I can’t find my notes. I’ve moved my office space around twice since the time I had them. I flick through dozens of aborted moleskin journals, the first half a dozen pages of each filled with urgent, unravelling scrawl, and … Continue reading
It’s Monday afternoon, and the world feels a slightly different place.
I’ve just returned from a week long silent retreat at Gaia House, where the focus was on mindfulness, and how it can lead to equanimity in life.
I’d never gone on a silent retreat before; never even considered that this might be something for me. I’d recently been introduced to meditation by a friend of mine, but the enquiry ended there. The week was tough, with a few home truths to swallow, but I can honestly say that, yes, my world has now changed a little.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to go into the details. In fact, mindfulness and meditation made me think quite hard about how best to write about the experience of retreating from the world for a week – no verbal communication, no reading, no mobile phones, no email.
In the end, I felt that the only way to best sum it all up was through poetry. I wrote this whilst out walking in the stillness of the Devonshire countryside; whilst sitting on the cushion instead of focusing on my breath (I couldn’t help it), and whilst sitting on a bench, with a cup of tea, looking at the huge trees in the grounds. One of them, a great sycamore that had felt more time pass than I could ever dream of, had a trunk shaped like a twisting torso, arms held out to its sides supporting the weight of its own life.
The poem began from this tree.
Deep in the limbs of vast trees
That the eye has to roll in its socket to see
Began the wind; from the brush
Of countless leaf with countless leaf
Drew up an endless breath.
The sun left the hills again.
Lawn lights pricked awake at the edges
Of grass, grass that human shuffles had swept
Not so long before. The two rabbits,
That bared without fear their flanks to the house,
Saw what the rabbits saw.
Did the Meditation Hall hear the wind?
Fifty souls, fifty shifting selves,
Lids shut tight on their infinities,
All felt different things.
Silence had sealed them in deep.
And when one mind strayed to the
Scent of handsoap when another
Shifted his seat and made to twist,
She curled her thought, again, to the refrain:
‘How is this breath? And this one? And this?’
I figured that a good place to start might be with something prewritten.
I wrote the below for a writing workshop, about 3 months ago.
When I want to be alone, I go running before anyone else wakes up. I put on shorts and a T shirt, tie up my trainers. I strap on my watch, flicking my wrist first out, then in, letting the catch find its familiar hole in the watchstrap. Then I think twice and take it off, leaving it on my desk. I peel the house key off my main set of keys, pad downstairs on the parts of stairs that don’t creak, and open the front door, taking care not to slam it shut behind me. Wherever I’ve lived over the past few years – be it in Hertford, where I used to run through the fields of a private estate, or in Dalston, where the care taken over door-slamming was unnecessary, seeing as the constant Zone 2 roar made the walls of our flat vibrate – the ritual was, and continues to be, the same.
For the solitude to work, you have to get out as early as you can. In winter, I run down streets in complete darkness, running from memory of my surroundings in the light, waiting for the sunrise to catch up. In summer, I run with the tail end of the dawn chorus, the chill on my arms torched off by the strength of morning sun. I jog slowly and stiffly at first, breaking in my ankles, which respond like the spine of a book being flexed open for the first time. Then I run as fast as I want, letting the mechanical movements take over.
It’s the mechanics that detune the wavelengths of my brain, like a fingertip rolling itself across a radio dial. My head slowly fills with a white noise, over which only my heart, my breath, and my nervous system can make themselves heard. I focus on emptying and filling my lungs. I feel the shock of the ground through my ankles and knees and resist interpreting it, or deriving from it a train of thought. It can work for about forty minutes. After this time, the reason for my search for solitude finds a way to tune in, and people start to appear, going about their morning routines.
Last year, during the worst period of my job, I had to sack scores of people. I would run away from my laptop, my mobile phone, and my responsibility to everyone, as often as I could. Sometimes I couldn’t wait for the following morning. ‘I’m going out,’ I’d tell people I worked with over the phone, on days that the rest of the world recognized as weekends. ‘I don’t know when I’ll be back.’ I used to run like I was being chased, avoiding the main thoroughfares. When I lived in Stevenage, I had a loop of seldom-used subways that I ran through, smacking my palm against the wall of each as I passed. It was not how I normally conducted myself, but the aggressive connection with something solid helped me to re-calibrate something inside.
Once, while working overnight in London, I got up at 5am and ran out of my hotel towards Blackfriars Bridge, overtaking late night partygoers sobering up in the dawn. I finally ended up down Oxford Street, a road never normally accessible for a brisk walk, let alone a run. The street cleaners were out, their machines sucking up junk from the gutters, but I was still alone: they didn’t take any notice of me as I darted around their one-man vehicles, with wide circular brushes that fed the machine’s jaws with rubbish, a fish feeding on plankton.
This year, now I live in Cornwall, I try to get myself lost if I need the solitude. Yesterday I followed a footpath I’d never noticed before. It slowly petered out into thick grass and uneven ground in the middle of a field. I ran bewildered, the dew juicing in my trainers, unsure where to run without a path to follow. My watch had been left on my desk: I had no idea how long I’d been running for. I didn’t know whether I was trespassing, and I wished I’d taken my phone with me.
I stood in the centre of that field for several minutes, panting, eyes searching for an exit. It took an age to pick out the fence in the distance, over which I would then climb, snagging my shorts on its rusted barbwire.