While most of the world engages in loud festive celebration as the clock strikes the new year, I chose peace, silence and another kind of wild on Clare Island, one of the most westerly points off the coast of Ireland. I had long desired to go on a silent meditation retreat, it spoke to my soul and heart. I just had not managed to commit time away from my busy life. Although I knew instinctively that it would revitalize me like no other retreat could, I sensed the disconnection from the world verbally and digitally would be a struggle I was not ready to face.
As 2019 drew to a close I sensed the time was right. After a major year of life transition, moving across the Atlantic from New York to the west of Ireland, I was ready and willing to submerge myself in the sound of silence. I had discovered an amazing place to go at Macalla Farm on Clare Island just across from my home in Clew Bay. The appeal was so strong, a short ferry ride away, island life was beckoning. No better place to step off the grid than on a remote island.
The timing was perfect, a week long retreat, over New Years, closing one decade and entering a new one. It started after the Christmas festivities were winding down, and before they got too stale. The retreat offered movement through yoga and walks, mindfulness, meditation, breathwork, healthy vegetarian organic food, dharma teachings, introspection and adventure. My mind, body and soul were yearning for this experience.
The theme of the retreat was on opening the heart through an exploration of the heart’s qualities, known as the bramaviharas in Buddhist teaching; metta / friendliness, karuna / compassion, mudita / appreciative joy, uppeka / equanimity. Yielding a grounded openness to meet the new year with clarity, compassion and creativity.
Experiencing the retreat through silence supported the deepening of a mindful and meditative practice. My awareness rested on the vital life force of the breath. A felt sense of the breath moving within the body is a mindful experience. An open curiosity is encouraged to explore the insights of the inner being. From a state of deep calm, the chatter of the mind dims & the body rests.
Without the need to make conversation a sense of solidarity arose in the group. It was liberating to spend time around others through non verbal means. I experienced bonding within the group in a new format. A heightened sense of being intimately present with others, yet knowing very little about them, other than we were in it together.
An important aspect of the retreat experience was a digital detox, we switched off our phones on the first day. I was mentally prepared for this and was ready to give up the demands of being online. I felt a huge sense of relief not to have to check in with the world. My family knew where I was and how to contact me if needed.
Without the distractive pull of checking electronic devices, clocks and news from the external world the perception of time shifts. The schedule was structured with a balance of group time and free time. We soon fell into the routine of rising early, greeting and closing the day in meditation, mindful eating of nourishing delicious meals, group Satiyoga activities and time to explore/read/journal or just be with whatever arose.
The days stretched out and felt expansive. The spaciousness of being in a rural setting forged a strong connection to nature and the elements. It was rare to meet a car or other islanders and that offered a sense of freedom to explore without being disturbed. The setting was wild with breath taking vistas of the cliffs, ocean and mountains. The wind swept through me and connected me to my aliveness.
While roaming around the island I brought a camera to capture the exploration with. My camera had been idle for many years, having replaced it with the convenience of the integrated camera on my smart phone. Getting reacquainted with the slower operating mode of my camera was a great test in patience.
Often by the time I had taken the camera out of the case and turned it on, the photo opportunity was already missed. While the digital recording of the moment was lost, the experience of the moment was gained. After a while I stopped rushing to reach for my camera and just breathed in the sights. Only when I had recorded the vista mentally, did I take the photo for prosperity.
The owners, Ciara and Christophe led the retreat, while attending to the farm and preparing the meals with support from their children. While I had been on many retreats before none had offered such an insight into how the practices could be integrated into home life. By opening their home to us, they demonstrated how to lead a simpler life and a deeper appreciation of the environment. The climate crisis was a topic close to their hearts with their children being youth activists.
I felt a strong contrast to the wastefulness of modern society in contrast to the environmental ethics of the farm.In our capitalist society a lack of awareness and true concern for the environment is evident. Many choosing to place their desires for convenience and consumerism, above the depletion of the earth’s resources. It struck me that in the aftermath of Christmas, the packaging and wrapping of gifts was at odds with my own environmental consciousness. I felt an immense responsibility to look at more ways to be reduce my own mistreatment of the earth’s resources. There are so many ways to be more environmentally mindful. I vowed to start by elimination of buying plastic packaging by using sustainable alternatives.
The farm to table lifestyle of growing and yielding sustainable food sustenance was inviting. The sense of knowing where the food had been sourced heightened the appreciation for its nourishing value. The sight, smell, touch and tastes of the delicious fresh farm produce invoked a feeling of abundance while being grounded. I came away with the strong desire to cultivate my own organic garden and some recipes to try out in my own kitchen.
Every day we would spend time on the mat in an exploration of the four elements of Satiyoga; ethics, asana, breathwork and meditation. Sessions involved creative explorations of postural practice, integrative breath work and guided meditations, allowing for the theme of the week to be explored from all angles. Focusing on opening the heart was not a new practice for me. I had been working on this for many years to enable me to heal my heartbreak of divorce and the grief of losing a beloved parent. However, in this inspiration space, the teachings resonated with me on a deeper level. Being immersed in the teachings through embodiment of the practice yielded a new sense of clarity and connection.
The retreat invoked a sense of curiosity and willingness to explore the sensations arising in my body. I experienced a deeper level of embodiment of the practice of yoga. The exploration went to the edges of what was comfortable and where the discomfort started. Having greater awareness of the edge provided more insight into the integrity of the postures. Experiencing how I could lean into the edge with curiosity while trusting myself not to go over. Learning to reduce the effort of holding tension and discovering where the ease could be found. To experience the ease with greater awareness and deeper appreciation. I became more grateful for what my body could do instead of being focused on what it could not do.
At times when my body sensations moved towards being unpleasant, I anchored back to my breath to move forward instead of collapsing out. The felt sense of the breath was both energizing on the inhale and calming on the exhale. The intention to mindfully experience the edge was also routed in the impermanence of the discomfort. There was a skilful balance of effort between not going far enough and going too far.
I learnt from the teaching that the body is always in the present moment, it doesn’t remember yesterday’s hunger or imagine tomorrows aches. This was a powerful reminder for me, checking in with the body regularly keeps us in the moment and aware of the wisdom of the body. I reflected on the long working days of my corporate job. I recalled memories of sitting at my desk for hours, with back to back meetings, very little time for movement, and ignoring the sensations until I was almost disembodied. As a new business owner, I vowed to mindfully keep these poor habits out of my working style.
As the year end approached, I reflected on consciously celebrating the highs and acknowledging the lows it brought. I felt ready to close the decade and excited for the new one to begin. I thought about what my hopes and desires were for the coming decade. I set the intention to be open and willing to experience whatever it brings. I know that focusing on where you want to be can distract from where you are now. By thinking of a future state, we miss to appreciate what we have now. We may be expecting happiness to be waiting for us when we get to that future state. Yet what if we never got there?
Does it really matter about the outcome when we focus on being present with the effort? When we open our hearts in kindness and welcome the experience of both the challenges and the overcoming. What if I could experience more gratitude for what I have now? Could I avoid the trap of taking life for granted where only when we experience loss, do we really value what we had? What if I celebrated the small steps equally as much as the bigger life achievements? What if I truly understood that happiness is not elusively waiting around the corner only to be present when we get what our hearts desire.
Appreciative joy is available to us at every small moment when we open up to it. The sound of the birdsong, the aroma of the coffee, the first sip of tea, the sight of our loved ones, the greeting of a pet, the smile of a child, the beauty of the sunrise and sunset. All these simple things open our hearts to appreciate joy.
What if we chose to root ourselves in the joy of everyday moments? We can mindfully choose to take refuge in small moments of joy during the painful times of grief. This has been my go to, when suffering through immense heart ache. During those times I took refuge in the joy of nature, spending time outdoors. Connecting to the beauty and simplicity of nature lifted my heart and raised my spirits. It gave me the strength to keep going.
I experienced countless moments of joy on my silent retreat on Clare Island. I listened to the wisdom of my body, who in turn responded with deeply appreciation of the care and attention I was paying to it. Everyday I nourished myself with movement, stretching, breath work, fresh air, restful sleep, healthy food and lack of stress.
As the new year and decade dawned, I felt a sense of clarity and calm wash over me. I felt deeply grateful for giving myself the experience of being on a silent retreat, the permission to withdraw from the distractions of the world. On the morning of the first day of the new year, I wrote out my intentions for the coming decade, they felt authentic, grounded, and inspirational. I vowed to stay appreciative of the effort I will give to live those intentions and the acceptance of not knowing where they will bring me.
On the last day of the retreat we formed a circle to voice what we were taking home with us from the experience. Each person in the circle committed to integrating aspects of the experience into their everyday lives. It was a heartfelt and vulnerable sharing. Even, or perhaps especially, through our silent experience we had created a sense of community and a safe space to share openly.
I felt a strong connection to the group and a heartfelt appreciation of all the efforts each person brought. When we could finally talk, the camaraderie of the group was so alive. We found many shared stories, connections and life experiences. As we said our goodbyes on the dock, I hope our paths will cross again. I felt a sense of privilege in knowing the ripple effect of being part of this shared experience. That many others will positively benefit.
For anyone considering the experience of a silent retreat, I would highly recommend the benefit and the wonderful safe space and heart opening experience created by Ciara, Christophe and their family on Macalla Farm. I hope to return again and until I do the experience of this retreat will continue to nourish and sustain me.