– by Gerry Rickard
“I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.” (John O’Donohue)
I named this blog in reference to a poem by John O’Donohue since my first multi-day silent retreat was an unfolding and unveiling in so many ways. This retreat – on the theme Befriending Our Body and Mind – was run by Per Norrgren and Marion Furr, who have also established a close-knit mindfulness community in the area (http://www.inmindsight.com), of which I am a member.
As a first-year Master’s student in Bangor, I came to the retreat with a sense of open-mindedness, but also with some questions. Why was I actually there? Apart from the sitting itself, what was my actual purpose of being there? Despite many individual meditations in the course of the Foundation Year, I was particularly interested in the question of what it was going to be like just to be with myself for five whole days. No trepidation. Just curiosity.
Silence. Silence is okay. But being totally with myself for a few days was, well, confrontational. Based loosely around the Satipatthana Sutta, we were focusing on mindfulness of our breath, our body and our mind. The meditations were the easiest part – expertly led by Karunavira (KV), with plenty of mixing and matching to keep the mind interested and willing. But after the meditations were over? That was the real test. Without the usual props of telephones, books or even my habitual vocal mannerisms at the dinner table, a huge, unknown, vast space opened up before me.
I had no choice but to step into it and see where it might lead….
This vast openness was a strange place away from the meditation cushion. Seeing other meditators in their own silent world was strange. Eating at the dining table, even stranger. This is actually where I felt the most uncomfortable – eating in the presence of others with the minimum of contact, in silence, was surprisingly difficult. This revealed for me how much of a social environment the dining table actually is. It was a case of eyes down and, well, eating mindfully.
But after a day or so, I felt myself sliding into being mode. The doing was actually the being. By consciously choosing to be totally and utterly with myself in silence, the automatic pilot props mattered less and less. And the automatic props of the mind also mattered less.
So when I walked, I was that walking, rooted to the present moment within each silent step. When I listened, I really heard the sounds of nature instead of the sounds of my mind – the haunting owl during late evening meditation or the morning blackbird song. When I looked, I could really see – leaves, flowers, fruits, hundreds of tiny marching ants performing their daily tasks (a particular fixation with most of the participants!). Whatever I touched, it was to really feel. When I moved in morning qigong, it was mind, breath and body just coming together to greet the day. And when I took time to smell the beautiful lavender in the garden, or the citrus scents in the air, they were true moments of savouring.
Savouring! That was something I rarely do on a daily basis. But just the pausing and the simple and immediate contact with my senses were something to be savoured.
I didn’t have to worry about going back to my room without a book or phone. Taking another period of sitting outside and using my senses to just experience what was there in that moment, were also moments of pure being. The wonder of the stars, the feeling of a soft breeze – how nice to just be aware of the beauty of nature. And I didn’t have to worry about not being able to fall asleep in the evenings. Being with yourself can be exhausting, so each evening I fell asleep within seconds!
KV summed it up when he mentioned that “awareness is a precious gift.” My short time in Quinta Verde was a gift to myself, a gift of awareness. I can’t truly say that a silent retreat is enjoyable. That’s the wrong word – it’s very hard work. But it certainly is rewarding. In those few days, I could create a space to be with myself and examine how I was in relationship to my thoughts, my feelings, my body and emotions, emerging with a sense of calm and peaceful clarity.
Throughout my Foundation Year, I often wondered what the future might hold for me after I had done this study. What would I use it for? How would I apply it to my life, my work?
I started to find those answers during five days of silence. In the beautiful poem “Clearing” by Martha Postlewaite, recited during the retreat by KV, I found the time to create my own “clearing in the dense forest” of my life. The forest still surrounds me, but in that clearing which I created in Quinta Verde, I can now wait and see what this gift of awareness might bring in times to come. My life, like a river, is slowly unfolding. May I continue to be surprised.
Gerry Rickard is an Irishman who divides his time between Portugal and the Netherlands. He worked in the entertainment world as VP for a major touring family brand for many years before giving up the corporate life to look for a new direction. Finding yoga in 2015 led him on a path to do the Master’s in Mindfulness at Bangor University.