Monday 15 October 2018

On Retreat

If I believed in coincidence, I would think it a particularly rich one that the weekend after we were considering the promise not to interrupt, I should have been booked into a retreat at Pluscarden Benedictine Abbey, in the north of Scotland.

The link may not be immediately apparent; but this was a silent retreat. I went to spend a long weekend free of all the demands of daily life, in order to have time to think (ah, there’s a link) and to immerse myself in the ancient Benedictine rhythm of time, marked by the Offices sung throughout the day in Gregorian Chant (those who know me well will understand the appeal already).

Between the Offices, time is free. And I had decided not to engage with the outside world, beyond one brief phone call home each day. I wanted to use the time to stop: to reduce the demands on my mind, and free myself to meditate on what is truly important.

And if you have been paying attention, the relevance will have leapt out at you. With no external distractions and ample time, what do you imagine happened when I tried to think about something – anything – that I decided to turn my attention to?  Yes,  you’re right: I interrupted myself.

And interestingly, the longest periods of non-interruption were those when I was following the Office (chanted in Latin, of course, so requiring quite active attention) or praying that ancient and repetitive prayer, the Rosary (again, I found praying it in Latin helped – a little less easy to drift onto auto-pilot).  It is almost as though the ancients had discovered some wisdom we would do well to re-discover.

And by the end of a long weekend, I was getting better at it: longer periods of sustained attention with less effort required.

Perhaps the most valuable learning was what I choose to interrupt myself with... but that, as they say would be Too Much Information in the public sphere.

And it was little things: like turning my phone off… I was slightly shocked to find how often I got it out, walking from the abbey to my room for example, without consciously deciding to do so, just to check…. To check what, precisely? Why, whether there were any interruptions I could indulge in, to excuse me from the harder work of focusing on one thing at a time.  Of course, having the phone switched off reminded me that I didn’t want to do that – and indeed that was something of a relief; but I hadn’t realised how strong the habit (I had almost written ‘addiction’) was.

So a rich weekend (and in many other ways, which I will not share publicly); but the challenge, as ever, is how to return to the world and keep the learning and practices alive.  And if you ring me but get straight through to my answerphone… well, I’m sorry, but it’s a necessary price to pay from time to time.

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