Our co-editor Olly Treen took some time out from his busy schedule this week to attend a meditation session at Govinda’s vegan/vegetarian café near Swansea City Centre. TL;DR it was very enjoyable.
I last had a religious experience five years ago. Things like that are supposed to cement your faith, but in truth it marked the beginning of the end for my Christianity. It was within a month that my newly bolstered belief was torn up by what I’d seen at that Christian conference, and a growing sense that my personal morality didn’t chime with the Bible I knew. I fell fast from a place of spiritual self-assuredness, dragged down ever faster by a burgeoning fascination with the writings of Hitchens, Pullman, and other prominent atheists. It was disorienting, and I found another home for my self-importance: the agitated militarism of New Atheism. I became a renowned keyboard warrior, my egoistic belief in a personal God flipped into its mirror image – I suppose I thought I was some sort of revolutionary, some sort of enlightenment figure. I am better now.
Over the past five years, I’d like to think I’ve developed into a more mature kind of atheist; I don’t try to do down the faithful anymore, and I am more open to the notion of the sort of godless, patchwork spirituality that I would have previously scoffed at. When I was approached by a monk on Swansea high street last week, I guess I was finally in the right place to accept his invitation to a meditation evening. I’d previously spoken to the same monk (Gaura) but had successfully put it off – prior engagements, lazy evenings in with my girlfriend, lots of work to do – but this time I made a resolution. I’ve suffered with social anxiety my whole life, and this was an opportunity to practice meeting people in a non-judgemental setting. Meditation is supposed to relieve stress, right?
Anyway, this time I made the effort to attend, and sure enough when I arrived at the café-cum-temple my monk was waiting with the same pleasant smile with which he had so often approached me to offload thought-provoking, cheaply produced literature. For a good ten minutes, we were the only people in the café – usually a nightmare for my anxiety but with Gaura it was strangely pleasing, the conversation easy and satisfying. After the other attendee (singular) arrived, we all proceeded to the meditation room upstairs – a dimly lit hall with incense, bright shrines, and a collection of little square mats. Gaura took a moment to deliver brief instructions – this was mantra meditation, all we had to do was sing what he sang, and we would take a short break halfway through for a discussion on the theme of ‘community’. I am not a good singer, I said, but Gaura assured me that it was part of the fun.
The first meditation session was pleasant enough, but I found it difficult to – you know – lose myself? Empty my mind? Find inner peace? I wasn’t entirely sure what I was supposed to feel, but I figured it would be obvious when it happened. Mostly I was letting myself be distracted – by the mantra, by my awkward sitting position, by Gaura’s identical twin brother who had just joined us. Nevertheless, I had at least reached a calm state of mind, and that surely was a sign of promise? The mantra itself was very easy to follow, and the sound of the others singing kept me from feeling too self-conscious about my voice. Towards the end, I could feel myself verging on something – some sort of breakthrough – but sadly didn’t achieve it.
Gaura then led us in a discussion that began centred around the notion of community and then branched out into other aspects of ‘self-realisation’. To be honest, I was caught off guard for a moment – at church, a ‘discussion’ was a hip and modern rebranding of the traditional sermon and, expecting more of this, I was surprised when Gaura tried to pass the conversation to us. After a faltering start, I was able to engage properly, and was happy to find that Gaura was genuinely interested in our contributions. What particularly struck me was when he recalled something that had been said by my girlfriend when we met just under a week ago. He joked about Fight Club as confidently as he mused on philosophical ideas – and I do mean philosophical rather than religious. Gaura is a monk and a person of faith, but in spite of the articles of belief that adorned the room the conversation was never about gods or souls or spirits. This was not a discussion about community in the light of religious doctrines, but an open discussion on the nature of community and selflessness sparked by a short, rather secular thought from the Bhagavad Gita. Mentions of our experience with other faiths and philosophies were not rubbished or marginalised but were taken on board, even welcomed. The honesty and accessibility of the discussion was refreshing, particularly for someone who spends a lot of time around other intensely opinionated students (sorry guys!).
Back to the meditation then, and this time I was determined to achieve something. A couple of rounds of the mantra had passed already and nothing. I broke my focus for a moment, opening my eyes, taking in the room, consciously slowing my breathing. Closing my eyes again I zoned in on the sound of Gaura’s drum, imagined the words of the mantra rising up in coloured smoke above my head. “…Hare rama, rama rama…”, I thought briefly of opening my eyes again but found that I couldn’t. In the moments of quiet between rounds I was faintly aware of the gentle rocking of the monk beside me, and as the chant returned I at last hit the right note, felt myself being buoyed up on a wave of calmness and allowed myself to be pulled down under it. Every muscle eased, and the wave came by again. I may have started rocking – I’m not entirely sure. I could feel myself rising up and receding, allowing myself to drift into a half-sleep. With every round I sank down into a wholly different kind of awareness. I was aware of myself, and I was aware of outside things, but the distinction between these ideas was always blurring and sharpening, one moment I was quite apart from the room, giving it purpose, filling it up, the next I was unbreakably bonded to it, entirely reliant on it and everything in it. The light dimmed and brightened slowly, almost imperceptibly. And then, gently as it began, the meditation came to an end. The first session had left me feeling pleasantly calm, but after the second I felt profoundly refreshed. Now I understand why Gaura is always so chilled out, I thought.
The evening ended with a lovely vegetarian meal – chickpeas, spiced vegetables, some sort of dumpling (yeah, I’m not super clued up on Indian food). The food itself was flavourful and homely and the conversation was once again pleasingly light. No probing questions about my experience, just contented chatter about our personal lives in which Gaura seemed genuinely invested.
Needless to say my visit to Govinda’s was an evening well spent. I’ve been putting it off for nearly two years now, but in truth I had nothing to be apprehensive about. I learned that there are ways to appreciate a sort of ‘spirituality’ without pitching in for religion, and what I experienced in that moment of quiet, thoughtful meditation is the sort of experience I never found when I was looking for it in religion. Rather than the amped up high-emotion prayer of the charismatic church I was allowed to enter a place of stillness, contemplation, and clarity of mind. I will definitely return in the future and wholeheartedly recommend that anyone looking to try out meditation should give Govinda’s a go. Even if you’re not, by day it’s a lovely little vegan café staffed by monks, pretty much making it the most alternative place in Swansea.
Govinda’s can be found at 8 Cradock St, just off Kingsway. Their ‘Urban Meditation’ sessions are held every Tuesday at 6:30pm and cost just £5 including a vegetarian meal. You can find them online at http://govindas.org.uk/