, Lama also regaled us with fascinating and often humorous stories from her life as a nun in India in the 70s, her time with Tenzin Palmo and her different teachers and friends.

On the last day of the retreat we all received the official Transmission of the Formless Meditation instruction from Lama Shenpen. This is a very special occasion as we are part of a tradition of oral transmission, so these instructions are the same instructions that have been passed down from teacher to student, all through the hundreds of years of the lineage.

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We invoke the adhistana (power/blessing) of the lineage through offerings and formally requesting the transmission. We make the occasion as special and reverent as possible and decorate the shrine room with flower petals we picked from the grounds.

After the offerings and request, the Transmission involved Lama Shenpen leading us through a special guided meditation and afterwards we each in turn received a blessing from her. It’s almost indescribable how moving and genuinely, deeply special the occasion felt!

We finished the week with a feast offering on the last evening, essentially a big Buddhist party, to celebrate the end of our retreat and sticking to our commitments!

I felt very appreciative of the causes and conditions that enabled me to be at The Hermitage in person that week, to receive the week’s teachings and the official Transmission from Lama Shenpen. It was also great to share the experience of the retreat in the company of friends and Dharma companions within the Sangha, something I’m appreciating more and more. I’m already looking forward to returning to The Hermitage in September for another retreat.

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