Retreat and advance

Before Darren Gauder set off to spend four years in a Buddhist retreat with no computers, phones or sex, he spoke to Jean West

Darren Gauder is contemplating his life over a cup of tea. Until a few weeks ago the 45-year-old was working as a security guard for a well-known London bank. But it had few of the ingredients of contentment he has been striving for and he decided on a radical plan. A long interest in Tibetan Buddhism persuaded him to quit the post, become a monk and explore the frontiers of his mind in a closed spiritual retreat.

So the newly named Karma Trinli is grinning wryly at the incongruity of his path towards enlightenment and one of the most daunting adventures he will ever take. As a youth growing up in Burnley he loved the anarchy of skateboarding and being a punk. Flying round the tarmac and challenging the establishment were all part of his teenage repertoire. He craved freedom and self-expression and later joined a peace convoy rallying in support of the green movement.

He will wake each day at 3.45am after sleeping upright in a wooden box

He got into psychedelica and the dance music scene, dabbled in drugs, lived in ashrams, became an art college student and mural painter, a motorcycle courier for Chris Evans and a digital media graduate. But all that is over; he has had a gut full of sensory pleasure and believes a dollop of austerity might just be the antidote.

For the next 1,460 days or so – four years in all – Trinli will be confined to a little house with a small group of men on the tiny Hebridean Island of Arran in meditation and prayer for “the benefit of all beings”. At the retreat, organised by Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Scottish Borders, he will wake each day at 3.45am after sleeping upright in a wooden box – to aid transition into meditation.

He will have to say goodbye to his family and friends for the duration of this mind marathon and will give up his mobile phone, computers and television. He will be allowed the occasional letter but if life-changing events occur outside he will be encouraged to stay put. After recently taking vows, shaving his head and donning the red flowing robes of his Kagyu lineage, Trinli will have to avoid all intoxicants and sex and even eschew music and dance.

“I look at the state of the world and it is such a mess.”

The purpose of such a seemingly draconian lifestyle choice is to make Trinli more self-aware and compassionate, in line with Buddhist teaching. And aside from having trouble reading the Tibetan texts, he can’t wait to get started.

“I look at the state of the world and it is such a mess,” he says. “It is my responsibility to do the most positive thing I can to improve myself.”

For months he has been raising sponsorship money to support him over the next few years and has embraced the challenge wholeheartedly. He will undoubtedly miss his family but apart from this he is ready to roll. “This is a rare opportunity. I don’t have children so I don’t have to be anchored to the world with a job. I would be a fool to miss it.”

On a more frivolous note he says: “The thing I will miss most is playing my bass guitar. I had to pawn it for £1,000 before coming. I like female company too but I know the clarity you can achieve from up to 12 hours of meditation a day.”

He remembers how strong and focused other people who have taken part in these retreats have been when they return, and wants some of what they have.

Josep Soler, 54, a former monk who has completed two retreats over nine years and now lives at Samye Ling in Dumfriesshire, offers some insight into the unusual practice that changed him forever. After working as a social worker with the mentally ill in Barcelona he too was plagued by philosophical and spiritual questions and found his way to the monastery with barely any English.

He studied Buddhist teachings, the dharma, for a number of years and the retreat, which comprised just 22 men in a tiny house in Eskdalemuir, was the next logical step. While inside, major world events including the break-up of the Soviet Union, the first Gulf War, the release of Nelson Mandela, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the invention of the fax machine passed him by. But apart from missing the liberty of his South African hero he had no regrets about not seeing any of this.

Some people accused Soler of being selfish

It was the little things that got to him, like craving the Catalonian food he grew up with or just enjoying a bacon butty (he had to give up meat for the retreat).

Some people, including his family, accused Soler (whose Tibetan name was Karma Phuntsok) of escapism. “My family completely freaked out and accused me of being selfish. My mother is a strong Catholic but I have not followed that faith since I was 16. She could not understand the Buddhism thing.”

Escapism, he says, was the last thing he thought of. Once locked away from the world with much of the day spent completely alone there was no way of avoiding the challenges of the mind. “You don’t have any distraction like television, music and books or contact with the outside world, so you have to face yourself and that can be a bit harsh. You start to see yourself as who you really are and you have to take the bull by the horns.”

Soler was confined with the group to the small detached house with its little garden and had nowhere to exercise except through prostrations in his shrine. His world became isolated yet he maintains it allowed him to grow on a spiritual level.

He admits he found living in the house both crowded and claustrophobic at first and says that sleeping in the box was hard. “I was not used to that. You wake up in a weird position.” But he concedes that he got used to both very quickly. “Your mind and body begin to settle after a period of time – what was crowded and claustrophobic after a while seemed normal. Sometimes you might feel lonely, sad and angry and at other times you feel good emotions.”

When times were bleak and he considered leaving he could go and speak with the retreat master who visited every day. “You do miss things like sitting in a coffee shop with a friend. Things you had never paid attention to before become very important. But I did not miss sex because I had resigned myself to not having it; it was more the sense of companionship that I found hard to do without.”

On the huge global transformation he missed whilst inside he smiles and says: “I went into retreat and the world was the world I had known all my life. When I came out the Soviet Union had disappeared and there were all these new countries in Europe, the Berlin Wall had fallen and there had been the Gulf War. I came out to a different world.”

He was also intrigued by talk from the retreat master of a new machine that could receive messages called a fax. “He would say ‘somebody has sent me a fax’ and we would say ‘fax, what the hell is that?’ He had to explain to us. In the second retreat he started to talk about emails and it was the same.”

“I had no idea how to use the internet when I came out or even how to use a computer.”

Returning to the outside world and being exposed to all the sensory stimuli Soler had deprived himself of for so long was almost dreamlike. It brought a mixture of excitement and apprehension. “I remember the sense of space all of a sudden after being in this little house, it was overwhelming.

“It felt unreal – you have to take it slowly. The brain gets tired, you need time to process everything after the level of information in the retreat had been so reduced. Seeing all these people walking past me was almost like watching a video. This very structured life you have been living gets completely bust in minutes, never to come back.”

Photo of Darren Gauder: Mel du Pontet

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