One of things I gripe about most is time, or rather my lack of it. Just as some people dream of love, more money, a bigger house or – if you’re my husband – unlimited Dominos pizza, I dream of TIME alone, with no phone calls, no interruptions, no demands. If only I had more time, I say – more often than my family want to hear – I would finish my novel; study for that course I’m supposed to be on; start that non-fiction book I’ve been banging on about; clean the kitchen floor; weed the garden; try wood carving…
And so on and so on. You get the picture. I’m not someone who gets any pleasure from sitting around doing nothing. My mother’s protestant work ethic put paid to that from the moment I arrived on planet earth (to be honest, I’m surprised she even allowed me to loll around in a cot for eight months). So, when I was recently given the opportunity to take time out from being a wife/mother/daughter/carer etc for a WHOLE Sunday, it came as something of a surprise to everyone when I signed up for a day of sitting around doing nothing. A retreat, where the emphasis was not on achieving anything, but on being still. A silent mindful meditation retreat.
Discovering the power of mindfulness
In the interest of transparency, I have to explain that, for the past couple of months, I have been spending my Thursday evenings with a former Buddhist monk called Robert. (Yes, I was a little disappointed by the name too. I have a lovely Uncle called Robert, so it’s not the name per se, it’s just that when you are hanging out with a Buddhist monk, you want to refer to them by something that sounds a bit more, I don’t know, Buddhist?). Anyway, Robert has been training me in the ancient Buddhist art of mindful meditation. In other words, he has been helping me to tame my crazy, whirring, 100mph brain and, to use one of his favourite metaphors, encourage it to come back to heel, gently, like a puppy. So for the past two months I have already been taking some time out each day to, not exactly do nothing, but to sit quietly for half an hour or so and meditate. Most of the time, it must be said, my puppy is pretty resistant to coming to heel (there are just far too many interesting things for it to explore, sniff and do far worse to), but gradually, I have learned to concentrate on my breath and recognise every time my mind wanders off to consider if the new bathroom tiles should be white or blue. The key is not to beat yourself up about the mind wandering and, instead, simply acknowledge that, although this vital tile decision may have to be made, now is not the time, and then bring your focus back to the breath.
Buddhists have been meditating in this way for millennia (probably without the bathroom concerns) and claim that such mindful meditative practice enables us to see the world – and ourselves – more clearly, loosening the grip of regret, anxiety or any other negative feelings you might suffer from. If you are the sort of person who wants to know all the science behind this, I urge you to read Robert Wright’s brilliant Why Buddhism Is True; the science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment (Simon & Schuster 2017). He has all the clever answers. All that I know is, since I have been engaging in regular meditation, I feel calmer, I sleep better, I see my life more rationally and feel able to ride the waves more smoothly. In other words, by sitting around ‘doing nothing’ for 30 minutes or so a day, I have released myself from so much needless fretting and worrying, that I have gained more TIME, headspace and energy to be creative.
So maybe it’s not surprising that, when I heard that Robert was offering a whole day of mindful meditation at a silent retreat, I was keen to give it a go. The prospect of silence was probably the clincher to be honest. A whole day without having to jump to anyone else’s demands sounded like absolute bliss.
Again, to be clear, what I signed up for was not one of those hard-core monastery-based silent retreats that anyone who has seen or read Eat, Pray Love will be familiar with. Elizabeth Gilbert and Julia Roberts might have been able to get up at 4am, sit on a cold hard floor for nine hours and still look beatific, but I’m not sure I’ve got the stamina for that – yet. No, my initiation to the world of meditation retreats rather embarrassingly took place in a plush-carpeted, muzak-in-Reception-type of hotel on Bournemouth seafront. No Buddhist cred points there.
But ultimately none of that mattered – especially as I spent most of the day with my eyes closed. Robert took us through short sitting meditations, longer lying down meditations, some yoga and even some walking meditations which I was a bit less sure about, but only because it consisted of walking around a circle of chairs in a conference room, when I would rather have felt grass or sand beneath my feet. By lunchtime however I was feeling calm, relaxed, energised and wanted the day to go on forever. And that was before I even I discovered the best part.
Reassessing my use of time
As the morning session drew to a close, Robert told us that, for the lunch hour, were allowed do what we wanted. The only realistic options it transpired were to eat our packed lunch, sit in the conference room, or take a walk outside and down to the beach but whatever we chose, he told us, we had to maintain our ‘noble silence’. For a few minutes everyone looked around, unsure of where to take themselves. And I had to bite my tongue. I don’t know about you, but if I ever find myself in a room with a bunch of people I barely know, I can’t help but break an awkward silence by engaging in some chit chat or trying to crack a joke. God knows why, because, actually, as an introvert, all I really want to do is go in search of solitude and peace. I hate small talk and I find being with other people quite tiring, but because I’m also a people pleaser and don’t want to be considered odd, rude or antisocial, I will always find myself opening my mouth with false conviviality.
So the joy! The bliss! The lightness and liberation I felt in that minute, when I realised that engaging in trivial pleasantries was banned, verboten, frowned upon! That I could sit and eat lunch alongside someone else without any pressure to speak; that I could pick up my things and stride towards the beach without feeling compelled, out of politeness, to ask if anyone wanted to come with me. For the first time, I could, silently, do whatever I wanted yet still get a smile or a friendly nod from my peers if they happened to catch my eye. It was OK.
I felt alive with excitement and, as I walked down to the beach, considered just how much of my time and energy I waste daily in doing certain things because I think other people expect me to do them, or because I worry people might think badly of me if I don’t. I wondered to what extent those people would actually notice or care if I didn’t do some of these things and instead, occasionally, just got on with doing what I really wanted to do. In short, I realised, taking this precious time out to attend Robert’s silent retreat had actually revealed a way for potentially claiming back more time for myself, more space to write – or maybe to just come to a final decision on what colour the bathroom tiles should be.
Fancy having a go?
For a taster of such a retreat, Space to Write incorporates a small amount of mindful meditation into the Writing for Personal Development Workshop. Check out the Courses page for more information. For a similar retreat to the one described here, contact: The Dorset Mindfulness Centre at http://www.dorset-mindfulness.co.uk. If you want something a bit longer, Robert recommends: www.internationalmeditationcentre.org/uk. Space to Write is also planning a Silent Writing and Mindfulness Retreat Day, so keep an eye on Facebook for announcements.