The taxi driver appraises me with suspicion when I tell him my destination. “But you’ve not got a yoga mat,” he says.
Having never been on a meditation retreat before, I was self-conscious of criss-crossing busy train stations with a yoga mat strapped to my back, so I’d concealed it inside a Sainsbury’s bag for life. I point it out now to the driver, and he offers a wry smile as he takes me to the place where, for the next four days, I’m to be immersed in an intensive period of “me time”. I’ve never done this before, so have no idea what to expect.
Long-term health conditions can be interesting in all sorts of unexpected ways. You learn about your levels of resilience, and the efforts you are prepared to take to get better. I’ve been struggling with low physical energy for almost a decade, my mitochondrial cells malfunctioning after successive flu viruses never quite left my body. Doctors didn’t know what to recommend – these cells aren’t easily “fixed” – and so suggested what they suggest to anyone who presents mysteriously: eat better, sleep well. Do yoga, learn to meditate.
I’ve spent the last five years dipping in and out of meditation – apps, YouTube, Ruby Wax’s focus on mindfulness through books and interviews – but it was vedic meditation (a close cousin of transcendental, which uses a silent mantra or sound repeated over and over) I kept returning to. I liked it but always let it slip. I knew that to establish a habit I would need to immerse myself, under in-person instruction.
And so here I am, near Arundel in West Sussex, at a large, rambling country house with lush gardens, on a weekend vedic retreat run by Beeja. Its strapline suggests: Meditation for Everyone and its founder, Will Williams, has been teaching vedic meditation for more than five years. After a stint in the music business, and falling ill, he recovered through meditation – and began to teach what he had learned. He runs introductory courses in London. Will is a convincing communicator: bearded and smiley, dressed not in robes but in jeans, conspicuously one of us.
There are 15 in attendance, eight women, seven men, ranging from 24 to 70. We’re a cosmopolitan bunch: there’s a Saudi, a Lebanese, one from Guadalupe, another from South Korea. Two from Essex. Some, like me, have medical issues, others are struggling with anxiety, depression and such pronounced social media addiction that handing over phones upon arrival proves problematic. I’m to share a dorm for four but – mercifully – there’s just two of us this weekend.
After an introductory dinner of nut loaf, Will’s co-instructor, Niamh Keane, reminds us of the house rules: up at 6.45am, in bed by 10.30pm; respect one another’s confidentiality. No sex and no “solo sex”, as Niamh puts it, just unbroken serenity and purity of mind. We’re detoxing, so can have neither caffeine nor alcohol. No breakfast either, a fact that horrifies us all initially but becomes curiously unimportant by day two.
On a meditation retreat I find you meditate, and do precious little else. Beeja’s version comprises a succession of “rounding” exercises: 15 minutes of yoga, five minutes of alternate nostril breathing, 20 of meditation, and 10 of the flat-on-your-back yoga pose, shavasana. We’re all given an individual secret mantra to repeat silently (though who’s to say we don’t have the same one?!). For three days.
At first, most of us choose to do our exercises communally, in the living room, but increasingly we drift off in pursuit of solitude. I thought I’d struggle, because meditating at home is difficult, but here, with no distractions, I slide into it as if it were a hot bath. Hours pass, then hours more.
He asks how our sessions are going and when I tell him that during one of mine my hands began to levitate and my fingers grew like intertwining tree branches, as if I were morphing into a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, he beams with pleasure and says: “You’ve shifted some serious energy there, fella.”
The more we meditate, the more our protective bubble expands. When we come to leave, Niamh implores we take care upon re-entering the world outside, as we will be newly hypersensitive to light, noise, other people. “Be gentle with yourselves,” she advises.
The trip back home is complicated by the usual travel chaos – delays, overcrowding – but we endure it without any obvious adverse effect on our hitherto delicate dispositions. But then meditation affects different people differently and any long-term benefits may only announce themselves over time. What I know right now is that I’ve never had a weekend quite like it, never been so still, or rested, never spent so much time with myself, or by myself.
It wasn’t quite bliss, but I did attain something conspicuously rare in a life otherwise filled with such perpetual distraction: peace.
• Four-day, three-night weekend retreats cost from £594 for a twin room, £534 for a dorm room, and include food, drink and instruction; six-monthly payment options available, beejameditation.com