Gaia House review | meditation retreat, Devon
Tranquil Buddhist retreat in Devon
The Quick Read: This marvellous Buddhist retreat is set in a former convent in the peaceful countryside of South Devon, and has all the ingredients you need for a successful meditation retreat, including a serene meditation hall, clean and simply decorated bedrooms, healthy vegetarian food and lots of spaces to lose yourself in. Expert tutors offer highly affordable meditation days, weekend retreats and week-long stays and specialise in teaching Vipassana, or Insight Meditation. Some retreats mix meditation with yoga and qigong, and most are open to those who have never meditated before as well as advanced practitioners. As at all bona fide Buddhist meditation retreats, be prepared to help out with basic daily chores such as gardening, cleaning or preparing meals.
Our experience: Caroline Sylger Jones writes ‘Over the years I’ve attended one day, five-day and week-long silent Vipassana meditation retreats here and have always left happier than when I arrived. It’s one of the most affordable, simple retreats I’ve been to, but it’s given me some of the most life-transforming experiences.
Forget luxury spas and posh locations – in the most sleep-deprived and anxious moments of early motherhood, for example, it was Gaia House that I turned to in my head for solace. I imagined myself sitting in the simple, spacious meditation hall, eyes closed and soft shawl around my shoulders, listening to the sound of birdsong, feeling the warmth of sunlight across my face, and breathing slow, deep breaths of rejuvenation. Meditating doesn’t often lead to such blissful feelings, of course, but this place helps me come close to inner contentment where most other ways of being have failed.
Calm and order prevails here, with occasional surprises. On the day retreat I went on during my pregnancy it was the skeleton of an Indian man placed among the plants in the walking meditation room. I sat on the cushion in front of him and contemplated his bones and skeletal teeth, trying to look death in the eye just before I was to give birth to new life. Memento Mori – remember we must die – so make the most of every moment.’
More on the outside: The grounds are beautifully kept, and include a giant, mature oak tree and a little pond flagged by hand-made mosaics. One of my favourite spots is the top little garden which looks out over fields, with gravel pathways, flower beds and a gazebo where, the last couple of times I have visited, someone there before me used little pebbles to spell out, Be Here Now. Gaia House recycles as much as it can, and grows a lot of its own produce in its herb and vegetable garden.
More on the inside: All the public spaces are flooded with natural light. There’s a large dining room looking over the garden, a library filled with books (which opens at the end of most retreats), a spacious, serene meditation hall and a special wooden-floored room specially for walking meditation. You can relax in the communal lounge, though I especially love the library as a place to munch toast and honey at tea time, with its large windows overlooking the front garden and pretty pots of red geraniums.
More on the bedrooms: Clean and simply decorated, these have white-washed walls, single beds and simple bedding you put on yourself. Most are shared, though there are single rooms available which go first to those who have a medical condition – ask in advance if there are any available. I take my stuff in a big stand-alone basket so I don’t have to unpack and it’s easy to find things. Bathrooms are shared, but they’re all kept scrupulously clean and there are plenty of them. Bedroom 33 is reserved for those who want to do their own yoga or other practice (there are mats).
The meditation: Gaia House teaches Vipassana, or Insight Meditation, the style of meditation practiced by Theravada Buddhists. It promotes staying in the present whatever arises, by sustained attention (usually to the breath) and mindfulness (of the self and others). The idea is that this in turn cultivates aspects of our character that help us to live more happily and easily, such as awareness, inner peace, kindness and compassion. The daily routine is carefully planned so that you can feel safe and secure, enabling you to enter into the often challenging process of meditation without having to worry about your basic needs. Most retreats are held in silence, and there’s something especially rejuvenating about not having to talk. Slowly, you start to feel you are part of the community anyway, a feeling which, strangely, speech can often interfere with in normal life.
Food & drink: Vegetarian meals are eaten in a large, wooden-floored, light-filled dining room and are simple, tasty and substantial. Expect lots of stews, curries and roasted vegetables, with fresh salads straight from the garden. The main meal is eaten at lunchtime; supper is usually soup and toast. Special diets, including vegan, can be catered for as long as you tell them in advance. As with all buddhist retreats, drinking alcohol, smoking and eating meat are not allowed. There’s also a tea counter where you can help yourself to hot drinks throughout the day.
Fellow guests: Young, middle age and older, all faiths and none, newcomers to Buddhism or meditation and old hands, the stressed out, the worried, the happy, loners and socialites, rich and poor, anyone and everyone.
What’s queenly: Tutors are experts in their field. They include founder Christina Feldman and renowned Zen teacher Martine Batchelor, who lived in Korea as a nun for 10 years, her husband Stephen Bachelor, author of accessible, intelligent books including Buddhism without Beliefs, and the mellow Yanai Postelnik, who has over 20 years teaching experience. You’ll come away with a skill for life.
What’s lowly: As it’s an old building the convent can get chilly in places, plus you’re sitting still a lot, so be sure to bring lots of warm layers, including a pair of slippers for indoors.
Review by Caroline Sylger Jones
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