I’m still not quite sure what it is that has happened over the last few days but this morning when I was washing the dishes in the large communal kitchen tears started welling up inside me and I felt a deep velvety sadness about leaving this place. I had spent less than a week at The Barn in Sharpham with a group of ten other people I had never met before in my life. It is astonishing how quickly you can build bonds as a community when you do the right things together: meditate, work on the land, prepare food, eat, communicate openly without using sarcasm as a shield, sing, and be silent.
The retreat house is a beautiful old stone building set on a hillside amid woodland and open fields. I arrived late afternoon on Sunday, chose my room (“The Owl”) and had a cup of tea with the rest of the group in the sitting room overlooking the valley and the river below. I don’t think I had any particular expectations before I came – I just felt stressed out and was looking forward to a week without my mobile phone and the daily commute to the office. I was also hoping to progress a bit in my daily meditation practice without knowing what that actually meant to me. I felt relieved that the other retreatants seemed to be very normal people – or as Paul put it on our last day: “I’m glad you were not a bunch of hippies.”
The days at The Barn went quietly yet were filled with very nurturing experiences. Good conversations, heart-felt smiles, beautiful food, walks in the country. Every morning we got up at 6.20 am in complete silence and started the first mediation session at 6.50 am. After that we worked in the house until breakfast was ready around 8 am but kept silent until 9 am. In the mornings we did some gardening or other tasks around the house. I really liked working in the polytunnels, the hot and humid micro-climate and the smell of wet soil. A second sitting started at 12.20 pm. Lunch was prepared each day by two of our group and we all ate together. The afternoons were free until evening meditation, on some days teachers came to the house and gave talks. Silence started again at 9 pm.
Wednesday was “Silent Day” where we didn’t speak with each other at all. That doesn’t mean that there was no communication. It was my turn to prepare lunch together with Barry and we used sign language and little hand-written notes to co-ordinate what we were doing. Having lunch silently didn’t feel that strange actually but when we gathered around the table in the evening each with our bits and bites to eat I felt a bit awkward for the first time. What do you do when small talk is not an option? I admit I left the table earlier than I normally would have and went for a walk up the hills from where I had a beautiful view over the river. All in all the day had gone by easily and I felt very present. I remember the grass glittering silvery in the evening sun and there was no sound but the wind.
By the end of the week I felt very much at home at The Barn. Before I came I had wondered if I would feel resistance against the schedule, the meditation, maybe even the people, but nothing of that happened. Quite the opposite I felt I could easily have stayed longer, working, eating and meditating with the same group of people around me every day. I had always been very skeptic about communal living but now, for the first time, I felt it was actually possible. Jane told me about her own ideas to create a beautiful community somewhere in the countryside. It’s not an easy decision though to invest in a vision like that. For me it resembles a leap off a steep cliff.
On our last evening we shared our thoughts about what we would take with us from the retreat. I felt very grounded and very much like myself. No major revelations over the course of the week, I said, but things that had been lurking in the shadows, things I had somehow been aware of but not acknowledged or not taken seriously had started stepping out into daylight. I thought it was good to be clear about things and then work on them when back home.
And on the way “back home” it hit me. Yes, things had become clear to me but what that really meant I only understood when the panic inside me was growing while the train was approaching Paddington station. I didn’t want to put on this London persona again with her blow-dried hair, false smiles and hectic busyness; the persona that I had peeled off my skin layer by layer, silenced by keeping silent, starved through acceptance of myself. I have uncovered this shy little self again that isn’t interested in pension plans, Groupon deals or spring sales. I have nurtured it, petted it and encouraged it to man up a bit. I hope it won’t go to sleep again and I’m excited to see where it will take me. But I have a feeling things will not become easier. It might take a leap off a cliff, even if a tiny one.