Vidyamala Burch is the author of Mindfulness for Health, Living Well with Pain and Illness, and Mindfulness for Women. She is an internationally respected expert on Mindfulness-based pain management, and one of the founders of Breathworks. She leads meditation retreats, mindfulness and compassion masterclasses, and mindfulness teacher training events internationally.
In July I drove up through the drought-baked heartlands of England to begin a mythic journey into the Welsh mountains and into my own heart and mind. I was travelling to a friend’s hermitage in a converted cow-shed in Snowdonia to go on a seven week ‘solitary retreat’. A carer stayed nearby to help me with meals and essential practical day-to-day assistance.
In our culture we may associate the idea of solitude with some kind of punishment such as ‘solitary confinement’. But time on one’s own leading a simple, uncomplicated routine has always been highly valued in cultures rich in contemplative traditions. Time alone offers a precious opportunity to re-charge, reflect, face up to mental and emotional habits, drop beneath the endless doings of life and taste something of the deeper mysteries. This then provides the springboard to return to ‘normal’ life a little more loving, calm, connected and inspired. Rather than some kind of escapist activity, we go away on solitary retreat in order to come close to our minds, which I always experience as much less escapist than the many other activities I distract myself with in my usual life! I experience this journey inside on retreat as one of the most courageous things I can do with my time, and these spacious weeks up the mountain this summer were no exception.
Quite quickly I settled into a daily routine of mindful movement first thing to get my body moving, followed by meditation before breakfast. Then I pottered about doing some study or drawing before spending time sitting outside in nature doing nothing, followed by meditation and lunch. After that I did a Body Scan, rested, took some exercise, and then spent more time sitting in nature doing nothing followed by more meditation before supper. I read, wrote and meditated to close the day.
My greatest achievement on this retreat was to enjoy doing nothing. I am such an inveterate ‘do-er’ and it was completely delightful to lie back on my lounger under the tree and to gradually tune into all the noises of nature, the clouds in the sky, my thoughts flowing through my mind with less ‘snagging’, and experience intimately the sheer energy of the world around and within me. As the weeks went by I wanted to be outside more and more, regardless of the weather. I had my meals outside. I sat outside under starry nights. When the borehole eventually dried up in the drought I thoroughly enjoyed washing by hurling cold water over myself from the small stream. Everything became elemental and raw, in a good way.
Overall I found the 7 weeks inspiring. Initially I had to surrender to thick, sludgy layers of tiredness and then both the inner and outer worlds gradually opened up into a vibrant intensity. My meditations became increasingly filled with colour and my imagination took off. I did a lot of falling in my meditations. Letting go down, down, down and then I would find myself in a cave deep within, inhabited by the most loving and kind imaginary people. They poured their love into me and whoever else I brought to mind, effortlessly and gloriously. Another day an imaginary lion came towards me across the landscape and he has meditated with me ever since. He climbs on my lap, he licks my face, he loves me and encourages me to feel into my power. Again, I have no idea where he came from, but it was important to let him into my imagination and to feel his love.
Strange things happened in the outer world too. One day a bird came and landed on my knee as if it was the most natural thing in the world. A hare came to visit some evenings and we’d look at each other for a long time. He had very beautiful ears. Gradually the threads that hold the world together seemed more elastic somehow, more porous, and everything became more open, connected and beautiful.
Eventually the time came to drive home again (earlier than anticipated due to the drought, but that’s another tale). As I write this three months later I still feel in touch with the wonder of that time up the mountain and have decided to book at least a month’s solitary retreat a year from 2020. I want this to be a source of energy and inspiration for all the more outward going activities I am involved with, including of course Breathworks - my passion and vocation.