Let’s go to Niag’ra
This time we’ll look at the Falls!
Hearing it again recently reminded me I wanted to write about another sort of getting away from it all – the mindfulness retreat.
I value the retreat experience. I’m not worried about the lumpy beds; the morning queues for the shower; the late night desperate trips along the corridor to the loo; the overcooked vegetables and watery tea. Heck, I went to boarding school – I can take any amount of privation. As someone who spends a lot of my time listening to others while naturally preferring the quiet life I find the permission not to be involved in conversation wonderfully liberating and restful. I also welcome the transformative nature of prolonged silence and the intensity that comes from extended periods of practice. These have enabled me to make a step change in some of the unhelpful patterns that I have had since childhood.
I’ve always returned from retreats feeling relaxed, refreshed and with a heightened sense of awareness – both of the inner landscape and the outer environment. One of the main lessons for me – and one I struggle to maintain when back in my normal life – is how little we actually need. Friends who have walked the Camino or lived for weeks in peace camps have related similar experiences - the paring down to essentials; just some basic food, a little water, sturdy shoes, shelter from the elements. We come away needing so little, feeling so light, treading so softly upon the earth. I used to get the same sensation when bivouacking in the Highlands. First day out the blisters, the aching limbs, the longing for a comfy bed and hunger for a decent meal. By the third day out, nothing much matters any more; there is only the putting of one foot ahead of the other. The simplicity is as overpowering and heady as a mind-altering drug.
I like the retreat experience. I know I benefit from it. Over centuries people from different religious or philosophical traditions have recorded the need to retreat in order to see things as they really are, to regain perspective. It’s just the opposite of ‘getting away from it all’; it brings us closer to what it’s all really all about. In my view, the test of an effective retreat is the degree to which it challenges and changes our approach to our everyday lives. Humans are social organisms with duties and responsibilities towards others; we cannot live on retreat forever. I say that as someone whose fantasy was to live a solitary life growing potatoes on the machir in South Uist, with only a Border Collie for company. Abandoning the fantasies and accepting the actual experience has been one of the lessons I have learned most deeply on retreat.
In spite of this, I am struggling with the professional expectation of an annual teacher-led mindfulness retreat. These generally follow a format derived from the Vipassana tradition, handed down through an unbroken chain of teachers and centred on the Three Marks of Existence . Perhaps you already know the format: there are teachers appointed who determine the structure of the day, lead the practices and take care of the retreatants. There is also a code of conduct about observing physical boundaries and refraining from intoxicants. There will be preparation for silence, a period of silence lasting a few hours or perhaps a whole week. A silence that excludes reading, writing and eye contact, although the leaders may choose readings to share with the group. There will be a gentle exodus from the silence and a preparation for a return to everyday life. Rising, lights-out and meals are at set times and there are blessedly few decisions to make, apart from wondering if you will have another slice of toast. Dormitories or shared rooms are common – the theory being that silence in company is more instructive than silence on one’s own - or perhaps it’s a ploy to deter those rebellious souls from smuggling in a novel or a notebook. Over a period of days, the mind settles into a peaceful, somewhat vacant mode, preoccupied – if occupied at all – by the weird smell in the corridors or the unexplained absence of biscuits with afternoon tea.
In exiting the silence, some will ‘come out’ to fellow retreatants with deep psychic struggles they are experiencing. Others will be silent, perhaps empathising with their colleagues or struggling with feelings of inadequacy for having no cosmic angst to share. The experienced leaders will skilfully manage the exploration of what this all means and help the retreatants prepare for returning to everyday life, to the noise, confusion and distraction.
I could easily become a serial retreat ant. My struggle with the professional demand is not a lack of faith in the value of time spent apart, seeing things as they really are. It is an issue partly of practicality and partly of dogma. As the demand grows for mindfulness courses and as the number of teachers increases, I suggest we need to have a broader understanding of the retreat experience, a more inclusive approach that recognises that ‘retreat’ is as much a state of mind as a physical entity. We need to embrace those who cannot for practical or financial reasons take a week out on a residential taught retreat. We need to be more pluralist in our approach, more accepting of those from different faiths and traditions.
My caring responsibilities have recently increased and no longer permit me going on organised, week long retreats. I have to get my retreat experience elsewhere. Day retreats led by my colleagues and my weekly yoga class provide the teaching I need. When I am working in my office I turn around at regular intervals to gaze at the garden, allowing the birds, the squirrels and the sky to remind me of how insignificant I am.
Some days, I just block off time in my diary, leave my phone behind, don my waterproofs, take a bottle of water and wander about in the woods. I sit in the rain (this is Scotland after all) at the base of some massive forest tree, my back to its sturdy trunk, sensing it moving gently in the wind and feeling suitably small. I breathe in the scent of rotting leaves and fungi and am reminded of the transience of my life. I become so still the birds and animals forget I am there and come breathtakingly close. I walk about slowly, gathering the cones I use in my classes. And then I come home and make supper for my family.
It’s not really about getting to Niagara; it’s more about being reminded of ‘our place in the family of things’.
 Good practice guidelines for teaching mindfulness-based courses
 From Wild Geese by Mary Oliver