The Value of Self-Retreat by Chandasara

From Dharmagiri AGM (annual general meeting), August, 2015

“Since I was a child at school I experienced life as over-organized and machine-like – a kind of treadmill that just kept goingTo Those Gone Before with machine-like regularity leaving little room for just being. I experienced this as a kind of suffocation of my intuitive sensibility and creative and spontaneous exploration that I enjoyed in the brief period before I went to school. I found it quite deadening. Self-retreat offers the opportunity to step out of pressures and demands from outside and this can be an enormous relief of tension that allows for one’s own heart to stir and open up.”

As one of the things that I would like to offer at Dharmagiri is supported self-retreats for individuals, I was asked to talk to you today briefly on the value of self-retreats.

My interest in self-retreats comes from my own experience. In 1997 I did a 6-week self-retreat at the BRC (Buddhist Retreat Centre), under the guidance of Kittisaro and Thanissara. During this retreat I did a lot of writing, recording memories from as early as I could recall. Whenever I came to a particularly painful or difficult memory, I would then use meditation to review the memory and to allow the related feelings to be fully felt and embodied. At times of anger I would punch a pillow or at times ofDarmagiri KwanyinWood sadness I would just cry, allowing the feelings to be felt. In the process of doing this many unresolved areas of my life’s experience came to light and I was then able to find ways of addressing these unresolved areas. For example, as a result of coming to an understanding through meditation of aspects of my relationship with my mother, I was able to talk these through with her and we were able to come to a place of mutual understanding, forgiveness, and love. I experienced this as an enormously healing process. This was just one aspect of the retreat. There were many others. At the end of the self-retreat I felt as if I had been thoroughly cleaned out on the inside and for a while afterwards I experienced everything around me as exquisitely beautiful and sparkling.

Also when I was in the monastery, we used to have two periods of self-retreat during the year. These were similarly times that experienced as immensely deepening, revealing, and replenishing. Having experienced this myself, I would like to offer the same kind of support to others who might wish to similarly review their lives or a particular facet of their lives or who might wish to deepen their insight into the nature of their experience or into spiritual teachings. I am very grateful to Dharmagiri for offering me this opportunity to offer others this kind of support.

In more general terms, I see the value of self-retreats to be in 3 main areas:

1) self-retreat can bring one back to one’s own inner being or bring one back into alignment with one’s own wisdom faculty; 2) self-retreat offers the opportunity to explore one’s own inner realms more fully; and 3) self-retreat offers the opportunity to deepen our spiritual insight.

Since I was a child at school I experienced life as over-organized and machine-like – a kind of treadmill that just kept going with machine-like regularity leaving little room for just being. I experienced this as a kind of suffocation of my intuitive sensibility and creative and spontaneous exploration that I enjoyed in the brief period before I went to school. I found of quiteopen sky deadening. Self-retreat offers the opportunity to step out of pressures and demands from outside and this can be an enormous relief of tension that allows for one’s own heart to stir and open up.

Self-retreat offers the possibility of finding and exercising one’s own inner sense of rhythm and balance without having to comply with externally-determined routines and timetables. As valuable as organized group retreats are, their rhythms don’t always suit everyone. Some people are morning people and find it easy to get up early in the morning but difficult to stay up late at night. Other people are night people and find it easy to stay up late into the night but difficult to get up early in the morning. On self-retreat, one can live according to one’s own natural energy levels and this can be very supportive of experiencing fully whatever it is that one needs to experience.

One can also create one’s own structures for the day – when to walk, when to eat, when to sleep, when to meditate, when to write or paint or draw, when to be in nature and how to commune with nature. One can begin to feel into one’s own natural energies and feel how they begin to flow again and reconnect one’s awareness with one’s own inner being. It is as if one’s compass becomes reset to follow one’s own inner guidance rather than following guidance provided from outside. This helps to develop trust in the wisdom which comes from within and this allows one’s creativity and enthusiasm for the journey of life to re-awaken.

This relaxation, opening, and re-awakening of one’s inner being provides the conditions in which suppressed and un-dealt with feelings and perceptions can rise into consciousness where they can be seen, understood, and integrated. This allows one to see more clearly what needs to be attended to: what one needs to do in one’s relationships, what one’s real values are, the way in which one want to live one’s life, what brings pain and what brings joy.

The way we tend to live our lives – being busy and scattered – tends to fragment us. Self-retreat can be a time of healing, of staircasewhole-making, of defragmentation. This gives a sense of clarity and stability in one’s foundations.

Self-retreat offers us the opportunity to explore our inner realms. We all have our own personal histories which are important as they have shaped the form of our lives – how we perceive and feel about things, and how we respond to things. In self-retreat we can begin to see patterns in this conditioning – the underlying matrices that give rise to these ways of thinking, feeling and responding. We may begin to see that we are acting on particular beliefs about ourselves by which we constellate the reality we perceive around us. This can be very revealing and very liberating as it brings with it the possibility of more flexibility and less rigidity in the way we relate to life.

Self-retreat also offers us the opportunity to explore and deepen our spiritual insight through study of scriptures, listening to talks, reading books, making notes and putting the pieces together, meditation and mindfulness practices, and through developing our intuitive awareness – sensing more deeply into what is present in our experience. This in turn increases our awareness of the connectedness and inter-relatedness of everything. We feel more in tune with everything and can enter into a deep sense of peace and fulfillment.

This experience has enormous power to be life-changing. We may completely reorient the direction of our lives.   This is why I want to offer this experience to others as I have experienced its value in my own life.

*** *** ***

To book your self retreat under the guidance of Chandasara, please contact her directly at:

Chandasara spent her early adult life in political exile in Europe and America where she was recruited into Okhela, an Oliver chandasaraTambo initiative to facilitate and expand white involvement in the ANC. Following this, she worked as a political analyst with the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg for 14 years. During this period she was also involved in an esoteric spiritual school. Wishing to deepen her meditation experience, she undertook a 6-week self-retreat guided by Kittisaro and Thanissara at the BRC in 1998.

Having discovered the revelatory power of sustained and focused meditation, she decided to enter monastic life. She resided at Amaravati and Chithurst Buddhist monasteries from 2002 to 2010. She put down the robes in 2011. Since then she has resided at Emoyeni Retreat Centre in the Magaliesberg during which time she completed an Honours degree in Psychology. She is moving to Dharmagiri in May this year where she intends to offer supported self-retreats for individuals wishing to explore and engage more deeply with particular aspects of their life experience.


Self-Retreat Fee Structure

Up to 13 nights: R390 per night (normal single ensuite charge)
From 14 to 29 nights: R335 per night (15% reduction on the normal single ensuite charge)
Longer than one month (for experienced meditators only): R235 per night (40% reduction on the normal single ensuite charge)

Please note, no one is turned away from Dharmagiri due to financial constraints. See below for possibilities regards an exchange of work for time on self retreat.

Work Retreat Fee Structure

Full work retreat (4 hours of work per day) – no charge – up to one month
Combined self and partial work retreat (2 hours of work per day) – half single ensuite charge (R195 per night)

Dana for the teacher – Please see here regards Dana (free will offering) in support of teachers at Dharmagiri

*** *** ***

(photo credit of solo meditator – open sky wilderness.)

Listening to the Heart @ Dharmagiri – Jennifer Radloff

To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” Mary Oliver

It was not until I started listening to my heart and paying attention that my journey to Dharmagiri became possible. Here are some reflections on my journey and experience of a retreat at Dharmagiri, Calming the Mad Mind, Knowing the Luminous Heart: An Insight Meditation Retreat, with the wise and wonderful teachers, Kittisaro and Chandasara.

I read poetry daily. I go to poetry to be opened up, to find a balm, to be reminded that living means times of suffering, that there will always be hope. I read in order to be reminded of my connection to all things and to know that there is always a wide open sky of forgiveness and grace.

Recently, the poetry of Mary Oliver has been my refuge. Her words inspire such intense joy in me and help me direct my heart. I connect with the way she finds herself in nature, her belief in sacred silence, the praise of aloneness in order to connect meaningfully with others and what I read into her words of the non-separation between all living beings. She is my praise poet.

I carry volumes of poetry wherever I go. Hiking in the canyons or in the mountains, when I travel to other countries. I write lines of poetry in my diary which I carry with me all the time. But I forgot my diary and my books of poetry when I travelled to Dharmagiri for a retreat with Kittisaro and Chandasara.

It was a blessing as one of the many huge and beautiful lessons I learnt during the dharma talks was that I should give my full attention to “reading the book of the heart”. (attributed to Ajahn Chah). These words for me were profound.

I had come to the retreat to learn how to calm my loud and busy mind. to find my way back to a steady sitting practice and to respond to a deep and persistent longing to go deeper into the experiences of my heart. I was feeling overwhelmed with the mysteries, the suffering, the gratitude, the confusion, the tenderness, the wide-open joy and the pain of this one human life. I wanted quiet amidst the noise of my work and my world. I felt tired and as if I was not being of much service in my work any more.

I was not reflecting on my life, my heart or my path. I was not listening to myself and barely hearing others. I was meditating erratically. My Mom had passed and her death had stunned me as no other loss had. And yet she had given me the greatest gift. The grief I felt was huge but so was the joy. I was so proud of her life. She is everywhere now. She exists in me, in the sky, the wind, the rain. I wanted to honour this beautiful being by truly seeking to know myself better.

So, I went to the mountain. The symbolism of “going to the mountain” represents a pilgrimage of aspiration of moving towards consciousness, of closeness and contact with celestial bodies. Going to Dharmagiri sitting at the foot of the sacred Mvuleni mountain, in the province of my birth, felt right. I had spent the past few years seeking a place, a practice and teachers to guide me. I slowly found my way to Dharmagiri through friends, through much searching and through reading Kittisaro and Thanissara’s book “Listening to the Heart : A Contemplative Journey to Engaged Buddhism

The retreat was transformative for me. And I hope, over time, for others.

Our mornings started in the quiet pre-dawn when the stars are still visible and sometimes the wild sounds of jackals howling. To chant and bow in the dark of early, cold mornings with a warm fire and candles on the shrine with Kuan Yin’s sacred presence, alone but with an unspoken connection to the sangha, gave me deep comfort. Sitting on my cushion, wrapped in a blanket and in quietness as the sun rose and the mountain of Mvuleni in all her grace, power and steadfastness, became visible, I felt I had come home to myself.

Each day we went deeper into our practice, guided with such gentleness and wisdom. The profound and lived knowledge of both Kittisaro and Chandasara fed us during the dharma talks. We energised our bodies through chi kung and walking meditation. In Noble silence we ate delicious and carefully prepared food with each meal being blessed and each one of us expressing gratitude for the comfort of nourishment and shelter. During the daily question time with our teachers we all gained more insight into ourselves, each other and the practice through the thoughtful questions of the Sangha and the generous and deeply reflective responses from our teachers. Each of us contributed mindful work through washing dishes, cleaning spaces, chopping vegetables, all in silence. The silence was so welcomed as we could all turn inward but still be aware of our connectedness. As my friend who was also on retreat said to me: “I have known you for many years but through this seven days of silence I know you more deeply.” The silence woke me up to so much more and to a communication with self and others which goes beyond anything language can explain.

At night we gathered for chanting, meditation, a dharma talk and the sharing of blessings. The meditation room was full of quiet and of prayer as we let each thought dissolve and sought the silence between the thoughts. We rested together in the silence and the peace.

On our final day we spent time finding flowers, a stone, a branch – something from the environment which we could place on the alter and dedicate to a person, people, a cause – what we chose to honour and bring into the room. We each had time to place our offering and to reflect and to witness others. Nobel silence was suspended for a time as we gathered in small groups each with a few minutes to speak whilst others listened about our experience of the retreat. I love storytelling and listening to stories. So for me, it was an intimate storytelling circle and it reminded me of what Muriel Rukeyser said: “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” And from the stories what Rumi said :“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” From the stories of others, from their experiences and reflections, we learn, we breath in and are one with them and with all of creation. Through listening to others, we find parts of ourselves.

On the last day of the retreat, during the Dharma talk, we were given this from the Dhammapada

There are no footprints in the sky;
You won’t find the sage out there.
There are no eternal conditioned things.
Buddhas never waver.

I hold this in me with gratitude as I work towards an authentic practice and am reminded to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

Mary Oliver in her poem “The Old poets of China” tells of how because the world is so busy and often we need quiet to re-connect with our hearts, the poets went “so far and high into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.” Dharmagiri offers us all this place of quiet, this refuge and people of generosity and wisdom. I have such deep gratitude that I was there and that I can return.

And so as Mary Oliver tells in her poem and what Dharmagiri has reminded me:

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

So I wanted to tell this about my time at Dharmagiri.

Jennifer works as a feminist information activist, connecting people to
information in order tojennifer create their own change in the world. She spends a lot of time in nature, is drawn to nature-based Rites of Passage, enjoys running, poetry, clay, the ocean, life stories & believes that change can happen.

She is relatively new to Buddhist practice but has been meditating on and off for quite a few years. She is the proud Godmother to a tribe of 6 godchildren who are her main teachers. A recent retreat at Dharmagiri had inspired her deeply to regular practice.

Meet Sue Cooper, Meditation Teacher

sue cooperSue will be offering a retreat at Dharmagiri at Dharmagiri from the 4 – 10 October, 2015. It is called An Integrated Awakening: Insight Meditation Retreat. We introduce you to Sue (below), who has responded to some questions about her love of Dharma, her practice background, and focus of the retreat. There are still a few places left on the retreat, (at the moment, mostly shared accommodation.) Dharmagiri is offering R500 reduction for each booking. This brings the cost to R1,900 single ensuite, and R1200 shared. Please do read Sue’s thoughtful response below, and below that you will find more information about the retreat. To book, please write to

Interview with Sue Cooper – August 2015.

I began meditating in the early 1980s, after I attended a Basic Buddhism weekend retreat with Louis Van Loon at the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo, KZN. I had gone there as a depressed and lost twenty-something year old and discovered a path that completely changed my life. Soon after that, I attended a 9-day silent retreat with Gavin Harrison, also at the BRC, and this resulted in me spending a year on a self-retreat at Gaia House in Devon, U.K. where I began a spiritual journey of self-discovery and healing, that has been a central part of my life.

sue and david

Sue and husband Dave, on top of Table Mountain

Instead of feeling a failure for struggling with life, Buddhism offers a different perspective, based on the understanding that one’s suffering is the gateway to freedom and therefore something to be valued and appreciated. This was a truly liberating insight! The Western medical model tends to pathologise our suffering, whilst the teachings of the Buddha provide insights and practices that offer a way of life that allows us to find freedom within our own body, heart and mind, if we learn to embrace our humanness with kind and compassionate awareness. This radical insight of the Buddha provides the starting point for my teaching and own practice.

After I qualified as a clinical psychologist in the early 1990s, I became aware during the many silent retreats which I attended, that retreats provide a unique opportunity for psychological and spiritual growth and healing. The silence allows one to access material that is not necessarily always available through conventional talking therapy, so I decided 5 years ago, to offer a group process which I called “Open the Heart and Still the Mind”, which is an integration of meditation and psychotherapy. It is a combination of what I call the “silent cure” and the “talking cure”.

Meditation provides us with many ways to find stillness and clarity within our busy and sometimes chaotic minds. We are so bombarded in our daily lives by a myriad of sensory impressions, and most people are longing for stillness and inner peace. It is a very paradoxical path, because we discover that when we learn to how to feel safe in the silence, training our minds through mindful and compassionate awareness, we begin to feel more grounded and connected with ourselves and this leads to a more secure and authentic sense of self. We begin to free ourselves of our destructive, habitual tendencies, and this leads to a greater self-confidence and increased ability to relate to others and to the world around us. In my experience, there is nothing that consolidates this process more effectively than a silent retreat.

A retreat offers an opportunity to step back from our daily lives and responsibilities, in order to develop a practice which can be life-saving and transformational. There is enormous depth of wisdom within the Buddhist teachings and they are extremely psychologically sophisticated. I have found in the groups and retreats which I facilitate, that this combination of meditation and Dharma teachings, within the context of my psychological background as a psychoanalytically-orientated psychotherapist, provides an extraordinarily powerful way of working with the heart and mind.

I consider the Buddha to be the first psychologist, who not only understood the significance of grappling with the tendencies and vulnerabilities of the human mind, but also understood the truth of our inter-connectedness with each other and the world in which we live. His teachings are timeless and totally relevant for us today, where the need for compassionate action is crucial, not only for our own survival, but also for the survival of our planet.

It is an enormous privilege, for which I am deeply grateful, that Kittisaro and Thanissara have offered me the opportunity to teach retreats at Dharmagiri. I have been extremely fortunate to have attended silent retreats regularly for 30 years with several wonderful teachers: Kittisaro and Thanissara, Ajahn Sucitto, the late Godwin Samararatne and Stephen and Martine  Batchelor; and at Gaia House in the mid-1980s with Christina Feldman, Christopher Titmuss, Guy Armstrong and others.  The lineage with which I identify is the Theravada tradition, particularly the teachings of Ajahn Chah from the Thai Forest tradition, as well as the Compassion teachings of Kuan Yin from the Mahayana tradition.

On my retreats, I hope to offer an experience that is nurturing, meaningful and inspiring and that will give people a sense of what this remarkable path of awareness can offer. We will learn how to calm and stabilise the heart and mind through various meditations and reflections, establishing an embodied awareness and an understanding of ourselves and life, with its challenges of change and loss, so that we can embrace life and death with compassionate awareness and wisdom.

Date: October 4 – October 10, 2015
Title: An Integrated Awakening: Insight Meditation Retreat
Teachers: Sue Cooper
This silent retreat, suitable for beginner and experienced meditators, focuses on the embodiment of wisdom and compassion. Through the cultivation of calm (the unification of heart, mind and body), we will deepen our understanding of ourselves, through connecting with the ground of our being. Through wise reflection and the development of insight in a nurturing atmosphere, we will discover that when we embrace and let go of the patterns within ourselves that cause suffering, we can experience a more expansive and peaceful body, heart and mind. This leads to a more authentic expression of who we are, so that we can act from a place of compassionate wisdom.

We will draw on the wisdom of Kuan Yin practice to deepen this process, for our own well-being and the well-being of others and the world in which we live. To enhance the integration of body, heart and mind, daily sessions of Qigong movement meditation will be offered, and there will be time for silent walks, individual sessions with Sue and the opportunity to relax and restore balance within ourselves.

Sue Cooper – Sue is a clinical psychologist with over 20 years of experience as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, working in private practice in Cape Town. She has a long-standing interest in the interface between psychological and spiritual approaches to self-discovery and inner healing, and has attended Buddhist meditation retreats since the early 1980s, both in South Africa and at Gaia House in the UK. Sue integrates Buddhist meditation and psychotherapy in her ‘Open the Heart and Still the Mind’ retreats which she offers throughout SA and in her 8 week courses, day retreats and on-going weekly groups in Cape Town. She has a particular interest in exploring how this practice enables us to embrace love and loss in our lives, so that we can live and die with compassionate awareness. Please see or email