Why I am Choosing to Re-enter Isolation

Breathworks’ Co-founder Vidyamala shares her plans for a two-month long solitary retreat (read to the end for a lesson on living without expectation)

18th May 2021

The UK is emerging from its third lockdown. There is a collective buzz of excitement and anticipation as we shake off our hibernation and begin to flex our freedom. But just as we turn our backs on what has been a difficult period of extended isolation, Vidyamala has made the decision to take herself on a voluntary solitary retreat. She will be alone and without technology, distractions or contact with the outside world for two months.

Why is she choosing to do this now? Why is she choosing to do this at all? She shares her plans with us here.

Tell us about what you have planned?

I have done regular solitary retreats since the mid-80s when I first started practising as a Buddhist and meditating. I spent 7 weeks in Snowdonia in 2019 but this time I am planning to be away for 8 weeks, which would be my longest solitary retreat. I have chosen to do this on the Isle of Skye in Scotland as it is famous for its scenery, landscape and wildlife.

Why are you doing it?

I was due to have a long retreat in 2020 but of course that got cancelled due to lockdown (though I did retreat to our home garage/annex for 2 weeks last summer which had its own rewards). I generally go on retreats to drop beneath the surface 'doings' of life and rest within a much deeper rhythm. I practice what a friend has called 'exquisite listening' which requires tremendous quiet in the inner and outer world. I think we usually shout at life, there is so much noise and clamour, and there is extraordinary richness when we slow down enough to simply listen. It's as if the world is always calling and whispering to me but usually, I am not able to hear because I am making so much 'noise' that all the subtlety is drowned out. This noise is my chattering mind of course as well as all the noise of daily life with being online, feeling full of all the seemingly vital doings and projects and goals and ambitions.

I have learned that to spend time away from all that for a few weeks a year helps me gain perspective about what really matters. I usually drop into a much, much deeper intimacy with nature. I notice the hares and the birds and the shy creatures that are always around but I rarely take the time to connect with. I 'take my place within the family of things' as the poet Mary Oliver says. It is deeply humbling, in a good way. I love noticing the cycle of the moon and the days and the tides and I am especially looking forward to being on the Isle of Skye at midsummer when darkness will barely arise. I look forward to long, deep, mysterious evenings and early, early dawns. I also 'retreat' in order to return to my normal life refreshed, vitalised and energised. This is the deepest reason. I don't 'retreat' because I want to escape life. I 'retreat' because I want to swim much more deeply in life and to bring this perspective back into my life of zoom and meetings and the normal doings. I try to let go of preferring one lifestyle over the other. I need both but ideally, they are balanced. The time away feeds the time working and being busy - and vice versa. Another rhythm to rest within.

These times of retreat always feed back into my Breathworks life where I’m able to bring back more creativity and perspective and I feel confident this time will be no exception.

And why at this time?

It is coincidental that I am going away to be alone just as lockdown eases. This might seem especially strange! But I had this retreat booked into my diary many months ago and could never have imagined we'd still be emerging from the pandemic. But now the time has come, it feels appropriate to take this time away to really reflect on my life and how I want to live going forwards. It feels quite a crucial time for me. I want to make changes in my lifestyle post-pandemic and dread drifting back to the busy, busy life I had before with a huge amount of travelling. But, in order to maintain changes, I will need to stay in touch with motivation behind the changes. The temptation of sliding back into habit is a weighty undertow.

The motivation for me, I suspect, will come out of staying in touch with nature. I feel fairly sure of that. One of the most striking aspects of the pandemic, for me, was lockdown 1.0 last spring where nature reigned so victorious with the humans shut up in our homes. I found this almost unbearably poignant and sad. It showed me the extent to which we normally trash the planet and terrorise nature and how horribly out of balance life on this planet has become with humans at the top of the tree. If we collectively sleep walk back into our old ways then I suspect we are all doomed (climate change being an obvious threat). I can't act for our species of course, but I can make my own individual decisions and I know I will stay in touch with my own motivation for change to the extent I feel in touch with the deepest stirrings of life in all its forms. Being on the Isle of Skye with wildness all around will help remind me and I know I will absolutely love it.

What are you hoping to get out of this experience?

I most want to slip into a different, more fluid and porous way of being. There's a passage in 'the Salt Path' about a couple who wild camp and walk the South West Coast Path of England. They meet some locals who look at them and say: "it's touched you, it's written all over you: you've felt the hand of nature. It won't ever leave you now; you're salted". This is what I want to feel: the hand of nature and for it never to leave me. I want to be thoroughly salted.

All this goes back to my childhood growing up in New Zealand. I was always an outdoorsy, tomboyish sort of child and when I was a teen, I was super fit and spent summer holidays roaming the Southern Alps with family and friends. I adored it. The beauty, the mountains, the blue sky, jumping into the freezing rivers, the birds, the wild. I haven't quite known how to find this again since injuring my spine when I was 16 and ending up disabled after other accidents. I have become a mountaineer of the inner world with meditation and my Buddhist life - endless possibilities in the blue sky of the mind and the deep red of the heart - which is satisfying beyond measure. But I also need to go into nature herself whenever I can for sustained periods. I am hopeful this setup with Jeni supporting the practical side of things in the annex on Skye (I need this due to my disability) will feed this part of my soul and that I will indeed emerge at the other side completely steeped in nature, thoroughly salted.

How do you plan to spend your days on this retreat?

Over the years I have learned to trust an emergent rhythm rather than force something. Usually, I spend the first few days resting, reading novels, sleeping when I feel like it and generally unwinding. After a while this process transitions into something a little more structured and creative. I meditate first thing, have breakfast, potter about, meditate again, have lunch, rest and go for a walk with my crutches or do some mindful movement, meditate again, have supper and then spend the evenings meditating or doing some art of some sort. I also spend periods of the day doing nothing. I will take my reclining deck chair and spend time gazing at the sky or the loch and letting my mind deeply settle. I'm usually not very good at doing nothing and always know I have 'arrived' into my retreat life when I find myself wanting to rest back and do nothing for long periods of time. It's much harder than being busy but always hugely rewarding when I finally arrive at a place within myself where there is enough stillness to be able to rest within the flow of life rather than imposing my will upon it.

Since writing this Vidyamala’s plans to travel to Skye have had to change. She explains why here...

If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that life is unpredictable and that it pays to hold any expectations lightly.

A few weeks ago I started experiencing some new physical symptoms that need investigating. Hopefully nothing serious, but you never know. This means I have had to cancel going to Skye! The timing, in the end, was all wrong to be going away just now.

I thought I would be devastated and in some ways I am. But Sona, my husband and fellow mind-adventurer, re-arranged our small home so I could relocate to our garage/annex and still have time alone to go deeper. I moved out a few days ago and am gradually entering into the retreat ‘zone’.

Already I am waking up to the constant whisperings of all the other creatures, even in a suburban garden. I am getting friendly with the pigeon that comes and raids the bird feeder every day. I’m coming to admire his sheer tenacity as it’s no easy feat for a big, fat pidgeon to balance on a bird feeder – and yet, he tries to do so again and again. And again. I’m glad he actually gets some seeds out of all his efforts.

He’s probably been visiting for weeks but I’ve been too busy to notice.

I look forward to discovering what other creatures consider our garden home.

If I get the all clear medically then I’ll still try and find a way to get a taste of the wild.

But, I’m holding that lightly too… I’ll write another blog when I emerge from whatever the next couple of months hold.

A postcard from the other side of my ‘in-bound adventure’.

In the meantime lots of love,