I've been on yoga retreats, wellness retreats, spa weekends. This time I wanted a bit more, a retreat where I could learn meditation perhaps or do some self-development.
I researched for weeks and nothing was quite right. Either too far away (Bali!), too fluffy (boring!) or too wacky (UFO retreat anyone?!). Then I stumbled upon a Silent Retreat at Gaia House in Devon. Gaia House is one of the largest residential meditation centres in Europe. About 1,500 people from all walks of life attend retreats here each year, practising meditation in an atmosphere of silence. Hmm, could be interesting...
I decided on a 3-day 'Insight Meditation' Retreat at Gaia House. Based on Buddhist principles it claims to help us "discover the causes and cures of the unsatisfactoriness that we all experience. You will learn skills that help you respond more effectively to difficult emotions and painful feelings". Sounds good! The retreat was already full so I was on a waiting list. I sign I wasn't the only one looking for something different! Luckily a space became available, I booked my train to Newton Abbot and set about making childcare arrangements.
In all honesty I wasn't looking forward to it because it really was a journey into the unknown. I saw it as a challenge, to see what happens when we are stripped of all our usual distractions. As well as being silent it was a no-phone, no-books, no-writing retreat too. It was literally going to be just me and my mind for 3 potentially very long days!
On the day of the retreat the whole O2 data network went down sending me into a tailspin that I hadn't tied up all the loose ends and emails before going incommunicado.
I arrived at Gaia House, a grey country house which dates back to 1588 and is a former convent, with the taxi driver's words echoing in my ear "A silent retreat? Why would you want to do that?!"
The retreat coordinators (who are volunteers) welcomed me and showed me around. The registration form asked whether I had any mental health issues - I guess this really can shake things up if you're not in a good place.
After registering and signing up for gardening duty (everyone has to do an hour a day of work - other options were laundry, preparing veg and housework) I was shown my (shared) room. I knew the accommodation was shared so brought ear plugs and an eye mask. I wondered what it would be like to share a room with a stranger but part of me was pleased because it would mean I couldn't cheat and sneak my Kindle out of my suitcase.
We were free to chat as the silence hadn't started yet and it was reassuring that the others on the retreat weren't complete oddballs. It was a real mix of gender, age and background all wanting to learn how to find some inner stillness in a world of noise.
The Silence Starts
The silence started at 7pm and we did our first sitting meditation in a large, comfortable meditation hall.
After a long day, underpinned with some nervous anticipation, I enjoyed the opportunity to be quiet and funnily enough my mind was also still. I've nailed it, or so I thought!
The evening session ended at 9.15pm and because there was nothing else to do (no chatting, no TV, no browsing social media, no reading, no writing) I was at a loss with what to do with myself and went to bed.
An Early Start
The gong woke us at 6.30am (at which point I wondered why I hadn't just gone for a spa weekend) so we could be ready for our 7am meditation. My mind was less still and I found myself wondering what was for breakfast. Porridge as it happens. I thought it might be weird sitting eating together in silence but actually it was a real relief not to have to make small talk.
Next at 8.15am came an hour of 'working meditation' which for me was gardening, raking leaves to be precise. I kitted myself out in wellies and wet weather gear (which are provided) and filled 5 wheelbarrows full of leaves.
The gong sounded so we made our way to the meditation hall for our morning session. 3 hours of meditation began with a talk from Yanai about how to meditate, how to sit, how to deal with thoughts. The session was broken up into 45 minute sessions - sitting meditation, walking meditation, sitting meditation, walking meditation. Was this ever going to end? Please dear Lord can the gong go for lunch?
Eventually it was lunchtime (a delicious vegan curry with buckwheat). No puddings. I did sneak some mince pies into my suitcase in case of emergencies but strangely enough didn't feel the need. I think that being silent and mindful when eating gives you a much greater sense of appreciation and satiation.
Will This Restlessness Ever End?
The gong signalled that it was time to re-group for another 3 hour meditation session. I was starting to get the picture, and I didn't know if I could handle an afternoon of nothing. I was feeling restless in body and mind. I'm someone who, like many of us, is usually doing at least two things at once so doing NOTHING was starting to bother my busy mind. Somehow I got through to 5.30pm where it is a light supper of soup and toast before the evening session started at 7pm. After having some soup I felt despondent, what do I do? I had 45 mins to kill. I sat with a hot drink in the lounge staring out of the window in a miserable daze. No phone to distract me meant that I had to actually really feel the feelings and it wasn't a fun experience.
The way you communicate with the teacher is via a message board where you can write notes. I wrote a note. "Dear Yanai. I'm feeling irritable, sad, bored and I miss my family. I expect this is normal but how do I deal with it? Thanks Kate".
During that evening session Yanai answered my note during his talk - reassured us that these feelings were completely normal. He said that we go through life looking back at the past or looking forward at what might happen. We are always hoping the next thing is going to be THE thing that makes us happy so we get lost in a fruitless search for meaning somewhere in the future. We live with a sense of dissatisfaction, a feeling that something is missing. We are rarely present in our current experience. In THIS moment, with THIS experience. The meditation schedule is designed to be repetitive, so that there really isn't much to look forward to (sounds harsh!) but it encourages us to just BE, to notice your breath, your hands in your lap, your body on the cushion. No distractions, nothing but the present moment. Nowhere to hide.
A Glimpse of Enlightenment
During that evening I still struggled to quiet my restlessness, I was really resisting the idea of just being in the moment. I wanted to be DOING SOMETHING! I wanted to be BUSY! It was during the walking meditation (which involves very slow walking backwards and forwards, going nowhere) that I found myself going into a sort of trance, left right left right. I felt a deep sense of contentment at just walking. My breath found a steady rhythm with my walking and everything just felt good. Felt settled. My mind wasn't fighting to speak. I went to bed still feeling a bit sad and anxious that there were still 2 days left (would I cope?) but with a vague optimism that there might be something quite magical to be discovered.
Over the next 2 days it was the same schedule - meditation all day in some form - sitting, walking, working, eating, standing or resting. If I thought about the day that lay ahead I would get an overwhelming feeling of wanting to run away. So I tried to take each session as it came and not to think about the repetitiveness spreading out ahead of me.
A Box of Firecrackers
At the beginning of every session it took about 10 minutes for my mind to settle. Those 10 minutes were like someone had lit a box of firecrackers in my head and the thoughts were firing off all over the place. But then they slowed down. I didn't try to stop them. Yanai suggested that we treat the mind like a puppy (bare with me!). He said every time a puppy runs off we don't chastise it or it won't want come back. If we coax the puppy back with kind words it will stay with us. Likewise our mind. Getting frustrated and feeling like a failure every time our mind wonders off isn't helpful. So instead I found myself saying "oh look, there's my mind wondering off again, come on back you come".
I could write disaster movies
The directions I observed my mind taking me were crazy and the amount of disaster scenarios that I would think up really took me by surprise (seriously, one small nugget of a thought could take me off in such panic inducing, terrifying trains of thought I should be writing disaster movies!). Anyway, slowly I started to distance myself from them and when I became aware of the movies my mind was creating I didn't indulge, I just mentally stepped back and they would dissipate. I did this again and again and again. And then I would glimpse these windows of peace. It was a physical sensation, my face and hands would tingle, my jaw would relax, a wave of calm would wash over my chest and solar plexus. And I felt really connected to the earth, wonderfully grounded and calm. Until a thought would pop up and break the spell.
Those Darn Emotions
Yanai gave us a lesson on how to deal with emotions that come up during meditation. A common emotion for me was worry. I'd worry about the children, whether my mother was ok looking after them, whether I'd told her to cut up the grapes. Judgement too came up a lot - wow, I can be really hard on myself. We were encouraged to connect with these emotions because pain is caused by disconnection. So I would start to worry and say "Ok, I see that is worry and I connect with it. I make space for it." and miraculously it would disappear. Every time. It sounds mumbo jumbo but try it. The point of meditation is to train yourself not to be knocked sideways by every emotion, every thought. Not to allow yourself to disappear down rabbit holes of thought that spiral out of control, dragging you down. Not to become the emotion, just to see the emotion, connect with it and allow it to pass on by.
The Last Day
On the last day of the retreat the wind was howling and the rain teeming down. I did think that the Buddha was testing my patience as all the leaves I had raked were blown up into the air scattering everywhere. Listening to the wind rattling the windows of the meditation hall was strangely comforting. All 40 of us gathered together in supportive silence. None of us knew each other but we were bound by our shared experience.
An Experience of a Lifetime
The silence was lifted at lunchtime. I thought I'd be desperate to talk but I wasn't so I took myself off to the lounge which was reserved for those who wanted to remain in silence. I wasn't ready to let go of the stillness I'd found. The retreat afforded me the rare opportunity to turn inwards, with no distractions, to really see myself. I am proud of myself for doing it and incredibly grateful to Yanai for his wisdom which I shall keep with me forever.
The retreat was one of the most challenging but rewarding things I've ever done. Painful. Boring. Lonely. Repetitive. Simple. Slow. Raw. Profound. Groundbreaking. I'd definitely do it again.
I think I am on the right path to understanding how to train my busy, firecracker of a mind. Since being back in the 'real world' I have managed to carve out half an hour a day to meditate and to practice finding the stillness so that when the sh*t hits the fan (as it does) I have the tools to deal with it in a calmer, less reactive way.