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Summoned By Bells *


I have just returned from a five day silent retreat. Many of the people I know were somewhat horrified when I told them what I was going to do. The conversations usually went something like this:

“You’re doing what? Like a spa retreat? No? What, silence? No talking? At all? For 5 days? I could never do that. Why are you doing that?”

Then someone would usually interject:

“Well I guess it could be nice, catch up on my reading. What? No reading? At all? For 5 days?…”

You get the gist.

And that was in fact the deal. Silence, no speaking, moderate listening to instruction and guidance, no reading, writing, journaling, drawing, texting, emailing, in fact no screen time at all. What there was, was very good (vegetarian) food, sitting, walking, Qigong, a little housework, sleeping, bells to call you to meals, to work, and to sittings, and unbelievable quiet, except for the raging torrent of noise inside my own head; which did seem very loud indeed with nothing to distract me from it.


This is my fifth retreat, all at the same place (**) and they are somethingthing that I recommend to anyone. They can be physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually gruelling, this one certainly was. They can also be wonderful, and transformative, and this one certainly was. It is extremely hard to articulate the sensations and the value of the experience. Perhaps all truly important experiences cannot be entirely successfully put in to words. On my last retreat a woman at the end said that the retreat experience was rather like childbirth. You end up with something truly wonderful, but by God it’s intense. Afterwards the memories soften, and you remember only the good, and maybe you go back for more. And at some point the second (third, fourth….) time around you know there will be a moment when you say to yourself “What the hell am I doing here again? What was I thinking?” But it passes, and you are left with something very special. Many things of true value are not easy.


I feel that I have more space inside me now, that some of the clutter and gunk has left. I was running out of room to function smoothly inside myself, it was getting like trying to play squash in the downstairs loo – it wasn’t working too well, and frankly it was getting a little hazardous. It’s not exactly the Albert Hall now, but there is a sense of spaciousness throughout my mind / body / heart. I have very quickly got used to how loud the world is again, it was only a five day retreat after all, but two days after coming back I still am only listening to music without lyrics, no spoken word recordings or radio, and I haven’t really started reading again yet. There’s a sense that I have cleared the space, and now want to see what grows there, rather than quickly refilling it with other peoples words and ideas.

The photos are of things at the retreat, not at my home this time. Each helped me with a little insight, but they are also simply beautiful things.


* Summoned By Bells is the blank verse autobiography of John Betjemen. It doesn’t really have anything to do with retreats, but it is very enjoyable.

**  The place is called Gaia House, in Devon, England (click here). It is run along Buddhist principles, but you do not need to be Buddhist to go there, nor to benefit from the mindfulness practise that it offers. It’s a looong way from most people (including me), and I always get lost. (This is not a metaphor, I get really, maddeningly, lost every single time, but then I have no sat-nav, and never read the directions properly.) This means that the quiet is glorious, the setting bucolic and soothing, and it makes it slightly harder to just get up and walk out in the tough moments – especially if you don’t have your own car. This is a good thing.

Categories: Playing Around

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