Should I go on retreat?
I need some space, calm and clarity in my life right now, and a friend recommended I come on your retreat, but I’ve never done anything like this before. Can you tell me more about it?
My intention for retreats is a simple one: to support you to come into a more sacred relationship with everything. The impact of this is profound because it means you feel held and guided enough to embrace aspects you’ve tended to avoid or deny. Which means you become less reactive and more able to respond to life with wisdom, compassion and delight.
That sounds important! But what do we actually do?
The tools we use are conscious intention, yoga, meditation, nature immersion, ceremony, silence, mindful dialogue and loving community. Coming on retreat already creates a space in our lives which reveals our intention, however simple or complex that might be. Yoga helps us to arrive in the body as well as create space and lightness in areas which have become contracted and collapsed. We discover how to breathe in ways which better support our cells, organs and nervous system, and through breathing consciously we also connect to the wider web of life. Meditation teaches us how to unhook from obsessive or habitual narratives. We discover that placing our attention in the aliveness of the present moment is a choice, leading to an ability to respond from love rather than reactivity. Immersion in nature invites relaxation, wonder and awe, as well as a more mystical experience of being seen and loved unconditionally. We support a deepening of this reciprocal relationship with the natural and spirit worlds through simple ceremonies, which allow us to trust, surrender and open to the unknown. All of this is held in the safe container of sacred silence, which means letting go of chatting so that we can relax the masks we wear. Sometimes we share together as well, and of course I’m always guiding, supporting - so not in silence - but this wider field of silence invites the mind to relax and the heart to open. Food tastes more delicious, the world looks more vivid, life comes more alive. We also start to feel more fully. We learn how to receive life’s full spectrum of experience without suppressing our emotions, drowning in them or investing in the stories created around them. We learn to simply feel, fully, with love. And by trusting in Love’s wise and flexible response, we learn to live more fully from love, as well.
That’s really interesting! It would be nice to try one day - maybe I’ll start smaller with a shorter retreat to see how I do. I know it would probably do me a lot of good!
One of the greatest blessings of my life was finding myself in India in my early 20s attending a meditation retreat, just to try it out (having worked for a year with the Tibetan community in exile). It was 10 days long, and the first 5 days felt like torture for my stiff body and restless mind. I found myself waiting for the end to come, whilst also knowing that this really mattered. And then something shifted, my body eased and my attention began to land in this moment. On day 8 we had the option to sign up for the second 10 days, so, because I was young and willing, I did just that. To sit 20 days in silence on my first ever meditation retreat was the greatest gift I could have given myself, because I was able to move beyond the challenging initial resistance of body, heart and mind and receive the fruits of the practice. I'm sharing this because I hear so many people saying exactly what you said - maybe I'll start with a few days to see how it feels. And I always wish they understood that each time they do a short retreat they are repeating the most challenging days over and over, without the time and space to relax fully into the gifts of a retreat!
Ahhh - thank you for sharing that! Perhaps knowing this deep down, I then worry that having made the shift I will find it hard to re-enter the ‘real world’? I find life much too fast usually and feel like I am always running to catch up and jump onto the back of a fast moving train. During the first lockdown, I finally felt I could just be and relished watching nature unfolding. But my life couldn’t be further from that gentle rhythm now with an intense year of work without a break and my health is unfortunately paying the price.
I’ve noticed for myself that I often have more choice than I think. Just like after the space and stillness of lockdown, even though outer life started moving again, many of us chose to continue to spend more time at home, or in nature, or being still. Even when we aren’t able to control our outer conditions, we are always free to choose our inner relationship to whatever is arising, and this is the piece most often lacking in our education. It often doesn't feel like there’s a choice, of course, because we're being run by unconscious programmes of 'not enough' (or not safe, not seen, not lovable etc). But when we make space, like we do on retreat, we meet those programmes too, so that nothing is left behind. Everything, slowly, becomes more integrated. Then we can make real choices, based on what we really want. Not based on outdated survival instincts, habits, reactions and addictions. Which means our bodies no longer have to be sacrificial messengers stepping up to demand that we finally listen.
This is really speaking to me. So I’m going to find the courage to share another concern I have, which is that we’re still struggling financially post-lockdowns. It feels like a catch-22 because I want to change my life and direction, but I currently feel like I’m running just to stay afloat! I really feel like this retreat will help me find the clarity and reorientation I’m needing right now, but, to be completely honest, I’m not sure I can afford it at the moment.
Something I have always appreciated about the Buddhist tradition is that teachings are offered freely in the spirit of generosity and reciprocity called Dana. Many retreat centres and teachers traditionally said that no one would ever be turned away through lack of funds, and this is still my aspiration as well. The practice of Dana appears to be waning a little as spiritual practices become more commodified. But because I feel our relationship to money (and to giving and receiving in general) is such an important practice to include, I choose offer all my work through Dana (or with a sliding scale where Dana is not possible). I appreciate this is an unfamiliar way of working in the West, so I’m happy to explain it in more detail to you. Dana is a practice of both giving and receiving. It invites us to receive experiences of gratitude, generosity and appreciation as well as feelings of scarcity and lack. It asks that we look more closely at our motivation and expectations, demanding that we step out of a transaction mindset (how much can I get from this moment and how little can I give?) and into a generosity mindset (how deeply can I receive this moment and what would I like to offer in return?) Dana helps us strengthen the nourishing flow of reciprocal and sacred relationship by bringing it into everyday life. What this means is that before the retreat you pay only your food and accommodation costs, and where possible assisted places are available for this as well. After the retreat, I ask you to reflect on what you received from the week and what you would like to offer to support me in return. I trust you to choose an amount that is right for us both. One that feels like you are making a real commitment to your practice while respecting your financial situation on the one hand; and one that honours my experience and teaching and reflects what you have received from the retreat on the other. What is generous for one person is not at all for another! Dana allows for a genuine space of reflection on generosity, mutual support and growth that is not about comparison, doing the right thing or getting a good deal.
That is so refreshing to hear, thank you! I’m excited now, but my final hurdle is that I have to see if it’s going to work with my family. My daughter has some big exams coming up, and she might need some support from me. I feel I need to do a retreat if I possibly can, but without feeling I’m being a bad mother!
Absolutely. And if you would like to come but feel you also need to be in daily contact with your daughter, that's absolutely fine. There are no rules, just suggestions to support whatever is unfolding. I have been on many silent retreats where I have agreed in advance a time each day to contact my children, just because that's what they've needed from me at that time. It's just about being aware of what's actually here, in all its seeming contradiction and complexity, and finding the most loving response, to everything, in any moment. That's the entire practice, really!
I actually can’t believe that this is sounding possible for me! I realise now that I contacted you first assuming I would find an excuse not to come - almost so then I could tell myself I had tried, but it’s not for me! Where and when are your next retreats and what do I do next?
I teach at two amazing retreat centres, both dedicated to these sorts of practices. One of them (Sharpham House) is in Devon, the other (Moulin de Chaves) is in France. Both are stunning period houses set on very magical grounds with rivers to swim in, rolling hills and carefully tended woodlands or bamboo groves with many sacred spots to sit and simply be. When you’ve decided which retreat you’d like to join, let me know and I’ll send you a link for registration. And of course, keep emailing me with any other questions - you never know, they might be useful for other people too!