I’m sitting on the step of a multicoloured, ancient climbing frame in the garden. A young vervet monkey watches me carefully. As he sits atop a hibiscus bush, he is, one by one, systematically ridding it of its glorious pink flowers. He watched me for a while, his intelligent eyes only pretending to be alarmed. I turned my head on its side and he copied, turning his head upside down. I laugh and he leaps closer, amused at his new companion, who has been driven to talking to monkeys.
On a Friday afternoon, after a particularly frantic week at work, I left for Manyika House, near Thika, for my annual silent retreat. 60km north of Nairobi, Thika is an industrial town best known for the peculiar mix of ‘The Flame Trees of Thika’ (the 1959 book by Elspeth Huxley), and Delmonte fruit juice.
Just over an hour from Nairobi, the road narrows and you take a left, away from the noisy highway.
Passing a new housing estate, you head up into the coffee plantations which surround Manyika House. The red dust from the murram road swirls around us and settles on the bushes on either side. Once inside the gate, a beautiful brick house with a pillared veranda welcomes us. Unchanged since it was built in the 30s, it is impossible not to brought right back to Huxley’s day, of horses stomping and leopards stalking. The house sits like a proud island in the middle of a sea of green and, beyond the hedge, plantations stretch before you, eventually turning into dark forest. On a clear morning you can see Mount Kenya’s jagged peak, a pinnacle among the flat land. A path runs around the house and leads off in different directions: to a table and umbrella, to outdoor sofas, to bananas growing, which end up on our breakfast table.
Our host for the weekend, Eva, greets us in the garden. Eva is a tall, smiley Dutch woman who has been running these weekends for a few years. She eludes a sense of calm and peace which perfectly matches the serenity of the environment. The group of ten women (all bar one are expats) politely say hello to each other and ask the standard Nairobi question: ‘how long have you been here?’. In our weekend bags we’ve packed leggings, yoga mats and warm jumpers. No make up required or heels required! We drink herbal tea on the veranda and discuss the plan for the weekend. After Eva rings the bell, we shall be in total silence. We cannot use the internet, check our phones, listen to music or read. We can’t have any ‘inputs’, but our ‘outputs’ are unrestricted. We can write, paint, draw or do yoga. But, she says, most people simply choose to nap and rest between sessions. Our time here will follow a timetable of meditation, yoga and eating wholesome vegetarian food. The first session will start at 6.45am on Saturday, the next session at 12.15pm and finally 5pm for two meditations and some yoga.
The weekend is designed to help people get away from the stress of daily life. Constant messaging, Facebook updates, 24 hour news and unrelenting conversations (both virtual and real) are taking their toll on people’s well being, leaving them feeling drained and pulled in different directions. I know that I can’t get peace at work but I don’t help myself in my free time: I read in the bath, listen to the radio in the shower, check the news whilst queuing and text while I stir the onions. And I know I am not alone. Overstimulation probably forms part of the reason why every single guest cities exhaustion as a reason for coming: the brain can only take so much. But, as well as de-connecting from the world, most guests say they want to reconnect with themselves. To help with this, Eva provides us with a list of questions to reflect on. If you had a magic-wand, what would you change in your life? What will people say at your funeral? The idea is, for one weekend, to stop looking out, and look in. Think about your life. Are you where you want to be? What gives you the most joy?
We eat supper in the cosy lounge, nervously waiting for the silence to begin. Some guests call their husbands to check on their children before phones go off and others have a last look at Facebook. At 8.30pm, Eva pulls up a cushion in the centre of the room and gets our attention. She checks one more time that everyone is comfortable to go ahead with the silence and we look around nervously. Nobody speaks. Eva smiles and solemnly taps on a singing bowl three times. Here we go.
The guests disappear onto the veranda, some start to write and others close their eyes. I take myself off to bed and sleep deeply until 6.15am, when Eva rings the bell to rouse us for the first meditation. I ignore it and turn over. It’s still a Saturday, after all.
While the rest of the group is outside, I help myself to a breakfast of fruit, homemade granola and a steaming pancake. Usually when I eat alone I would check emails, read the news and look at Facebook. All at the same time. To have these inputs and distractions unavailable means that, for once, I can actually relax. I eat slower. I sit up straighter. I enjoy what I am eating. Thoughts flitter through my mind and I allow myself to reflect on them. After breakfast I walk through the garden and look for birds and the two tortoises. I feed flowers to a grateful rabbit and watch the chickens scratch the dusty earth. The other guests are enjoying the peace, too. One lies on her belly in the shade, dozing, while another is sketching. When the participants pass in corridors or in the breakfast room, we cautiously smile and pass by.
An excellent massage on the veranda breaks up the morning. Expert thumbs hitting knots and sore spots made my eyes water, causing Eva to stroke my face and whisper earnestly, ‘if you need to cry, just cry’. I wonder if she has lots of people breaking down on her. The midday meditation, Love &. Kindness, was a beautiful, relaxing forty five minutes. We sit under the jacaranda tree and watch dozens of tiny sun birds dance in the blossom up above. Concentrating on our breathing we send love to ourselves, loved ones, strangers and, finally, the world.
For our final session of the day we bring out scarves and blankets, gathering under an enormous tree at the far end of the garden. A breath medication is followed by a walking meditation, where everyone looks slightly mad, walking in different directions at a snail’s pace. The idea is to concentrate on the actions that form the parts of a step. For example, my ankle is lifting, my foot is going up, my foot is coming down, the balls of my feet are on the grass, my heel is on the grass. When you hear something, rather than let it distract or annoy you, say ‘I am hearing, I am hearing’. Respond to a worry with ‘I am thinking, I am thinking’. It helps to slow down the brain and bring it into the present. Some simple yoga ended the session and we collected our mats and retreated to the house, where the fire was already roaring. Another delicious supper was served (this time tomato and olive pie) and we watched the flames flicker, everyone in their own thoughts.
Sunday morning, the final day, arrives all too soon. I sit and eat my breakfast on the veranda, listening to the birds. Already thoughts of work are encroaching. I try to push them out of my mind, at least until I’m home. Another relaxing massage mid morning sends me to sleep on the sofa for an hour, dozing off listening to the last embers of this morning’s fire cracking. The bell wakes me with a jolt. Time for our second Love & Kindness meditation. Again, we relax under the jacaranda tree. Shortly after we begin, a tortoise decides he needs to send out some loving kindness, too. He meanders between the group and brushes past our mats in his search of fallen jacaranda flowers. Fatefully distracted, I watch him trundle around, his sweet little face perfectly visible from the ground: I swear he is smiling as he stomps. I don’t send out much love and kindness in this session. Unless you count the tortoise of course, who had handfuls of his favourite lilac flowers fed to him.
At 4pm we hear the ring of the bell one more time and our silence comes to a close. We tentatively share our experiences of the weekend with the group. While everyone’s experience has been a personal one, we talk about ‘rebooting’ and resting our minds. Some women have answered the contemplation questions given out by Eva, others have slept for almost the entire weekend, only waking up for meals. Others have finally had a chance to make a decision on an undisclosed dilemma that has been looming over them.
This article has not been easy to write. How do you capture a sense of peace? How do you detail a day when the most exciting thing that might happen in an afternoon is a game with a monkey? How can I explain the sense of relaxation that fell onto all of us at 9pm on Friday, and took days to fade? The truth is, I can’t, not really. Unless experienced, the idea of a silent retreat will always be a strange one. But it is very much worth trying, at least once. A weekend of doing nothing, and saying nothing, without any guilt or judgement, is exactly what we need to cope with the stress and pace of our lives. A weekend of silent reflection and relaxation leaves you with a sense of well being and calm that is impossible to attain in daily life. Slowly, the mind comes back to life.