Warning, this post might inspire you so much you end up crying tears of pure, unadulterated joy. I’ve just come back from a walking, mindfulness retreat and my life has been changed forever. For once I’m not being overly dramatic, it really has been completely transformational. Let me take you back three months to where it all began. I’d wanted to go on a retreat for ages, just somewhere without technology and a chance for some peace and quiet. Some meditation included would be even better.
Searching online I came across the Sharpham Trust based near Totness in Devon. They offered a 5 day retreat that not only encouraged no technology but included meditation, mindfulness and walking. I was sold, it was perfect. Then I saw the words that immediately induced sheer panic and general unease……”vegetarian cooking.” Long story short, I’ve never eaten vegetables and have always been an incredibly fussy eater. Well, I eat mushrooms and spinach but that’s about it. Oh, and potatoes cooked most ways but never, ever boiled potatoes, I just think they’re wrong. I spoke to Margot at Sharpham and she very kindly discussed my plight with the cook. I was told they’d be more than happy to make me alternative meals like omelettes etc if I didn’t want the food they made for everyone else. Done deal and I was ridiculously excited with only 89 sleeps to go.
For anyone that’s uninitiated the definition of mindfulness according to dictionary.com is, “the practice of focusing your full attention only on the present, experiencing thoughts, feelings, and sensations but not judging them.” For a more detailed read and explanation from the N.H.S see here. Ten days before the retreat I made a commitment to a small and very special FB group I’m a member of. During a talk by a guest speaker on nutrition I said I would try vegetables. The next day I had a small floret of broccoli with lots of ketchup and I survived. I had it again a few days later along with a small slice of carrot and I didn’t spontaneously combust. The third time I had it with no ketchup and it tasted ok. My journey had begun.
Monday morning at 9.30am I was raring to go but there was something missing……..my suitcase. In my usual “leave it to the last minute” approach I hadn’t actually started packing and was due to leave at 10. Cue running around like a headless chicken trying to find everything I should have collated a few days earlier. I also shouted a lot as I couldn’t find my sunglasses I’d just put down two minutes earlier. I’ll be honest, it was messy and not the best preparation for 5 days of relaxation and looking within. By the time we finally left (without my sunglasses) it was 10.30 and we were running late. My nerves were frayed and I felt like screaming. Things went quickly downhill when I discovered I’d also left my camera at home and so wouldn’t be able to take pictures. Swearing ensued.
It wasn’t the ideal set of circumstances for a loving goodbye and hug at the station with Rachel. I was close to tears and couldn’t remember the last time I felt so wound up. At least I was at the station so could finally relax. Sadly, this wasn’t the case as my train was delayed which put me close to missing my connection from Paddington to Totness. I jumped on another London bound train that arrived two minutes later knowing I could quickly check the connections on my phone.
Balls, I couldn’t. I’d left my phone at home (intentionally) and bought with an old one for emergency use only that I couldn’t get online with. I immediately panicked and didn’t know what to do. In that moment I realised just how dependant I am on my phone and taking immediate online access for granted. I’m a little bit terrified for the girls and the rest of their generation if I’m being honest. I tried asking fellow passengers for help but was met with mainly quizzical and scared looks. This could have been as the veins were now popping out my head and I was sweating like a pig. A pig, running in 95 degree heat whilst wearing a mohair suit. I eventually worked it out and ended up running like Forrrest Gump non-stop between trains and made it into my seat at Paddington with two minutes and 8 seconds to go. I took the biggest breath and finally relaxed.
As we left London and headed towards Devon I felt the stress and anxiety of the morning start to slip away. In their place were feelings of excitement, intrigue and a bit of nervousness about the food situation. I arrived at Sharpham House at 3.30 and after a quick tour I settled into my room which was roomy with amazing views. The house has 26 rooms of varying sizes over three floors. To help give you a feeling of it being a home rather than a hotel none of the bedrooms have locks on. I opened my case and bag to discover both my sunglasses and camera! What a doofus. Janet, the cook had asked to speak to me and I promised that I would at least try everything she made.
I met the rest of the group which consisted of 14 women and no men. At least this meant there was no chance of Rachel’s worst case scenario. This was basically me meeting a man here and ending up falling in love, coming out and then leaving her. They all seemed lovely and were here for various reasons. We all introduced ourselves and I shared my apprehension around the food and meeting new people. We also met our leaders / guides, Linda the overall leader and Nigel who will be leading the walking.
Dinner was lentil burgers with courgettes and green beans in a tomato sauce. Something very strange happened, I ate it all without any fuss. Not only that but I enjoyed it. I was confused but also ecstatic. I ran straight into the kitchen to show Janet my empty plate like a proud little boy. We had guided meditations each night at 8.30 and then we were silent from 9pm til 8.30am after breakfast. I thought we’d be allowed to play games in silence but apparently not. We’re supposed to be just with ourselves and our awareness in the silence. Being a bit of a rebel, I read one of the 6 Empire magazines I’d bought with me instead. When I got into bed I realised I’d been technology free for 12 hours and it felt great.
Silent morning meditations were at 7.30 before breakfast. It was here on Tuesday that the magic happened and everything changed. I like to go to my happy place when I meditate. This is a deserted beach by an alcove with the sun beating down and the waves gently lapping the shore. My feet are in the sand and my eyes are closed with the sun on my face. I visualised various people coming to say hello including relatives that are no longer here as well as friends who had something to say.
Suddenly it hit me like a big boxing chimpanzee wielding a steel frying pan. I’ve lived my whole life with a massive limiting belief, “I don’t eat vegetables.” I’ve said it for as long as I can remember and it’s become my truth, my story. Maybe, somehow I’ve started changing that story. I thought about any other limiting beliefs I might have. There were loads including:
Those are all statements I have always accepted as fact. Even the title of my blog page includes the words, “Socially awkward man and child trapped in a man’s body.” In addition to that almost all of them have negative consequences attached to them. With those being self fulling prophecies is it any wonder I never get any work done, walk in pain, have trouble socialising at times and have my weight fluctuate massively. I realised that my stories can be re-written. Firstly, I visualised lighting the individual statements and watching them burn up as they flew up into the air. Next, I took each new statement and pressed it into my heart to be fully integrated. The new statements were:
I left the meditation feeling euphoric and also hungry for breakfast. Eating in silence was strange at first but I quickly grew to love it. I found myself eating slower than usual and being aware of the sensations of each mouthful. Marmite on toast never tasted so good! We made our own lunches each day which always included a homemade cake. Hazelnut, chocolate, banana bread, they were all amazing. The first day’s walk was around the grounds which seemed bigger than Switzerland. We had times where we talked and times when we were silent. During the silent periods we focussed on our breath, on one of our senses or sometimes matching our footsteps with our breath. All designed to help us be in the moment. Talking to everyone in the group was at times really inspiring. Hearing their stories, their reasons for being there, their life challenges.
There was an outdoor pool at the house and when we got back from walking some of us were straight in. Others made it for morning swims at 6.30 but they were proper hardcore. The second day we went on a coastal walk which led us to a deserted beach by an alcove, with the sun beating down and the waves gently lapping the shore. Yes, my meditation happy place! It had stones instead of sand but that didn’t matter. I felt very emotional and even more so when Linda suggested we have an impromptu meditation there. It felt incredibly special and I can’t remember a time when I felt so calm, so at peace and so grounded. I also went swimming there which was very brave or very stupid, I’m still not sure which. I’ve never swam in colder water so new experiences and all that.
The final day’s walking (also Summer Solstice) was on Dartmoor and included a visit to Wistman’s Wood. It’s thousands of years old and after looking it up just now, it also seems to be the most haunted place on Dartmoor. On top of that, it’s apparently filled with adders that are more venomous than normal adders. That’s a little bit disconcerting, especially as I felt it was the most magical and spiritual place I’d ever visited. We also had a meditation there which was very special. I felt the need for some solitude on the last day and spent a lot of it in silence. It felt very liberating to be able to dip in and out of silence / socialising whenever I wanted without fear of judgment. This morning’s meditation was outside under a massive yew tree. Having the sounds of the birds, insects and a random animal that made a weird flappy sound was incredible and helped sharpen my mind and senses even more.
The day was finished off with two activities I’d never tried before but that had a profound effect on me. The first was chanting in a circle at the base of the stairs in the house. The sounds reverberated straight up to the ceiling and being able to really find my voice and put it out there felt very freeing. The second was a silent swim at 9pm. Swimming mindfully, focussing on my breathing, the feeling of the water and the surrounding sounds made a nice difference to the usual crazy, racing thoughts I have spinning round my head at Westminster Lodge in St Albans!
The rest of the dinners were spinach and chard bake, quinoa pilaf with tofu and vegetable curry. Previous to the trip I wouldn’t have even gone near them and here I was, finishing them all and wanting more. Then the biggest realisation dawned on me, I’ve spent my entire life eating as a child. Almost everything I don’t like I’ve never actually tried. I won’t even eat black or red grapes as I only like green ones. That’s something a 5 year old would say. If a stray kernel of sweetcorn finds its way onto my plate I screw my face up and go, “Eehh, sweetcorn,” and get rid of it as quickly as I can. It’s the same with tuna, baked beans and so much more.
With the space, peace, beautiful nature, feeling of being safe and unjudged and whatever else I needed, I’d managed to tell a new story about myself. I’d released the child eater in me and freed the adult eater. By the end of the retreat all I wanted to do was try everything I’ve avoided my whole life. This was huge. Sadly on Friday morning it was time to say goodbye to Sharpham and all the amazing people I’d met, both fellow retreaters and leaders / staff. I felt I now had more compassion, both for myself and others. I also felt clarity and a groundedness I’ve never achieved before. I’d also not missed my phone or any other technology at all. I’d had no contact with Rach and the girls all week (apart from letters I sent them) and arriving back home I got the biggest hugs I’d ever had from them. Even Honey the Cockapoo joined in.
On my return the first thing I did was try some of the foods I’d avoided like the plague my whole life. Tuna, sweetcorn, pineapple, peppers, sharon fruit, mango and nectarine. All lovely and my whole mindset has now permanently changed around food. The bigger picture is even more exciting. With changing my story around food I know I can change all the others too. Lots of my blocks around achieving my goals and big vision will now be swept aside. Instead, I can spend my time being focussed, having clarity, eating vegetables and eating respectfully with a nice strong back!
Wait, there’s an even BIGGER realisation. I can see now that I’ve actually lived my whole life as the child, not just with my eating. The way I deal with so many aspects of my life and situations. It’s all as a child. When I look back to tantrums I’ve had as an adult for example it’s obvious now that it was the child reacting. Maybe lots of the internal struggles I have are to do with the child / adult conflict. I’m not able to deal with situations how I want to (as an adult) because the child part of me still has a massive influence. Ok, this is getting really deep now. I’ll have to meditate on it and see where this continuing journey takes me.
Sharpham House was everything I’d hoped for and a huge amount more. I can’t recommend it enough and will definitely be going back again soon. Anyone care to join me?
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