A Silent retreat at Manyika house

I have been organizing silent retreats at Manyika house for many years now. I received this beautifully written article by a former participant who I think managed to capture the feel of a silent retreat perfectly. Thanks a lot Kate!
Manyika House

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.

Meditation session

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.

Are you leading your life or is your life leading you?

This week I realized something: I’m very happy with the outline of my life, the work I do, the people I spend my life with, my meditation practice…but I do not always feel happy and fulfilled in the moments ‘in between’, I often feel I’m not in charge of those moments but just drift away in them…

When I look at my schedule for the day, at first glance there seems to be such little time where I am not occupied with something…anything. Occupied meaning waking up, dressing and feeding children, preparing and cooking breakfasts, snacks, lunches and dinners for five people, taking children to and from school, giving training, doing one-on-one coaching, giving massages, posting something on my livinglifewithattention facebook page, checking emails, advertising my services etc etc, all the usual and unusual, errands and emergecies that one is dealing with during a day…

I am always looking and longing for the empty spots where I can ‘do what I really want to do’ in between all this.

Sometimes, an empty spot like that suddenly shows up and when that happens I first get really excited about all the possibilities that now open up for me…and than…I kind of panic because I don’t know what would be the best, nicest, most wonderful thing to do during those precious empty hours that are all mine and all up to me to fill.

So I crawl behind my computer or smart phone and go on facebook, or I check my email over and over again, I do more advertising that is useful but not necessary at that exact moment and before I know it, those very precious hours in which I could have done wonderful, fulfilling things have past already and it’s time again to get the children from school, work with a client or start cooking…

And each time this happens I really feel I let the time slip away, that I missed out on an opportunity to be engaged in something I actually would have enjoyed and feel good about. And the point is: it is not just a feeling, it’s true!

I, we all, spend so much time being busy being busy, that we miss out on doing things that mean something to us, that leave us fullfilled and satisfied and that could actually make a difference in our day or even in the broader context of our lives and the path we are walking.

I, and I’m sure you as well, have many ideas about what I ‘really want to do’ in my empty hours. But unless I bring these ideas to the forefront of my head and attention they easily fade away in those moments when I need them to be present and alive.

So to this end (to make them present and alive!) I sat down yesterday evening. In my bed, with my journal and pen. I purposefully left my telephone downstairs so that I couldn’t get tempted to check facebook in between journalling, and wrote a list of things I want to do when I have ‘spare’ hours. Nothing extreme, just things like reading a good book, studying my doula studie books, cleaning out closets and cupboards, doing meditation, yoga or going for a swim or walk, or writing a blog for my website..

And so I started today, after and before my ‘must do’s’ I found 1,5 hours where I went into the garden with a nicely made caffe latte and read a book and than sat down to write this blog. I feel happy, fulfilled and feel I used my time in a way I wanted to use it.

The key is, I had to be mindful about where I deliberately wanted to focus my attention and than started acting on it it instead of letting myself drifting away in the easy social media distraction…

If you don’t know your focus, choose your focus and lead yourself through your day, your day will be leading you instead. Ultimately all those lost moments and days will add up until you realize that life is leading you instead of you directing and creating your own life.

So..Do you lead your life or is your life leading you? Do you live, or do you exist? Do you choose and focus or do you drift of in distractions?

“I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.”
― Jack London

Follow my facebook page!

This is not a regular post but a special message for my followers! About a month ago I’ve started a facebook page where I regularly post simple and practical mindfulness exercises that can help you integrate mindfulness in your day to day life. I usually create the exercise based on an experience I had that day that somehow caught my attention, sometimes negative, sometimes positive but that I always try to transform in an experience that grows and develops my own practice. Having this facebook page is a wonderful way to reinforce mindfulness in my own life, stimulate my creativity and reach out to other mindfulness practicioners at the same time!

Since my mindfulness community is growing and extending to all corners of the world, I’ve also decided to start e-coaching using skype in March 2014. A new adventure I’m very excited about and much looking forward to! So if you’re interested in doing mindfulness coaching or passion coaching with me, please let me know and we’ll start the journey together!

The address of my mindfulness facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/livinglifewithattention

If you go there and ‘like’ the page you will automatically receive new exercises and updates on your own facebook page. Hope to see you there!

10,000 hours towards enlightenment

Some few weeks ago I was contemplating how I could bring my meditation practice to a new level. During one of my mindfulness training sessions I came to talk about the first few months after I did my first long retreat in Thailand. During those 42 days I had been meditating around 10 hours a day while at the same time not giving myself any input. So no reading, no listening to music, and a few weeks of no speaking at all.

When I came home and picked up my normal life afterwards I felt so great and so different from ever before. I slept only 5 hours a night and never felt tired. I had no physical discomforts like headaches or stomachaches that I used to have a lot. I often caught my mind being completely calm, without any thoughts or worries. And when I was talking to someone I realized all my attention was with and in that conversation, I had no side thoughts or distractions, I was fully concentrated on what was going on in that moment. I remember that I often thought: Wauw! This is how I was meant to be and feel, this is how I was supposed to be, this is me being at my best.

Then slowly, over the months, the chatter in my mind started to return, and with it the tiredness, the need for more and more sleep, the headaches and stomachaches and the drifting away from the present moment…

What happened is that I lost my focus on meditation. While the first few months my practice was very present and alive with at  least 45 minutes of morning meditation and another 30 minutes somewhere during the day, over the months I started to meditate less and less, I skipped the 30 minutes during the day and also meditated less and less in the morning. I always kept it going, but would usually do only 20 to 30 minutes a day. Enough to keep me sane and stable, but not enough to be the best version of myself.  

So when I was sharing all this with the mindfulness group I realized I very much wanted to become that person again. And I realized  that fortunately, I had all the tools to do so. And maybe even go beyond where I had been before.

I had to think about this “10.000 hour rule” that Malcolm Gladwell repeatedly mentions in his book Outliers. He claims that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.

And I saw a challenge there! I calculated how many hours I have roughly spend on meditation between 1999 and now, and came to at least 1500 hours, probably a few hundred more but I wanted to be on the safe side. Then I wondered what would be a challenging but realistic amount of hours I could meditate a day in my busy life as mother of three children, wife, entrepreneur and friend. I came to two hours, one from 5-6 in the morning and one from 22.00 – 23.00 before I would go to sleep. Having 8500 hours left to reach the magic 10,000  would mean that on that speed it is going to take me 11 years and 7 months to reach enlightenment!

So I decided this would definitely bring my meditation practice to a new level and would also be a good experiment to see how much meditation time I need a day to see major changes in my energy and concentration level as well as my feeling of wellbeing on a physical, mental and emotional level.

I’m 36 days on the way now, have been very dedicated, committed and successful with my one hour in the morning, just as dedicated and committed to my one hour in the evening but slightly less successful because I usually fall asleep after 30 minutes. A very sound and peaceful sleep of which I awake without alarm clock around 5 am. I feel much more rested, energetic and pro-active than when I slept 8 hours or more, which, I guess is a good first step on the long road towards enlightenment on my 51th birthday! To be continued….

The power of purpose and attention

Mindfulness means to live life with attention. To give attention to the present moment. For me, this includes a feeling of purpose. It means not to just go through your day, doing the things you always do just for the sake of doing it. Instead, you give thought and attention to how you want to shape or create your day and ultimately your life.

For many years I felt dead tired, everyday and every morning when I woke up. There wasn’t any physical reason for it, but I could hardly make it through my day. This changed after I moved to Ethiopia and got the idea to organize a retreat in which I would teach and share things  with others that were important to me.

I made a plan for this retreat: what I wanted to do during that weekend and, more importantly, what I needed to do in order to be able to make it happen.  I made a time schedule: when did I have to do what and when needed the different parts of the planning to be ready.

And then I started. Every day I knew exactly what I had to work on during that day in order to be able to add an additional piece to the puzzle. Every day I saw how my idea for this retreat started to get more shape, how it transformed from an idea in my mind into something substantial. Every single day for two months I had a great sense of purpose. And guess what? My tiredness disappeared.

I soon realized that it honestly didn’t matter whether in the end the retreat would materialize or not. The process of creating something, of small daily steps and accomplishments, that was important. It gave me a reason to want to jump out of my bed in the morning, it gave me a feeling of joy and fulfillment, of meaning and purpose. And it had been exactly the lack of all that that had always made me feel so tired in the past.

The retreat did materialize and it marked a very important change in my life: the realization that I could make things happen, that I could create something based on a dream, an idea in my mind. And that I only had to make a plan how to, step, by step, turn that idea into reality and then actually take these steps, one every day until, one day, I realized I was there, exactly where I wanted to be. And realize it was me who made this happen thanks to the power of purpose I felt burning inside me throughout the entire journey and the attention I gave to this purpose every single day.

Intentions and distractions

In my former blog I started my search for my personal definition of mindfulness. Today I will try to explore this a bit further.

Part of my personal mindfulness definition I came up with so far is: being aware of autopilot behavior and practicing non-reactivity until I’ve identified my best possible reaction based on my core values!

This week I caught myself AFTER acting out some auto pilot behavior. My 5 year old son was going to have some kind of closing ceremony on Friday. Parents were invited to come at 11 am and bring a snack for a picnic.

Always when one of my children comes back with a message like that I kind of panic: but I have a client at 11 am on Friday! Or: I’m too busy with other things to just interrupt my workday to go to a school picnic. Or: Oh my! What kind of snack do I have to bring this time?

And so when I saw his teacher the next morning I talked to her with an (as I later realized…) irritated intention. “So we have to come at 11? And bring a snack? Well, I really need to see if I can free up some time for that…”

Immediately after, I realized how I had just talked to her and with which intention: to make her feel guilty that she ‘forced’ me to interrupt my busy day and come to school, with a snack that I also had to prepare on top of everything else that I already had to do…!

When I talk about mindfulness and working on being a mindful person, an example like this is very important to me. In order to be a mindful person who’s present in the here and now, accepting and non-judgmental, I have to become aware not only of my auto pilot behavior but also about my unconscious intentions behind what I’m saying or doing and, most importantly…to correct this behavior!

So I ended up baking nice cookies for the picnic  and went to the teacher apologizing for what I said. She hadn’t even noticed or interpreted it as negative, but that doesn’t matter!

The picnic was a lovely event and yet another important reminder: those things we see as interruptions or distractions from what we should be doing are very often the things that really count and make our lives worthwhile. So let’s start enjoying them!

Searching for my personal definition of mindfulness

In my blog I will focus on my ‘moments of mindfulness’ in my day to day life. Writing about this will be a good mindfulness practice and exercise in itself because even though mindfulness has a central role in my life, still it’s not so easy to point out exactly how I (try to) practice mindfulness in my own life, moment by moment and day by day.

Of course there is the obvious daily (ideally) or regular (realistically) meditation and yoga practice in the early mornings, before the rest of the family wakes up. The hours I spend with clients explaining, teaching and discussing mindfulness concepts is another obvious thing. But what about all the other hours in my day when I’m just living my life, doing normal things like cooking, grocery shopping, bathing my youngest daughter and untangling her hair. When I’m interacting with my husband, my children, my friends? Where and how do I apply mindfulness when I’m not doing any formal mindfulness practice?

To get more insight and clarity in this subject I first have to identify for myself what I mean with mindfulness. The most common definition of mindfulness is : To be aware and to give attention to the present moment and to do so in a non-judgmental, non-reactive and accepting way.

This is a very clear description, yet, it still doesn’t explain how I personally experience and apply mindfulness. So let me try to figure out my own explanation and meaning of this definition…

…When something happens that somehow affects me or one of my loved ones I usually immediately recognize it as such by a small change in my mood. The recognition of this mood change is a signal for me to pay extra attention and to prevent myself from reacting on the autopilot. Autopilot behavior  is the opposite of mindfulness. It means that you do things instinctively, as you always do them, often based on very old patterns and ‘thought tracks’. Autopilot behavior can often be destructive and is usually not the best possible way to react.

So one important way how I apply mindfulness is that I become quickly aware of my autopilot reaction and then stop myself from ‘acting out’ on this reaction.  It means that I allow myself some time to think and feel  what would be the best possible reaction to give in that moment instead of just reacting. In mindfulness this is called non-reactivity.

Mindfulness for me is also strongly connected to knowing what ‘the best possible reaction’ in any given situation is. I have spend and will continue spending a lot of time on identifying my core values and indicating how I know I’m living them. Having this clear gives me a strong sense of direction when I’m thinking about ‘the best possible reaction’.

Part of my personal mindfulness definition  is then: being aware of autopilot behavior and practicing non-reactivity until I’ve identified my best possible reaction based on my core values!

Second part of my definition will follow in my next blog!