Acceptance is the best medicine - my retreat experience

This blog is about my Mindfulness retreat I went on with Ed Halliwell, sharing my experience and learning with you in a way that’s hopefully balanced and helpful. I hope you learn something new from my experiences and if you have any questions about anything I’ve written about please give me a shout and I’ll be more than happy to talk through with you.

I think I’ll firstly say that one of the biggest learnings for me was realising that everything is not always what it seems and what you expect situations to be are not always the case. Also just learning to let go and not always feel the need to find answers and solve problems but just allowing things to be as they are can be really liberating.

So where do I start…I think I’ll start with the drive down to Surrey, living in Norfolk has always been a fair drive to get to anywhere so I’d been quite anxious in the lead up to the retreat knowing I had a 3-3.5 hour drive ahead of me and this was all that consumed my thoughts in the lead up to the retreat. However I treated the situation and myself with kindness, armed with good music and podcasts I went off on the road to Surrey allowing myself plenty of time for getting lost or traffic as the thought of arriving late to a room full of people already there, drove my social anxiety crazy and reminded me of walking into the common room at college unable to find my friends! Yes my brain does go that far! I arrived in plenty of time and was shown to my small comfortable room, no TV no radio and encouraged to turn my phone off. I text the husband to say I had arrived without getting lost and then turned my phone off and sat in my room. As I sat there in silence with no technology to distract me thoughts started popping into my head, what were the other people like? I feel panicked, what have I done? What till the weekend be like? Ooo the organic hand soap smells nice…etc! This is when I got my journal out and the coach in me kicked in I sat and journalled about what would be a good outcome and decided that feeling, calm, renewed and a sense of space, given myself kindness through this sense of space and rest would be a good outcome. I decided I needed to be non-judgmental about the experience and be kind to myself about what would happen over the next couple of days. Its okay to feel anxious about meeting new people but just allow these experiences to be. Just be present.

I met with Ed and the group with tea and cake (beetroot and nut to be specific!) on the Friday afternoon and everyone was welcoming, I wasn’t alone in feeling a bit anxious and I felt a real sense of non-judgement from the group. Friday evening consisted of a vegetarian dinner then Mindfulness practice. We did some sitting practice, sharing on what we wanted to get out of the weekend and a bodyscan. I felt like I got into a sense of calm quite quickly with the practices and interestingly I didn’t have any anxiety. Ed did some drawings on a flipchart and did some talking about the blob of experience, which is basically just what you are experiencing right then in that moment physically and the lines around the blob of experience (a bit like gradient lines on a map) are all the things you put on top of this experience like thoughts. I was brave and shared with the group about how my anxiety is this blob of experience and how through Mindfulness I recognise the chest pain that is the beginning of my anxiety and sometimes I am kind to myself and say no to situations which I know will cause this feeling (blob!) and other times I push through these situations making myself feel unwell as a result of the anxiety (probably all the cortisol and adrenaline in my body which is getting me ready for flight/fight). Ed said that my thoughts about push/pull or making decisions about this are the thoughts I’m putting onto the blob of experience which I hadn’t really thought of in that way before as I don’t have negative self talk anymore from the work I’ve done with myself over the years (‘i.e I’m a failure, ‘I cant do this’ etc) so although I wasn’t having thoughts about the anxiety I was having thoughts about what to do about it so this was an interesting reflection. I decided to make a conscious effort for the rest of the weekend to let go of the need to take action and make decisions and just let this ‘blob of experience’ be as it is.

I went to bed early, feeling calm and relaxed after a bodyscan…then I woke up at about midnight, freezing cold, shivering so much I couldn’t stop, I got up to get a jumper and the room started buzzing and spinning around me and then the sickness started…and didn’t stop all night!! Not at all what I had planned for a restful retreat….feverish dreams and thoughts for the rest of the night ‘What am I going to do now? I’m miles from home, I haven’t been this ill in years, I have no TV to distract myself from feeling this unwell’ ‘Tomorrow is a silent day, how can I let anyone know I am ill’…and so on!

I had to miss the morning movement meditation at 8am as I only really properly got back to sleep at 7am and so headed down to silent breakfast at 8.45. It was so refreshing especially with how I was feeling not to have to make any small talk at breakfast but simply smile and eat a small bit of fruit and yogurt. The meditation practice Saturday was both great and difficult, I was constantly falling asleep and doing that thing when you fall asleep almost then your body does a jerking movement?! Argh embarrassing!! I started to realise the basics of it, with everything else stripped away and with silence all that’s left is just being and feeling right now in this moment. I realised I just needed sleep, I ended up having 3 naps!! With no one to tell about my experience and nothing to do all I could do was be kind to my body and give it sleep…this was very interesting as I don’t know if I would have been so kind in other circumstances. We also did some mindful walking around the lovely grounds of the retreat centre, this was lovely and a refreshing change as I didn’t need to worry about falling asleep. I noticed lovely flowers peeking through the grass and the feel of walking on moss on the grass like a thick pile carpet, suddenly all my senses had come alive and I welcomed the cool breeze helping me feel refreshed. I’ve got some mindful walking tips to bring back to my mindfulness groups which I’m looking forward to sharing so definitely learned some things here about kindness but also mindful walking!

We broke the silence that evening being able to speak again at dinner and speaking to others in the group they had found it difficult the long periods of meditation and felt their own difficulties which it was hard to sit with throughout Saturday. It helped to know I wasn’t alone as Saturday felt like a very long struggle at times even though I think I learned a lot. We did some more sitting meditation Saturday night and I decided to sit on the floor rather than on a chair and found this difficult at times unable to get my legs comfortable sitting for that amount of time but I soon realised I could just move! There was genuinely no judgement or expectation so I could do just what I needed and I think I try and do this in my teaching, make sure people know just to be comfortable and not to try and force anything that doesn’t work for them.

Saturday night was an early night, I welcomed this and slept all night! Woke up Sunday finally feeling more human again and made the mindful movement session which was Qi Gong and was great to connect with the body and breath, have again got some great mindful movement exercises which I’m going to add into my teaching and improve the course. We had another period of silence Sunday which I welcomed back again and really appreciated the opportunity to just be in silence and there seemed to be less to worry about when there was silence. Sunday’s meditation made me very aware of knowing I had to drive home and thoughts of the M25 started creeping back in, I could feel a bit of anxiety creeping in but I was kind about it as it was natural to feel this way. We did some gratitude meditation which actually made me cry it was so powerful and further raised the importance for me of kindness and gratitude both in and out of mindfulness practice. The drive home was a very busy M25 where I was stuck for an hour as the Dartford bridge was closed due to wind but I noticed on the way home not only was it a weird experience being on a motorway again after being in silence and in a whole different little world but actually although it was annoying and I was stuck and wanted to get home I wasn’t panicking about it as I usually would. I couldn’t change it, I just had to be there on the motorway!

I thought it would also be useful to share what happened after coming back from retreat and in particular when I went back to work. I woke up in the morning and could feel the chest pain creeping in, the anxiety was lurking. I realised that in the past I would have tried to analyse why the chest pain was there, what was causing it? Was it because I was going to London? (psychologist in me always wants to know why!!) but I realised actually this weekend it would have done me no favours to try and work out why I was ill..I just had to be with it and respond in that moment to what I needed. So I let go of the need to wonder why, I just said to myself ‘oh hello chest pain, so you’re going to be part of today’ and I wrote down some ways I could be kind to myself, taking my time to travel to London, cups of tea and having a bath and an early night. Weirdly the chest pain went about half an hour later and didn’t come back all day so something definitely worked by not asking why but just simply being with it and being kind.

So overall, a great learning experience I think..the biggest learning about acceptance and kindness and loads to bring into my teaching to help you with your experience whether its stress or anxiety or just learning to slow down and bring more calm. Would love to know if you have any questions and I’d be more than happy to help! I’m going to experiment with acceptance more and see what result it has on my anxiety!

Gemma Sandwell - Mindfulness Teacher and Chief Happiness Officer.

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