I got back to London last night, after 10 days’ away. A few of those days were road tripping through Dorset, in the South West of England – I enjoyed that very much. I think the place I’m most at home in is: in the driver’s seat of a car while on an open road.
But most of the time away I was on a Meditation retreat, in a very different seat: on a well worn cushion. Or two cushions and a blanket to be precise.
The venue was a huge estate that used to belong to and was passed through various rich aristocratic families, right up until after the second world war when a ‘normal’ couple acquired it via auction… a young couple who decided to turn the whole estate – the house and 550 acres of spectactular grounds – into a place dedicated to philosophy, peace and ‘new thinking’. They opened up their house to monks, thinkers and writers. Then, in the early 1980s, following the passing away of the wife of the couple, the estate was bequeathed to a charity – who to the current day have preserved the principles of peace through mindfulness. The estate is now full-time, round the clock, throughout the year, a home to mindfulness and meditation practice in various forms though principally through silent meditation.
And it’s pretty much the perfect spot for such an intention: the nearest village is miles away and the approach to the centre is along a 2 mile pathway carved through hills. When you finally arrive you feel like you’ve arrived in… heaven.
Yet, curiously, it is not the spectacular grounds, Nature and house that left the biggest impression on me. I loved the meditation sessions but can’t say I felt my mind entered any new plane or that I was liberated from any unhelpful patterns. I was certainly tested (and being a meditation teacher that says something – I don’t know how others on the retreat, most of whom are not regular practitioners – fared on that account), but I soon felt very at ease with the extended sits and periods of silence.
The food cooked for us was, well, equally of heaven-like quality. Just being fed and nourished so well for a week (with most veg and fruit home grown) is no doubt something I appreciate to the highest level and am grateful for. The weather was glorious. The sun shone on my skin for many hours each day. My bedroom views were of paradise. Walks were something like out of a Wordsworth manuscript.
But no, not lodging, food, walks nor even the Nature is what I feel the impact of now, post-retreat.
On the last day of the Retreat, before farewells, each one of us were asked to share a short commentary on how we felt and what we would take away from the retreat experience. I felt a bit left out as everyone seemed to have epiphanies about their life and deep learnings. At that point I felt… well, nothing. Not in a bad way. I just felt like nothing was needed – that, or my mind was either too tired or had given up on ‘seeking realisations or insights’.
On the drive back to London, I passed through various valleys, towns and counties. Hour upon hour went by. I figured at some point the post-retreat effect would take hold. It did not.
So I simply enjoyed driving and hearing music after a week of hearing none. That, though, in itself was the first realisation that something had shifted. I didn’t ‘need’ to gain anything, or lose anything, from going away.
Landscapes and motorways changed. I was soon approaching the M25. The call of nature, of a different kind, meant I had to stop. I pulled in to a random diner in a layby. The loo was at the back. After reliving myself, I figured I might as well sit down and grab a bite. It was later in the day than I thought. Plus there was an instant charm about the place: ike something straight out of a 1960s American movie. Soft rock played off a tinny radio and around the diner were dotted customers, a motley bunch (I include myself in that): a trucker digging into a Full English (at 3pm), a French family (that would not look out of place in a Boden catalogue) politely holding onto white ham sarnies, trying their best to hide judgement, an elderly couple taking their time over huge slices of cake dripping with yellow icing, parents bleary eyed and struggling to sit up straight while kids opposite smeared their mouths (and tops) with drippings off strawberry sundaes. Next to me, a couple of young lads with curious hair cuts, dressed in head to toe black adidas, an drinking fanta through straws.
It was meant to be a pit stop. But as I sat, I felt such a sense of… well, I didn’t know what it was at the time, but I do now.
It was love.
Not romantic or charitable love. Not ‘in-love’ with life love. Not joy. Not condenscension dressed up as love.
It was a deep wave of warmth for humanity and the feeling that each one of us is contending with our lot.
I learnt later this cafe was run and owned by a 62-year-old woman who lived in a village nearby off the motorway ‘where nothing ever happened’. Determind to do something with her life, now that her kids had flown the nest and her partner had left her, she bought this diner off a private equity company that owned several motorway services. Yeah. really.
The rain, which started up just as I left the retreat (fittingly), was pounding on the roof when I pulled in. It had now relented into a constant spit. The windows of the diner had steamed up and outside fell into a mist. Bruce Springsteen’s vocal chords merged with the sounds of cars racing by on the motorway.
Gradually, one by one, the diners around me had left. There was a lull. A waitress came up to me. I felt like I needed to explain my ongoing gormless presence. “Oh, I am leaving. I mean. I am about to,” I said. “Oh, don’t worry. I wasn’t rushing you. You sit as long as you like.” The waitress looked no more than 21. She also looked… happy? “Is it hard work?” I ask her. “Being here, next to a motorway, day in and day out. How do you feel about that?” “Yeah not exactly the perfect view,” she giggles. “But it only takes me 8 minutes in the car to get here. Customers are generally really nice and everyone is so…” she pauses, she’s thinking. “Different?” I chime in. “Yeah, exactly. Like everyone is so different. So you know, every day feels different even though I’m just doing the same thing.”
I want to say thank you, to her, for her innate humanity and being able to align herself to her lot, rather than seeing lack. I just smile – and get back onto the road.
It’s fast for a short burst, but then I’m stuck. Jam solid on… yes, you guessed it, the M25. The last leg of my journey is a fraction in mileage of the whole route yet takes nearly as long. Welcome to London folks. But I’m ok with it. I’m tired but I’m ok with that. I could worry about my lower back (that aches easily since the operation I had in May) but if it aches, so be it. I could sit and stew about all the things I could be doing and need to be done. The big stuff, the small stuff and everything in between. I could get, mentally, caught in the traffic of my life. But I don’t. I’m not ecstatic about the traffic. I don’t try and do mindfulness or anything. But I’m at ease. I’m not trying to fix anything.
Tonight marks two nights since the end of the Retreat. I miss it. I miss the simplicity of the days. I miss being in the company of the two retreat leaders: both unique in their own ways, so sincere, so kind, and so fully on the path not for their own needs, or not solely so, but to help others. I miss going to bed at 9pm and being in silence till 10am the next day. I miss the deep, deep sleep I had and put down to the lengthy periods of sitting meditation. I miss not being distracted.
But I guess this life, here, where I am now, is not separate – nor should it be – to that life I had on the Retreat.
Rather than trying to emulate one or the other, or trying to create a life that I want, I can embrace it all.
Like the diners in the cafe, every experience is different. You can look out and want more of this, and less of that. But here and now is where it’s at. Joy cannot last without sorrow. Sorrow comes from knowing joy. Silence is appreciated after noise. Music takes on new reverence after silence.
The cushion, like the driver’s seat, is where I come home. I thank the Retreat for showing me that.