Mindfulness retreat on Tresco

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

“Mindfulness is a way of being that helps focus awareness on the present, easing regrets about the past and anxiety for the future, allowing us to understand and accept ourselves for who, what and where we are.”

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to take part in a Mindfulness retreat, held in Abalone cottage on Tresco. The course leader was Caspar Walsh. Caspar has been delivering retreats throughout the UK for over 10 years. His work combines mindfulness, nature connection and personal inquiry to bring about a balanced, healthy, creative and flourishing life. He is a published author and writes for the Guardian and Observer. Find out more about Caspar here.

The retreat, for me, was a chance to slow down, to reflect on myself, the way I live my life and to help create opportunity for change. I'm painfully aware of the irony of this - living on this idyllic and peaceful island - how on earth am I not able to benefit from the slower pace of life? Well, of course, I could if I weren't working full time! The juggling act I perform here every day is no different to any other woman in my position. Sometimes we need a guide to show us the way to realign ourselves and a retreat is a safe haven to discover new ways to approach our lives.

I've undertaken a few courses on personal development over the years and must admit that aside from the content, I think one of the most important factors seems to be the personality of the teacher. Too much ego can sometimes get in the way of what the group needs, likewise not enough charisma can be uninspiring. Caspar is a natural teacher, talking with authority about a subject that is not only a passion, but a way of life. As a young man Caspar suffered hardship and difficult times, but his story is one of triumph over adversity. The perfect advocate for mindfulness, he emanates a sense of  calm and serenity through his peaceful aura. He is softly spoken and talks about treating the earth and each other gently and with kindness. Global issues, green issues, living a sustainable life are all part of his daily manifesto. On spending time with him you see that he is dedicated to treading lightly on this earth to leave as little trace as possible. He lives his life with a humble and gracious heart. 

At the start of the course Caspar had asked everyone what they hoped to gain from the course. We wrote down our hopes and took turns to read them out. Here’s mine – “I would like to find a way or discover tools to help me to be less busy; to stop rushing about, mindlessly, with a lack of focus. I’d like to take time out without feeling I ought to be doing something more important.”

Caspar led us through meditations/visualisations a few times each day with varying degrees of intensity for me. He prepared us all for the inevitable drifting off-course that the mind would do which was a great help. To know that unwanted thoughts will pop into your head the minute you try to meditate was helpful in preparing us to be able to just observe and let them drift away. And the more I practised this, the easier it did become. Silent meditations have been a struggle when I've tried them in the past, but to have Caspar’s voice giving gentle instructions was in itself a focus to block out other thoughts. I’ve been left with some spectacular imagery from one visualisation which had me floating blissfully in deep outer space observing the earth from above, and this vision and sensation remain as clear now as they were in that moment. 

A couple of times a day we were sent off for solitary walks. As we prepared for these we were instructed to be silent throughout. The other rule which Casper put in place was for us to walk at half our normal pace. Little did I know that this one feature would be quite so revolutionary for me. I’m a beetler; I beetle about at a rate of knots because I’ve always got so much to do and so little time to do it in. And suddenly, here I was being told to walk slowly. This in itself was such a revelation! Slowing down to this pace of life, a life that I’ve never experienced was like falling into another world - the world that I see holidaymakers inhabit here, but not one I’ve ever thought I could visit myself. And yet how very simple that was.

With each walk came instruction too, to listen, or to observe or touch - sometimes we documented these things as we went along.  Caspar was aware that we might meet a friend or workmate while we were out and about, but we were encouraged to just smile, nod, walk on and try very hard not to talk. Can you feel a little story coming on? Well, at one stage I found myself “trapped” in a nook at the top of a beach, behind a little shed with no way out, aware of some voices approaching. I was scribbling down my thoughts on the topic of touch when I realised that a group of workmen had cornered me (unbeknownst to them). They were reversing around the corner where I was seated, when one chap spotted me, “Oh Hi Anna,” he said “we need to be here for our meeting, so if you could...” at which I jumped up, clutching my pad and blurted out “I’m on a retreat and am not meant to be talking.” Quick as a flash the retort came back at me – “Well, that will make a nice change for everyone!”

One of the exercises that we did every day was a question and answer session with a difference. The questioner had to learn to merely pose the given question, but then resist the natural temptation to nod, interject a comment or use any body language to encourage the responder. Those who were replying had to talk about the given subject for three or four minutes which turned out to be a long time without prompts, visual or verbal from the listener. I found this quite a difficult exercise, as I’m such a chatterbox and also because I’m aware I do interrupt all the time – but with good reason ( I had always thought) because I know that the thing I’ll want to add to the conversation will elude me if I have to wait for someone to stop talking. It turns out that I’m not the only one who suffers this affliction too.

Caspar encouraged us to give feedback throughout the course and at one stage I was able to share my thoughts in response to the revolutionary nature of life lived in a mindful way. As I sat in the cottage observing the oasis of calm outside, it occurred to me that it was only through having Caspar’s permission that I had been able to experience my life in this mindful way. I was neither at home, at work, nor on holiday, but in this new place where mindfulness was the sole intention of our being. As a group we went on discuss the practicalities of incorporating mindful practise into our daily routines where work deadlines, social pressures and family commitments, in other words just the normal everyday routines, over-ride our good intentions for self care and gentle living.

So now, three weeks on, what have I retained from the retreat?

One very simple and effective tool is to stop and take a moment. Nothing new there then you might say? Well, for me it is new. The process of stopping, for example as I’ve dashed out the door and am about to hurtle along the road to work. Well, by stopping, I can create a space; to breath, to finish the morning rush of trying to get off to work, and to just take a moment. Within that moment, I can relax and put the brakes on that rush and tear that’s my default setting. I can also start again at a new pace, a more deliberate slower pace to enjoy my short commute to work, to take in the wonderful view and within that create a space to transition into work mode.

Silence is the next trick. I used to always have a TV or radio on in the background no matter what I was doing – paying the bills or writing my blog, folding my laundry or eating my lunch, whatever I was up to, there was always a soundtrack of some sort. In my defence, I had used the noise to drown out my tinnitus. One of those doctor’s columns I’d read suggested that you use a low grade noise to counter the sound of tinnitus so that’s what I did. However, Caspar  had asked us to focus on silence when we were inside and of course that meant me listening, really listening, to my own soundtrack. I discovered that this could be visualised as a gentle ringing, maybe even golden in colour, so that I may accommodate it more easily. That’s not to say that I never have the TV or radio on, only now I’m more mindful about making a choice.

Another “brand new” thing for me is kindness, in particular being kind to oneself. In Caspar’s meditations he encouraged us to be gentle with the earth, each other and most importantly to be gentle and kind to ourselves. After two days of his guidance, I did have a “Eureka” moment when I discovered that I can and am kind to others, but not so good with myself.

·         In an effort to create a mind shift I've made a few changes -

·         I’ve stopped writing to-do lists.
·         I’ve instigated a 10 o’clock bedtime so that I don’t get over tired.
·         I’ve stopped feeling guilty about downtime.
·         I’ve stopped seeing life as a competition, a competition with myself.
          I’ve given myself permission to not be the best.
          I'm practising the art of being instead of doing - this may take some time to master!


The final change that’s come about since the retreat is that I’ve managed to stop feeling fragmented and over-run. I have a sense of focus that I’ve never had before. Instead of a to-do list, I acknowledge the things that need to be accomplished and prioritise them. That then gives me one thing, and only one thing that I have to do. By having that one thing as my focus, I don’t allow my mind to fret and wonder how I’m ever going to get everything else done. The feeling of being overwhelmed with how much I wanted/needed to get done seems to have been tied up in that ongoing and ever growing list. Now I finish one job and decide again what's the most important thing to be tackled next. And best of all, I'm also learning to ignore things that can wait. Sometimes it's more beneficial to just rest or read or take a nice leisurely walk on this peaceful island.

Caspar Walsh will be holding another Mindulness Retreat on Tresco in the autumn. For full details of that see here.
Anna x

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  1. I'm so glad you found the retreat to be useful and are able to continue with some of the things you learnt.


    1. I think when you're working full time it's vital to find way to keep life in perspective and Minfulness certainly helps me keep a good balance. I've read books on the subject, but having someone to guide you and to prompt new habits as well as new ways of thinking is much more effective.

      Anna x

  2. Oh, gosh, we are birds of a feather, Anna. I totally need something like that - I'm a huge perfectionist, and get overwhelmed, and am always rushing about. I'm so glad you did that retreat, glad you are learning to be mindful. I am mindful about my eating, but not so much in other areas of my life, like taking care of me. Thank you for the reminder.

    1. Thanks for your feedback Sheila. That was why I was keen to feature this on the blog, as I knew it would strike a chord with so many women. I too, have read about mindful eating, but this is a total shift in mindset as to how I conduct my life. Maybe it's because of my big birthday, but I was ready for change and this came along at the right time.

      Anna x

  3. Thank you for sharing so many wonderful details of this experience Anna! It sounds like you were able to reflect honestly and begin to develop some skills that will help you live less stressfully and more mindfully.
    Why is it so difficult to make our own emotional well-being a priority? I'm so impressed with your commitment to that ocean swim each morning and I hope you'll be able to make your newfound wisdom and behaviors fit as seamlessly (?) into your life.

    1. It's great to hear that you enjoyed this post Jude. I've been guilty of wanting so much; trying to fit too much into my days, that weren't realistic without me crashing and burning - which is what would happen to me periodically. That driving need was what I had to look at to find out how to change it. "I'm dancing as fast as I can" was how I lived my life, but no more. My passion for life continues, but not at the expense of my sanity. Older yes, and maybe a bit wiser?

      Have a great week!
      Anna x

  4. Wow! That was a great post! I feel calmer after just reading it. Thank you for sharing your personal story and sharing your beautiful island. I will try to remember the wisdom you have relayed to us. Bravo!

    1. Thanks so much Julia. It was a really grounding experience for me, and I'd recommend it or something similar to anyone who was feeling overrun with life. Tresco is the perfect backdrop to this retreat and I hope the images gave a taste of what you could expect if you came.

      Have a fab week!

  5. I'm glad that you have attended this retreat, it looks really like something that enriches your life and makes you feel more focused. That's my kind of thing, as I also tend to feel overwhelmed and guilty because of all the things I have to do. I've been practising a slow walk (and a slow stylelife) by myself, and I've felt better. Walking slowly in silence is something so different!
    Thanks for sharing your experience! it's inspiring!

    1. Even prior to the retreat I had been enjoying lunchtime walks around the island, but you're right when you say about walking slowly in silence - it's a great way to reconnect with nature, but also with your soul's journey. And so simple to do!

      Thanks for dropping by again Monica.
      Anna x

  6. Thanks for sharing your experiences and the photos are fab, you are so lucky to have this on your doorstep. I resonate with much of what you say. Another retreat thing I found really enriching (tho haven't done for a long time) is to go for a silent walk like you did but with another person who understands what its about. At the end of the walk we shared how it was.
    Your first photo made me think of this:
    Word of the day: “glisk” - a glitter of sunlight; a glow of heat from a fire; a glint or twinkle in a person's eye. Figuratively, a glimpse of the good, a brief burst of warmth or hope. (Scots, esp. Shetland; archaic) Robert Macfarlane you can find him on Twitter.
    Tessa xx


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