A week without noise in Ibiza proves a meditation revelation for Florence Waters. I remember the first time a friend confessed he was going on a silent meditation retreat: no talking, Wi-Fi, books, phones or pens for what sounded like a very long week.
Still sceptical but increasingly curious, I found myself flying to Ibiza for a silent retreat with Burgs. I had tried meditation classes before, so I thought I had a vague idea. I didn’t.
The week was nothing like I’d imagined. We didn’t listen to dolphin choirs, visualise rose buds opening, swallow imaginary white light or anything of the sort. In fact, Burgs teaches a skill requiring intelligence and creativity.
As he says, “Just as you can kick a football clumsily, you can meditate upon the breath in a clumsy way. Or you can learn to do it with real skill and find out what your mind has to offer.”
Guy Burgs is one of the country’s leading experts in meditation
The courses consist of classes and meditation sessions, which take place in a large hall where each pupil is seated on cushions, chairs or stools. The classes were a revelation, like sitting down to a TED talk twice a day – a compelling mixture of psychology, science, philosophy, spiritual teachings and even stand-up comedy.
We were allowed to break our silence for questions during these, and there were also regular exercise sessions to split up the day. Eating in silence felt awkward to start with but it became blissful; you really notice how excellent the food tastes when you don’t have to think about what you’re going to say next.
As we learnt to meditate, it helped to have a taskmaster like Burgs watching our attempts. “Don’t just sit there having a nice little think,” he’s fond of saying. A week on his silent retreat begins with him making every effort to help your mind settle. Within days you become amazingly uninterested in petty concerns that you were fixating on during day one.
The mind of an iPhone junkie is not easily stilled, but when it is you begin to become aware of the bigger themes controlling your life – memories, insecurities, the need to be seen, and other drives that you might allow, albeit subconsciously, to control your life.
“Imagine a reflection of the moon in a lake that’s heavily disturbed, full of ripples and waves. If you didn’t know it was the reflection of the moon it would look nothing like the moon,” Burgs says. “If we try to understand reality through a mind that is constantly disturbed, we continue to get a distorted sense of what is actually going on, which is why just trying to work it out in our heads doesn’t always work.”
Once uncomfortable feelings and memories begin to surface, Burgs teaches tools needed to release them. Many say they are able to cry for the first time in years. Five days into our retreat Burgs drew a diagram on his whiteboard to explain what was going on in our minds.
“If you’re feeling awful, that means you’re doing something right.” One woman raised her hand and said, “I’m so glad that you explained that. I felt terrible yesterday — I can’t remember feeling so bad.”
“It works like a detox,” explained Burgs. “As soon as you stop bombarding the body with new stuff, it’s able to start clearing out the accumulated toxins. The mind works the same way. One of the reasons we seek stimulation is because we don’t want to be with how we feel. We come on retreat to do this so your poor wife or husband doesn’t have to be around while you throw your toys out of the pram!”
By the week’s end I felt I hadn’t been lighter since Christmas morning, aged six. I was startlingly aware of everything going on around me.
Some people have returned to Burgs’s signature “healing meditation” retreat twice a year since he began 15 years ago, and waiting lists for his retreats are growing year-on-year. Are we experiencing a reaction to the pressures of digital life?
“Over the last 10 years I have seen a big change in people,” Burgs told me when we broke our silence. “When I started teaching even just 15 years ago the pace of life was much simpler. I was teaching people how to develop a more tranquil, sensitive mind. Today I have to focus more on mental robustness and stability. We’re more stimulated than we’ve ever been.
“Either we reduce this stimulation and rediscover the sense of inner peace we may have lost, or we develop new levels of mental stability and robustness. Meditation can teach both.”
Those who go on retreat are often apparently healthy, happy individuals. Others may be facing mental or health problems, getting over a bad break-up or a bout of insomnia.
As somebody who has tried numerous therapies over the years, including psychotherapy and hypnotherapy, I’d recommend meditation before any of them in terms of bringing about profound, deep-rooted changes.
Last year I’d have balked at this, but saying “I don’t have time to meditate” was nonsense. As Burgs says, “How have we become so well educated about physical health and failed to recognise that mental health is the real governor of the quality of our lives?”
For more information visit theartofmeditation.org. If you are curious, try Burgs’s 12-minute guided meditation designed to help anyone set up, regardless of whether they are total beginners or already practising
Top tips for meditation
Develop concentration and mindfulness equally. Many people are starting to learn about mindfulness, but most do not learn to concentrate deeply, and it is our inability to concentrate that is the main cause for restlessness, impatience and frustration.
Have the same approach to meditation you would have to physical fitness. It won’t come just by turning up at the gym and hanging out. Results come from effort put in over time.
The idea that we don’t have time to meditate is an illusion. Take the time and it will pay dividends as you find yourself completing tasks more quickly and effectively as you become less easily distracted.
Meditation can return results in both the way we apply ourselves and the reward we get from our experiences. An organised mind can hugely improve effectiveness, as greater levels of mental energy mean we do not tire easily, but it will also mean our capacity to appreciate pleasurable experiences when they come is also enhanced.
Meditation is far more than a coping tool for modern life and its stresses. It also has the capacity to get us beyond the point of merely coping, to the point where we are really flourishing in life as we get in touch over time with our true potential.