Original Drawing by Tina Ashton

Original drawing created by Tina Ashton www.tinaashton.co.uk

Mindfulness Leighton Buzzard

Silent or quiet?

I often get asked questions about the periods of silence on mindfulness retreat so wanted to share my personal take on why we practice silence and what it's like.  The periods of silence on retreat are actually my favourite times, for me the opportunity to not have to make conversation with other people around me is great.  I find myself releasing my inner introvert to run around gleefully without restraint and relish the freedom that it gives me.  It makes me realise how exhausting I sometimes find conversation.  Personally I never feel alone, we make eye contact with each other, smile by way of greeting and I feel quite content in going about my meals, breaks, meditation periods in the company of others all doing the same - I realise it isn't quite the same for everyone but then my Myers Briggs personality type is ISFJ the sociable introvert!

For the group that I share a retreat with the silence is held with a light touch.  We don't have to be silent in everything we do - I happily bash my boiled egg and stir my coffee and it is the lack of conversation which enables you to be more aware of the sounds around you that you may not have noticed before.  If someone says something because they've forgotten or they've dropped something, or would like you to pass the butter/juice/salt, nobody scowls or tells you to ssssh, its just more to notice, particularly those little flares of physical sensations if you were the one who spoke.   We don't do elaborate miming, (I have seen this at other day retreats) - surely everyone finds that more distracting than saying a couple of simple words, I know I do.  And if we see people who aren't on retreat we don't ignore them if they speak to us either, however we might keep conversation to a minimum and return to silence afterwards.

The advantage of periods of silence is that there is definitely more to notice with your other senses.  Someone stirring their tea sounds surpringly loud, the smell of coffee or peeling an orange is magnified and it is much easier to be aware of physical sensations in the body.  I find that I have a running commentary in my head about what is going on around me, maybe reflecting on the previous meditation session, or along the lines of "ooh this cakes tastes nice", (4pm everyday).  The lack of conversation with others means that when I go back to the next meditation session my mind isn't so distracted or busy processing thoughts and conversations but instead is ready to drop back into a calmer level of meditation.  To me the silence feels like one extended period of mindfulness, when I am aiming to be constantly aware of the present moment and what is happening around me but with different levels depending on whether I am meditating or not.

The running commentary of my own mind makes me feel like I'm getting to know myself better.  I recognise some of my thinking habits and patterns and often find myself amused at the random twists and turns that my mind takes, particularly when I think I've had a world changing insight!   I start to find little quiet areas to be on my own and seek solitude as well as silence but then I haven't yet experienced a full seven days of silence so that could be a completely different experience again.


Mindfulness Leighton Buzzard


Aren't Mindfulness Retreats all about hardship & suffering?

So I'm back from my fourth annual mindfulness retreat and it's really interesting to hear different people's responses to my time away.  Questions tend to range from did you have a nice relaxing time to questions about hardship and suffering.  Friends and family know I'm fairly unlikely to go for any hardship and suffering options however it isn't quite a relaxing spa break either - being mindful is actually pretty hard work.

I have only experienced mindfulness retreats that have been organised by Integrated Mindfulness and that take place at the scenic Trigonos venue in Snowdonia. According to some of the retreat "horror stories" shared at dinner of only eating porridge, or not allowing eye contact with others, I know that I have been very lucky, and so far have no intention of going anywhere else!  

Starting with where I stayed, Trigonos is a really peaceful place to stay and feels very much like a second home now.  The house and workshop rooms overlook the grounds and lake with a view of Snowdon when the weather allows.  There are no shared chores, Trigonos look after you very well, rooms are simple and comfortable and the vegetarian food is tasty and plentiful.  The one thing everyone talks about, (not just the vegetarians), is how amazing the food is - especially the cake at 4 pm each day!!

The retreat timetable is based around a weekend retreat and then an extended option for those of us who want to stay on and use it as part of our requirements under the good practice guidelines for those teaching mindfulness-based programmes.  The structure allows for lots of mindfulness meditation obviously - around 5-7 hours a day so not for the faint-hearted, however, it is also perfectly acceptable to leave sessions early, do some mindful movement, walking or pastime of your own choice as well, (yes sometimes snoozing).  There is also a break in the afternoon to use as you like.  We do have a period of silence, including breakfast on Sunday, and the extended section of the retreat is mainly silent as well which I will describe separately.  The main theme for the retreat is compassion, checking in to what is right for you, what you need, and acting accordingly which is surprisingly difficult as I'm certainly not used to only being responsible for myself.  There is lots of laughter and chatter between meditation sessions when we aren't being silent - in fact, we've been told off for being too noisy in the past by another group.

I personally turn off all social media, email etc. etc. and with no TV either I enjoy the feeling of being in a bit of a bubble, escaping from the world and also the additional time in the day that it frees up.  I find missing my family the hardest thing to deal with and so I message them every day just to check in and say Hi which helps.  (Yes I know some retreats require you to have no contact at all but we've already established that isn't my sort of retreat).

So did I experience any hardship and suffering?  No. I probably wouldn't go again if that was the case!  I generally feel well looked after and nourished in terms of food and escaping modern-day working life.  I come away reminded of why I practise mindfulness, normally with some funny, crazy insights about how my mind works and ideas about how to share that with others.  Most importantly I have time to experience lots of longer meditation practices which is the biggest challenge for me in my own personal mindfulness practice. 

My recommendation if you are considering attending a retreat yourself is to do your research first.  Make sure that the retreat you are attending is going to suit you and your personality, if you aren't sure, see if you can get recommendations from others, and perhaps start with attending a day first to see if it is for you.

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