In early December last year I went on my first solitary retreat. It’s something that I had wanted to do for a while, but only recently felt ready to embrace. Firstly what is a solitary retreat? Well it’s where one goes to spend a bit of me time with their mind. I am fortunate enough to be part of a Buddhist community that holds retreats all over the UK and within some of these beautiful settings, they also offer solitaries.
The idea is that you stay in a self-contained hut and eat, sleep, meditate solo and do lots of nothingness. And over time you become very intimate with your mind, observing its madness, minute by minute, in all its glory. Oh and I should mention that ideally you are device free, so no phone, TV or laptop for the entire week. Pretty radical huh?!
My hut was based in the beautiful countryside of Stowcroft, surrounded by fields, trees and birds singing/chanting “you don’t know what you’re doing”. I’d left the rat race and entered the rabbit hole, but how deep was I prepared to go? Only time would tell. Being blessed/cursed with ADHD has meant a lifetime of whirlwind activity, being on the go and distracting myself from my own mind — 24/7. But this pattern slowly started to shift when I took up meditating consistently around eight years ago.
I was 18 years old the first time I tried to meditate (wayy before it was a fashionable!). My Mum who worked as a yoga teacher at the time, encouraged me to join her at a local meditation centre, a decision that she was soon to regret. I spent the entire class fidgeting as I tried to get comfortable on the cushion, disturbing everyone else in the process. The next time my Sister joined us and all was fine until the chanting began and we got into a fit of giggles. Our young minds had never encountered anything like it and we were crying with laughter to the point where I had to leave the room. So my meditation practice leaved a lot to be desired!
I would sporadically meditate throughout my twenties, but my main way of self-medicating my yet to be diagnosed ADHD was through alcohol, weed and lifting weights. In my early 30’s, not long after getting the official diagnoses, I discovered Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World, a book by Mark Williams and soon meditation became an integral part of my daily morning routine.
It helped me observe the reoccurring patterns of my mind and the constant chitter chatter. You know that annoying internal voice that never seems to go away? Oh really, just me then? Anyway, over time it quietened down and I became less reactive to my thoughts. But it wasn’t until I went on my first meditation retreat in the Summer of 2015, where I began to feel a sense of peace of mind. Unfortunately the same could not be said for my friend Craig, who during one meditation sitting, swatted away a buzzing fly and broke the cardinal rule of Buddhism - not to harm another living being; buzz or no buzz. And so unfortunately he fell by the wayside, the fly that is.
Further retreats soon followed, I couldn’t get enough, I was addicted! I even managed to join in with the chanting without falling into a fit of giggles. Soon I made friends with others wanting some sort of spirituality in their life and it wasn’t long before I was invited onto a course to study Buddhism. My first question was “how much is it”? And when I was told it was free, I said sure and mindfully jumped in head first.
Little did I know that I would spend the next four years studying the dharma (the Buddha’s teachings) weekly with a group of men (they have separate mens and women’s groups — too much craving to mix it up!). There were many nights when I didn’t want to be there and found it a challenge to remain still for the two and a half hours. Often my mind would wander elsewhere, but I/we kept on returning and in the process developed a better relationship with my thoughts and created deep friendships within our group.
Over the next eight years I made a commitment to going on an at least one annual retreat and each time I gained some sort of insight into my mind. And whilst I still have ADHD, the hyperactivity element has lessened over time. To the point where I felt ready to be alone with my thoughts for one whole week.
So back to the solitary. I guess the main thing to come out of it was that I actually quite enjoyed my own company! I know that might sound like a pretty standard idea for most, but having spent many years subconsciously distracting myself from myself, I was content to just be present. Not just meditating, reading and walking but also staring out the window doing nothing felt quite nice.
Now this experience should come with a warning, because I will say it’s a lot easier to build momentum when you are in the perfect conditions. But once you’re back to reality, amongst the pressures and responsibilities that life brings, it becomes far more challenging to maintain your blissful state. And this is where integrating what you have learned into your everyday life ideally becomes part of your practice. I say ideally, because there have been many times that I have returned from a retreat and fallen well short of this. But hey, at least I’m aware!
For anyone interested in going on a meditation retreat, more info can be found at https://www.londonbuddhistcentre.com/retreats.