The November day retreat 2015

The November retreat of this year was November 14 and it was during the evening before before that we started hearing news of the attacks in Paris. I had arranged to pick up Barry on the way to the beautiful Otley Hall where I’ve been holding 3 day retreats per year for the last 3 – 4 years. Even as he climbed into the car he was asking me did I “know anybody from Paris?”

We talked of it for the 10 or 15 minutes drive before arriving at Otley Hall. On these retreats, after a full morning of noble silence and continuous practice I usually like to open up to dialogue in the afternoon on the chosen, negotiated theme. I have begun to consider talking on the theme of climate change. I’d seen two red admiral butterflies the previous week and, beautiful as they were, their unseasonal longevity alarms me into prioritising the subject for some mindful enquiry.

Barry and I agreed as we spoke that the tragedy in Paris would probably take precedence.

After introduction around a group of 12, I spoke briefly of the tragedy that was probably on all of our minds – just one person had not yet picked up on the news and I gave her the briefest of resumes. In considering themes she would have liked to have explored in the dialogue session in the afternoon, she explained that she had hoped to enquire into the phenomenon of forgiveness. We wondered if that may become incorporated?

So it was then, that having briefly anticipated the theme, we followed a period of 3 1/2 hours of continuous mindfulness practice culminating in eating our lunch together in silence.

When we opened up to speaking together again we started with some space for each person to speak about their feelings. I moderated the dialogue quite lightly intervening only to observe when we had veered away from feelings and more into our thinkings. It was noticeable at that time too, how one person’s thinking is called forth another person’s thinkings, how the pace picked up and how often two or more people were speaking urgently at the same time.

After most people had spoken and some silence had developed, I suggested we settle back into choiceless awareness meditation, and in my meditation guidance began to run through as many of the perspectives that I could remember having been aired, adding a few more that I could imagine: the challenge for all the grieving families, not least those of the assailants, the observation that just a few days back we had a huge collective remembrance service when we brought to mind the fallen previous wars; wars whose stories have become well-defined, etched in our minds – individual and collective. Recognising that the story of this current war is yet to come into definition – that there are many competing versions all held with equal conviction, and that in times of shock and fear and doubt, certainty is often desperately pursued in the vain expectation that our anxieties will be relieved this way.

The meditation then moved in the direction of classic metta bhavana – or loving kindness – practice. Starting with ourselves – acknowledging our own shock, fear and doubt and directing soothing loving kindness towards ourselves, then progressing to a dear friend, and further to an acquaintance, further still towards a person in our lives with whom we have had conflict or by whom we have felt thwarted or disrespected, and then towards the seven young people who had perpetrated the attacks before deliberately destroyed themselves, and lastly towards the innumerable people will be affected by this incident… making space within this last great stretch of imagination to include ourselves – as a group of 12 people deliberately generating behaviours which lie at the opposite end of whatever continuum mindless violence and riotous assembly are the opposite extreme.

In our subsequent debrief theme which emerged was that of affiliation; indeed the woman who had wanted to speak of forgiveness had already decided that she would phone the person in question and suggest a meeting; ‘life’s just too short, too precious’ she said. Person after person spoke of similar things – moving towards people that mattered to them. This reminds me of an incident almost 20 years ago; the shooting of many schoolchildren in Dunblane. I was teaching music in Brixton prison at the time; the team of prisoners with whom I was working on a computer music composition wherein a very sombre, very distressed mood on the morning the news began filtering through. We managed to work collectively at that time through the medium of music to create a most haunting, musical statement “Dunblane innocents” – what makes it very difficult for prisoners – as news of tragedy breaks – is that they can’t reach out to love or to hold their precious ones, nor can they be there – as protector males in this case, to look after the vulnerable ones of their kith and kin.

Back to our retreat of yesterday, however, tragedy and opportunity combined. What a blessing to be able to prepare the mind with a sustained period of relative stillness and spaciousness, before entering into the solidarity of a group of like-minded people, to focus directly upon the feeling impact, and then to drop back again into mindfulness to imagine the situation from as many perspectives as you can, before emerging – not into the waves of anger condemnation and divisiveness, but into a deep pool of ‘us-ness’, re-connection, affiliation. The chance to sit in the question “how shall we be with this?” before the shrill “what shall we do about this?” demands spring up from multiple, competing positions of certainty.

Outside it was raining and the light was fading – nonetheless, stalwarts all, half of the group chose to practice yoga indoors whilst the other half in grim determination donned their waterproofs for a mindful tramp around, inwards and outwards, the labyrinth of ancient design.

Thank you all, it was good to share the day with you, it was a good day – for a day of tragedy.

Martin, Nov 15’th, 2015

%d bloggers like this: