A few months ago, I went on a silent meditation retreat. It involved a long weekend in an English country house without any form of communication. No phones, no books, no pen or paper - just me and my thoughts, some meditation classes, a spot of gardening and the beautiful Devon countryside.
I’d never done anything like it before, but I’d heard good things from people that had. They’d said it was a great way to ‘reset’ your mind, to fix habits or to simply escape from society for a while.
It was a great experience. It didn’t fix all my challenges (if that’s even possible) but it presented them in a different light, making the fixing more possible. I’ve summarised what I learned below.
I’ve known for a while that I have an unhealthy attachment to my phone, but the experience highlighted just how attached I was. In the week leading up to the retreat I experienced noticeable anxiety at the thought of giving up my mobile phone, of missing the news, the football, or the latest episode of Gogglebox. I had even planned an early escape, complete with the number of a local taxi driver (who told me he had successfully orchestrated several other escape attempts).
On day one of the retreat we were offered the opportunity to hand in our mobile phones. Not trusting my will-power, I obliged. But three hours later I asked for it back, panicking that I had missed a family member’s birthday. I was completely wrong - the birthday was two weeks later. But I had my phone back. I was surprised by how much of a hold my phone had on me. The fear of separation had turned my early excitement at the retreat to palpable apprehension. It had constructed a family emergency that didn’t exist, and an unlikely alliance with a local taxi driver.
They say anxiety is your mind’s ways of shining a light on your psychological issues. And this episode certainly illuminated my need for distraction and control. Fortunately, the need for distraction is one of the more solvable problems. When items of temptation aren’t available, the need slowly dissolves too. Letting go of my phone - after I handed it in for the second time - was a huge release.
My second lesson was how much pent-up negative energy I had stored in me. During meditation on day one, my mind wandered in dozens of negative directions. I found myself fearing the worst about the people and situations in my life, resurrecting old resentments and replaying old arguments. Fictitious family birthdays were the least of it! I’m not sure if this was just a reaction to an unusual situation or a reflection of what my mind was really like. Either way, my ability to drag up so many negative thoughts (some that had happened many years before) did suggest a number of unresolved issues festering in my mind!
My final lesson was of perspective. One of the main reasons I went on the retreat was to overcome what I felt was an unhealthy desire for personal recognition. I had noticed that my happiness was dependent on positive responses from others – in work, in the street or in my relationships. It could manifest in obvious ways, such as seeking compliments off clients, friends or family - or in less obvious ways, such as seeking likes on my Facebook posts. Whatever its manifestation, it was unhealthy. It suggested I was looking for happiness from ‘the outside’ and it put other people – with all their unpredictable inconsistencies - in control of my wellbeing. It suggested I felt I wasn’t enough, and meant there was a constant pressure to achieve beyond ‘me’.
The retreat reduced this need for recognition – at least temporarily. A combination of silence, time in nature, mindful activity, mediation and wisdom, helped me cultivate a completely new perspective. I saw the world for what it is, not how my specific circumstances defined it. Rather than being a place of work, a resentment, or a Facebook like it was an unfathomable place of beauty. Its complexity and unpredictability meant it was somewhere I would never be able to control. But far from the sense of powerlessness this realisation may create, I also realised I was very much part of it. The key to wellbeing I understood was to embrace and accept the world for what it is, rather than what I want it to be. Easier said than done, but in the environment of the retreat, I got close.
Seeing the world this way brought a feeling of surrender, helplessness and (paradoxically) safety. My issues dissolved and my desires for validation faded. I didn’t disconnect from who I was – I simply belonged to something bigger.
Six months on many of my old ways have returned, and I have to remind myself of what is and isn’t important. But the trip gave me a rejuvenating respite, a road-map to wellbeing and a glimpse of what is possible. I recommend it to anyone – in fact I’m already planning my next one.