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How the Holy Island retreat went this Autumn...

Photos from the summer retreat courtesy of Darika Barker and Elaine Gray. Obviously, we didn't have our phones in October!

We went to Holy Island this Autumn to sit out.

I had been planning (and indeed fretting about) this retreat for over eighteen months. Would it rain? Would people find it too much? Would people call me out for being a phoney teacher?

I always get nervous before these week-long retreats. Indeed, as I get older I seem to get MORE anxious about teaching and holding space than ever. When I was a young gun I blithely organised these events and sailed through them without a wrinkle in my ego-armour. But these days I’m much more vulnerable. Which is a good thing of course.

Kirsty, Laurence and I were reminiscing about the early Holy Island retreats c. 2004 when I would pack the week with unconscionable amounts of activity - Whirling Dervish meditation in the morning, death practice in the afternoon, games arranged in the evenings. And then something new the next day. It was as if I were terrified of shortchanging anyone.

This retreat in October 2023 (almost 2 decades later) was the very opposite of that. For the first time, I stated that this retreat would be mostly practice and very little teaching. And so it was.

Once we got everyone together (there was a day’s delay while we navigated Biblical flooding across the Scottish rail network and the Calmac ferry conking out) there was only one simple instruction:

Sit outside, for long periods, without a phone, Stay put. Don’t meditate.

That was the practice for the week. And each day the wondrous gang of 23 went out into the magical weather and wildness of Holy Island - three hours in the morning, three in the afternoon - and sat and lay and snoozed and danced and sang with the mind in Nature. Then we gathered in the Peace Hall in the evening, shared and sang along to the shruti box.

Photos courtesy of Darika Barker and Elaine Gray.

Naturally, there was a part of me that felt like a fraud. I wasn’t teaching anything! I wasn’t filling the Peace Hall with all my thoughts, instructions and insight. People would feel shortchanged!

But it seems the opposite is the case. Humbling as it is for me, it seems that trusting the practice, the practitioners and, most importantly, the Island is enough.

Regardless of whatever is happening in your mind, simply look with an intense or glaring awareness at the nature of whatever arises.

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche

It’s a rare enough event for folks to go to a remote Scottish Island and just relax for a while. But to surrender your phone to the Naughty Phone Basket each morning and just sit all day, unimpeded, with the presence of the world and your mind is radical.

As I said at the closing of the retreat, the Sitting Out practice is a loud raspberry to the ever-encroaching mesh of consumer capitalism. It doesn’t cost anything, it doesn’t produce anything, it isn’t efficient and it isn’t always pleasant. But when we do it and we sit out in the natural order of things and watch the robins come and talk to us; when we listen to the sound of the wind in young trees; when we see how beautiful October rain is on the bracken; when we swim at night with the phosphorescence around the jetty; when we marvel at the ripples and riptides of the mind; then we are accessing something way older and way more empowering that a new iPhone or the tired old news cycle.

When we did the group sharing at the end of the retreat, I had never heard a more profound and varied set of experiences. Certainly never at the end of one of my more "taught" retreats. People went exactly as deep and rich as they needed and it was a beautiful thing to weave together all the insights the Island gave us and offer it up into the World.

Eh ma ho!

Photo by Elaine Gray.

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