It’s not what you do it’s the way that you do it by Christina Surawy
As a mindfulness teacher and trainer I have attended several in person retreats. The chance to go away and leave the normal routine behind, go to a beautiful setting, with like-minded people and be inspired and nourished by wise words and ample opportunities for silent practice, has always been an enormous resource for me and a precious time to develop my practice and understanding.
So I was sceptical. The idea of a 5-day online retreat where I was at home, with a young dog, with 3 other members of the family, unstable internet at times, and without the possibility of what I thought of as the necessary context, was of course classed in my mind as obviously ‘second best’. I had begun such a retreat last year and it had been interrupted almost before it had started by a powerful and untimely reaction to a hornet sting. That didn’t help my confidence!
However, I knew that the pandemic had been taking its toll and I was tired and in need of something for me. I had been sharing my feelings with a friend and colleague who suggested I come to one he was organizing and attending, which would be held by a teacher I had met before and liked. So I signed up. I got the schedule in advance and started to feel more hopeful. It was not jam-packed with endless zoom time, but spacious, with periods of several hours away from the screen each day. I thought I could juggle things so that somehow my life could continue without making it really hard for others to support me. We had two hour lunch periods, one and a half hours for dinner, lots of walking practice and the day finished after the evening talk at 8.30pm. The theme was ‘Deepening Mindfulness Practice’ and the main content was based around the 4 foundations of mindfulness. In other words, mindfulness of body, feeling tone, mind and supporting factors (such as joy). I noticed some disappointment. These were all very familiar. What would I learn, especially in this kind of setting?
From the beginning, my doubts began to lift. The teacher expressed his enthusiasm for teaching online! Not second best but different and interesting and a wonderful way of exploring this teaching and our practice in the very place which is so familiar, our home. How might we weave mindfulness into our daily life, and our interactions with others? Actually, how often do we get such an opportunity to spend this amount of time bringing this teaching into our home and family and practicing for these longer periods of time? My family were so helpful. They didn’t talk to me when I was sitting, walking, making coffee, at times when I was clearly in silence. I shut myself in the living room for chunks of the day. But we did talk – at lunchtimes, at dinner and if something came up that needed sorting out or doing. It was the natural thing to do, and the communication felt better, more aware, and kinder. I took the dog for walks sometimes instead of a sitting practice, as that was when he needed it, and sat when the schedule was for walking. Our teacher emphasized a ‘kind discipline’, not beating ourselves up if life with its usual demands needed our attention because we weren’t sticking to the schedule, but bringing awareness to whatever we are doing. ‘It’s not what you do it’s the way that you do it’. Isn’t that what this is all about anyway?
My feelings of warmth towards others and myself began to re-emerge. Emotions just beneath the surface had room to express themselves and be contained in this remarkable space which somehow extended beyond the screen. I looked forward to seeing the other people in the group for the evening talk. I valued hearing what they were learning. We were all in this together and that felt important. As one person said, we were experiencing ‘intimacy online’
Of course, it’s not always easy and retreats can bring up difficult things. At times I experienced some struggles, but I found it interesting that the structure of the retreat was as much of a container online as I have experienced in person. The small groups met twice over the 5 days and there was a feeling of support and understanding. We ended the retreat with a collective expression of gratitude and even joy.
So while I would still go to beautiful places, with like-minded people and experience the luxury and depth that time away from the usual distractions of life affords, I would also now make time for the rare opportunity of being here, on zoom.
Dr Christina Surawy is the current Director of the Master of Studies in MBCT (Department of Continuing Education, University of Oxford in collaboration with the Department of Psychiatry University of Oxford and Oxford Mindfulness Centre). Christina is also a senior MBCT teacher and trainer with the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, working in the UK and internationally.
**Conflicts of interest:**
The OMC provides retreats for mindfulness practitioners and teachers. This retreat was not an OMC retreat.