"Your mind will attack you," warns Himanshu during the opening session. Right now, it's my hips that are leading the charge. I haven't sat cross-legged since primary school and after 10 minutes of seated meditation, my hip sockets are screaming in protest. Alarmingly, there's still 40 minutes to go.
I follow his advice, concentrating on my breath and trying to observe the sensation rather than react to it. Unexpectedly, it works. The discomfort slowly fades and my mind goes back to its default mode of ruminating on the past and worrying about the future.
When the session finishes, I want to tell him about my breakthrough. But I can't. Nor can I discuss it with my fellow meditators. Why? Because this is a silent retreat – a "Journey into Stillness", designed to help us examine "what really brings joy and meaning to your life".
If you'd told me a year ago I'd be participating in a silent meditation retreat, I'd have scoffed with derision. And then COVID hit. Since launching this two-night experience in July last year, Happy Buddha Retreats has had a surge of interest as people grapple with the mental health implications of a global pandemic.
The setting for the retreat is an imposing three-storey brick house overlooking a beautiful bush-lined valley near Wentworth Falls in the NSW Blue Mountains. Spiritual quotes and artworks adorn the walls and the named bedrooms (I'm in Infinity) are spacious and simply furnished. There's also a small dining room, a communal kitchen and a lovely outdoor terrace and pool.
Classes are held in an adjoining conservatory and during the "Welcoming Circle" we discover our group of ten (four men and six women) is a mixed bunch that includes a Google executive and a music producer.
The retreat is the brainchild of Himanshu Gour, an affable, wise-beyond-his-years 33-year-old with shoulder-length dark hair. After attending his first ashram in India at the age of 15, he's studied under a range of spiritual teachers and has participated in around 30 silent 10-day retreats. Somehow, he's also found time to work in senior positions across several tech start-ups.
"I designed this retreat to go deeper," he says. "Normally we suppress pain but this will bring it to the surface. Just acknowledge and accept it."
After a delicious vegetarian dinner of pea and potato curry with dahl and salad (the food is excellent), Gour declares that it's time to relinquish our phones and go into silence. "See you on the other side," says the guy next to me.
For the next 36 hours, I engage in a whole host of activities I'd have rolled my eyes at pre-COVID. I take a "painfully slow" nature walk. I visualise a "healing journey". I colour in. I journal. I even hug a tree.
Also on the schedule are yoga classes, relaxation sessions and an illuminating philosophy talk.
Surprisingly, I find the silence easy. And being phone-less isn't as stressful as I expected. But the meditations are challenging (both physically and mentally). As are the yoga sessions, where I'm perpetually one pose behind everyone else.
During the "Sharing from the Heart" closing circle, people reveal a wide range of experiences, from caffeine withdrawal symptoms to fleeting moments of intense joy to bouts of overwhelming grief at being separated from family.
"It's all about moving from reaction to observation," says Gour. "Well done. You've taken the first steps on a long journey."
Retreats run midweek and on weekends, with rates from $449 including meals and shared accommodation. 50 Railway Parade, Wentworth Falls, NSW. See happybuddharetreats.com.au
Rob McFarland was a guest of Happy Buddha Retreats.