Cured by Awe Mid-Pandemic

‘Imagine the world as a hospital, with all the unkind people in the world the ones who are ill… we need to treat them with compassion.’ So urges Ramiro Ortega, the gentle Spanish-born meditation teacher co-hosting the silent retreat I am on, and a mine of such gems to focus the mind and heart during what is proving to be a most extraordinary year. ‘Without kindness, mindfulness is just focus,’ he says – so we need to see mindfulness as a kind of ‘befriending’ – an alternative word to the Buddhist concept of ‘loving kindness’ adopted by Ramiro’s own teacher, Christina Feldman.

Befriending is what we all need mid-pandemic, so having found a precious pocket of time after England’s first lockdown, I have booked myself onto Find Your Peace, a 5-night silent meditation retreat that’s held regularly at Sharpham for those with some meditation experience to practice, find nurture and rest (beginners courses for those new to meditation and mindfulness are also on offer here).

On our retreat, Ramiro and his co-host, Australian-born Patti Summerville, lead a range of daily guided meditation sessions with optional morning gentle movement sessions and afternoon walks across the gorgeous estate. Together with communal meals, everything takes place inside a deeply restful and nurturing silence, but there is also a chance to connect and share each morning (as much or as little as you need) in a small group. All this, in the utterly glorious surroundings of Sharpham House. Where else can you meditate at a Palladian mansion, surrounded by original oil paintings, with access to a private 550-acre estate?

Much of the vegetarian and vegan food is grown on site and features treats from the Sharpham estate, including seasonal fruits (on our retreat, delicious plums and pears), insanely good cheeses, and Sharpham’s renowned sweet or sharp apple juices, and each meal is delicious –  a typical lunch might be a quinoa pilaf with sauted courgette, tahini sauce and garden greens followed by walnut and raspberry tart.

In the house’s gorgeous pale blue painted music room – sat two metres apart from my fellow retreatants, wrapped in our coats and shawls, with the windows open wide – I learn that, when our world is spinning out of control, our bodies can be our refuge. ‘The soles of your feet don’t feel anxious, your knees don’t worry, your buttocks don’t feel anger’, says Ramiro during a notable early session, and this grounding-in-the-body process continues throughout my stay, when as well as silence, walking becomes my cure.

I eschew the group walks, preferring to amble alone at will across the marvellous private estate land and along the River Dart which borders it. I sit and sketch, or walk and talk softly to myself, allowing my brain and heart to work things through in their own time, as I watch herons catch fish, or lone paddle boarders skim the water in the morning sunshine.

At other times, I sit in silence amongst others on the house terraces, reading or writing with a cup of tea in hand, or just looking out at the stupendous awe-inspiring views of the bend in the river and dramatic cascade of surrounding oak trees – views surely designed to soften and energise the most hardest and worn out of hearts.

For the group walking meditations, I find myself drawn each evening to the house’s top ‘formal’ gardens. Here I choose a ‘path’, and walk diagonally from one end of the mown grass towards a clump of pretty pink lilies growing beside a cascade of pale pink climbing roses, then pause, turn, wait and return the same way to find another view down to the river to marvel at – seven tall standing stones created here in the 80s by local artists.  

Though it’s grounded in Buddhism, the teaching on the house retreats is secular – so unlike many other meditation retreats, you won’t see Buddhist talismans at every turn here, something I found free-ing and refreshing, and there’s an openness to the teachings too. I always thought, for example, that you had to try to walk as slowly as possible during a walking meditation, but Ramiro explains in a group session that this simply isn’t the case, leaving me guilt-free to go at my own pace – a little bit quicker than on previous retreats, and far more relaxed.

Sharpham is just 30 minutes from my house, and not having to travel far to find nurture and rest is a treat in itself, most especially during a pandemic. But its proximity and excellent teachers are not the only reasons why I will be sure to return. Between walks and meditation sessions, I take refuge in Walnut, the enormous heritage room I’ve been assigned at the top of the house, and get terribly over excited by the spiralling marble staircase I have to walk up to get to it each time, surrounded by blush-pink painted walls which are graced with colourful vibrant oils, mostly by Polish painter Zdzislaw Ruszkowski, who was patronised by the founders of Sharpham, Ruth and Maurice Ash, and who used to stay on the estate to paint. In these surroundings, it’s easy to be cured by awe.  

Tuesday, September 8, 2020