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What I learned on a phone-free silent retreat in Clare


By Mairead Heffron
21st May 2024

PRIME VIDEO

What I learned on a phone-free silent retreat in Clare

Yogi, doula, mother and writer Mairéad Heffron was initially dubious about going on a ten day silent retreat in Clare with no phone, no dinner and no speaking allowed. Instead of boredom however, she found introspection.

“Please hand in your phone for the duration of the retreat”. This line in the welcome email grabs my attention. My phone is my trusted companion, close to me, or in my palm, most of my waking hours. I read recently that we are all already cyborgs, our phones as much part of our person as any imagined science fiction device. How will I react to this sudden deprivation for 10 days? I can almost feel the future twitch of my hand, habituated as it is to reach for the phone in moments of boredom.

Further down the email, the instructions around food: No evening meal, breakfast- yes, and lunch at midday. This is the Buddhist retreat tradition, the whole day and evening stretching out (luxuriously or terrifyingly – depending on your perspective) without a meal to break it up. We must observe ‘Noble silence’- no talking at all during the retreat. While it’s appealing – the idea of avoiding small talk with strangers – I anticipate a very loud inner dialogue as my mind adjusts.

I told a friend I was going on a silent meditation retreat, and she looked at me like I was crazy. “If I had 10 days without kids I would go to Bali and do lots of massages and healing treatments”. Maybe it’s a masochistic or ascetic streak or maybe I feel less guilty about being away from my kids while sleeping in an old farmhouse in Clare than in a beach hut in Ubud.

This is insight meditation, or ‘vipassana’, an ancient Buddhist practice, simple in instruction, profound in impact. You just sit, and be, watching the breath or gently being aware of your posture. Or you walk and pay full attention to the movement of walking. Thoughts and feelings arise, and you let them be, observe them, and gently return to the breath.

Sounds boring? Your mind agrees, at least to begin with.

The first thing that happens is you become lost in thought. New ideas and old conversations fill the space. I spend a surprising amount of time fantasising about a pot-luck birthday party plan, an idea for a book and a podcast. But much of the first couple of days is devoted to arguments in my head with my husband over the importance of children’s activities, the why-haven’t-we-organised-the-summer-camps-yet, and why doesn’t he also feel terrible guilt that they can’t swim or bike properly?

Once I realise that I am in fact arguing with myself in the middle of a forest in Clare, I apply the instruction, noticing thoughts without trying to push away or supress anything. Onion-like layers of unconscious patterns reveal themselves. I see how I keenly feel societal pressure to engage my children in the many activities and skill-learning available (from cubs to tennis to piano lessons to chess, many kids across the country have busier schedules than high-flying business executives).

Then comes the question “is it really so important, or even if it is so important, why does it feel so fraught when we disagree on it – or our ability to work our schedules around it?”

From there, a space opens up and with what feels like a gentle tap on the shoulder, I hear “it’s because you’re afraid of not being good enough”. In my parenting, I fear all my shortcomings will be revealed. And also “f*ck all of the accomplishments and activities. All they really need from you is buckets and buckets of love”.

Other things I see: how irrationally angry I get when we disagree on something I consider important. How often I experience this as rejection and go on to reject myself, feeling guilt and shame about the anger. The gentle tap on the shoulder says: “it’s because you have an expectation of rejection”. Eep! This was not an insight I expected to have, but it feels true, like a knowing, rather than a thinking. As I allow these difficult thoughts and feelings that arise to just be, they have a way of changing shape and dissolving, of passing and not-mattering quite so much as I thought they did.

Being without the phone is surprisingly easy. A relief from the pull of constant communication via multiple messaging apps, the planning and inputs that frazzle the mind and constantly draw my attention away from the present moment. A small guilt lingers at not being available to talk to my children if they need me. That too fades and instead there is a spaciousness – I’m not responsible for anything but myself for a week or so. It tastes of a freedom I thought had been lost to my twenty-something backpacking days in Thailand.

Mid-life is full to bursting at times; work deadlines, children’s activities, house maintenance, squeezing in the social and the self-care into the cracks. “Allow yourself to take a holiday from your life,” the monk leading the retreat says. And we do. On a break from the group meditation sessions, it is bliss to lie on a lawn in the unexpected warm of a May afternoon and slide into a nap, I and my fellow meditators living our best lives like lazy cats basking in the sunshine.

Photography by Prime.