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Inner peace in the inner city

By Brigid Delaney
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Retreats are often a cornerstone of spiritual life. They are a chance for reflection, to withdraw from everyday life and circumstances and think about the things that really matter. Usually retreats take place in a picturesque part of the countryside when the cares of work and the city are left behind.

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The London Buddist Center offers an oasis of calm in a hectic city.

I was curious then, to hear the London Buddhist Center (LBC) was running an urban retreat from their center in the concrete jungle of Bethnal Green in East London. The Buddhist Center is on a busy road and green space is in short supply, so it seems a strange place to run a retreat.

Yet I joined up, hoping I could reflect on some of the bad habits I picked up in my urban lifestyle. These habits -- too busy, too much after-work drinking, eating out too frequently, too much time spent on the internet and text messaging friends and too little sleep would be difficult to remedy in a habitat where they had thrived so successfully.

The aim of the retreat, said Maitreyabandhu, the spiritual leader of the London Buddhist Center, would be to try to recreate some of the characteristics of retreat: a sense of community, introspection, question habits and create still and quiet in our lives.

The only difference would be that we would still be going to work, dealing with deadlines, traffic, issues at home and the temptations of a social life. The London Buddhist Center would act as a base, with daily meditations at 7am, followed by a communal breakfast and workshops on the weekend.

But, I wondered, how would it be possible to have the Zen of the retreat experience for a whole week, while still anchored to the chaos of daily city life?

THE FIRST DAY

At the core of this retreat is a focus on meditation. I have only meditated once and I am not Buddhist. Maybe this was not the retreat for me... A group of around 40 of us meet at the LBC. I was late. I slept in and then lingered too long over the morning's paper -- not a good sign.

So while the others have started meditating, I sat on the couch outside the meditation room sipping tea. After the silence of meditation, there is chanting by two people who moved towards the statue of Buddha, pick up their retreat diaries and lit an incense stick.

A kindly man in a yellow t-shirt led me by the elbow up to the shrine where I also lit some incense, waved it around for a bit in a haphazard fashion, then wobbled in a half kneel at the feet of Buddha.

While I was still shaking off the remnants of a busy Saturday in London, these things really felt like there were from another time and another country.

In the break for tea I spoke to Maitreyabandhu who told me it's important to start the retreat with meditation and ritual to get us into the retreat mindset. He also tells me by the end of the week I should have chilled out and that then meditation will make a lot more sense to me. It seemed to make sense to everyone else.

My fellow retreaters were all ages and a good mix of both men and women. Some had done the urban retreat the year before and found it beneficial; others had been away to another retreat center in Suffolk. Some, like me, were first timers. We looked at each other shyly in that first day of school sort of way.

After the break, we broke into small groups to discuss our aims for the retreat week. Some people wanted to cook at home more, and not rely so much on ready meals or fast food, others (including myself) wanted to go out less and have a few more quiet nights at home reading a book, others wanted to be more disciplined with their meditation; one man didn't want to lose his temper so much with his builders, another wanted to reduce the importance of his work and get more balanced.

Most people had anger issues around commuting and public transport and started the day in a bad mood, as a result. "It all goes down hill from there," said one Tube-hater mournfully. Many, quite naturally, were anxious or worried about the future and not inclined to "live in the moment." They were all concerns common to anyone living in a large and busy city. But could we still stay in the city and find calm?

Maitreyabandhu advised us to keep our urban retreat week goals realistic. Things like meditating at the LBC for an hour a day before work were all well and good, he advised, but if you are an hour and half from the retreat center -- are you really likely to rise at 4am each day?

Instead he said to aim to come in and meditate for just one or two mornings each week. And instead of radically changing habits such as diet, do something like switch off the TV for a week.

BEING MINDFUL

What was important about the week was to be what Maitreyabandhu called "mindful." This involves being present in the moment, being aware of your surrounding and not letting your mind constantly race ahead to what may happen in the future or dwell excessively on what went on in the past.

Mindfulness can be achieved by spending time away from the internet and TV, walking instead of driving and of course, meditating. We were given a green wristband to wear throughout the week. Each time we looked at it we were supposed to remember we were on retreat and that we should be mindful.

Maitreyabandhu also planned to send us text messages throughout the retreat. We could also log onto his daily blog from work. This is where the retreat took on its virtual aspects.

Throughout the week there were also activities that we could attend: a banquet on Monday night, a special meditation session on Wednesday and Friday nights, and Saturday morning meditation with strawberries and pancakes in the café afterwards. Sunday, the final day of the retreat, was a chance for reflection on the week.

So while we would be spending time at work and doing our usual routine, it would be with a twist. Some advice Maitreyabandhu gave us included putting a shrine on your desk or changing your computer password. Someone suggested that whenever we heard a siren we should remember to be more mindful or set an alarm on our phones that remind us we are on retreat.

He also advised us to look in our diaries and isolate what might be stress points in the week - such as a deadline, a project due or a meeting with someone we find difficult, and contact a "retreat buddy" who could help us remain calm in a crisis.

THE WEEK

"Beep beep." It was Monday morning and the texts from Maitreyabandhu had started to arrive. "Relax your eyes, relax your belly," it read. I was on a bus stuck in traffic down Oxford Street, suddenly I felt relaxed, and mindful. I touched the green wrist band. I was not just on a packed bus going to work, I was on retreat.

The week continued as it usually did. I went to work. I went to the gym. I went to the theatre. I went to the pub. On Wednesday night I went out to the LBC for a meditation session.

But while I did the same things, the text messages and the blog kept me focused on being on retreat, so there were a few subtle differences. I was more aware of what stressed me out, so I did pre-emptive strikes by avoiding stressful things.

I didn't take public transport, instead I walked to work. When I went to the pub I had one drink instead of three or four and I spent a couple of nights at home where I cooked decent food. And still the text messages kept coming reminding me that I was on retreat and to be more mindful.

I was meant to have a retreat buddy who I touched base with and supported during the week but I lost her email address (oopps!), but support was available if you were more organized.

The highlight of the urban retreat was when I actually hauled myself out of bed before 6am and went to the LBC for a 7am meditation. It was tough. I was still new to this meditation caper and an hour sitting in silence felt like having an itch I couldn't scratch. But afterwards I felt great. We adjourned to the café next door for breakfast and chatted about our progress on the urban retreat.

That day at work felt dreamlike. I was chilled to the max. I was on retreat and everything was great! Everyone in London should be on retreat, I told my boss. There would be no anger, or hate, everyone would just be friendly to each other, considerate and more mindful of important things like the environment.

All week, walking through the city, I kept my eye out for those green wristbands, hoping to spy a kindred spirit among the masses.

THE FINAL DAY

It was the last day of the retreat and time to take stock. Is it possible to be on retreat in a city like London, while continuing to work and live at home? The overwhelming answer was yes, as long as you are prepared to make changes to lifestyle to make it more "mindful."

What participants liked about the retreat were the text messages, the blogs and "being out of routine, getting up earlier and having breakfast with other people." The green string helped people remember they should be thinking about things differently, while others got a lot of support from their retreat buddy (mine didn't though...)

The retreat really was an oasis of calm in a noisy city. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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