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Retreat to Dive Deep

A retreat – a time of solitude in a secluded, natural place – is a wonderful opportunity. The word ‘retreat’, though, can bring up resistance in some people, particularly if we associate the idea with running away. We may feel it is an admission of defeat, a sense of escaping from life, rather than facing it head on. Yet there is immense potential contained within time away from daily concerns. Sometimes we need to retreat, in order to chart the most skillful way forward. In order to advance, we need time to get to know our own mind. We need to dive deep.

When we are in the fast flow of an urban life, we can easily lose sight of who we are, and become distracted by outer experiences. Our self-image is filtered through social perceptions. Every single person has a slightly different view of us, based on their own mind, so we twist and turn, trying to fit into the mould that others create. Social media has exaggerated this, as we get real time feedback through ‘Likes’ from others, instead of realising that we have far more authentic real time feedback, by tapping into the world of our feelings, physical sensations and intuition. We need to take time to inhabit our own mould; our own body, heart and mind. Is this selfish? Let’s see. When we turn to our unique selves we find that we connect with the universal aspects of all humans. We can understand our own shadow, and the shadow we see in others. We also recognise our own light, and help to bring out that light in others. When we notice what makes us happy or sad, we are more able to recognise or even pre-empt those feelings in others, and behave skilfully in order to provide support.

Time on retreat gives us the chance to shift our level of consciousness, so that we suddenly see solutions to challenges or habits more clearly, and are easier able to let them dissolve away. As Einstein is often quoted:

“No problem can be solved

from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

Two key aspects we have time to explore on retreat are finding ease, and being aware. These sum up my favourite simple definition of being mindful: awake yet relaxed. The Pali word for mindfulness (sati) has been translated as remembering or returning. What are we returning to?

  1. Finding Ease: on most retreats there are times of sitting practice and times for movement, often yoga or qigong. Movement practices enliven the body and activate the musculature, so that we become aware of how our body feels when it relaxes. Sitting practice allows us to get to know our own mind. In combination, these practices allow us to cultivate softness and ease within body, heart, and mind, and to know more intimately how to remember the tenderness that is our human birthright. We find ease in practical ways too: sleeping early, waking with the morning sun; eating easy to digest vegetarian food which others have prepared for us; ease in moving from place to place, guided by the bell, rather than the constant need to look at a phone or watch. We also leave our cars behind, and find ease through walking mindfully.

  2. Being Awake: We explore inner methods of energy balancing, and sitting meditation to cultivate an increased capacity to attend to all of our experiences. We become curious, interested and attentive to our moment-by-moment experiences, rather than zoning out into past memories of future plans. We wake up in this moment.

Three ways of waking up and exploring our own minds are to: study; contemplate; and meditate.

Study: Many of us love to study. We read and read and read. We seek external information to understand what is going on inside. This can be hugely valuable, yet the other two provide a more direct path, and these are the two where a retreat provides a great opportunity.

Contemplate: Contemplation is a process of holding a question or idea in our mind, and giving it the freedom to reveal its own answers. This is a disappearing art, as we tend to lose the ability when we are time-bound and lost in a busy mind. When we want to know something quickly, we just ‘Google’ it! We can approach questions that may scare us in daily life, when we are paddling away under the water just to maintain an appearance of calm. Four concepts that are often contemplated in the Buddhist tradition are precious human birth, impermanence and death, karma and the truth of suffering. Contemplating death may seem morbid and inappropriate, yet it can be very useful. When we realise that ‘life is short and death is lurking’ (Thubten), we can move in one of two directions: become miserable and panic; or live each moment with clear intention, great meaning and value. Focusing on the end of life means we may start to re-orientate our compass, point by point, until we are being guided forward, finding our true north in this life.

Meditate: Meditation provides a container for getting to know, and maybe even befriending our own mind. We start by listening in to our superficial mind; the one made of conditioning, habit patterns and tendencies. This mind may have served us well in the past, but as our circumstances have changed, it could be holding us back, or restricting our transformation. There is an irony here. The more we crave and want to be different, the more we are rejecting who we already are, and that entrenches the very tendencies that we are wanting to be free of. If we can take time in nature, to slow down our mind to its natural pace, then we can allow the inevitability of change to carry us towards our human aspirations – to be happy, to be kind, to contri