Alone on the mountain

I used to write a regular column for the Independent Education Plus. During the summer they had a different column called ‘Summertime Views’ and invited me to write about what I did in the summer of 1997. This is my contribution – a solitary retreat in the Welsh mountains.

Imagine spending five days entirely on your own in a remote Welsh farmhouse – no gas, electricity or phone; no radio, television or newspapers; just you, the stone walls and the sheep. That is what I did this summer.

I had been wanting to undertake a solitary retreat for years. I was inspired by stories of mystics and hermits through the ages who have meditated in mountain caves for years on end, finally understanding the nature of mind and seeing through all illusion. Did they really? What could this possibly mean?

I had also been on many organised Zen retreats in that same farmhouse. These are a fearsome undertaking. Up at 4 a.m., usually in the cold and dark, there follows an unrelenting round of half hour meditation periods with brief breaks for exercises, simple meals, and instructions from the Master. There is no talking, no conversation, you are not even supposed to look at the other people. The work period of chopping vegetables or cleaning the toilets, might be something to look forward to, only you are supposed to be practising being in the present moment. And in the present there is usually just you and a patch of blank wall.

The trouble is the wall doesn’t stay blank. You find that every worry, obsession, hope, fear and stupid self-recrimination, is there with you. As one teacher put it “There’s only you and the wall – and the wall isn’t doing it”. You find out a lot about “you”.

But something has always worried me about these retreats. It is not so much the religious connotations; the occasional chanting of ancient texts or banging of gongs – but the comparison with brain-washing. There you are, isolated from the outside world, unable to talk to others, suffering sensory deprivation and sleep deprivation, and in the power of a guru. I did want to meditate and explore the nature of mind, but was I just being sucked into a cult?

I had to go it alone. On my own there would be no sleep deprivation, no admiration of the Master, and no group of devotees to compare my progress with. I would simply sit and ask my questions in peace. Or would I?

I drove up the long tracks through the fields of sheep closing each gate firmly behind me. I found my mattress on the floor and a candle; a mat and a cushion for meditation. I put my groceries in the old-fashioned food-safe out of reach of the mice, and my milk in the stream to keep cool (ish). I put coal in the Rayburn and hoped I would manage the cooking. Then there was nothing to do but sit.

I gave myself a simple routine; about 6 hours of meditation each day, broken up by walks, making my meals with the increasingly soggy vegetables and fizzy yoghurt, and pulling up stinging nettles. The first night I was somewhat disconcerted to realise that short of padlocking the front door and climbing back in through a window, there was no way of locking the house, so I left it open. Remembering those mystics in their caves helped.

Then there was the nasty scrabbling noise one day when I was meditating. “Let all thoughts go – just a noise – it could just be mice – don’t elaborate”. But an enormous crash eventually persuaded me downstairs to find a saucepan on the floor and a half chewed apple by the open door. The enthusiastic squirrel refused to leave until the last morning when I had to chase it out with loud shrieks and a broom. It was the only time I spoke for five days, unless you count my occasional greetings to the sheep.

I practised calming the mind and paying attention to everything equally. “One-pointed attention” just does take an awful lot of practice and at least I had a few days. I worked hard to (as the tradition has it) disengage from automatic responses and look at the mental continuum unfogged by reaction. I could then use this gradually improving attention to tackle a new question every few hours – “Who is watching?” “How do thoughts arise within tranquillity?” or “Is the awareness that looks into these matters separate from them?”

I didn’t exactly get answers, but then that was not the point. Our usual academic, frantic lives are all about “getting” things, “gaining” understanding, “acquiring” fame or publications. This was all about letting go and looking, learning to see the mind for what it is. I do not believe we can fully understand the mind just from the outside. We need to look directly from the inside as well. I am sure my five days were well spent even though I “gained” nothing.

Keeping the ancient Rayburn going for hot water was always a challenge, as was keepong the mice out of the food.