Going on a Retreat

My relatively short experience (just under two years) of mindfulness and meditation started in June 2018, predicated by the experience of a close personal loss.  Following this, I sought solace in meditation, starting with short introductory sessions on Headspace, then becoming interested in Buddhism and studying with The Mindfulness Network.

The seed that help sow my initial interest in this area, ten years ago, was provided via an old work contact at Street Wisdom.org (run mind-opening ‘WalkShops’ on streets all over the world) who inspired me to do a TED Talk on the subject : How Street Wisdom Changed My Life. 

In total I have been on three retreats, two of which were mostly silent. These included a two day retreat in Central London , a weekend hosted by the London Buddhist Centre and finally, a few days with Just Breathe Project in the lovely West Lexham.

Of all of the aspects of mindfulness I have attempted , going on retreat was the one that filled me with most apprehension.

My concerns fell into two areas – People and Content : ‘who I would meet’ and ‘what I would do.’

I felt there were solid reasons for my unease. Perhaps the main one was around spending an extended period of time with a group of people I’d not met before. I also felt this was likely to be accentuated by the awkwardness of silence.

There was also the concern that it may turn out to be just a bit too ‘left-field’. Would there be things I would be expected to do that would make me feel uncomfortable? If there was such  a thing, would I turn out to be the kind of person ‘who doesn’t go on retreat?’

Time was another factor. Did I feel that, in my very busy life I had a weekend to spare to seemingly not do anything? Of course, I have committed weekends to myself in the past, but these always involved doing something practical that, in a superficial sense, ‘achieved something’. By comparison to a frantic city break, here I was looking to spend a long-time doing very little. This seemed somewhat indulgent.

And then there was the issue of silence. There were two things concerns surrounding this. The first one was about feeling awkward and the second was possibly feeling bored.

The silent Just Breathe weekend was the longest retreat, involving two nights and three days in the Norfolk countryside. I asked myself,  how can one possibly keep occupied and engaged when you’re not allowed to talk? Working in the world of marketing for the last 30 years, I am used to a pretty constant level of engagement – emails, conference calls, meetings and the like.

In the end all my concerns and negativity came to naught. I ended up leaving all three retreat experiences, accompanied by a significant sense of contented calm and increased mindfulness.

So why was this?

Many of the people attending were different from those I normally spend time with. But, as is the case with clubs or societies, there was a shared interest around the purpose of the event and this transcended any initial apparent differences amongst those attending.

The silence felt unusual to start with and somewhat uncomfortable. Without something to say, I found myself avoiding eye contact, at least initially.

But with time you get comfortable with it.

You can just be.

The most surprising (and delightful) discovery was the power of ‘companionable silence.’ I’m sure you have all experienced this at some time, sitting quietly with someone you know well and appreciating the peaceful pleasure that this provides. A silent retreat is like this but with the sense of pleasure and peace, amplified over an extended period.

The silence leads to a significant reduction in stress. Absent is the need to think about what to say, when to say it and to whom. Alongside a natural evolving feeling of connection and community , it also generates a sense of equality. This is because it is not possible (as it is in other social situations) to create a sense of hierarchy in a group – which can often be generated by who is speaking loudest and most often.

And when the silence was finally broken at the end of the retreat, talking felt slightly unnecessary. Of course, it was nice to find out more about the people that I had been spending time with, but the lasting effect of non-verbal communication meant I had a good sense of who they were already.

Finally, my concern about having little to do proved unfounded. On the Just Breathe retreat I experienced a lovely long mindful walk, an introduction to Yin Yoga, a soothing sound bath courtesy Lisa Pauley,  wonderful vegan food and plenty of time for rest and and recuperation.

So, should you go on a retreat? My immediate answer is yes!

If you are interested in the area of mindfulness, and have meditated to some degree, I would heartily recommend. Experiencing a period of concentrated calm does wonders for stress levels, but it also engages and energises the mind, helping you to move in a more mindful direction.

The pleasurable intensity of a retreat feels like the process of regular daily meditation, but elevated. This experience softens the brain, allowing one to deal more efficiently and enjoyably with the strictures of everyday existence, once you return to the ‘real’ world.

Nick Hammond


27th May 2020