Eat, Pray, Shhhh!
Or: how a five day silent retreat in Bali taught a public speaker to shut up and listen to the world.
July 25, 2017
What if you willingly (under due pressure from locals at reception) locked away your phone for 5 days, with the nearest charger a 10 minute walk away, in the next village, and ‘only’ human conversation or pulp fiction or a Balinese vista for company? Once your palpitations at this thought have subsided (yes, you know who you are, impatient Westerners), I’ll raise your heart rate once more with the re-edited version of what actually happened over a year ago to me; a sensory and life-changing experience which has provoked me to endure a self-enforced literary exile to be able to allow myself a year (or just over) to reward myself with something us impatient Westerners severely lack and I came to appreciate at this retreat: time. Not only time, but time to reflect. Not only time to reflect, but time to self-reflect. So here's what really happened at a silent retreat 7,790 miles away, in another hemisphere, on the other side of this weird little molten-cum-rock we call Earth...
As I arrived at the refreshingly obvious-named 'Bali Silent Retreat' (if you found yourself here expecting anything but the aforementioned, you really are turning up a Western-grown turnip) the first thing that struck me was the view, which is permanently lodged in my mental panorama: sun-kissed rice fields stretching eternally into the horizon; like an artist's canvas of verdant pastel only interrupted politely and welcomingly by the rising of the third highest volcano in Bali. Even the volcano pleasantly surprised me, as it was covered in jungle. 2 hours before I first experienced the privilege of this painting-of-a-view, I was picked up from nearby Ubud by the retreat's driver-for-hire; a local jovial young man called Baby Ketut. We spent the first half of the journey to the retreat discussing the hippy circus (a surprisingly bearable one) that is the baggy-pant wearing pilates on yoga-load, sorry - overload. Guiltily, I enjoyed every moment of my 3 whirlwind days there in which I bought a Yoga pass at one of the many centres and committed myself (some local attendees there looked like they had been 'committed'...Shutter Island style) to consecutive days of varying types of Yoga: Yin, Ashtanga Vinyasa, Flow). It was a buffet for my loins and core. Core' blimey it was painful but gainful. The thing is, I've never seen Eat Pray Love and don't want to, but I could instantly empathise with the apparent premise: toe-tapping sceptical Westerner obsessed with time and the lack of it, shutting down from the notion of spiritualism. I had spent the last few years not in the easiest of times (peaking with the stresses of writing producing and performing a month-long Edinburgh show) and the last thing I thought could cure my public speaking and performance blues was 3 days of being a real-life Stretch Armstrong in the epicentre of mindfulness, before being whisked off to a silent retreat...by a grown man called Baby. And back to him this story goes: the second half of the journey to Bali Silent Retreat was spent discussing the wonders of the not-so-humble coffee bean. I have loved coffee ever since I drip-fed it into my arm semi-comatosed at 2am in Queen Mary University's 24 hour library, scaling my final drama dissertation in 2008. I realised halfway through that drive with Baby, when he suggested pulling over at his favourite coffee plantation to try one of the wonders of the caffeine world: Lewak Coffee.
I arrived at the retreat with just a pen, paper, a few rows of books, and your own thoughts? To quell your pontification; no, I was not in prison. No, I did not become a hermit tasked with writing “that difficult second novel”. And no, I didn’t accidentally trap myself in a library where all staff and security were on a multi-day strike. I was trapped or sorts, in a way that most people would feel psychologically incarcerated by: my only view the endless beauty of rice fields, tropical jungle and a rainforest-laden volcano. One of my earliest memories as a child was of my dad telling me never to say the phrase “shut up”: that it was the worse thing you could say to a person, far worse than the use of a swear word. This notion was etched into my mind before I could count my age on two hands. The horror of “shut up” (it’s sound, it’s harshness on the tongue, it’s use on others) stuck to me like the Pritt Stick I once plastered an entire hand in during one (rather lovely) primary school art class. Back to present day, I read a magazine article whilst riding the London Underground, aimed at educating the nation on ‘How To Be a Gentleman”. The article was waif-like in style, but one sub-heading stood out: “shut up and listen”. My mind glued to this phrase and brought back my father’s gestations. “Shut up” moulded my childhood. The two words struck feat into me about the perils and pitfalls of lacking empathy with friends, family, strangers and even foes.
Silence was a big part of my childhood. I was a very quiet, polite and respectful child according to my grandmother (well, apart from the odd night terror where my mum thought I was possessed and my granddad proclaimed epilepsy or schizophrenia) and I’ve always had a love of silence and what the Italians eloquently call “Dolce far Niente”: The Sweetness of Doing Nothing. I've spoken to an italian friend about this, and it's true to a lot of good things happen when you're nothing is happening (that is, apart from if you're watching italian football). I played a lot of sport as a child, but was always told to be more vocal. Aptly, I took to enjoying swimming a lot, where I was told it would be hazardous mid-front crawl to be more vocal. I can happily go hours without speaking, and I often dread the idea of a party or concert where forced conversation is as tiresome as the effort to eat more crisps since there's nothing else to munch. Speaking, or thinking of meaningful things to say, is brain draining...as is attempting to listen and make sense of what a person is trying to communicate to you as you strip away all the bollocks of their shit chat, sorry, chit chat.
I love silence. I feel calmer and more confident when my mouth is closed (it's why people who are most insecure talk the most). A day spent in the house can often bring no more than a few quiet mutterings outloud…and these are usually directed to my cat. This morning I’ve yet to utter a solitary sound. I sit in silence with candlelight and incense stick during the writing of these blogs, since external silence makes the internal voice speak up. These articles have all been recorded ad-verbatim as most articles are; thoughts present themselves loudly, the mind shuts up and stops worrying about past and future…yet external distractions are never more than an hour or a keyboard click away. Would it be possible to let thought roam free for 6 days with the forceful extraction of people and technology? This may interest the average person mildly, but as a man who makes his living off a skill of public speaking to 100s at a time across the country, would I be able to shut up and listen to myself over four sunsets and five sunrises? 1,000s of miles from home with a 7 hours’ time difference, I enrolled on a silent retreat on the beautiful Indonesian island of Bali. Over the next few blog entries, I will describe (with nearly 2 years' of hindsight) how this experience has profoundly stayed with me in the time elapsing since, and how I've taken so many lessons forward in life from it. I was taught a pleasing and much-needed lesson in bravery: to audit one’s verbal bollocks and shut up, instead of letting it out on a world that (mostly in secret since we’re stiff upper-lipped Brits) can’t stand having to put up with it…in the private or public realm. I'm really pleased I was verbally imprisoned for a number of days, 1,000s of miles away (like watching Shawshank on mute, and no Morgan Freeman), and I hope I'm able to express some of the elements I found physically and psychologically significant, as well as cathartic. More on this soon...