Holy Isle 4

Day four of the new year retreat at Holy Isle...

OK, so sometimes, it is very, very difficult to be on retreat.  The feelings and thoughts that plague you in your weakest moments at home may rise here and there really is no escape from them.  There is no friend to call for encouragement; your partner is not here; there is no tv or cinema to distract you; there is no cake shop; there is no wine; there are no cigarettes; whatever your method of numbing your difficult emotions is, you probably won't find it here.

But, there is the comfort of strangers.  There is the comfort of sitting with someone you met only days ago and will part from in several days, most likely to never meet again, and there is telling them your story and hearing theirs.  There is the gift of compassionate listening - so rarely found, when life is so busy out there and everyone in such a rush - the gift of paying attention to someone else as they speak.  And in having that depth of attention reciprocated entirely, and without judgement.  And then there is the gratitude that rises within for the gift of their having spoken and listened with love and honesty.

And of course, none of our stories are new or original, for none of us gets to escape the simple fact of being human and being human sometimes hurts.  I sat with a friendly Dutch man last night and we told each other our stories over several cups of tea, and as I walked up the stairs to bed, I realised that I felt lighter; that my troubles seemed less weighty.  And I have his kindness to thank for that.


And I wonder if we shouldn't really call this a retreat, as to retreat implies to be defeated somehow, to withdraw in the face of something we cannot overcome, to recede.  I think that it is more accurate to call this a refuge: somewhere safe and sheltered, where you can take time to give yourself whatever it is that you need: time to heal, time to grow, time to think, time to lick your wounds, time to reassess, time to be quiet, time to be free of other people's needs, time to focus on your spiritual path without interruption, time to explore yourself honestly, time to reflect.  I think that there are people here this week who are doing one of more of all those things and probably more besides.  But these people have not in any way been defeated by life, on the contrary, they are brave enough to confront themselves and their motivations and actions honestly.  This requires courage.  These people have not retreated from life, but they have sought refuge: somewhere safe and quiet to stay for a time while they work patiently and compassionately through whatever it is they are dealing with.

And there is a storm coming tomorrow, which will have the power to knock us off our feet (which happened to one of the residents here during the last storm).  Seventy-five mile an hour winds will batter the island.  And we'll all be safe within our refuge.


Meditation at 7.30am as always and I feel myself full of love and peace and I emerge again from the little house to a bright, clear and blustery day.  And today I am going to walk as far around the island as I am able to go, which means going all the way to the top.  It feels like a good day for climbing a mountain.

And I did climb the mountain and it didn't rain once and the sun came out and made everything more beautiful than it already was.  The wind was so strong that I sometimes felt that it would blow me off the mountainside, but I kept low and balanced and calm and, of course, I arrived back in one piece; and the cup of tea that I had when I returned home was delicious. 


I took myself off to meditate in the little house after lunch and had been there for almost an hour when a Buddhist nun came in with a couple of other people and started doing her practice.  It was amazing!  Lots of reciting prayers in Tibetan and every once in a while she would bash some cymbals together; it was the most incredible thing!  Perhaps it was because I was already deeply into my meditation, but the sound of the cymbals crashing seemed to go right through me, taking all the dark with it and leaving only light.  It's called Mahakala practice and you are only allowed to practise it if you have been initiated, but anyone may listen (this lovely nun, Kunzang, is South African and is staying here this week to acclimatise herself to being back in the world before going home to South Africa - she has been in a closed retreat on the south of the island for fourteen months).  She's a joy to be around - very happy and bright and funny and irreverent.  She's a poster girl for Buddhist nuns!  It is a joy to be around people who have chosen a spiritual path and are full of sunshine; it's not always the case that people with a strong commitment to a spiritual path embody peace, love and joy, but this lovely lady does.


  1. Does confronting difficult feelings and thoughts get you through them any more than that piece of cake does? I guess it has more of a chance in the long run?...and takes a lot of courage and hope...or you wouldn't go through it. V.

  2. Cake diverts, but doesn't help you learn from experiences you are having. Working through experiences honestly and with clarity brings you more wisdom. But cake is good too :)


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