The retreat was led by two teachers. They topped and tailed the sitting sessions with a few helpful words, and were also on hand lest any participants develop problems, an important safeguard as prolonged silence can be unsettling. One of them also gave a talk on the second evening, and she explained the central Buddhist doctrine that meditation is designed to address: the reality of suffering.
Suffering here is meant in a broad sense, everything from the faintest feeling that something is wrong, to the profound injuries that human beings inflict on themselves and each other. It's a worldview that is humanistic and tragic. The first of the Buddha's noble truths is that life is suffering. It's called a "noble" truth since that realisation is also the first step towards an ennobled life, namely one in which the suffering can cease.
That's where meditation comes in. It's a technique designed to develop mindfulness, the awareness and acceptance of suffering existence. Meditation itself needn't always be painful. It might be pleasant, even elating. But the aim is neither to cling to experience, nor to reject it, but rather to know it as it is. Hence, the "insight" in insight meditation. "To understand all is to forgive all," the proverb says, and the Buddhist version would be, "To understand all is to let go of all". It just takes practice...
The raison d'être of Gaia House is the wellbeing of the those who come to stay in it. That seems like a pretty good raison d'être, and it is. However, it comes with risk. Meditation-as-therapy flirts with narcissism when it is devoted to observing yourself, for that can lead to self-absorption and self-obsession. It's a danger inherent in any community devoted to a particular task, though perhaps more so in one that lacks a reference point beyond the individuals taking part.
Religious houses in a Christian tradition would be different, in theory at least. Ultimately, they don't exist for the wellbeing of the occupants, but for the glory of God...
In some ways, columns like this are more insidious than Brit Hume's remarks, because they seem to paint an accurate picture of what Buddhists on meditation retreats actually do.
It seems, from the guy's other columns, that he is at best a dilettante in the practice of Buddhism, and so apparently hasn't got to the point - after you do the meditation "to feel better for a while" - where you get the awareness that there's no "you" apart from the 10,000 things.
And finally, by painting Western Buddhism as all about meditation as therapy, Vernon is taking a stone and calling it "Buddhism" while not paying attention to the mountain from which it came.