I felt a fair amount of trepidation ahead of spending my first Christmas away from family and friends, meditating with a group of strangers – but I have no regrets! Tara Rokpa Centre is situated in a beautiful part of South Africa’s North West Province, in a lush green valley where every day is full of melodic birdsong.
Despite being one of the most junior practitioners, I was made to feel as welcome at the Centre as the retreatants who had been practising for 20 years. The Christmas Retreat is considered a ‘relaxed’ schedule by serious meditators, who had been sitting quietly for 6 or more hours per day during the previous 3 weeks. As a relative beginner, I was somewhat relieved that we were only expected to do around 2.5 hours of meditation per day! Dónal Creedon is a highly respected international teacher, made evident by the numbers of people who travelled across the world, including from the UK, to benefit from his teaching, as well as by those southern Africans who were retreating with Dónal for the fourth or fifth time.
Apart from meditation practise, we engaged in around 2 hours of teaching and discussion per day, most of which focused on the ‘big existential questions’ that we all grapple with at least a few times in life, if not on an ongoing basis! In addition, we had the opportunity to participate in a series of workshops about the elements in Tibetan Medicine (fire, earth, water etc), overseen by Pippa, a lively, wise and experienced facilitator. Similarly, there were optional somatic movement classes, which were excellent for stretching and relaxing the body, especially after long periods of sitting. One day we also had a wonderful walk to a nearby waterfall where we enjoyed swimming in a large natural rockpool.
Ample portions of healthy vegetarian fare were served every day, including some local produce from the TRC gardens. One of the biggest ‘pluses’, in my view, is that there is no mobile reception at the Centre. For the first time in many years, I was in an environment where phones were not lying on the table at every mealtime, and people were actually present, without interruptions or distractions.
Whilst there was no pressure to talk or socialise, I made new friends and had many interesting conversations with other retreatants, who came from a wide variety of backgrounds, including anthropology, psychology, and literature, amongst others.
I left the retreat feeling enriched: intellectually stimulated and mentally challenged, at the same time as being relaxed and rejuvenated. I am already looking forward to my next visit.
Photos: Souad Hervé