I’m standing on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. The earth feels vibrant, almost thrumming under my feet and I am suffused with awe and wonder. I’m here with Serenity Retreat, a wonderful small independent holiday company for solo travelers who are interested in self-reflection and meditation.
Each morning I wake up to the sound of birdsong and take my place for a gentle, mindful yoga class with Dainei Tracy . This isn’t about pulling yourself into pretzels; it’s about discovering your body – how it feels, what it wants – and about watching your mind. Blissfully stretched and soothed I take my breakfast of yoghurt, fruit and honey and sit watching majestic Etna.
Nothing is obligatory on a Serenity retreat – you can decide for yourself when you want to join a meditation class or if you’d rather simply loll in the sun. Kim Bennett, the founder, is a Zen meditation teacher who gives instruction with calm grace, searing honesty and a wicked sense of humour.
We explore a famous Zen koan, asking ourselves: ‘Who am I?’ Kim advises us to ask the question, not in our heads, but deep into our bellies, to the ‘hara’. She explains that by focusing on the hara, we not only ground ourselves but can start to thaw out any parts of us that have become numb or frozen. ‘Put aside your expectation,’ she advises. ‘Don’t close yourself off from what might happen. It may feel uncomfortable but try not to be critical. Just observe and bring friendly curiosity to the feeling.’
On the third day we sink into silence. For many in our group it’s a new experience and some find it uncomfortable, even challenging. ‘Just consider the opportunity,’ advises Kim. ‘It’s the last great adventure – coming to know ourselves.’ She points out that nowadays, most of us have our physical needs taken care of – our fears come up when our psychological needs aren’t met.
I sit and watch pain coming up in my body. I can feel tension in my jaw, a pain in my knee and hip. I hear the voice in my head start its usual judgmental whining: ‘Why did you eat so much? You’re rubbish at meditation. Your balance is terrible,’ and so on. I remember Kim’s advice and bring myself back into the moment, examining the pain, questioning who is actually coming up with this garbage in my head. If I can hear a voice then surely that voice can’t be me?
She suggests that, while it’s valuable to notice the negative storylines, we could think about bringing the things that please and delight us into sharper focus. ‘Don’t underestimate the value of savouring delight,’ she says. “We can rewire our brains to create a positive groove – it just takes a little practice.’
So I gently put the whining voice to one side. Instead I watch the lazy smoke slink out from Etna. Delight. My nose is tickled by the warm, sweet, soft scent of jasmine. Delight. The birds are so busy around me – brrrp! Rrrip! Tsch tsch. Delight. I sip a cup of strong black Italian coffee. Delight. Delight. Delight.
This originally appeared in Natural Health magazine.