A WINTER RETREAT

“We are addicted to busy-ness,” Olivia said as I focused on contorting my body to match the yoga pose that she demonstrated.

She wasn’t wrong. Indeed, it was the very reason that MrElaineous and I found ourselves at a yoga and meditation retreat in the Welsh countryside. When I was in the grips of burnout several years ago, we made the journey across the Severn to the village of Staylittle for an off-grid holiday to get away from the demands of constant connection. Those few days without the internet and the freedom to ignore an ever-growing inbox were sheer bliss. I have tried to incorporate the lessons I learned into my daily life ever since.

Yet I knew that it was time for another digital detox when I found myself unable to write after several busy months of work. This was different from writer’s block, of not being able to find the right words or not having any ideas. Instead, an activity that I loved became something that I just didn’t want to do. It felt like work, and hard work at that. I didn’t even want to open the files I had started, and a dozen blog posts continued to languish in varying states of completeness.

As I followed Olivia through the yoga practice, I have to admit my mind drifted from the here and now to the there and then. It was so easy to fall down the rabbit hole, to trace how busy-ness had ingrained itself in me from a young age.

There was school, of course, and the requisite homework and other projects that formed part of the International Baccalaureate programme. Some students added sports on top of this, or maybe band or drama. Others like myself had after-school jobs. As an IB student, there were also CAS hours, 150 hours dedicated to creativity, activity, and service at 50 hours each. While the ultimate goal is laudable—creating well-rounded graduates—busy-ness is baked into the very DNA of the programme. For most of us, it was the gateway to the art of juggling multiple tasks.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: I credit IB with preparing me for life as an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College and subsequent work as a graduate student where I mixed doing research with as many as three part-time jobs at any one time. But students are never taught how to turn off. Instead, the established habits were difficult to shake: I always felt like I had to be doing something, and that something should be productive. The idea of doing nothing*, of just being, felt uncomfortable. Even my usual form of escape—reading fiction—had given way to reading with a purpose, of picking up books that were more about learning than leisure.

Research has shown that this constant activity is, at the very least, unhelpful. By jumping from one thing to another, the brain is unable to give its complete focus to any given task. Instead, it begins to get addicted to the dopamine hit of novelty, something that the online world serves up in abundance.

At the more extreme end sit health problems. The inability to get away from work can lead to stress and raised cortisol levels. The blue light emitted from devices themselves can lower melatonin in the body, making it you feel more awake when you should be winding down. Reading about the latest political fiasco before bed likewise makes it harder to get to sleep, and recent research has highlighted that sleep is really important for a healthy, well-functioning body. And this isn’t even scratching the surface of the psychological impact of comparing oneself to the curated and polished personas that appear in our social media feeds.

Yet more and more distractions seem to be added to the mix each year. The pings from social media that there is a new like, comment, retweet, or follower. The email inbox filling up with messages from friends and family, co-workers and clients, and newsletters that you probably signed up for at some point, but which you now can’t remember the purpose of. WhatsApp or Slack groups buzzing with each person’s ‘ok’ or emoji. This digital smog surrounds us on a daily basis, clouding our minds and making it difficult to identify our real priorities.

Yet when it comes to doing anything requiring creativity—or just clear thinking—mental space and focus are absolutely needed. This is where the digital detox comes in. It is an opportunity to hit pause, step off the treadmill of doing, and disconnect from the always-on nature of modern life. Matthew Syed, author of the book Black Box Thinking, had this to say about the power of stepping back:

The type of environment necessary for innovation is when we are switching off: having a shower, going for a walk, sipping a cold beer, daydreaming. When we are too focused, when we are thinking too literally, we can’t spot the obscure associations that are so important to creativity.

Imagine a small pond under bombardment with stones: each one makes a ripple. Before long, ripples are bouncing off of one another, creating a rough, turbulent surface. Removing the digital assault gives the mind a chance to settle from the constant input. Turbulence is transformed to tranquillity.

If what you’ve read so far is resonating with you, you may be wondering why MrElaineous and I don’t just unplug our wi-fi router or use an internet blocker?

I’ve found that travelling to a new place provides both literal and emotional distance to remove us from the middle of the situation. In turn, being away from our usual routines makes it harder to automatically slip back into bad habits. Instead, a fresh start in an unfamiliar environment provides a firm foundation to decide on what new habits to establish and how to make them part of daily life.

Using the Queen of Retreats website—a most delightful website where you can easily spend hours researching the different retreats on offer around the world—MrElaineous and I stumbled on the Coach House. It is a self-contained cottage just a stone’s throw from Newport and located on the top of a picturesque hillside with far-reaching views across the surrounding valleys.

We arrived to find toasty underfloor heating that I immediately coveted and a breakfast hamper containing the most delicious bread made by local company Dough & Daughters; I may need to go on a carb detox next as I am now addicted to their oat and treacle bread. The cottage itself was indeed a former coach house that has been renovated into a gorgeous space where you feel at ease as soon as you enter. A large paddock sits at the back of the property and I went to explore it soon after our arrival. One of the reasons we always seem to run away to Wales is for views like this: wide open spaces as far as the eye can see. Taking 30 minutes to do nothing but experience sunset over the Welsh hillside was the perfect way to begin to recalibrate to a different pace of life.

What to do without internet or television† during the long nights of winter? For me, much of my first evening was about sorting through paperwork I had lugged along, a task I literally had been avoiding for years. Instead, I just added new notes to the top of the pile, hoping that one day they would somehow organise themselves. However, without any of the usual distractions, I found I was able to go through everything quicker than anticipated, clearing the backlog in a matter of hours. I did experience a few signs of online withdrawal: I had an itch to pick up my phone to check Twitter and a desire to know where my mobile was despite not needing it for anything. This settled after 24 hours.

The Coach House is also well stocked with a variety of books, ranging from yoga and Buddhism to art and poetry, and many subjects in between. I enjoyed reading Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery. It was as gripping as any work of fiction and was the perfect halfway house to reintroduce me to reading without a purpose.

During the day, there are walks to be enjoyed in the surrounding areas. One morning we descended from the hill down into the valley and attempted to go on a short walk on the Clytha estate along the River Usk. However, thick mist covered everything, turning the familiar woodland sights of trees and fallen branches into fantastical alien shapes, obscuring the view and muffling sounds. The outline of Clytha Castle looming out of the mists was magical, like a half-glimpsed Brigadoon. I hope to return at some point to see it in its full glory as one of the best 18th century follies in Wales … or perhaps spend a few days in it myself

While the outside scenery and interior décor were top notch, it was the personalised yoga and mindfulness sessions with Olivia that were the real highlight of the visit. While I had dabbled in meditation for several years thanks to the Headspace app, having someone present for guidance and instruction enriched the experience. Some days I found it easy to slip into the practice of meditation, my mind staying with my breath without much internal chatter; other times my brain was off chasing thoughts and I found myself miles away—see above regarding how busy-ness had embedded itself in my life. Regardless, I emerged after each session feeling calm and refreshed, the surface of my mind a quiet pool rather than covered with its usual whitecaps.

I found the yoga much more difficult. While some poses were familiar and not too taxing, others called upon my non-existent core muscles and revealed my poor lack of balance. However, I learned so much during just a few sessions with Olivia. First, that there are many types of yoga!

I had heard of ashtanga and hatha; these are the more familiar, active poses practised in many studios. Yin yoga, however, is done at a slower pace and poses are held for a longer period of time. Research it online and you’ll be told that it’s a passive form of yoga. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s easy! While the stretches look deceptively simple, they work the body in unexpected ways to enhance flexibility.

Yang yoga is the more active, complementary counterpart, and both MrElaineous and I found ourselves huffing and puffing through a series of poses, feeling the burn far sooner than expected. Ultimately, it was a wake-up call that I had neglected my body for far too long. I knew the facts and figures—women lose approximately 1% of their muscle mass every year after 35 unless they actively work on strength training—but I kept telling myself that it was something I could do later, a bit like my paperwork.

Both practices, that of meditation and yoga, call on us to be in the here and now, to reside in the present moment. The benefits of this are twofold. First, it helps prevent dwelling on the past and the things we cannot change. Second, it reduces worry about the future and all the things that probably will never come to pass (seriously, how often do the things we spend hours of our time worrying about actually happen?). To these I also added a third lesson: the importance of using the now to ensure that the later is a little bit easier.

A massage with the talented Lucy Thurner rounded off the retreat, and she helped diagnose a problem area on my back, one that I had lived with for over two decades. I had probably ripped the muscle and it had healed crooked, with what I called “knots” actually being internal scar tissue. The solution? More yoga to stretch the area and keep it limber. If I wasn’t already sold on the idea of getting in better shape, this would seal the deal.

Our final full day at the Coach House was grey and grim, the perfect day to wrap up in something cosy and stay inside. After a morning session of yoga and meditation, I felt a familiar sensation, one that I had been missing for the last few months: I had an urge to write. I gave into it, finishing off three blog posts and writing nearly 3000 words over the course of the day.

As far as addictions go, I don’t think the online world and its associated temptations can be given up completely … especially if you are running an online business and assorted blogs as I am. Instead it comes down making the effort of being aware of how one behaves online and ceasing mindless browsing—of becoming the spider in control of the process instead of the fly caught and bound by the world wide web.

What does this mean for me going forward? My mobile phone will be banned from my home office. Flight mode will be turned on before the phone is brought into the bedroom. I will work on recognising the signs of when the digital haze is becoming overpowering. And the addiction to busy-ness that I have held on to all these years? Well, that is something that I am still working on, but with the tools provided by Olivia—and the occasional escape to Wales—I think it is one that I’ll conquer.

Please note that watching TV does not count as doing nothing. Research shows that it does not yield the same benefits as actually being idle or engaging in activities like meditation or yoga.

The Coach House has both wi-fi and a TV, but we chose not to use either.

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