Monthly Archives: February 2016

Dhanakosa: My Buddhist Retreat

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For much of my adult life, holidays have symbolised the chance to completely forget myself. To play at being a different person, in a brand new place. These holidays gave permission to over indulge, eat large amounts of burgers, stay up really late and to drink, a LOT. These holidays almost always meant you needed another holiday afterwards, and even though I had a whale of a time with my best friends bouncing around town in a vodka-fueled craze and waking up in strange places, I desperately needed something else.

I was having a very hard time in a new job, navigating life in an expensive grey London, and feeling totally underwhelmed by adult life. I needed to get away from everything and everyone. But I didn’t want to lose myself this time, I wanted to take a big hard look at myself without the vodka goggles.

So after a lot of anxious Google searching for a utopia away from the city, I booked a place on a ‘Mediation and Hillwalking’ retreat at Dhanakosa, a Triratna Buddhist Centre located in the beautiful Trossachs National Park in Scotland.

I was apprehensive and a bit nervous on the train journey North, who would I be sharing a room with for the next 7 days? What if the food is terrible? What if I don’t know enough about Buddhism? What if my walking boots fall apart? (They are ancient and belong to my Mum.) But somehow I allowed myself to float through the negative chatter, mindfully breathing every time I felt the urge to hop off the train and turn back.

I am so glad I didn’t turn back. I can safely say that my decision to take myself off to Dhanakosa was one of the best decisions of my life. First of all it is in an overwhelmingly beautiful setting. The house is a big old white hotel overlooking a huge Loch where you can swim and spot otters, it has a garden with apple and silver birch trees, and up high behind the house is a babbling waterfall where great mounds of moss reside next to an incredibly magical wooded area. I found my utopia!

The meadow and Loch in front of Dhanakosa
The meadow and Loch in front of Dhanakosa

The morning bell rang at 7am for meditation, followed by a hearty breakfast of porridge or cereal and toast – a routine I found strangely comforting and surprisingly natural. (I am NOT a morning person, and 7am is most certainly not a time I like to see.) There would be more guided meditation in the afternoon and evening in the converted barn, where a golden Buddha sat surrounded by candles and fresh flowers.

Meditation is not easy, it has been said that if you want an easy life – do not meditate. It takes practise, patience and time. But the teachers at Dhanakosa led very simple guided meditations, offering an anonymous question and answer session for the group to ask anything about the world of meditation, they even went as far as leading a session on how to straddle a cushion. The latter was the most fun.

Every other day we ventured out into the wilderness on long hikes, often walking in silence, and we were encouraged to imagine ourselves as part of the landscape – instead of being a spectator. This was a simple yet powerful sentiment which I relished with gusto. We found glens fit for fairy kingdoms, drank from streams and awed at the breathtaking mountains of Scotland.

Waterfall!

My fellow retreaters were a mix of all ages, nationalities and sexes and there was an amazing level of kindness and compassion among the group, I quickly felt at ease. After being hardened by life in a big city, it felt like coming home.

I came away feeling incredibly calm and for the first time in ages I felt healthy and balanced. It taught me to revel in silence, to trust myself and my instincts and gave me the confidence and patience I needed to meditate.

Going on retreat is something I want to do every year, it provides the time with yourself away from the pressures of modern life, or the chatter of your mobile phone and TV. Although disconnecting can be the hardest part, it is so worth it. I felt closer and kinder to myself than ever before. So now instead of losing myself on holidays – I find it much more interesting to take a big long sober look inside my mind, near a forest, with copious helpings of vegan curry and the odd otter.

The misty Loch early in the morning
The misty Loch early in the morning
Swimming in the freezing Loch, so worth it for the tingly feeling aftwerwards!
Swimming in the freezing Loch, so worth it for the tingly feeling aftwerwards!
One of the many bubbling streams on our long hikes
One of the many bubbling streams on our long hikes

Annie x

 

From Under the Duvet Tent

I had been sent home from work in a ball of tears and I had made myself a duvet tent. Duvet tents are great, they are warm and nobody can see you. But I knew I couldn’t stay under my delicious duvet tent forever, my flatmates would be home soon and I had a chicken kiev in the fridge that needed eating. I also knew that I had missed the (very small) booking window for a doctors appointment that day. Though I needed to speak to somebody professional, so I called Mind. 

What happened next was a conversation with a very straightforward, no-nonsense lady. That conversation might have saved my life. I blubbed and I blubbed, she didn’t falter because this was OK. It was good to cry and it was brave of me to call. I had made the first step, she said.

Months later it was through Mind that I learned the art of Mindfulness. I count this as a crucial moment in my recovery.

My stomach churned and hands sweated as I waited in the reception of Hackney & City Mind for the first session. I was very close to running out of the door as my all too familiar fight or flight instinct kicked in. ‘I don’t have to put myself through any more embarrassment, I can leave’ I thought. I just couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting in a room full of strangers, discussing my mental health. I really needed the comfortable solitary confinement of my duvet tent.

But as the first session wore on and I got to know my classmates, I felt a lifting sense of relief, and my crushing loneliness began to dissipate. Although I felt exposed and still a little nervous, I actually felt normal for the first time in ages. The notion that there were other people in the same room dealing with anxiety or other mental health conditions whilst holding down jobs, families, and busy lives in London was the comfort that I needed.

Over the next 8 weeks, as a small group, we learned to be mindful together. Gwen Williams, our teacher, was calm and self-assured and she would take a silent moment to ‘gather her thoughts’ when she needed. I had never seen anyone do this before, to literally stop, close their eyes and compose themselves in front of people. This left a lasting impression on me and gave way  to my own ‘moments to gather’ which I use whenever I feel jumbled or overwhelmed by pressure. This is about self-worth, the permission to take a pause, even if people are waiting on you.

Gwen taught me to breathe. The biggest anchor us humans have in connecting with ourselves and with the present moment. I was (and still am) a terror for running away with my thoughts, my mind on an endless stream of vivid imaginings of painful experiences, or situations going terribly wrong. But Gwen taught me to catch myself, to wake up, and to look at my thoughts objectively – like passing clouds – instead of getting bogged down in what I call one of my ‘epic thought films of despair.’

You are not your thoughts, thoughts are passing guests in your guest house. This notion works for me. If I could get away with having it tattooed on my forehead I would.

Mindfulness has given me permission to enjoy life thoroughly. It is OK to stop, to sit quietly and to breathe. In fact, for me it is essential.

Have you ever sat down to your dinner mindfully? Focusing completely on the aroma,  the texture, the multitude of flavours, the way they dance on your tongue? I dare you – it is mind blowing.

Thanks to Gwen, and to Mind who made this free class possible, and for teaching such a brilliant life-saving skill.

Annie x

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The Taming of the Dog

They say you need to be settled down to own a dog. You need to have bags of time and money, a home with no sharp edges and a garden where it can poo. I was given my dog when I had none of these things.

I dreaded Maths on a Monday, I worried I wouldn’t make friends at Brownies, I worried about my Mum having a car crash on the way home from Sainsbury’s, and about making conversation with my teacher as she drove me to school. I was gnawingly anxious that underneath my gingham school dress I was wearing a Country Companions vest while my friends were all in training bras. On bad days, I worried that my entire family would die and I would be homeless. You might have called me ’a bit of a worrier,’ and you might think It’s all a little bit dramatic. But this is all very real for someone who has what I like to call an ’apocalyptic view of the world.’
My dog was tiny at first, and sort of manageable. I got used to having it around, it had been there since my mum dropped me off at the creche. But as I grew, it grew too. As I became an adult It became so big that people couldn’t see me anymore. It sapped my energy with its demands for attention – and there was absolutely no room for anything or anyone else in my life. When I was 23 it left me hopelessly looking for a way out in a messy heap on the kitchen floor, staring at the bubbling brown plastic lino.
The peculiar thing about my dog though, is that it isn’t always big and suffocating. Yes, I have days when it’s alarmingly larger than the day before, it makes me dizzy and my words get jumbled. But more often than not it is small and discreet and we can exist quite happily together. In fact, I need the dog sometimes. We all need some anxiety, some worrying thoughts and some stresses to stayed switched on to life and to physically go forward. So through a lot of trial, error and therapy, I have learnt a pack of survival techniques to keep this over-anxious dog at a manageable puppy size, and snoozing in the corner.
My biggest lifeline during my darkest moments has been writing. Under my bed I have notebook upon notebook of anxious scribblings, mythical stories about magic, diary extracts and silly poems. I’ve written about all sorts to stop my mind ruminating or running on a never ending chain of unhelpful thoughts. None of these notes have seen the light of day. But during the recovery of my most recent depressive episode spurred on by months of writhing anxiety in my abdomen and broken sleep, I decided to create something positive out of a big fat negative. I decided to get my writing out into the open and I decided to create this blog.
It is going to be simple. I am going to write openly and honestly about this condition, and I am going to record the things in my life that help keep the dog in the corner. I might write a comedy sketch about a conversation, or about an uplifting song, an experience, a recipe, a particularly helpful meditation practice or a place. I want to join the conversation about mental well being, a conversation that is thankfully getting louder. I am one of over 8 million anxiety sufferers in the UK, that’s an enormous number of anxious dogs. That makes this conversation a conversation worth having.

Anxious Annie.

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