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Holy Island (Part 1):

I got back last weekend from our annual Mindsprings retreat up on Holy Island, off the coast of Arran in Western Scotland.

It’s a 2-mile long, mile-wide chunk of granite in the alive and icy waters of the Forth of Clyde, peaking in a saddle-backed summit. From the air it looks a little like a recumbent sphinx with the face, Mullach Mor, looking out over to Northern Ireland.

They’ve built a very lovely retreat centre, open to anyone of any faith or none

In the 8th century, it was the home of a Christian saint from Ireland, St. Molaise, who lived in a cave in the western flank, with a view over the water to Lamlash. Now it’s owned by the Buddhist monastery on the mainland, Samye Ling, under the aegis of its jovial abbot, Lama Yeshe Rinpoche. The Buddhists have looked after it for about 15 years and in the last five, they’ve built a very lovely retreat centre, open to anyone of any faith or none, which is where I run my retreat.

These facts do scant justice to the power of this little island. I’ve been coming here since 2000 and, as more and more people have come and practised meditation here and the long-retreatants at the South End of the island have carried out their 4-year stints at intensive Tibetan practice, the energy of the place rises and rises.

This rising energy is necessary because it has to counter the incredible concerted energies of the consumer-driven world we deal with on a day-to-day basis on the mainland.

Bear with me as I make a little diversion.

From a Buddhist point of view, she doesn’t go far enough

Baroness Greenfield, a reputable if controversial neuroscientist, recently published a book Mind Change, which seemed to garner a great number of angry critical reviews. In it, she points out the detrimental effects of long-term gaming, internet surfing and social media. These are eroding our ability to think critically, stay focused on learning, or absorb ourselves in sustained imaginative engagement with texts or works of art.

I have written elsewhere about the effects of social media on our sense of self, and I have to agree with much of what Susan Greenfield writes, but from a Buddhist point of view, she doesn’t go far enough.

During our week on Holy Island, we were looking at the practice of Samadhi which is something I’ve been engaged with for the last two years. In essence, samadhi is a state of being in our bodies and in an open-hearted experience of the world. In neuro-biological terms (though this is not an exact science) we are aiming to experience our life through our right hemisphere.

Another female brain scientist, Jill Taylor Bolte, famously woke up one morning and realised she was having a stroke. Being an expert in the field, she realised that it was a stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. She was unable to recognise the digits on the phone when she went to ring 911. What she describes so powerfully in her book, My Stroke of Insight, is the blissful feeling of unity and heart-rich connection she felt during that time. Freed of the compulsive rule of the left brain (which is skilled in analysing, labelling, splitting experience up into concepts). She experienced what the body knows: that we are all of a part with the universe.

We live our lives through our abstracted Facebook profiles

Modern life brainwashes us away from this insight. We are brought up from a very early age, through schooling and culture, to value the left-brain experiences. (thinking, discernment, comparison, labelling, mapping) Above those of the right (sensing, feeling, connecting, knowing). And when this left-brain tendency meets the almost infinite stimulation of the world wide web. Then we are caught in an irresistible current of habitual abstraction. We live our lives through our abstracted Facebook profiles. We date through abstracted dating sites, we prefer to email and text than the telephone. And we escape into the once-removed pleasures of TV and games.

But as I mentioned before Baroness Greenfield doesn’t really take it far enough. It’s not just being caught up in games and the web and social media. It’s about being caught up in our thoughts full-stop. So when she recommends reading the classics or thinking scientifically she is swapping one form of conceptualisation with another. What Jill Taylor Bolte’s experience points to is that we need to wean ourselves off the left brain and get comfortable in the right.

This then, is what we all bring to the little pier in Lamlash.

I’d love to know your thoughts about the Holy Island retreat. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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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