I have just finished a silent retreat. Like so many of the participants of my courses and sessions this year, I attended this week-long silent retreat not in person but online via Zoom. Even though I missed the beautiful setting of the retreat centre in Solterreno, Spain, which is so conducive to finding peace and turning inwards, I still feel that I was able to reap all the benefits of a retreat and had a chance to dive deeply into my personal practise.
It was interesting to spend a week in silence in your normal environment, particularly when that is a busy city like London. Usually going away and leaving your everyday life behind is part of going on retreat. It helps to slow down and move from busy thinking and doing mode into being mode.
So I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to drop out of the usual habits of busyness at home. Within a few hours of the first day I noticed my body and mind relaxing and calming, and found myself adapting to a much slower, relaxed pace. This highlighted that this practice, and indeed life in general, is a lot about mindset, commitment and choice. ...And preparation. Knowing this retreat was coming up, I had prepared my space and meals in advance and I decided - as I would on an in-person retreat - to turn off distractions like my phone. I had told everyone I was not available and was not going to check messages. That way it was less likely for the mind to escape into organising or planning during a meditation. (Which is always such a welcome distraction for the mind! There is nothing like sitting in stillness on a cushion on the floor for half an hour and making a shopping list!) And it worked! I had a wonderful experience and almost felt like I had been away physically for these days.
Of course, just like during an in-person retreat there were highs and lows. The practice of mindfulness means to observe and be with our experience in the moment. Naturally our experience is not always pleasant. So while we definitely find calm, concentration and joy during a retreat, it is also normal to encounter some difficult thoughts, emotions and body sensations. The benefit of mindfulness practice lies in gently changing our attitude and reactions to this experience. And by doing that we find more ease. During a retreat there are less distractions and options for the mind to escape and distract itself. This gives more opportunities for practicing this ‘moving from reacting to responding’ and the process becomes heightened and goes deeper than in regular daily practice. You often have a sense of a more lasting shift after a retreat. For me, feelings of isolation (already enhanced during the lockdown) surfaced for some of the time. But similarly the enhancement of joyful experiences became more profound and stable during several days of introspection. I think I have never quite appreciated the beauty of Hampstead Heath as much as during my mindful walks this week. One particularly nice effect - that still seems to last - is that food for some reason tastes incredibly flavoursome and vivid at the moment.
So it was very interesting to bring this more intense practice into the hustle and bustle of living in London. And it heightened the perception of the tension and stress that is usually there as it was contrasted with the concentration, calm and joy that I felt and that became more continuous and deeper as the days went on. So hopefully it will be easier to allow a flavour of this to seep into everyday life. This might have seemed less possible and harder to imagine if the shift towards ease had happened far away from home in a beautiful setting and time away from usual triggers and stimulants. So perhaps a home retreat makes it easier to bridge the gap between practice and the rest of our lives. As soon as I can, I will definitely attend retreats in person again, but it has been very motivating to see that it is possible to bring this home and still benefit hugely. So I would definitely do an online retreat again and it has inspired me to create more ‘retreat breaks’ for myself. Even if it is just for half a day on a weekend to reset and make time for more practice. This experience also makes me feel more excited and assured about teaching mindfulness online. From participants’ feedback I knew that the online experience was very valuable, and it even had certain advantages compared to an in-person course. There is no need to travel anywhere and participants might generally feel more comfortable in their personal space and home environment. And it makes sense to establish a habit where you are planning to then practice it. Nonetheless it was nice to experience this myself and know that this is an alternative way to share this practice that can transform life in such a profound way.