Who wouldn’t be happy to (briefly) give up TV, shops, gym, coffee bars, or easy access to central London’s vast public transport network (and even the 55 bus!), in exchange for three days of relative seclusion in magnificent surroundings, with yoga, woodland rambles, glorious vegetarian food and – last but by no means least – the sheer unadulterated freedom to romp around a huge country mansion and historic estate in South Wales with total impunity.
My noble decision to relinquish the TV Food Channel for three whole days (and nights) was made a lot easier by the irresistible appeal of Buckland’s colourfully varied full-board menu. But was it actually the promise of an all-day unlimited and (guilt-free) supply of biscuits that really swayed the balance?
What other bit of added incentive do you need to go on a spiritual retreat?
So swapping concrete city-centre life (in the short-term at least) for something a bit more pastoral and recuperative will also inevitably mean having to fall asleep to the near-blank silence of the countryside.
From Urban Grunge to Manicured Lawns
This could, potentially, come as a bit of a culture-shock – a challenge even – particularly if your personal (urban) definition of ‘sleep-inducing’ is based more on background noise levels like those whipped up by the reverberation of Metropolitan police-sirens careering around your ‘hood’ (post-code) as they take directions from a police-helicopter that just so happens to be hovering directly above your own roof.
Believe it or not, this type of thing really can send you off to sleep, but only if you are used to it.
And if the occasional chartered flight passing overhead has a proven soporific track-record in your world, then rustic stillness might, in contrast, seem a little more intrusive…
But, out here in the Brecon Beacons vicinity, a packed retreat schedule, comprising country walks, various talks, activities and mantra meditation – plus, of course, the sudden switch from stale E2 pollution to the more rarefied atmosphere of LD3 (fresh air!) – might well significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the need for ambient traffic noise as a sleep-aid.
As our first day at Buckland Hall draws to a close after a substantial three-course supper, I don’t, in surveying the surrounding dusky landscape, expect this very scrumptious portion of countryside idyll to be fragmented by any night-time disturbances.
There Goes the Sun
But while a solid enough piece of peace is precisely what we came here for, too thick a slice of bucolic silence could prove difficult to digest.
As the setting sun nestles into the horizon, the only garnishes peppering the westward skies are reflections of Buckland’s crystal chandeliers left delicately poised up there on the Hall’s own window-panes.
Nothing in the Sky but Diamonds
So the firmament looks clear, but what kind of commotion, if any, can we expect at ground level? Well, JRR Tolkien (who made Buckland residence of the strange Buckleberries and the childhood home of Frodo Baggins in his ‘Lord of the Rings’) famously wrote:
“Trees do not like strangers. They watch you. They are usually content merely to watch you, as long as daylight lasts, and don’t do much…..But at night things can be most alarming….”
However, even such vivid flights of fantasy are hardly going to bring sirens piling over to Buckland, or have rotor-blades circling around the estate in the small hours.
No Real Threat (even after dark)
And any indoor disturbances are likely to be of a very minor nature….
Poppadoms – (Things that go Crunch in the Night)
As day gives way to night, the darkness brings with it a wind robust enough to bang and rattle any windows left akimbo as it weaves its frantic way around Buckland Hall’s exterior.
Fortunately, this wild whistling is sufficiently reminiscent of a fairly forceful windstorm short-cutting its way through a fourth-floor East End balcony for me to essentially tune it out – allowing the day to slowly but surely fade away….
Less so for retreat facilitator Radha Govinda das, who, in assuming a more responsible stance, can’t be entirely sure that any random knocking doesn’t mean a couple of retreat participants who may (or may not) have chosen to (mildly) stray away aren’t locked out of the Hall and possibly trying to get back in. (NB As it turns out, they are absolutely fine, and loving the retreat.)
Despite Buckland’s very sturdy walls, this is not the most restful of nights for absolutely everyone in here.
On the plus side, the resident dawn chorus is far sweeter and much more melodic than the cacophonous morning-refrains of all those inner-city pigeons dwelling in our capital, (mainly E2), which, even at the best of times, could barely be described as ‘song’…
Especially not when you know that every five minutes’ worth of discordant coo-and- bustle you have to put up with is going to mean at least one whole minute necessarily spent with a scrubbing brush. (Why do they all insist on coming up to the fourth floor?) Unlike that of Buckland Hall, the bird-song of Bethnal Green (E2) is not exactly the stuff of poetry.
That is one early-morning sound I’m very happy to forego as I make my way to morning yoga practice. (I did not come here to scrub.)
The sun is up and, as the estate once more comes to serene life, Radha Govinda tells us how to not let the inevitable sounds of the world waking up, both in and outside the manor, disturb our pre-breakfast meditation. Perceive the noise, he says, but don’t try and forcibly shut it out to clear your mind. Nor should you attempt to analyse or put it into any context. Do catch that sound, but immediately let go of it.
Simply accept interruptions like these as part of your environment.
So far, so good, but that’s purely external noise – then what about the biggest ‘hullaballoo’ of all – those persistent inner ruminations? Well, you can apply much the same principle in merely observing those obtrusive thoughts, which – come hell or high water – will surely arise in all of us. If you can just allow them to pass unchallenged, then you won’t be lured into following them.
Radha Govinda suggests we think of those inevitable ‘pop-up’ thoughts as metaphorical traffic vehicles.
So that all-too-familiar ‘worry’ bus (the 55 no doubt!) is bound to turn up sooner or later, but, (today!) you do have a choice not to board it. Simply wave it off and let it continue along its route. And don’t even think about chasing after it when it’s already long gone past your stop.
But busses, as we know too well, often come in twos and threes, usually after a longish interval of none at all. Do not be tempted to hop on any of them through the back door.
Do not seek to hitch a ride on the powerful ‘anger’ motor-bike, however impressive its engine – just give it enough leeway to go revving off again. (It’s not the safest mode of transport anyway, so why would you even want to be seen on the back seat of that?)
If that really clapped-out old stress-van rolls up, don’t prise open its battered doors to clamber in the back. You so don’t want to know what’s in there, and you certainly aren’t going to need any of that old junk.
And don’t ever get yourself high-jacked by the massive jumbo-jet of jealousy. Any turbulence will only turn you green. (That’s not a good look.)
So just let those traffic-thoughts rumble off, and, above all, don’t try to face them head-on in what can only ever be a futile endeavour to stop them in their own tracks.
After all, you can’t stop the mind, it was made to think.
Calmly survey all of these vehicles from the detachment of your own seated vantage point, as they persistently attempt not only to deliver your emotional baggage to you, but to drop it off right in front of your nose.
If you give these various means of transport a wide enough berth, you’ll – hopefully – remain untouched.
A final word of warning – NEVER fall asleep on a train (or indeed during meditation). When you wake, you probably won’t know where (or who) you are.
As I already (kind of) manage not to consciously take on board a lot of everyday downtown circulation noise, I should, in theory at least, be able to employ that same technique in dealing with the busy traffic of an often restless mind. But I suspect it will take a bit of time to master.
So for now, let’s just get out there and soak up the therapeutic sounds of nature.
The Sounds of Middle Earth?
A refreshing country walk, followed by an evening around a glowing fire with warming mantra meditation and beautiful live spiritual music, nicely prepares everyone for some restorative slumber, and, for now at least, last night’s gusty wind seems to have moved on.
So, as night-time gathers, have those blustery currents really left nothing but stillness in their wake? Let’s just wait and listen….
Just as I am finally ready to leave the day behind, I become (all-too) aware of a muted background hiss that sounds not unlike the low-key whisper of pipework, and which, rather than masking the very real resonance of silence in my single room, serves to only underpin it. It’s the fact that this murmur is so very faint that really bothers me.
If it goes on like this, it could take another full night to get used to.
Where, oh where, are those police-helicopters and sirens when, for once, you actually need them?