What would happen if all your usual methods of preoccupation and distraction were taken away. All the talking, moving, doing, reading was given over to gentle self-inquiry? How would it be to simply sit in silence allowing yourself to make contact with your moment to moment experience?
At Easter I decided to forego family get togethers (and chococlate) and enrol in a four day meditation retreat. My motivation? To reestablish my meditation practice, from the sporadic habit it had become, back into the solid daily fixture and source of nourishment it had been in previous times in my life. And, I admit, to shut up and spend some time in silence.
I arrive on the Thursday evening into the green embrace of the forest surrounding the ashram. After settling in to my room I head towards the meeting hall feeling a touch of the usual excitement and nerves that come with arriving in a new environment alone, amongst strangers. Melli, our teacher for Mastering the Art of Mindful Living announces we will be observing silence for the next day and a half and I can feel myself inwardly relax.
Sitting down, with nothing but an intention to become quiet and find out what is really going on inside of us, is not something we do very often in our culture of striving and perpetual busyness. We are so often driven, by a sense of lack, of needing to get somewhere that we rarely are comfortable to just be.
Even leisure time seems taken up with self improvements—getting fit, learning a new skill, ticking something off the bucket list. Yoga with its rich tradition of self enquiry, has become more about the body beautiful, and stretching ourselves in ever new directions, than a way to come home and shed light on the workings of the mind.
This is what a retreat can do. By taking you away from your regular life and all its tasks and to-do lists, and simplifying everything down to one thing: resting in awareness with whatever might unfold inwardly and outwardly.
A long term meditator and teacher, Melli has the calm, steady presence of someone who walks her talk and a warm way of leading others into a meditative place, where there’s a possibility to sit with experience, whatever that may be.
“Each time your mind wanders,” Melli reminds us again and again throughout the four days, “simply bring your mind back, to the present moment and what is unfolding.”
This is easier said than done.
The present is not always pleasant. Sit long enough in extended periods of meditation and pain, discomfort, anxiety, guilt and boredom can and will show up—not that you would have guessed it by the silence within our group.
As I, and everyone on the chairs and cushions around me, become more and more intimate with comings and going of our own minds and bodies, I let go even of the expectation that it should be relaxing. Instead I gently probe the resistance that shows up, the perpetual planning, the inner critic who wants her say.
Presence comes from the present
Its not all hard work of course. As the long, spacious days unfold, there is the opportunity to experience walking and sitting meditation, mindful eating and listening, karma yoga ( a kind of silent mindful participation in daily tasks) and deeply relaxing yoga nidra—all of which is restorative and helpful.
The explorations of the workings of our tricky minds, and worksheets for delving into our deepest values are equally invaluable gently steering us in the direction of our true north. And for me the time spent on solo walks in the natural surroundings – up to the cave, traversing the mountain slopes through forest and ferns, fills me with a quiet wonder and dare I say joy.
Yet that is not the real gift of this time away. In the end, everything that needs to emerge and be understood, comes on its own in its own time, out of the basic simplicity of the mindfulness practice.
In giving myself over to it and whatever emerges with awareness and kindness, returning home to the breath again and again, I feel myself relaxing into being.
By the end of four days, among strangers who become wise fellow travellers, I feel my creativity being restored, a gentle opening into presence. For everyone, there is a giving up on unnecessary struggles caused not by our individual circumstances but by the resistance of the mind.
Here is the wellspring of my natural wisdom, that quiet place only reached by sitting down with myself again and again, over and over, falling as often as I can, into stillness.
Nowhere else to go, nothing else needed. No fancy techniques, no mindfulness app, no self improvement campaign, just this watching the breath, as feelings and thoughts come and go—and with time and luck becoming quiet enough inside to touch the silence.
Less really is more.
As we go around the circle on the last day, sharing what we will take away from our time at the retreat a women beside me says something I’ve heard before but perhaps never fully grasped : “I know that everything I need is within.”
And from somewhere deep inside my being, I know this too.
If you would like to press pause on your busy schedule and develop a mindfulness practice of your own with ongoing support in a small group setting, Mindfully Me, a weekly mindful living course is here to help.
Over six practical sessions you’ll learn how to tame your thoughts, reduce stress and find stillness. Through varied mindfulness exercises and self inquiry you’ll be building a lasting foundation for inner peace. Places are limited so get in touch now. Starts May 2.
Want to attend a retreat with Melli? Visit Mrs Mindfulness.