The road to enlightenment begins at a Welsh farmhouse. Rob Stratton takes a holiday promising lasting benefits

Holidays are a complete waste of time. That's a bit harsh, but you know what I mean: two days back at work, and where did that wonderful, relaxed, holiday essence go? Just like last year, it slipped through your fingers again. How about if it hung around for a bit longer?

Holidays are a complete waste of time. That's a bit harsh, but you know what I mean: two days back at work, and where did that wonderful, relaxed, holiday essence go? Just like last year, it slipped through your fingers again. How about if it hung around for a bit longer?

It was with something like this on my mind - and considerable trepidation - that I drove to Maenllwyd, a remote farmhouse in a little-visited part of mid-Wales. I had booked myself on to a silent, Buddhist retreat organised by the Western Chan Fellowship (WCF).

I had recently started meditating, found the results very positive, and wanted to take it a step further. I had been attracted to the WCF's attitude: "Dear fellow Westerner, ask and we'll help, but no pressure." I was assured I wouldn't have to take an Eastern name, wear fancy dress nor give up my friends. It sounded inclusive, not exclusive.

The very track to Maenllwyd slowed you down, winding for a mile around small hills, through fields and gates and across streams. The modest farmhouse was the perfect holiday cottage, tucked neatly at the bottom of a wild tree-filled cleft. It was clear most of us were uncertain first-timers. There were 18 of us, from a wide cross-section of society. I think we had all meditated before, but that is not a prerequisite. Neither is Buddhism, as all are welcome whatever their religious persuasion.

The "Western Zen" retreat is designed to be an end in itself, appropriate as a one-off opportunity to take a step back and look at life. Simon Child, the course leader, gave us an informal, lightly humorous introduction to the retreat. His skilful leadership throughout was in keeping with the WCF's "no head is higher" principle.

Each person was to consider the retreat their own. The purpose of silence was to keep you centred on yourself, creating space for personal insights. A minimum of essential interaction was OK, and silence was broken during interviews with Simon or his assistant Jake, but personal exchanges were to be avoided.

Introduction over, we walked across the yard to the Chan Hall for the opening service, and our first meditation. When we emerged at dusk the retreat had started. It felt as if we had left port and there was no going back. Like roosting birds we retired to our allocated sleeping areas, mine a futon under the eaves of the barn.

Maenllwyd has no electricity, but there are oil lamps and fireplaces. There is hot water! I crawled into my sleeping bag at 10.30pm, wondering what the next day would bring in this strange place.

Clack, clack! ... Clack, clack! ... Jake was walking around the sleeping areas, bashing a wooden board with a stick. It was our 5.30am wake-up call. They should make alarm clocks like this.

Within 15 minutes we were up, washed, dressed, and outside in the yard. We hadn't had time to think (which is the whole point). The sun rose across the valley as we started our morning exercises, listening to the birds and sheep as we swung our arms, bent our knees, and rolled our shoulders.

The monastic rhythm gently seeped into us. The silence was never uncomfortable, although I frequently smiled to myself during mealtimes, as to a casual observer they resembled the most unsuccessful dinner party ever held, or the play that even Harold Pinter never dared to put on.

The lack of pressure to be entertaining was liberating. I found myself waking with a clear head - so different from the usual morning torpor.

The calm creates a setting for the communication exercises. These are a one-to-one sharing process in which we explored fundamental questions, known as koans, such as "Who am I?" and "What is my true nature?" My koan sounded suspiciously like a question from a cryptic crossword. I was doubtful whether this could achieve anything. I was in for a surprise.

In pairs, we talked through our questions in turn, giving no response to our partners' observations. Verbalising your thoughts to an unresponsive partner leaves you to draw your own conclusions. In reality it was sometimes impossible to give no response to a partner who was upset or who said something so funny you both ended up laughing.

The situation was without pressure, but as warmth and trust grew between us I found myself talking about some surprisingly personal information. Suffice to say, it wasn't always easy. The power of the koans astonished me. Sometimes answers came leaping at me out of nowhere with explosive, "Eureka!" clarity.

Everything on the retreat had a purpose. Even the rituals - the bowing, chanting, gongs and incense - form a structure that hold it together.

Unsure about ritual myself, I took some comfort in a Buddhist poem: "No guru, no church, no dependency. Beyond the farmyard the wind in the trees. The fool by the signless signpost stands pointing the way."

It felt strange breaking the silence on the last day. Words suddenly seemed incredibly clumsy, and dangerously prone to misinterpretation.

I came home with a sense of clarity. My priorities, and the importance of things had subtly shifted. I'm still in the real world - it doesn't make life easy - but it helps.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was how much I'd enjoyed myself. A step towards enlightenment (whatever that is) and a good time. What more could you ask from a holiday?

GIVE ME THE FACTS

The Western Chan Fellowship ( www.westernchanfellowship.org) is a registered charity which offers two retreats suitable for beginners, titled "Western Zen" and "Introduction To Meditation". A four-day retreat costs £190 per person. Concessions are available.

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