What happened when the woman who’s ALWAYS got lots to say was banned from talking for a week: LIZ JONES went on a silent retreat with hours of meditation
- A silent retreat, with hours of meditation, can be dangerous if your brain is dependent on devices, distraction, noise, according to one doctor
- Liz Jones was diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress after going bankrupt and loosing her home and wondered how she would cope without tech
- The UK-based writer was surprised with the results, finding safety and calm
The 250-year-old Grade Ilisted mansion overlooks a U-bend in the river, on the cusp of Dartmoor. The masts of sail boats float by, silently.
Apart from the calls from a pair of geese, everything is silent. No beeps from phones, no vibrations in pockets, no voices.
I am at Sharpham House with 14 strangers — three men, 11 women — for a five-day silent retreat. I’ve been divested of my iPhone (the housekeeper had to prise my fingers open), laptop and iPad.
I will meditate for an hour, four times a day. And I will not be able to utter a word to anyone. As someone who is known for words — and plenty of them — won’t that be difficult? Why am I doing this to myself? And why now exactly?
Liz Jones (pictured) was diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress after going bankrupt and loosing her home and wondered how she would cope without tech. She decided to go to a wellness retreat
The answer is that my life has become not really worth living. Like many anxious people, I quite enjoyed lockdown: I could sit at my laptop and not be scared of life. Since the return to normal, however, I’ve been plunged back into the world again — sent abroad for work, having to attend parties where, being deaf, people assume I’m stupid.
The final straw is that my rented cottage is up for sale: as a homebody, an introvert, this tipped me almost over the edge.
Meanwhile, I find myself ruled by the malevolent dictator in my pocket: my phone. I am on it for an average of four hours and 20 minutes a day. My pick-up rate (the number of times I access emails, texts, WhatsApp and social media) is 195 times a day: the average for a teenager is 95.
I am also on my laptop for eight hours-plus a day, working, before retreating to my iPad in the bath and bed.
Silence is golden: Peace and quiet at Sharpham House where Liz went with 14 strangers — three men, 11 women — for a five-day silent retreat
All of us are bombarded with bad news, all the time, whether it be an email from our energy supplier, a news website, an annoyed neighbour or ailing relative.
The moment I wake after a fitful night’s sleep, my brain scrabbles for something to worry about and I grasp my phone, hoping a tiny little square message, like a polystyrene float, will contain good news, will save me. It never does.
Monitoring is exhausting. I haven’t concentrated on a book or film for a decade, interrupted as they are by chatter. Being on high alert has made me more stupid than I was before: I used to read Hardy, Houellebecq, Austen. See silent double bills in the cinema. These days, cinema is torture, as I’m unable to text or talk. I self-medicate with trash TV shows such as Selling Sunset and Married At First Sight.
The constant chatter is both solipsistic and a source of terror. As my emails download, my breath becomes shallow, heart pounds. Adrenaline floods my body. My hands shake. I realise I can’t go on like this. I need, as an addict needs rehab, a reboot. I need to turn myself off and on again, just like a computer.
Ruby Wax, who has openly suffered from mental health problems, swears by silent retreats. And science backs her up: a Cornell University study found noise causes a stress response, impairing our cognition (so actual noise — talk, traffic and noise from devices, emails, messages — does make us more stupid, as I’d thought).
The journal Heart found that even two minutes of silence can be more relaxing than listening to classical music, reducing blood pressure and helping blood flow in the brain. The concept of a silent retreat doesn’t scare me because I spend most days alone, just talking to my collies. My only worry is being divested of my devices.
This has happened once before when I was locked inside the Celebrity Big Brother house. Even though we could talk and had alcohol (also banned at Sharpham), I would throw up each night in the bathroom, fellow contestants holding my hair back.
A few days before leaving for Dartmoor, I visit my GP. He tells me a silent retreat, with hours of meditation, can be dangerous if your brain is dependent on devices, distraction, noise. The doctor takes my blood pressure, which is very low. I have high cholesterol and my urine shows I don’t eat enough and am lacking B12.
He diagnoses Complex Post Traumatic Stress, a low hum of doom, brought on by bankruptcy and losing my home. I’ve been told this by hypnotherapists, a psychiatrist, a neurofeedback practitioner, Reiki healers, but none has helped long-term. All of which begs the question: how can I possibly survive for five days without the internet?
Liz enjoyed the retreat and found benefits in meditation. She recalls eating her breakfast without the sound of chatter or the telly
Some retreats don’t allow a pencil or a book but, happily, this one does. I start my retreat early, on the sixhour train ride, opening a beach read. I notice as we pull into Exeter station that every single person on the platform is staring at their phone.
When the train slides alongside the ocean, waves licking the windows, no one notices. Not even the children. And I start to wonder what we are doing to their malleable brains.
On arrival, drinking in the view, not a single other building or car in sight, was like seeing the sea for the first time as a child: wow!
My room is simple — no TV! — but the sash window frames a perfect pastoral view, unchanged in centuries. Bought by Maurice and Ruth Ash in 1962, Sharpham House and its 550 acres was turned into a charity in 1982, dedicated to helping people cope with the stresses of modern life.
The first morning — having had a nightmare — I almost blew a gasket when I was told not only would I have to share a bathroom and make my own bed but would be on washing-up duty.
I’m given a pair of Crocs to wear. The ignominy! But it’s all about being humble, which makes me wonder how the movie star here the week before coped. I missed the wake-up bell at 7am, as I take my hearing aids out at night. I’d been given an alarm clock, but can no longer work out how to set it. I go to Google it. Gah!
I look out over the lawn, where my fellow retreatants are performing mindful movement, which is optional. A lone woman sits gazing at the river, holding a flower: no phone, no book, as rare as a snow leopard.
Before breakfast at 8am is meditation. I sit on the floor, trying to cross my legs, only to find my body is as uncooperative as a deckchair.
Our teacher, Jo — the sort of woman you expect to find at Glastonbury, with an unmade-up face and floaty clothes — offers me a chair, saying it doesn’t matter how I sit: just keep two feet flat on the floor, to ground me.
I close my eyes but can’t stop thoughts from spiralling. I start writing this piece in my head. I replay an argument. Jo says that, if you notice your thoughts wandering, inevitably drawn by your ‘negativity bias’, bring them back by simply experiencing the feel of your feet on the ground, even for a few seconds.
By day two of her stay at Sharpham House on the Silent Retreat Liz had made it onto her third book. She is stood here outside of the house
At breakfast, desperate for coffee, I exclaim aloud: ‘But they’ve only got instant!’ Jo puts her fingers to her lips. Shhhhhhhh!
Even the chefs in the kitchen are not talking. Plates are lifted carefully to avoid clattering.
I sit on the terrace with my porridge and take in the view. I can’t remember the last time I ate a meal without mindless chatter or the telly. No one tastes food any more.
Jo calls what we are doing a ‘companionable silence’: it’s not about being aloof or closed off, as we are allowed to smile and to gently touch a shoulder.
As each person takes a tray, some food and a glass of water (the first time I’ve drunk tap water since 1983), in a solitary bubble of silence, I feel connected to them in a way I haven’t felt close to anyone, not even a boyfriend or husband, ever.
No one is showing off. There is nothing to prove. Someone squeezes my shoulder and I feel close to tears. Normally, I hate being touched: I feel judged, think a man is feeling my spare tyre, or examining my grey roots. Here, for some reason, looks, status no longer matter.
After a buffet lunch, we are encouraged to take a guided walk (I’m too scared to venture out on my own, given no phone), the silence broken only by gasps when a seal or kingfisher is spotted.
It feels strange to see beauty and not take its photo: it shall remain a memory instead. My favourite place is the walled vegetable garden with its outdoor pool I’m too selfconscious to climb into.
Jo has told me, on day one, that with my challenges of extreme anxiety I should use the meditation sessions to rest. Such an oldfashioned, underused word: rest. I haven’t done that for years.
I feel I don’t deserve kindness or happiness, that I merely have to survive. But Meghan was right: we need to thrive, or what’s the point?
By day two I am on my third book: Tess Of The D’Urbervilles. One passage stands out: ‘There was another date…that of her own death; a day which lay sly and unseen among all the other days of the year, giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there. When was it?’
It’s so ungrateful: not to enjoy life. By day five, I’ve become institutionalised. I feel safe, not having to constantly check where my phone is. I no longer care. Of course, it’s easy to feel relaxed when all you must do is look at the river, wave idly at canoeists.
The cost of the retreat is modest — full board is £450 for three nights, though I gate-crashed for four — but unattainable for many.
Liz Jones with her dog Mini at her home in Easby Yorkshire. Liz travelled from Yorkshire to the retreat in Devon
I’m told people in financial difficulty can apply to stay on a bursary: few are turned away.
And if you can’t spare the time, there are online courses once a month, and free group meditation online at 7pm every Tuesday (Sharpham offers free courses for NHS staff in Devon).
Even a few moments of meditation can help keep you calm. Technology can help, too. Download a screensaver that says, ‘Turn your phone off ’, or an app called Siempo which ensures you are only alerted to messages once or twice a day.
My mum, always on the go with seven children, used to knit each evening. Whatever you choose, it’s about not being distracted, diluted.
At breakfast on the last morning, when we are given permission to talk , the noise is almost unbearable: I miss the quiet contemplation. I’m slowly turning into a nun, a life I’ve always envied: order, routine, never having to go out in the world.
There is a final meeting for us to share what we’ve learned. We meet in an octagonal room, my heart is racing; my mouth dry.
A ball of (local, cruelty-free) wool is tossed between us. After each person has spoken, they hold on to the thread, tossing the ball to the next, forming a web of connectivity.
One woman is a primary school teacher, here to escape the constant chatter of children. Another has long Covid: a mum, wife and daughter, she’s finding it hard to be the person needing care. Another is about to move abroad and needs a full stop.
A man says that everyone around him has ‘stolen my power’. A beautiful young woman, who you would think has no problems at all, says: ‘This is such a magical place. I haven’t been anywhere magical for years.’
Even Jo, so sorted, has found a way of living with her own neuro-diversity. Being in a group reminds me that I’m not unique in having problems.
The ball is tossed to me but, of course, I miss it. It unravels under a chair. ‘I feel like a kitten!’ I laugh, scooting after it.
Who knew I could laugh after the travails — divorce, family betrayal, sacking, bankruptcy, bereavement — of the last decade? Who knew that wellness — that muchderided fad beloved of the Gwyneth Paltrows of this world — would actually work? Who knew that by this point I would be putting my right hand on my heart and whispering to myself: ‘I’m not a machine, I’m a mammal’?
I am ready to say my piece. That I always felt mindfulness to be self-indulgent narcissism. That people who meditate are lazy.
Today, I realise that having a few calmer, kinder people in the world can only be a good thing.
Before, I felt I controlled the world. Now? I see that technology has enslaved me. I realise I matter, in that I don’t deserve to be scared all the time.
I also realise, perversely, that I don’t matter, because the world has gone on without me in it. I’m a speck on a small blue dot. No one will mind if I’m happy.
I’m reluctant to leave the cocoon of the retreat where I’m safe in my ‘window of tolerance’. I beg to stay one more night, which means I’m alone in the huge house with my thoughts. I worry I might go mad. I think of Virginia Woolf, who threw herself in a river.
But the techniques I’ve learned — to stroke my arm, as though it were a puppy, to hug myself, to rest — protect me like an umbrella.
The retreat consisted of silence and contemplation plus meditation practice every day
I’ve promised not to open my phone until I’m on the train. Eventually, I open 685 unexploded bombs. Mostly rubbish. A few are annoying: a viewing at my rented cottage, which might mean I’ll have to move, again.
My bank thinks I’m dead. I remember the advice: don’t reply straight away. If someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do, say you need time to think about it. If someone wants to argue, be silent. Walk away.
Before leaving, I was told to make a list of what I need to be happy. I think of the one on my computer at home: ‘Daylesford wine glass. Vispring bed. Square pillows.’ Today, I’ve written one word as I watch the waves slide past: ‘Peace.’
I’m going back to see my doctor later this week, to see if anything physiological has changed.
But I already know I’m different. On my first night home I run a bath and, instead of sitting in it holding my phone, I’m reading the new issue of Vogue. And I don’t even care if I get the pages wet.
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