Summer Youth Retreat, Dechen Choling.

Back I travel to this land of great bliss, ringing with old memories. Around me trees I’ve touched, rooms I’ve swept, faces I remember.

I delight in every single liminal space, and the thick scent of July at Dechen Choling. Every now and then I hear ‘Jesse!’ from up ahead and there is someone whose life spilled into mine last summer, here to greet me again.


On the first day of the retreat most are shy. We introduce ourselves with small voices, blush a little, minimise what we do. We seem so strange to one another. Aliens from all over Europe. I share a tent with an English girl named Bee. ‘Like the insect,’ she says. She’s new to Shambhala and we chat easily, our blonde hair laid flat in the tick-ridden grass. Grasses pale and prickly as straw. It hasn’t rained here for two months, and the rambling roses and passion flowers are parched. Lizards scarper and fall from vertical walls. Our backs sweat under t-shirts.

The trees seem even larger and awe-inspiring this year, vibrating a dense syrupy magnitude. There is nowhere else on earth where nature communicates so openly with me. After dark, the nightingales call out like wild monkeys. I drift into a sultry sleep, only to be woken by night-terrors from fellow sleepers. I hear my brother running across the field to see what’s happening. I lie awake staring through my canvas window frame but see nothing. Bee gets up and electrocutes herself on the fence separating us from some rusty-coated cows. Around 3am a motorbike starts circling so loudly and fast I wonder if it will plough right through our tent.

We eat breakfast quietly with tired eyes and bare limbs. Sometimes someone asks someone else a question. My meditation suffers from the restless night, as I try and fail again and again to stay awake. In discussion group I’m paired with a German named Simon. We speak intensely to one another about our fears. How meditation can highlight the knife-edge of where our safe, cocooned numbness ends and our schizophrenic, fear-ridden ego lurks, waiting to be acknowledged. We have a lot in common, both diving earnestly into our practice, forgetting to let ourselves breathe from time to time. He asks me, ‘How can I slam on the brakes, when suddenly I don’t feel I’m on solid ground?’ I can’t answer him because I often wonder the same thing.

At lunch we eat a lot of gorgeous vegetables from Michael’s garden. I take a walk, take a shower, take a nap. We meet again in the afternoon to meditate more and talk about hierarchy in Shambhala. Over the retreat our teacher Orhun gives us many talks – about sex, relationships, money, love, dharma centres, the environment, sensitivity, emotions. He so seamlessly relates these topics to normal life, and recognises how it is to be young-hearted, scared, passionate, and lonely. Though he is an esteemed Acharya (or perhaps because he is one), I feel no segregation between us and him. We talk about our crushes and misconducts in the back of the van on the way to bars like school kids; we canoe together, swim in the river, make campfires, play guitar, and dance to techno by the lake. He is frequently the one getting us into trouble. He is frequently hilarious.

One evening all thirty of us take a silent walk around the French country lanes, through a pine forest, past goats and donkeys and horned cattle; down leafy tracks where I pick up a blue feather; past a fountain and an old, locked church. The bronzed locals pretend not to watch us, their eyes darting away when I glance up.


When we speak again it’s about how sensitive we are as humans. How we can open in situations like these and allow ourselves to feel so much love and, if we’re not careful, hurt. This theme of openness returns again and again until, by the end of the ten days we are so compassionate to one another’s fragility it’s like we wear each other as ourselves.

After a week, I realise there hasn’t been a moment of alone time. So I sneak away and lie still for twenty minutes on my bed. The rains come, weighty droplets hitting the canvas thicker and faster as the sky bursts open. I hold my heart. It’s been a week of testing boundaries, feeling scared, curling up with closed eyes, laughing, feeling funny, holding hands with strangers. Forging deep, sweet friendships, daring to look each other in the eye. Talking to Doug my meditation instructor about tears and posture and sadness. Daring to see past walls. I’m tired. I feel full to the brim with empathy.


In my Compassionate Abiding practice I hug my teenage self and tell her everything will be ok. I inwardly hug the crying lady from Enlightened Society Assembly who I was too shy to comfort earlier, and the boy I don’t know with the glasses, and the stranger I fancy, and my father, mother, taxi driver, brothers, ex lovers, friends, fellow meditators, shop owners, and the whole of outer space until tears fall down my cheeks onto my cushion.

The way we interact here, with our needs all out in the open, is so honest and simple. So childlike, soft, adventurous. When I need someone to walk with, someone to share tea with, someone to laugh or cry with I’m not afraid to ask. We are able to extend ourselves and believe in enlightened society and our intrinsic basic goodness. To be reminded we don’t need to buy things, consume, possess one another, destroy the earth with our actions – we can let go of our poverty mentality and really interact with the sacredness of humans and the natural world. Learn to let go in love. Be open, be touched, appreciate our jealousy, anger, passion, neuroses. Feel joy and sadness at the same time as the same emotion. Appreciate ourselves as whole.

I feel exceptionally, unbelievably, ridiculously lucky to be here.

Author: Jessica Eve Watkins




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