I came back from my annual week-long retreat in Devon last month. Going on retreat is a requirement of my accreditation as a mindfulness teacher but I would go anyway and have been doing so for most of the last 25 years. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.
What would you think if I told you it was really hard? That I struggled with it; shed a few tears; that it hurt like hell and didn’t speak for a whole week? If you’re not used to the idea of retreat my guess is you’d probably wonder why I bothered with it. After all, aren’t retreats supposed to be a bit, you know, relaxing? Like a holiday? That’s what people say to me when I get back: “Wow you must be feeling so chilled out after that!” I wish it was true.
What happens when you go on an extended retreat is that you spend several days in the company of your own mind, and believe me that isn’t often very good company. To be silent for such a long time and to spend upwards of seven hours a day in meditation makes you confront yourself in a very direct way. You have no escape. It can be merciless. This year, quite unexpectedly, I was confronted by strong, almost overwhelming, feelings of failure and disappointment. I would sit, gazing at a wall, watching my breath, allowing the sounds around me to come and go, and a relentless parade of self-critical thoughts would pass endlessly through my mind. Reruns of the top ten most excruciatingly awful moments of my life, in glowing Technicolor, would demand my attention, over and over again. You have no idea how much I hoped for some respite.
Then, finally, I realised.
You see, you don’t go on retreat to “retreat” from the world or from yourself. You go there because there is work to be done. The days are spent, literally, doing work; mindfully washing up or preparing food, cleaning the toilets or discovering what you need to work on within yourself. It’s all the same. My own feeling of abject disappointment with my life was my mind sending me important information about where the work needs to be done. It sounds awful but in fact it’s immensely liberating. To sit for hours with your darkest fears or grimmest depression is transformative. I sat with my failure, my inadequacy and my sadness and watched it – closely without getting entangled in it – and it changed. It turned into the weather, blowing through for a while, but ultimately passing by, just as it always does. It will come back of course, but when it does I will at least recognise it for what it is and exercise a little compassion. For compassion, I realised, was what was missing, and compassion can transform anything.
The last night of the retreat I sat in meditation with everyone else - fifty of us. The world outside got quieter and so did the world inside. After 35 minutes, the meditation session ended and most people left the hall to prepare for bed. Some of us stayed. There was a profound calm in that room as I sat, in the company of people whose names I did not know but for whom my heart now soared with gratitude. This was a space beyond thought. It was peace. It was a taste of joy. I rose from my cushion two hours later. It could have been two minutes or two days for all I knew or cared. But it was time to move on.
Retreat is often considered the next step after you have established a solid, regular meditation practice. Please consider doing it, but don’t do it lightly; it’s a serious business and it can have effects you might not want, especially if you are in a vulnerable place in your life. However not all retreats are heavy duty affairs like mine; many organisations run short retreats which gently ease you into the idea. Many people imagine that any period spent in silence will be too difficult, or too stressful but the opposite is the case. Retreats are wonderfully nourishing experiences. They give you the space to be yourself in a way that no other experience allows. Just don’t expect them to be relaxing or comfortable.