Last week I went on a very special retreat. It was a mindfulness and meditation retreat in the Spanish mountains. After a two hour flight and a four hour coach journey, we got picked in in a 4×4 and taken deep into the Pyrenees. There we prepped for our trip and stayed the night in a cabin before heading out on our wild camp. We hiked carrying enough food for a week and followed a small trail into the woods below a mountain ridge. We set up camp and each found our own spot to sleep for the next week. Our own personal camps consisted of a tarpaulin (called a ‘Basha’ apparently) which we tied above us, a roll mat and a sleeping bag.
Deep in the mountains there were just the basics. Just the necessities that we needed for a reasonable level of comfort. I soon realised that we don’t need much to make us happy. Some warmth, some shelter, food and water and importantly, good company.
Waking up to the sound of singing from one of the camp members, I would lie there, still, in my sleeping bag. Feeling the cold air on my face and feeling grateful for the warmth that I had. (It hailed on our first night and was probably around minus 3 or 4 degrees). I would stretch and appreciate the time I had to lie and to just be. Then I would arise from my shelter and do some gentle yoga, gently awaking to the day, appreciative of the simplicity of life, without alarms, without my mobile phone, and just being out in nature with the bird song.
We would then walk a little way up the mountains to a clearing and meditate for thirty minutes. The meditation might just be on the breath, or it might be on contemplating something deeper such as what it means to be alive.
I’m reminded of an old Zen teacher when he was asked why he meditated. People expected some deep meaningful answer. Instead he replied with, “I meditate so that I don’t miss the opportunity to appreciate the beauty of passing a small flower on my walk to the village”. When we stop and slow down and really look around, there is so much to be grateful for. I’ve found since being back that my focus has changed and my conversations have changed. What I mean is that last week in the mountains I was focused on looking at what was in nature, on the sounds, and on the moment right in front of me. Here, now I seem to be more focused on getting to work on time, on keeping up with my exercise routine, and on when I can get chance to book my car into the garage without it disrupting my day too much.
But when in the mountains, through meditation and some contemplation of death (when I was on the edge of the peak of the mountain), I came to realise the absolute beauty of life’s energy. With each breath I could feel the life force within this body I have. This body that allows me to perceive the world I live in. I realised deeply how good it feels to just be alive, to just breathe, and to just be. There was so much stillness that I could follow my breath breathing life energy into me and feel it in every cell in my body. As I breathed out I could feel the life energy leaving me, only to turn around into an in-breath and fill my body with life.
Time in the mountains was far from serious. There was play, laughter and light-heartedness. Yes we needed to get water and firewood, but there was a lightness to it. We all felt safe and held in the space that we had jointly created.
When we weren’t mediating we collected our drinking water from a fresh spring about a mile and a half away from the camp. We sought firewood from the nearby woods to keep our camp fire going so that we could boil and purify the water. We sat around the camp fire sharing stories and learning from each other’s experiences. We ate simple, but good nutritious food, sometimes in silence.
One day we took a steep hike up the mountain to the peak. It was a hot day and a tough walk. On the way back from camp I split off from the group with the intention of finding a waterfall to have a shower under. I quickly came across a small waterfall coming from a nearby run off from a mountain spring. It was a remote spot and with a quick check around, I stripped off and plunged into the cool water. The temperature was perfect. Not too cold and not too warm. Just cool fresh water from the top of the mountain. It was the best shower I had ever had in my life. I had never felt so revitalised. There was just something about being in nature, showering under a waterfall with no one around. Ah the simple things.
Part of the experience of this retreat included a solo day. This was to mean that we would have a whole day to ourselves to explore the mountains. I set off at 8am to head to the top of the mountain. I had decided that would have the best views and my goal was to reach the top and meditate. I didn’t know of a path, but I felt confident I could find one. So I set of west. Walking, stopping and pausing occasionally to listen to bird song, foraging for leaves and things to eat as I went. And then the fog came in. It was thick. I could only see about thirty feet in front of me. I came across a screed slope and hiked up. With each step I took I slid back a little way. It was hard going and steep, and as I got higher and higher I suddenly realised how dangerous this climb was. I was climbing up a steep slope on screed which is notorious for slipping, and I had a huge backpack on (far to big for a days hike!) weighing me down and there no one else around. Trust me to go off the path and pick a direction no one else has gone in! I reached for a nearby tree and broke off a stick to use to dig into the ground to help me climb up (courtesy of a Bear Grylls tip I learned!). With each step I would dig the stick into the slope to give me a hand grip. It was slow going and it was getting steeper the higher I climbed. Eventually I got to the top of the slope, exhausted and relieved. I then found a huge boulder which I climbed up to try and get a view of where I was. By this point the fog was even thicker and I could hardly see more than fifteen feet in front of me. After sliding down the boulder, I hiked onwards to where I thought I might get to the peak of the mountain. After a short while I came face to face with a smooth vertical cliff. I realised that this was not climbable. And so I followed this vertical cliff along, scrambling through bushes and trees and over rocks. I noticed a lot of wild boar tracks on my journey which unsettled me a bit. Ok, a lot! Earlier when I was sat meditating I could have sworn that I heard a large animal running towards me. I defiantly heard it. I shot up from my sitting meditation position to standing in no time at all, but saw nothing in the bushes. It reminded me of how the fear reaction in us is so automatic. We don’t think, we just react.
And so it got to a point where I realised that this vertical climb was not easing up at all. There was no path. And there was no way up this mountain. I realised that I wouldn’t be able to achieve the goal I set to reach the peak today. I felt disheartened. It’s not often I don’t get to achieve my goals I realised. And so I sat, feeling a little deflated. It prompted me to reflect where I am in life. What I’ve achieved, and what I’ve yet to achieve. It made me think of the difference between doing and being. I tend of think of being as being present in the moment with a sense of peace and contentment, and just allowing what is there to be there. And I think of doing as being where we are and trying to reduce the gap between that and where we think we want to be. It made me remember the things I’ve learnt about not knowing what’s best for us. That often we think we want something, but ultimately when we get it, we might later realise that it wasn’t good for us. I realised I felt sad about some of the things in my life that I didn’t have. And I realised that I hadn’t made peace with that. And so I went into my body. I used my meditation training and I dropped the chatter of my mind and just sat with my felt experience and breathed into it. I accepted where I was. I allowed what was there and watched the stillness come from that. I allowed where I was to be perfect for me, both up the mountain unable to reach the peak, and in life, not quite at the peak but somewhere on my journey. And as I relaxed into the stillness of that experience I opened my eyes. And just at that moment I felt the wind change direction. I saw the fog being blown from the west, change direction and blow the other way. And I felt the sun come out and its rays touch my face and warm my skin. And then an eagle flew over the top of me. I watched it closely. I saw that it didn’t flap its wings once. I saw it effortlessly glide. And I realised that this eagle was not struggling with the wind. It was not fighting what is. It was going with the flow. And I realised I could do the same. To make peace with the flow of the wind.
And so I got up and decided to climb down the mountain. I surfed down the screed slope with ease and had great fun doing it. Secretly I was remembering Bear Grylls do something similar and I felt so alive descending the mountain at speed. I found a path leading into the woods, and reflected that ‘it’s ok to take the easy route sometimes Chris’. I found a clearing in the woods and sat and napped in the sun for some time. Then I hiked through the woods to a small waterfall where I sat and meditated. The sun was setting and so it was time for me to head back to camp. I effortlessly found my way back and arrived to see my new friends waiting by the camp fire. I was met with smiles and with an intent to go with the flow, to fly with the winds…