Before my first silent retreat, I was quite apprehensive about how hard it was going to be. Would really intense emotions surface from the dark recesses of my mind? Would I get really bored? Would it be hard to meditate for that long?
Having done a few of them, I realised the answer to all of those questions is yes, but it’s not that bad! During the last one I did, I really felt like I was more in my comfort zone. They make me feel great afterwards and give me a chance to reflect on what really matters.
I think if you stay in your comfort zone for too long, it actually becomes uncomfortable. Life stops being interesting, let alone exciting. It’s like putting a box over a tree and not letting it grow and I believe we all have an innate drive to grow.
So the next challenge, after a 10-day group retreat, was a week-long solitary one.
A surprising number of people asked me if there would be anyone else there. Perhaps they couldn’t get their head around it, because it’s quite an unusual thing to do. The clue is in the name! I was solo, alone, in a small house an hour west of Fort William.
People also kept asking me if I was allowed to do this or that. Well, there was no one to tell me what to do. But I did give myself some rules.
I took away all distractions:
- I fasted for 40 hours at the start, so I wouldn’t always be thinking about the next meal.
- No caffeine, sugar or alcohol.
- No reading, accept a book of Buddhist teachings, The Dharmampada, of which I read very little.
- No screens or phone.
- Nothing to tell the time with, so I would adjust to the rhythm of the sun.
- No electricity. There was a gas fridge which I didn’t turn on. At night, I just used candles and went to bed early.
It might sound like a really strange thing to do. Self-torture, you might think. The aim was to be as present as possible to my moment-by-moment experience, which all of the above things help me to avoid.
In the run up to it, I felt quite apprehensive about feeling lonely, bored and isolated. I even felt some sadness, perhaps because I was reminded about previous times when I’d felt lonely.
I booked a seat on the sleeper train up to Fort William rather than a bed, because it was £100 cheaper and I’ve been known to fall asleep standing up, in the middle of a night club, so I thought I’d easily manage on a train without being horizontal.
It seemed like a good omen though, when I arrived at Euston for the sleeper train and the conductor told me there were no seats and so I’d been moved to a cabin. I could hardly believe my luck!
When I asked why, he said in a thick, slightly gruff Scottish accent, ‘Because the carriage smells of urine.’ Fair enough. I was very grateful to whoever was responsible for that.
The place I was going to was a bit tricky to find. There’s no official bus stop because it’s not even a village. It’s a three-mile road with three houses on it, the last of which was my hermitage.
I’d have to walk from the drop-off point to the house for about an hour with all my food for a week.
Or would I? I told the bus driver I was getting off at Dalilea. The next person to get on the bus, also said he was getting off there. It turned out his nephew lived at one of the other two houses on that road, and he was visiting from Perth for the second time that year.
When we got off the bus, his nephew gave me a lift all the way to my front door. What were the chances of that?! It felt like the universe was smiling on me.
When I first arrived, I felt restless. I busied myself unpacking and making my last meal before the fast. I didn’t want to face the silence or what going to happen when I sat down and meditated.
The house is the most silent place I’ve ever been. When the wind dropped, you couldn’t hear anything. No sirens, cars or drilling. No voices, music, television, phones pinging, dogs barking or John Humphreys grilling ministers about Brexit. A profound and, at times, unnerving silence.
It was acquired by someone called Giles, who, 10 years ago, wrote to 60 landowners in Scotland saying that he was looking for a house to be in solitude. This was the fruit of that effort. It’s now managed by someone called Sara Maitland, who literally wrote the book on silence. It’s called A Book of Silence.
But after a couple of days, I settled in, and really started to enjoy it.
What did you actually do?
Several people asked me that. There was a wood burner that kept the house warm and heated the water. I lit that every morning, kept it going and brought in more wood and coal from the outhouse. I really enjoyed the primal, back-to-basics aspect of doing that rather than just turning on the heating.
I swam most days in the stunningly beautiful and breathtakingly cold Loch Shiel. One of the best times was at sunset, with the wisps of cloud turning pink, surrounded by rolling mountains and darkening trees. A cow fixed me with a look that seemed at once inquisitive, incredulous and mildly offended.
I walked a lot in the wild, lush, wet countryside, with the weather changing every five minutes. I learnt to never leave the house without an umbrella, even in blazing sunshine. One upside of this was the number of rainbows — on one walk I saw three in two hours.
I sat and drank tea, I cooked; I had a candle-lit bath most nights.
I meditated for about two hours each day, roughly 4x 30 minutes, although I don’t know because I wasn’t timing it. A lot of energy was moving through my body when I did so, causing it to spasm and jolt, and I even had sounds coming out of me like in Kung Fu movies.
It was fortunate that I was solo, or it would have been impossibly disruptive to anyone else. And they may have thought I was insane.
One lesson I learnt was not to multi-task, especially when talking to loved ones. I was having a last conversation with my dad over the phone in the Morrisons in Fort William, while buying my supplies for the week.
Even though only an hour earlier I had reassured the owner that I would bring firelighters to the house as requested, I forgot to do it as I was distracted on the phone while buying my supplies. I only realised this when I arrived at the house, eight miles from the nearest shop.
I felt a duty to fulfil my commitment, especially because it would mean the next person would have to buy them instead and this was my responsibility.
So in the middle of the retreat, I went on a six-hour round trip on foot to Arahacle. Hopefully, it really reinforced in my mind the importance of focusing on speaking and listening without adding a third thing to the mix.
At the start of the walk, I noticed the toenail on my little toe was cutting into the next one along. I broke off some small ferns and wedged them between my toes. That was my Bear Grills moment. What a man. What a survivor. Nothing would stop me, not even a bleeding toe.
After a couple of days I started to settle in and enjoy the experience. It really is a luxury to take away all your responsibilities — no one you need to answer to, reply to, meet up with; no tasks to complete. Such a refreshing contrast to normal life.
On the way back to Fort William, there was only one bus per day, which came at 7.20am. This would mean getting up at 5.30am and then waiting in the town for my sleeper train for 12 hours. I wasn’t up for that, so I decided I’d try to hitch-hike.
Out of the whole experience, this was the bit I was most nervous about. The fear of whether anyone would stop. Might I miss my train and have to buy a new ticket plus a hotel in Fort William? How much would a one-hour taxi be as a backup option? What if my phone was too flat to call one?
It’s funny how the mind dislikes uncertainty but it also quickly bores of the predictability of certainty.
I spent a good while making a nice sign, allowed seven hours for the one-hour journey, and decided my approach would be to smile gently, making sure I wasn’t grinning like a loon. Who wants a grinning loon in their car for an hour?
I was only standing there for 10–15 minutes when I was picked up by Lutz and Sascha, a really friendly, funny, German couple. They told me that they’d take me as far as Glennfinnan, where they were planning to do a one-hour hike to the Harry Potter railway bridge. In the end, I went on the walk with them and we hung out in Fort William until my train.
The universe was smiling on me again!
No upgrade on the way home though. Unfortunately, everyone had been using the toilet to urinate.
It was a hugely valuable experience. Some of my takeaways and reflections were:
- Wild, rugged nature is so beautiful, and I long to be in it more.
- I can be okay by my myself for a week, and that feels liberating.
- I/we can easily take the ones we love most for granted, and therefore neglect them. I want to make sure I invest more time and energy in those relationships.
- I want to simplify my life, and not be always trying to squeeze in one more thing, running late, cutting corners and rushing. This will allow me to be more generous to others too.
- I want to relate to everyone with an unconditional positive attitude, and overcome whatever is getting in the way of that.
- I want to organise a ‘will and funeral’ event, so that my friends and I can spend time thinking about how we want to be remembered.
- 99% of the time I eat because I want pleasure, not because I’m actually hungry, and that’s unnecessary.
- I want to have more baths. They’re so indulgent and relaxing!
- Once again I learnt the lesson that fears are almost always worse in your mind than in reality. This applied to swimming in cold water, being alone and fasting.
- I realised I had no major inner demons to contend with, which hopefully means that I’m living my life in a congruent, positive way. Either that or I’m doing a great job of repressing them!
Because it’s in such a stunning location, and it’s only £26/night, I assumed the place would be constantly booked out, but it’s not. Sara is looking for more guests. So if you fancy some solitude and silence, email her: firstname.lastname@example.org.
It does have two bedrooms and you don’t have be alone, but the intention is for it to be used for retreats rather than holidays.
Let me know if you enjoyed this article or if you’ve got any questions about the experience. Also, please do share it with anyone you think might be interested.