Just before Christmas I joined a group of c50 other people on retreat at Gaia House, a centre for Buddhist learning in deepest darkest Devon. I had wanted to ‘do a retreat’ for a while and having built up my meditation practice for the last 18 months or so, thought now was a good time. Funny, after the chaos of Christmas I am finding a degree of peace and appreciation just taking myself back to the experience :-). It was without a doubt a transformational experience that I am hugely grateful and appreciative of, a chance to truly step off the treadmill of life, find stillness, build my meditation practice abilities and learn from a shared experience that was a joy and a privilege. Whilst I can’t possibly convey everything that it meant for me and I would hate to bore you to tears with an in depth replay of the experience, there were some insights and learnings that I would like to share in the hope that you might benefit too.
Whatever you take part in, you share accountability for the experience – when I went I was looking forward to the experience, a chance to push myself out of my comfort zone, stretch myself, learn and grow. The retreat was something that would be done to me and I would be a recipient of. The reality is that the retreat did not exist until the 50 or so people congregated together on that Friday afternoon, Gaia House made it possible, the teachers supported us, but the retreat was made by the generous actions of each and every one on it, including me. Too often we consider ourselves spectators of an experience, watching a rugby match, joining a carol concert or participating in a meeting at work. Yes those experiences exist without you, but they wouldn’t be what they are without you. We have an impact in everything we do, being more present in the experience and being more mindful of the impact you create might enable us to take greater accountability and therefore make a more significant contribution.
Finding pleasure in the simple things in life – part of the deal was that we each contributed an hour to communal activity supporting the running of the house every day, for me it was veg prep. It seems strange writing this now, but some of the most powerful moments were in the kitchen with a team of people I didn’t know, hadn’t and couldn’t speak to, preparing food for all of us to share and eat later. The sense of team work, people joining others to finish the onion mountain when their task had been done, silent smiles, nods of appreciation, miming instructions for the preparation of the veg and the pleasure from collectively surveying a clean kitchen with piles of prepped veg at the end, a job well done. The repetitive nature of chopping cabbages or peeling potatoes creates a rhythm of their own, if you treat it as an opportunity to relax, no need to think, a chance to meditate in a different way, then great pleasure and peace can be found in tasks you may once have abhorred.
Finding pleasure in one thing at a time – we spend so much of our time rushing, trying to get a job done knowing you have something next on the list; getting the ironing done before starting supper, finishing that email before writing a report, or going to Tesco’s before cutting the grass. I really struggled at the start of the retreat, I wanted to know what was next, how was it all going to work and fit together, order, activity and accomplishment. By the end I had got so much better at staying in the moment and enjoying each part of the day for its own unique value and opportunity. If you have half a mind on the thing you need to do next you miss the opportunity to do the best job you can at the thing you are doing now, or equally importantly, enjoy and take find pleasure in what you are doing now. Even a trip to Tesco can be of value if you frame it in the right way :-), don’t wish your life away by wanting the current experience to end quickly, find value or pleasure or gratitude in what you are doing.
Our perceptions shape the reality we then experience – this probably sounds obvious but this was a bit of an ‘ah ha’ moment for me. Kirsten, one of the teachers shared this in her teachings on the Sunday evening – she said “tomorrow could be perceived in many different ways and each will alter the way you approach it, it is the last full day of our retreat, the next day of our retreat, a week before Christmas day, just another Monday….how are you going to look at it?” Each of those perceptions absolutely colours what and how we focus on the day ahead, just like your perception before you enter a meeting, join a conference call or meet with your Manager colours the way you engage in the experience. We can choose a perspective that helps us create the most value, opportunity and appreciation……….. or not!
Our mindset, emotions or reactions are a reflection of the way we feel not who we are – if you are angry it doesn’t make you an angry person, if you are acting selfishly it doesn’t make you a selfish person. This was another big insight for me – framing my mindset as a verb not a noun has really helped me get my head around negative self-perceptions. Chris the other teacher brought to a life a great little acronym / process that can help you manage your mind more effectively. It was RAIN. R = recognise the emotion or reaction. A = acknowledge that you are feeling that. I = Investigate with kindness why, how and what might be causing it. N = Non Identification, proactively point out to yourself that isn’t you, it is how you are choosing to respond. I hope that makes some sense in the cold light of day and I encourage you to have a go at reflecting in that way to see if it helps.
Finding stillness is a challenge that will absolutely pay off – I talk often about the ‘operational treadmill’ or the ‘treadmill of life’ – analogies that I think are a pretty fair reflection of how we are living our lives, working or other. One of the toughest challenges on the retreat for me was slowing down to the point of being stationery for the first time in years. I alluded earlier to my anxiety in the early parts of the retreat, always looking for the next activity or action, slowing down into the new rhythm was hard but proved to be so valuable. No talking, no phones, no television, and no books – no external influence of any sort for 4 days in beautiful surroundings and a peaceful environment with routines and disciplines that enabled you to pause and reflect was a wonderful gift to myself that I am hugely grateful for. A client said to me earlier in the year after I relayed my experiences from the Aconcagua trip, “when will you find stillness Richard?” This really resonated, it was probably an additional factor in signing up for the retreat actually, I am always busy, struggle to do nothing, always looking to grow, stretch and do new things – stillness was certainly missing. My daily meditation practise enables me to be still and quiet for short periods, but the deeper stillness was missing. I feel more energy, more appreciation and more kindness to myself than I have done for a long time and that was all achieved through stillness. We pride ourselves on being busy, people boast about how much they get through, how long their working days are, how full their diaries are – it is a cultural sign of success. It isn’t though is it!! When and where do you create chances to jump off long enough to properly recharge your batteries and invest in you?
This investment in me was probably the greatest take away from the retreat, a feeling of peace and appreciation for and of me. I guess I have fallen back in love with who I am, taken time to get to know myself better, be more grateful for what I have and who I am (good bits and not so good bits). Jim Rohn said that “The greatest gift you can give somebody is your own personal development. I used to say, “If you will take care of me, I will take care of you. Now I say, I will take care of me for you, if you will take care of you for me.” I think this is very powerful, you can be a better father, boss, wife, friend if you first look after yourself.
Whilst I don’t expect people to go rushing off to sign up for the next Silent Retreat, I do hope that it has helped you to stop and think just a bit. If you don’t already meditate then I would urge and implore you to start because I know it will make a positive difference in your lives, Headspace is a great App and an easy and accessible way to start.