This last weekend was perfect English weather – warm, sunny and dry with little wind – which I spent in a piece of woodland in the South Cambridgeshire countryside on a mindfulness meditation retreat.

I arrived in the late afternoon after driving for a couple of hours feeling curious, quite excited and a bit nervous about what the weekend would be like.  This was something new for me.  I knew only one of the three co-facilitators but no-one else.  I’d be sleeping outside and on my own, and much of the weekend would be silent.  I had come with enough clothing and bedding to survive in the Arctic having learned from previous experience that it can get very cold sitting outside for long periods even when the weather is good.

On arriving I was greeted and offered help transporting my bags into the wood with the aid of a wheelbarrow.  Once inside, I set up my tent which was very quick and easy because, as an unseasoned camper, I had taken the easy option and brought a pop-up tent that even a small child would have been able to put up in seconds.  Having made my little nest look as comfortable as I could, I joined the assembling campers around a fire with cups of tea where we started to introduce ourselves and to form as a group.  In the end there were eleven of us – 3 facilitators and 8 participants, though one person only joined us the next day.  

This piece of woodland, generously made available to us by one of the facilitators, is located among a few arable fields where Jacob’s sheep are grazing – adults with their young lambs so that the sounds of their bleating formed part of the rich auditory backdrop to the weekend.  A few yards into the woodland there is a level grassy clearing, ideal for pitching a tent.  Nearby there are a series of wooden hand-made shelters and structures that are more or less exposed to the elements on the sides and these house the kitchen, a meditation hall, a covered area around a fire, and a more enclosed room (that I discovered on my second night has comfortable futon sofa-beds that feel like heaven after a sleepless night in a tent……..but more of that later).  There is also a permanently erected yurt with a proper bed in it.   Deep in the woodland are showers (hot and cold), a hot tub, plunge pool and large sauna, also compost loos and pee palaces………all in the open air.  There is running water but no electricity so lamps are paraffin while fires are used to heat bodies of water and human bodies, to cook and to clean with.

While the weekend was led and facilitated and had a definite structure and timetable, it was clear from the outset that we would be living as a community for this short period and that we would all have contributions to make to cooking, cleaning, clearing brambles, hawthorn and blackthorn and even just keeping fires burning, and splitting and carrying logs.  We were invited to make ourselves at home in the woods and avail ourselves of all that was so generously on offer while maintaing mindfulness and behaving with consideration and compassion for others.  

We ate our first communal meal around the fire as the sun was going down and the air cooling.  This was one of the few times that eating was a sociable experience during the weekend as most of the time we were silent.  But it felt good to have a chance to get to know my fellow-travellers for the weekend, and break bread together.  We tucked into the most enormous pot of spicy vegetable soup, and it was then that I realised that I would certainly not be suffering from hunger pangs during my stay……….there was enough soup to feed us at every meal if we wanted it.

We did our first sitting meditation to the sound of the evening chorus of songbirds, and their quietening down mirrored my developing mental quietness.  As we finished our meditation the owls in the woods began to call. Supper and meditation segued into more fireside chat and I realised that I was tired and so made my way to my nest while some of the other campers went for a sauna and hot tub soak in the starlight.  In the end I regretted turning in early because my first camping experience of many years turned into a night long battle with my sleeping bag that seemed to be set on tying me in knots and this resulted in my getting very little sleep.  I was therefore relieved when the light began to show through the walls of my little cocoon. I was able to release myself from my little blue cell and get up and out into the dawn and to set about re-kindling the fire to boil a kettle for coffee……….at 5am.

The weekend was both full and empty; it involved a lot of stillness and attention to being rather than doing.  We had sitting meditations guided by different facilitators, also Qi Gong meditation, walking meditation, and mindful working practises.  These punctuated our days.  And then there were times when our silence was temporarily suspended in order to share insights and consider questions.  

Twice we set off on our own to find a solitary space in the woodland and to sit in nature for an hour of sensory immersion in the safe enclosure of the woods.  We returned to the same place on both occasions but as one of the facilitators pointed out in his poem “…that which is here now, was not there then…”  This was not a repeated experience but a continuation of something that had changed: a change that we had also participated in.   We had a chance to express something of what we had encountered after both excursions and we did this in words and/or pictures, followed by a discussion.  Our experiences were  diverse and simultaneously unique and quotidian; personal and universal - both.  

After the second foray into the woods many of us had written some kind of poetry, and we shared this with one another.  But we also sat in Council at this point and spoke one by one as and when we felt impelled to do so……….and from the heart.  This was perhaps the climax of the weekend for me as we opened up to one another and shared often painful and deeply felt realisations and experiences with one another.  It was a time of mutual compassion and gratitude, but also clarity.  We had discussed how the woods themselves, as Nature embodied, was itself the dharma, the teaching.  And it became clear that even in two short hours we had all in our various ways experienced aspects of the wisdom that resides there and is always available if only one pays attention.

In ending this piece, here are the two things I wrote in the woods.  The first I realise now is a haiku, the second started out with me iterating to myself some of the things I had noticed there, and realising that there was a sort of rhythm to this that formed a simple poem.

The nettle spreads its leaves like angel’s wings, and turns its face to the sun.

Butterflies dancing
Spiders spinning
Flies hovering
Songbirds singing

Trees talking
Leaves falling
Twigs touching
Earth crawling

Wind whispering
Sun shining
Ladybugs landing