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From Retreat 2019: Winter on the Island

Friends whispered that Winter on the Island was the most magical

I’ve been going to Holy Island for almost two decades – sometimes twice or three times a year. But until this January I had never been there in the Winter.

Most of the Mindsprings retreats take place in the Summer and Autumn when vivid-green bracken and purple heather cover all the slopes and the gardens are heavy with fruit and vegetables. Early on in Mindsprings history, we would have courses in the Spring when the gulls are screeching across the scree defending their eggs and everything looks shocked with the new growth comes with the end of the winter.

Friends who had lived on the Island all year round whispered that the Winter was the most magical time to be there but diaries and schedules had never allowed me to make time to travel up in the darker days.

Twenty odd practitioners, mostly in silence, sharing a space to do their practice

But this year, with no trips to Colorado, and a kind husband looking after the new dog, I was able to carve out 2 weeks and head up to the ‘practice intensive’ which fills the quiet months on the Island. From the end of the Christmas period all the way through to mid March, the centre is closed to visitors but open to those who are looking to deepen their practice in a semi-silent retreat.

Unlike the rest of the season, where the Island is a ecumenical ‘Centre for Peace and Well-being’ open to those of any faith or none, during these Winter weeks it doubles down as a Buddhist-centred place of practice for people doing their ‘ngondro’ – the long, preparatory practices of Vajrayana Buddhism.

And so a group of 10 to 20 practitioners – some committed to the full 11 weeks – eat and share the space together, mostly in silence, while doing their personal practice in their rooms. All held in the wintery mandala of the Island in January.

The Island plateau that is “too powerful for humans”

I’ve written elsewhere about the magical power of this little Scottish Island for retreats. I have always found it one of the most conducive places to practice in the country – partly because of the way the community is set up to support such undertakings but also because of the tremendous Earth-Magic of the island itself.

Back in the 1990s when Lama Yeshe, the abbot of Samye Ling, bought the island from the Catholic farming family who had lived there for many decades, he invited a high Tibetan Lama, Tai Situpa, to come and visit and check out the geomancy of the new retreat Island.

Tai Situpa approved of the place in the most marvellous terms. He travelled the length and breath of its 2 mile stretch – up and down its mountainous centre and rocky coastal edges. And he alleged that within in every cubit (which I believe is about the size of a human stretched out) there were innumerable elemental spirits. The plateau up high above the current retreat centre was “too powerful for humans” and the guardian Celtic saint of the place, St. Molaise, was an early emanation of Padmasambhava, a powerful Tibetan figure from the 11th century.

Sitting and practicing in these caves seems to turbo charge your meditation

Another Tibetan holy man, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso came to visit the island later and wandered around all the caves and peaks singing songs of ‘spontaneous enlightenment’ – many of which describe the native spirits and enlightening powers of the various natural features. He seemed to find caves and crannies of almost magical potency all over the Island. Sitting and practicing in them seems to turbo-charge your practice.

I’d always been marginally aware of this potent aspect of the Island but this winter it really became very ‘outspoken’ – to use one of Reggie’s favourite words.

Stripped of all its verdant vegetative cover, the rocks and caves of the Island were all much more visible. Pony- and goat-paths that were invisible in the summer months were clear and vivid in the January light and I was magnetically drawn to explore parts of the Island that I had never visited before.

Top-to-toe in waterproofs, so I could practice in all landscapes and all weathers

Each morning I would practice from early doors through until lunch and then I would take my practice outside until the light faded around 4pm.

My vajrayana practice is very physical at the moment, so it involved togging up from top-to-toe in waterproofs so that I could fearlessly lie down in whatever weather or landscape I might find myself in. The weather on the Island, nestled as it is in the Eastern end of the Gulf Stream, tends to move very fast, so in a 3-hour walk I might get snow, rain, sunshine and big winds all one-after-another.

‘Muscle-testing’ my way up and down the Island

And I was letting my practice guide my footsteps. Following my intuition and ‘muscle-testing’ my way around, I let the Island inspire my movements. If my body said to go up the mountain, I’d do that. If it said to practice in a certain glen or copse or cave, then I would. When I felt I needed to stay out into the gloaming then I’d stay out. This free-association with the body took me into some amazing places.

One afternoon about half way through my retreat I followed the urge up to the plateau above the Centre to visit the one lake on the Island which sits up there, close to edge of the Eastern cliff down to the sea. I had visited it once before one summer many years ago, and I had glimpsed it on another practice-walk earlier in this retreat – but today I felt strongly drawn to go and practice by it.

The stillness of the moment after the blizzard had past

So taking a ‘body-led’ route up the mountain side and down the glen towards the mountain-tarn, I found myself at the foot of the mountain, starting my practice just as huge black clouds rolled in over the jet-black summit. By the time I was starting to prostrate then thick heavy snow was coming down in a blizzard. I kept on practicing in the wild elemental snow storm and by the time I had finished the sky was blue again and a heart-piercing stillness and brightness lay over the whole landscape. The tarn was a perfect mirror of the ash-blue sky and the mountain was like a living presence, silently aware of me sitting there, completely still and empty to the moment.

Earlier I had recalled Wordsworth’s experience of ‘emptiness’ on the lake at Grasmere – but in that moment I was just empty and present at the same time. Something of Tilopa’s teaching permeated things: don’t dwell in the past, don’t reach out into the future, don’t think about the present, don’t analyse, don’t control: just rest in the Now.

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Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.

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