Joys of a real Scottish meditation retreat

This summer (and again in October) Mindsprings is hosting our annual Scottish Meditation retreat on Holy Island. So I thought I’d take a moment to wax lyrical about this most special of places and most special of events. 

It’s like a vast granite crystal. And the power of it throbs up through your feet when you walk there. 

I first came to the Island in 2000. I’d been drinking and drugging way too much. And despite my TV presenter genes, I was bored of it. A friend spoke about going on a retreat in Scotland but then bottled out. But for me, the seed was planted. 

I booked onto a Tai Chi course and set off. There was a wobble at Kings Cross when I realised I was heading to the wrong Holy Island. (There’s one in Northumberland and another one further north in Scotland in Iona). But the one I was destined was off the coast of the Isle of Arran. Tucked into Lamlash bay. 

The island itself is a spiritual magnet. And the moment I stepped foot on it back in 2000, I felt the magnetism. The springy, sheep-nibbled grass. The lapping water in all directions and the rhododendron-covered flanks of the mountain drawing the energy up into the sky. It’s like a vast granite crystal. And the power of it throbs up through your feet when you walk there. 

The Island has been my teacher as I have learned to teach.

I’ve been back every year since 2000. Often more than once. I’ve seen the tumble down farmhouse and campsite be transformed into a comfortable 50-bed hostel and the barren shingle transformed into blooming flowerbeds, through repeated collection of seaweed, bracken and horse poo! And from 2005 onwards I was lucky enough to teach week-long meditation retreats there. This year Mindsprings is on the Island for the 13th year in a row.  

The Island has been my teacher as I have learned to teach. Even before I started working with Reggie, I was inspired by the teachers I met at Amaravati down in Sussex and at Samye Ling over on the Scottish mainland. But I am certain that the steady, holding energy of the Holy Isle was the greatest teacher of all. 

It’s a mandala of beauty: birds, animals, plants, water, rock, humans

There’s something very nourishing and warm about the landscape there. The soft grass lawns down to the sea from the farm house. The bird-rich profusion of Sarah and Sid’s magical flower gardens. The rich biodynamic fruit and vegetable gardens which wrap around the place where we live and practice. And then the much wilder and vaster expanses of the uncultivated island. The powerful plateau where the ponies live. The craggy cliffs of the coastal path. And the beauty of the two pillar lighthouses. 

And nature flourishes there. Red squirrels, wild ponies, white goats and brown sheep. Otters, ravens, seals, robins, finches, oyster catchers, jellyfish. It’s incredibly inspiring. 

“The whole island is like the stamen of a flower with Arrran and the Scottish coastline being the petals”. 

But what’s unique about the Isle is its spiritual thumbprint. 

The Tibetan teacher Tai Situpa came in the 90s to do some geomancy on it and declared: “Every cubit of the island is full of spirits. Some places are too powerful for humans. And the whole island is like the stamen of a flower with Arrran and the Scottish coastline being the petals”. 

And long before the Buddhist from Samye Ling bought the island, it was a sacred place for earlier visitors. Including the Celtic St. Molaise who came here in the 9th century and lived in a cave which is still a draw for pilgrims. You can sit in the mouth of his dwelling and look out over the wide water to Arran and feel the throb of sacred energy in the air. 

And that throb is what makes it such a valuable place to practice. 

Instead of clawing space in my crowded mind, I dissolved my mind into something vaster.

When we learn to meditate we often do so in our homes, or listening to apps on a commute, or attending courses in towns and cities. But that is not how meditation or dharma evolved. It evolved with people opening themselves to the sacred in the world and finding technologies that made that connection stronger and deeper. 

So when I arrived with my meagre experience of meditation in 2000, the energy of the island opened up vast new dimensions to my practice. Instead of meditation being a desperate attempt to claw some space in my crowded mind, it became a way of dissolving  my mind into something much more powerful. 

There was Primal Screaming in the morning and whirling Dervish dancing in the afternoon

And over the years, that is where the Mindsprings retreats have evolved. Early on they were quite structured and full of exercises.  A busy-ness which mirrored my insecurities as a teacher. (There was a famous retreat where we did whirling Dervish dancing in the morning and Primal screaming in the afternoon!). But now they reflect the much greater trust I have in the practices that I teach. 

Nowadays, we take time to relax into the power of the island. When they arrive, new participants are almost always fried from the journey and wound-up to busting with the stress and strain of life. I have learned, as the facilitator, to trust the way the Island draws this tension down into its granite roots over the course of the first 2 days and it’s  often day three before we can really start to work deeply with the practices. 

Regulars on the island are familiar with the effect: the Day Three Magic

Often people are exhausted and sleep all night and most of these first few days. Some people are the opposite and ride high on the energy of the Island for the whole week, barely sleeping at all. What the island offers is a safe space for this process to unfold. Everything on the island – the staff, the food, the meditation hall, the gardens, the landscape – is there to support our practice. It’s a uniquely supportive place. And as a therapist, my primary goal in this early stage is to make every one feel the safety of the place and relax. 

But without fail, after a few days something magical starts to happen. Regulars on the island have become familiar with this effect. The Day Three magic. Often it manifests in real frustration or emotional overwhelm. Sometimes there’s dramatic insight or miraculous moments out by the sea or up the mountain. Held by the group and supported by the Island, we transform. 

I have watched so many people fall apart beautifully or messily 

There’s a lot of silence on the Mindsprings retreat now. Not a cold, punishing silence but a warm silence that opens us up to the connections that are always unfolding. Connections between the humans, but also between us and the animals, us and the sea, us and the unseen energies of the place. Towards the middle we’ll have a whole day of gentle, kindly silence to drop even deeper into the space. 

Sometimes, this central portion of any retreat involves melting down in the safety of the space before gentle re-forming in the last few days. As a guiding facilitator I have witness so many people fall apart in a beautiful or a messy way and then rebuild themselves in a much more healthy constellation by the end. It’s my job to make sure they don’t panic as they dissolve and to be there with encouragement as the Island puts them back together again. 

The alchemical process of this Scottish meditation retreat

The image I often use is a alchemist’s crucible. The island is the unbreakable, all-enclosing bowl and the energy of the group and the place is the heat. What bubbles up in the crucible is never quite predictable, but the process alway burns away the impurities and leaves us feeling better. 

I look forward to the two Scottish meditation retreats so much. They are the highlight of the Mindsprings year and each year they draw a host of regular ‘family’ members and some new practitioners into the crucible of the Island. I hope you might find yourself there one day and step off the ferry and feel that throb coming up from the grass. 

What’s happening in the two 2018 Mindsprings retreats?

This summer’s retreat runs from 29th June to the 6th July and is exploring the simplest sitting practice, shikantaze. It’s the most powerful way to tame the neurotic energies of the thinking mind and settle into a state of presence that is grounded not in thought but in awareness. Like all my teaching these days it is inspired by the somatic practices of my teacher Reggie Ray. 

October 10th-17th, I’m so happy to be sharing the teaching with another of Reggie’s UK students, Julia Collins and together we are exploring the embodied practice of compassion, concentrating on the heart-opening practices of Buddhism, known as bodhicitta  practices. This retreat isn’t really suitable for complete beginners but practitioners of any tradition are welcome. 

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