Friday, 20 November 2015

What are we retreating from on a retreat? Swarthmoor and me.

A friend of mine commented, when she heard I was going on a more-or-less silent retreat, that it was curious how the term "retreat" suggests something at the edge of our lives, whereas in fact it tends to put us at the centre of things. Nicely put.

A regular columnist in the Saturday Guardian wrote recently that going on retreat was part of a trend for people in flight from the realities of modern life. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, I'd say, if that's what you need, but for once he's writing nonsense.  A retreat I was recently part of was certainly a quiet time apart from usual preoccupations, but Quakers are well-known for their social activism, and I felt there was nothing about the retreat that was escapist.

My four-day retreat at Swarthmoor Hall near Ulverston in Cumbria is already being used by this collection of processes and awarenesses known as "me" to refocus aspects of my life and to work on how I relate to others.

 So I'm going to do a number of posts on Stuff from the retreat.

Briefly, Swarthmoor is pretty much where the Quakers started. It is an historic and lovely old place, easy to reach (10 minute walk from the station) yet very peaceful.  The accommodation was excellent, and we were well cared for. 

The retreat was called "Being in Silence" and it was run by two Quakers. I'm not a Quaker, though after this all I might drop by a meeting or two and see what's on, but I do value silence, and I meditate in silence fairly frequently. Quakers are technicians of silence, experts at it - well, certainly at some aspects of it. I thought it would be worthwhile to join them, and so it was.

Total silence quickly becomes utterly terrifying, I'm sure. There was input from the two tutors. We had the wind, the birds, the rain.... occasionally we had a little music to direct or focus our thoughts,

The silence was entered and emerged from quite gradually and we had an opportunity to go for guidance and discussion with each of the two tutors once during the three quiet days.

We had the customary Quaker silent meeting, in which people sit in silence and wait; when/if the spirit moves them (interpret "spirit" as you will) they speak. There were sessions with tutor input and/or written stimulus material, followed by silent time.  Before and after the silent days there was discussion.

We were urged not to read anything lengthy or distracting, but there were plenty of interesting books and pamphlets to use, and thought-provoking materials from the tutors; we also had a session or two using visual stimulus - a lot of very varied postcards. We were introduced to a walking mindfulness meditation, and they have a labyrinth in their delightful garden.

We met much of the time in a very pleasant conference room.

 Since I like meditating with others, it was good to drop by the room during unstructured time, and find a few people there I could join, sitting in silence. Meditating? Praying? Contemplating? I didn't know, of course, but it was companionable. 

We did some writing - journaling is the jargon term, I learned. I hadn't expected that, and too much of it would, I feel, disrupt a pattern of silent meditations, but I found myself writing quite a lot; I enjoyed it, and it was useful. It seems the Quakers - these ones, at least - value individual creativity and self-expression.

We had a couple of hours each afternoon to walk, think, write, as we wished, but not to talk. The Quakers are hardly spiritual fascists, so the silence rule didn't feel severe or punitive in any sense.

I went because I wanted a period of silence with plenty of meditation, and I was curious to see if there were overlaps, comparisons and contrasts to be made in the quality and uses of silence coming from Quaker and Buddhist/mindfulness traditions. I think a Quaker might say I was seeking the Light, the Spirit. And that's what I'll write about next.

The weather was rough - wild and splendid. That helped.

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