I started learning to meditate and practising Buddhism the same year that I graduated from university. My efforts to change the world through my work have been completely entwined with this journey to understand and transform my mental states, communication and perspective on being human.
I’ve lost count of the number of retreats I’ve gone on. Whether it’s been a short weekend in Suffolk at Vajrasana Retreat Centre, a four-week Total Immersion silent camping retreat in Devon with Buddhafield, several weeks walking on my own in New Zealand, or my Ordination retreat in Wales, all of them have changed me.
Through meditation and reflection, I see my life more clearly. I have time to zoom out and see it in its fullness - where I have come from, where I am going. I am more in touch with its fragility and uncertainty, and the incredible conditions that have come together just to be alive.
Here’s three of the most important lessons I’ve learnt and how they’re transformed my approach to helping other people in my career and voluntary work.
Things will go on without me
The weeks leading up to going away can feel really stressful. As with having any time off, I’m trying to clear through the mountain of tasks in front of me. I want to leave with integrity and not come back feeling overwhelmed by what I haven’t done. I also don’t want to make life difficult for anyone else.
This is even more important when going on retreat because I’m turning my phone off. And it’s not going back on. If something has “gone wrong” or someone wants to reach me, they can’t unless it’s an actual emergency. I mean a family emergency. Like someone dying.
Not just a colleague unable to find something for an important client, no matter how much they’re paying me. Or a mistake in a major report. Or someone in vulnerable circumstances needing urgent help from a trusted contact.
I’m offline and I only give one or two loved ones the emergency contact details if I’m at a retreat centre. If I’m on a solitary retreat, even they have to wait.
Now depending on where you work and who you work with, this is a more or less radical thing in today’s world of constant communication.
The last place I was an employee was an incredibly sane place to work. We kept holiday boundaries.
By then I had also been directly supporting people with really extreme issues. I had a few years when my day used to literally start with triaging who was at risk of dying. So I had a bigger perspective on what counted as urgent.
This wasn’t always the case though and some of that momentum has stayed with me.
A part of me still thinks that the world will fall apart if I’m not looking at my inbox 10 times a day, because that was what I was taught. Be hyper responsive, reply to more important people immediately. Be on the fricking ball constantly.
But I don’t think it’s just our work culture - particularly London work culture.
So much of our self-worth and very sense of self, of being alive, is defined by what we are doing. By being someone doing something. We’ve got a feeling of being at the centre of the universe trying to make things happen. Working simply expresses and solidifies that sense.
Being on retreat, particularly on a solitary retreat, completely challenges that.
Sometimes it’s a relief, but it’s also scary as hell. On an existential level.
Who am if I’m not doing something important to change the world?
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
If I’m on my own long enough, not being “productive” and physically seen by other people, do I really even exist?
Coming back to work and life, people have just gotten on without me. Even if something has gone wrong, things have been worked out or another issue has come up that’s now dominating people’s attentions.
Issues I could easily get concerned about have simply moved on.
It’s a bit hard to explain how significant this can feel, particularly when you come back with a very heightened awareness of both your senses and your own mortality. It’s like your skin has become incredibly porous.
The part of you that knows you will die one day and that things will go on without you has woken up a bit. That’s where the fear comes from. Some part of you knows this is what will happen and it doesn’t like it - it can extrapolate out from this relatively short period to the seeming black hole of time when you aren’t alive at all. That big long retreat that could start at any moment. It doesn’t help that most of us have unconsciously inherited a deep nihilism about death, which adds to the fear.
At this point you might try to alleviate this unconscious existential awareness of your own impermanence, by getting even more busy and angsty.
Or you can loosen up. You can get clearer on priorities. What really matters about what you’re trying to do? What’s the simplest and most effective way to get there? How are you treating other people along the way? What low impact actions can you let go of?
There is less drama. More clarity. In a funny way this makes you much more able to genuinely have a positive influence. Through seeing and accepting that things will go on without you, you can work out where your energy and expertise is best used.
Most of the time I just need to get out the way of other people
Being away, people have to problem solve without me. This can be incredibly empowering for them. If I’m around and trying to make myself the centre of the universe, it doesn’t give others the chance to think things through properly on their own. They can get passive or lose confidence because they get used to being able to call on me. Or I step in too quickly to give my opinion, instead of helping them to get there themselves.
Many women I have helped just need reassurance that they know what they’re doing.
Good managers and leaders make themselves dispensable most of the time. We give people the skills, confidence, resources and power to make 95% of the decisions needed on their own, and the space and support to make mistakes and learn.
I need to call my mum more often
I stop sweating the small stuff, at least for a while. I remember my life is precious, fleeting, uncertain. Your life is the same as this. My mum’s life is the same as this. I experience much more gratitude for what I’ve been given, as I’m more connected to it.
I realise I’ve got too caught up in this whole mission of being someone who is trying to change the world. My vision has become narrow, fire-fighting the emails and actions.
I have become over identified with my career and the results that I am getting.
No matter how great they are, they are not as important as the woman who gave birth to me.
My mum is pretty much always the first or second person I call coming off retreat. One day I won’t be able to.
If all the meditation and Buddhist practice has changed me in any way it’s this: I call my mum more often.