If I close my eyes and sit on the floor I might be back in the candlelit octagonal meditation room … or if I sit on the sofa with my eyes shut I could be sitting with a book on my lap silently staring out at the sheep grazing on the opposite hill. Or (and this was the part I looked forward to most!) devouring the most delicious, most nourishing vegetarian food I have ever tasted.
I booked the weekend a few weeks ago to connect more deeply with my spiritual side. I have always loved being in nature, finding it restorative and necessary for de-stressing and being at peace with myself.
Driving onto the Sharpham estate on Friday afternoon the scenery was so stunning that I had an emotional moment. The fields dipped and rolled dramatically, there were beautiful mature trees. Sheep grazed on the hills and through the base of the valley the magnificent river Dart flowed quietly on its way to the sea.
My worry that the Grade 1 listed mansion was going to be cold and draughty was soon allayed as we were shown around the large faded grand rooms on arrival. And I was relieved to see I had a sink in my bedroom. Some of the other retreatants hadn’t realised we were sharing bathrooms and were a bit alarmed about this!
But I was shocked when I read the timetable and found how much silence was incorporated. There were periods of silence scheduled each day but from Saturday evening at 9pm we were in silence until 2.30pm the following day. I didn’t like the sound of this at all. The other retreatants were my kind of people. I had already made a connection with one of the other women who is as mad about trees as I am. I wanted to chat!
At the first evening’s meeting our articulate and gentle course tutors, Patti Summerville (also an occupational therapist) and Ramiro Ortego (a practising Buddhist teacher) explained the basics of mindfulness and the rules of the retreat. Although the retreat is secular, the principles of mindfulness, or awareness, as it used be called, are based on Buddhist practices.
We were asked to do no harm to any living creature. Ramiro, who must be the most remarkably zen person I have ever encountered, told us that no living creature wanted to, or deserved to suffer, which is of course completely right.
We were also asked to be kind to each other and to ensure that our conversations reflected this. We were expected to refrain from alcohol in order to keep a clear head and switch off our mobile phones and tablets to remove ourselves from modern life stresses and distractions. There was of course no television, no radio or newspapers. It set the scene for the next three days.
Mindfulness is a way of being purposefully present. Of being aware of our bodies or nature, with curiosity and without judgement. It is about keeping anxious racing thoughts at bay. Being aware of breathing – and breathing deeply with visualisation, is an integral part of mindfulness.
After the meeting it was straight into the meditation room for a tutorial on how to sit comfortably on special cushions. Meditation was a fundamental part of the retreat and we had two periods of 30 minutes of meditation each day, as well as a session of deep relaxation.
I found the meditation, although it was expertly guided, hardest of all. I found it difficult to concentrate on my breathing without my thoughts wandering and I was distracted by aches in my shoulders or back. I opened my eyes too often and got the giggles when someone’s stomach rumbled loudly. I fidgeted frequently.
Although everything seemed perfect for an excellent night’s sleep I slept badly the first night. I had the window open and the extraordinary silence of the place was almost unnerving. There was no light pollution, so I could glimpse the stars between the clouds which was amazing. Something I rarely get to see here in Ottery. Saturday and Sunday nights I slept much more restfully.
Each morning the bell rang at 6.45am to signal it was time to get ready for daily yoga at 7.30am. This was an energising way to start the day. After, it was meditation and then a hearty breakfast. We ate in silence each morning, as we were instructed to. We all had to take turns clearing away and loading the dishwasher and there was an amusing moment as I observed one of the retreatants was desperately trying to fathom the wordless gesticulations of a member of staff trying to explain what had to be done.
Before our long period of silence where we were advised not to even read, Ramiro explained that if we had suppressed any emotions by keeping busy, these may come out. I was a bit nervous about this. I wasn’t sure how I was going to react to such a long period of not being able to communicate because although much of the day was structured we still had quite long times when we could please ourselves.
During the silence in my personal time I mooched around the house, sat in the library and gazed out at the sheep on the hill, lay on my bed and drank many cups of decaf tea. I opened myself to whatever might need to come out. So I was surprised and relieved to discover that the overriding emotion I felt was a deep peace in my chest and solar plexus. At times I even felt a kind of joy that made me smile.
I felt fortunate to have much in my life to be happy about. To sum it up it occurred to me that I was exactly where I should be. That I don’t know what is coming next but my life feels full of possibility – an adventure!
When I was with the others, the silence was not difficult. It felt companionable and we grinned at each other conspiratorially. In some ways it even relieved the pressure to make small talk and several of us commented afterwards that we enjoyed the food more, being able to concentrate on it.
The highlight for me was a two hour guided silent walk along the river and through tranquil woodland where the vegetation and trees seemed to be expectantly awaiting spring. We were guided to a little grassy peninsular and there we stayed with our eyes closed for about 15 minutes soaking up the sound of the calling birds, the sun, which had peeped out from behind the clouds and the endless rippling flow of the river. That moment was truly sublime.
During our feedback session, several of us had found the long silence difficult and had been anxious. Suppressed emotions had emerged. Others had found the silence a welcome break from a hectic life and relished it. Although I was glad the silence had ended and had an urge to chatter, to listen to loud music and dance, I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it had been for me.
I am restored and energised after the retreat. I feel happy and peaceful and have new skills that I can use if I wish on a daily basis, to be present, in the moment and to reduce stress. I will try to be more aware of my breathing and I will return to my neglected yoga classes!
I am ready for 2017!
Anyone on a limited income who wishes to attend the Sharpham House retreats can apply for a bursary. For more information see http://www.sharphamtrust.org/
Pic: The View
Poem written by one of my fellow retreatants, Vanessa Bonnin.
Eternity in Ten Breaths
Slow paces put me in step with a robin
He hopped, I stepped
He skipped, I followed
Together we stood as he sang for me
Twisting tendrils of Madeleine Angevine beckoned.
I paused, light reflecting on river’s bend
Ducks glide on mirrored pond.
Far off woodland pheasant calls
And coloured feathers respond,
left to right crossed my sight.
I hear a sheep breathe.
Behind me a flutter of wings
And a sense of being watched
Announces my friend.
I turn, am regarded by his beady eye
And together we stand again in the stillness