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 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.
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.