THE BLOG
18/02/2015 12:20 GMT | Updated 20/04/2015 06:59 BST

On Compassion

I just returned from a silent retreat called Kimpala in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. You may ask why go so far to be silent? Answer: I couldn't stand the sound of my own voice anymore and my brain was starting to fry from ruminating on things that had no answers like a cat chasing its tail.

Mostly I went because one of the great meditation teachers called Jack Kornfield, was leading the course. Usually, when I get somewhere and I'm alone, the first thing I do is collect people to form my own gang. They're usually the spikier members; the bitchy, funny and cynical. If there is anyone gay I scoop him up. But when there's a no talking policy, there's no point mingling. Actually there are great benefits to shutting up, it gives you time to watch people; my favorite past-time, being a natural born voyeur. On arrival, I noticed something odd about everyone and couldn't put my finger on it.

I finally realized, most of the people had grey hair; they sat there looking unashamedly old. None of them seemed to care how they looked and in some cases it was terrifying; no bra so they swung like pendulums and earth shoes like Platypus feet. I felt sorry for them being so old but probably they were younger than me. There was a lot of hugging, which always creeps me out and makes me want to head for the hills. As long as I didn't have to hug I was fine. I actually grew to love the silence, the relief of not having to make small talk and die of boredom with the answers. If you don't talk there's no reason to make eye contact so you can sit surrounded by people with your own thoughts watching the snowfall on the evergreen trees in that American fantasy kind of way. The food was delicious and in silence you can really focus on the taste without interruption. I fell in love with a blueberry muffin. I ate it slowly, savouring every crumb, my head rolled back in ecstasy.

The mindfulness classes were amazing because of Kornfield's charisma and he is the 'real thing.' He's completely present, at peace with himself and yet razor sharp, funny and incredibly smart. He taught us an aspect of mindfulness I don't practice. I practice it to help me notice early warnings of an on-coming depression or starting to tip into burn out. I'm so used to pushing myself over the limit I need to keep my ear to the ground. Jack explained that we were going to learn how to do mindful compassion which is a form of meditation. My cynical hackles were up, ready to pounce. We could ask him questions so I raised my hand and said I found the concept of compassion too fluffy and I found it hard to locate the feeling most of the time. He looked at me with great patience and had us do some exercises- one of which wiped the smirk right off my face.

We had to pick a random partner and were told to stare into each other's eyes. He asked us to look deeply and imagine the other person as a child when he/she was laughing, in pain, experiencing something new and feeling safe. Then he had us imagine the other person now as an adult, experiencing their successes, their failures, difficulties and joy. I never met the woman who was my partner but I felt I knew her more than I know some of my friends. It was so intimate and yet felt safe. I stopped thinking about how she saw me, I just focused into her eyes which showed me every emotion under the sun. It felt like we were connected by an emotional bridge, rather than being two entities, our hearts and minds were joined. When we finished Jack said what we just experienced was compassion. He hit it on the head and I sat amazed.

At the end of the six days, though we never spoke, a kind of peace settled over everyone like the snow outside. There was a feeling of waking up from a bad dream because suddenly you can clearly hear sound, taste food, smell, see, feel everything as if for the first time. I felt I was who I really am under all the fear, competition and anxiety. Why have I been giving myself such a hard time in my life? What have I done so wrong? I didn't even know anyone's name but it was as if we were all in it together, all vulnerable, dealing with an unpredictable world where nothing is certain, everything ends and in spite of that we're all doing the best we can. We're all in flight, running from pain, grasping at security. Before I left I realized I loved all those grey headed, Earth Mothers in the Uggs and found myself hugging several of them. Thank God there are no photos allowed.

I'm on tour talking about mindfulness this Spring, starting at the St James' Theatre 2-14 March. Hope you see you there.