I’ve recently come back from a silent meditation retreat in Devon at Gaia House with Martin and Gail Aylward. We spent lots of time sitting, and the meditation practice was quite unlike anything I’ve done before – no need to chant my Sanskrit mantra until I’ve obliterated all other thoughts. This was far more gentle and offered the chance of actual insight linked to body.
Over the five days, all 50 of us met with Martin in small groups of eight or so people in what was called a ‘group interview’. Having never done anything like it before, I didn’t really know what would happen.
I was in a room with comfy armchairs in a circle, and oak panelling on the walls. Martin sat cross-legged on an armchair in front of a grand fireplace. I’m slightly in awe of him. He’s wise, incredibly knowledgeable, yet approachable. He’s spent time living with monks in Thailand, yet he’s very at home talking about the realities of Western living.* But he’s got these eyes that make you feel like he’s looking into your being.
“What’s come up for you?” he asked me in the group interview.
I didn’t want everyone looking at me. I hadn’t spoken in three days and now I was confronted with having to talk about my inner thoughts and feelings in front of a group of people who I’d been living around – maybe we’d helped ourselves to the breakfast porridge at the same time, or walked into the meditation hall behind each other. But that was it.
I casually answered, “Oh just mundane stuff really, and thoughts around planning for the future.”
“What else?” I felt those eyes on me.
“Er, songs. I’ve got songs going round in my head. That’s all.” Florence and her machine had been plaguing me for days. I was squirming. I wanted him to move onto the next person.
“What else?” His eyes. I shrugged and squirmed more.
“What about all this embodiment stuff we’ve been talking about?” He pressed further.
My response was short: “I don’t know.” In my head I was wanting him just to gloss over it and not look any deeper. But he wasn’t having any of it.
He sighed. “Ok, how do you feel right now in your body?”
I paid attention to the sensations. I was sitting in an armchair, one sole of foot pressed into the seat and my hands tightly gripped the bent knee. I noticed an incredible heat in my body and I was actually sweating. All my muscles everywhere felt engaged. I could not move.
I told him all this, and as I told him, my body physically released and relaxed.
“How do you feel now?” he asked. I replied that I felt calm.
“THAT’s what you need to work on!” he exclaimed, pointing his index finger at me. And he moved onto the next person.
Some people cried as they talked about their fears and anxieties and people slid a box of tissues across the floor to the next person. And you know what? It was all ok.
But after that point, for the rest of the retreat, I was able to go deeper in my meditation. I was more attuned to sensations in my body.
It’s weird because when I’m on my mat practicing, I’m able to notice more. I find it easier (‘easier’ not ‘easy’) to observe the tension and soften.
But when we’re under pressure, when we get caught up in our thoughts, it can all go out of the window. And that’s when we need it the most! I was transported back to school and being scared to speak in class in case I said the ‘wrong’ thing. It’s fear and it manifests as anxiety. We contract around our experience.
Since returning home a week ago, I’ve found it challenging. I’ve felt overwhelmed by all the communication – emails, voicemails, whatsapp messages, texts, TV, radio, speaking and listening… but I’m trying to notice how that contraction manifests in my physical body and seeking to soften.
I would recommend everyone looks up Martin Aylward and I’d love to spend time again next year with him and Gail at Gaia House. There I go again – planning for the future…
*My favourite retreat moment was when, during a talk with Martin in the main hall, a phone sounded the arrival of a text. Phones aren’t encouraged at Gaia House. Martin stopped mid-sentence, reached inside his pocket, pulled out his iPhone and looked at the screen. “It’s a text from my son,” he announced to us all, smiling. His wife Gail, sitting to one side, looked down at her lap and stifled a giggle.