Arriving almost 2 hours late for my solitary retreat, I was greeted at The Claret Retreat and Conference Centre, Buckden by a disgruntled, snowy-white haired priest. With minimal conversational exchange (he seemed sceptical of my tale of M1 closures and traffic mayhem), he showed me up to my self-catering apartment in the Gate House Tower. We mounted the old wooden stairs, angling up the central well and he let me into the space I was to inhabit for the next 3 days. It wasn’t the apartment I’d been expecting to have – ‘All Saints’ rather than ‘St David’s’ – but what the heck – I didn’t know the difference. I did, however, notice a distinct smell of cigarette smoke and experienced an initial slight aversion to the dark cavernous space filled with heavy furniture, reminding me of the typical grandparents’ living rooms of my youth.
After lugging my two big carrier bags full of food and very heavy book bag up the wooden stairs, I made a cup of tea and started about settling in. Then, rather startlingly loud, I heard the first of many hacking cough sounds, coming from close by. An image formed in my mind of Father Jack Hackett, the blaspheming, licentious, old alcoholic priest in Father Ted. I speculated whether a retired, ailing cleric might be living in the adjoining apartment, which I discovered was down a little flight of stairs behind a locked, interconnecting door just beyond my bathroom.
Later on, the man’s coughing was joined in counterpoint by a female one and conversation started up, plus what sounded like the PGA Golf tournament on TV which I deduced by the frequent bouts of polite, appreciative clapping you only get from golf fans on the green. Then it dawned on me, they were just a couple on some kind of weekend away, maybe a Valentine’s break. I also realised that they were in the apartment I was supposed to be occupying, which kind of niggled me.
I went out to buy a few provisions from the local shops in Buckden, a last foray into consumerism. I was charmingly presented with a single Valentine’s Day red rose at the butchers/farm shop and I bought a candle for my meditation shrine in the gift shop.
As I settled down for my first meditation in the early evening, in front of a makeshift shrine covered with a yellow tea towel and the blue tissue paper the candle had been wrapped up in and the single red rose in a pint glass, I looked forward to a solid progression of practice ahead of me.
It wasn’t long though before bursts of conversation, smoker’s coughs and the sound of the clapping on the TV began to take more and more of my attention. I found myself feeling angry and irritated. This was supposed to be a retreat centre wasn’t it, not a holiday home? At one point, failing to unstick myself from obsessing about my neighbours, including berating myself for my meanness and selfishness, I even had a little weep. After which I saw the meditation through and turned my attention to supper.
Cooking was a creative challenge with the absence of several tools I would normally consider essential in any kitchen, eg chopping board and decent size saucepans so I was perhaps unduly annoyed by this too, while reminding myself that simplification and minimalism is part of the retreat experience. I cheered myself up over a plate of pasta and with reading after dinner. I still had more than half an ear out for my neighbours who I’d hoped would go out for the evening, but no – they seemed to be eating in. I could hear the scrape of knives on plates, renewed squirts of cigarette smoke seeping round the separating door frame and a change in the tenor of their conversation to more swearing and even singing, an exuberance probably brought about with the aid of some alcohol.
When I went to bed, I noted how comfortable the memory foam mattress was. Worried that my neighbours might keep me awake and hoping I’d feel less peevish in the morning, I reminded myself that mindfulness practice is about Working With What Is and fell soundly asleep.
The next morning I woke and meditated, feeling calmer and more accepting of the less than perfect retreat conditions. Even so, I was becoming adept at interpreting sounds and thought I detected clues that they might be getting ready to leave. I tried not to be too hopeful and chastised myself, thinking, they’re just as entitled to be here as me and to enjoy themselves and relax (apart from the smoking thing which is actually NOT ALLOWED).
They did leave and peace reigned for a while. I alternated between sitting meditation, walking in the lovely grounds and study of both mindfulness and dharma texts. I let go and began to truly appreciate having the spaciousness of 3 days in which to practice and be with myself after a very busy period of change and new challenges.
I had just started a yoga practice, following one of the Eckhart Yoga videos I’d downloaded, when a family arrived. I could hear them excitedly climbing the stairs, whispering something about ‘All Saints’ – perhaps that a crazy woman was on her own in there meditating all day for goodness sake. Somehow the thought of children didn’t worry me so much and sure enough a few moments later they were jumping down the stairs enjoying the old castle feel of the place no doubt. A bit later on, while I was in downward facing dog, I heard them again noisily charging upstairs followed by a knock at my door. ‘Cheeky little blighters’ I thought, amused but also rattled. Then shortly after, as they charged down again, a further knock, at which I immediately reacted and pulling open the door with some force, yelled into the stairwell, “Who was that? WHO just knocked? Can you PLEASE not do that again!” There was a faint, slightly worried laugh from somewhere, then silence. They didn’t bother me anymore after that.
And so it went on. I calmed down and settled more and more appreciatively into the stretch of the day and evening, having mapped out a schedule which I more or less stuck to. The issue of this being less of a retreat centre and more of a kind of historical Catholic holiday resort bothered me less and less. I reasoned, it’s cheap to stay here and they must be very cash strapped with not enough visiting retreatants to pay the bills.
Each time I visited the bathroom, I was greeted by the rather stern, regal visages of Katherine of Aragon on one side of the door and Henry VIII on the other, a symbolic representation of their separation in life. Buckden Towers, or Buckden Palace as it was once known, used to be the residence of the Bishop of Lincoln and poor old Katherine was shoved in here for a while, though probably not in the very room I was inhabiting. Now it’s the home of the St Claretian Missionaries. When slowly ambling round in walking meditation my favourite bit was progressing down an avenue of pleached limes at the end of which and on the other side of the lake beyond, was a seated statue, probably of St Claret himself.
During Sunday, further guests arrived – a couple of women, who moved into the apartment above me. They were chattering excitedly, and clearly delighted to be released from their families for a “girls night away”. It was noisy but I didn’t mind – in a way I could empathise more with them than the coughing couple, though strangely, I almost missed them now they were gone. Because now I really was in the zone of solitude.
I love having time on my own, but that’s always been in the context of other people about to return at some not too far off time. A longer stretch of solitude is of a different order of aloneness. And some people go on solitary retreats for years on end! However, having the time to successively meditate through the day, and reasonably long sits, meant a sense of stability and expansiveness gradually opened up. I felt softened up and properly plugged in to my life, my experience and the world again. The texts I’d taken – Saki Santorelli’s Heal Thyself, Larry Rosenberg’s Breath by Breath and Lama John Makransky’s Awakening Through Love, provided just the right amount of input to feed into the meditation and my reflections.
In the end I decided to slightly cut short my stay, leaving on the Monday evening instead of the Tuesday morning on the basis that I’d then have a full day at home to prepare for teaching the MBSR course that evening. In a small way though, it was bailing out. I felt like I’d had the right amount of time away for now and something in me resisted a third night on my own on the memory foam mattress, comfortable though it was.
So I pushed an envelope containing my payment under the office door with a little note that didn’t mention anything about noise issues, and people smoking when they shouldn’t or how dare they call themselves a Retreat Centre when this clearly wasn’t the case. Instead I wrote that I’d enjoyed my time there and had had a good retreat. And I meant every word of it.