September 3rd, 2013 by Jo Bailey
September. Summer holiday season draws to a close for another year as we all pack our new school bags and sharpen our (metaphorical) pencils. But hopefully our summer hols will have renewed and refreshed us so that we are in good shape for the new term and the change of seasons. Was it a beach in the Algarve? A family holiday in the New Forest? Backpacking in the Far East?
My holiday destination this year was a little hut a few miles from a very leafy hamlet in Norfolk. The hut is set up specifically for the purpose of solitary retreats and offers a quiet, simple stay for one. Meditation cushions, a little 2 ring gas stove and an RSPB bird book from 1974 complete the facilities. No one comes anywhere near the hut during your stay except the wildlife – swans, geese, rabbits, owls, a deer, too many birds to mention, butterflies and on the penultimate day hundreds of teeny tiny frogs newly emerged and purposefully making their first journey from one pool of water to another.
I went with the intention of spending a week away from my usual conditions to witness and explore my own mind and habits and to practice meditation and study without any of my usual commitments or distractions. I spent a similar week in a remote cottage in Wales a few years ago; as I prepared for that week I secretly hoped for a flash of insight, an epiphany, or perhaps a mysterious and profound spiritual experience. What I got included restlessness and boredom, great big beautiful skies and torn jeans from getting stuck on a barbed wire fence (it seems I still struggle to read Ordnance Survey maps). My only companions for the week were a host of sheep and cows who sang me to sleep and gently woke me again in the morning.
I had less expectation of this week. With a few more years experience under my belt, I appreciate that often the mystery is to be found in the mundane and am less attached to the somewhat romantic idea of a dramatic and profound insight. The practice is in being able to observe and sit with one’s experience, however mundane or habitual it may be. So that is what I did for 7 days. The beauty of being solitary really comes to light – the simplicity of being alone without all the distractions that we so often engage with – no news, TV, computer, phone, music or novels. Or people! I paid more attention to my immediate environment, really listening to the birds, watching clouds and enjoying simple activities like sweeping the floor and preparing a meal. And of course paying attention to what was happening in my own mind, both on the meditation cushion and off it.
It’s easy to be mindful in good conditions such as this. The challenge, of course, is to remain mindful when returning to this very busy, very stimulating life, when we are constantly absorbing information and being asked to perform a multitude of tasks often at the same time. I find practicing in small ways can really help – remembering to take a few moments to contact my breathing and bring awareness to physical sensations when feeling pressured or challenged, making sure I take a short walk at lunchtime to give my body a chance to do something different from sitting at a desk and really trying to pay attention to what I am doing whilst I am doing it. Of course I don’t always manage this but even just setting the intention has an effect. And being more mindful brings the opportunity to be more creative in any given situation – by becoming aware of what is actually happening we can respond rather than react.
Taking a week or so to be completely alone really helps me to appreciate all the people in my life. I can rejoice in my friends, colleagues and family and feel gratitude for all the support and friendship I receive from them. And then return to them with a little boost of mindfulness that hopefully means I can be a slightly more present and engaged human being. Who enjoys the summer and can meet the first signs of autumn with anticipation and curiosity.