It could have felt weird. Five women sat around a table, eating a delicious home cooked meal of sausages, mash, and ratatouille, but not talking. Not because of subservience, an argument or having nothing in common, but because of choice. The women were all respected in their own fields, successful and strong and had chosen to come on a silent retreat for women in leadership. Each was either facing a big decision, life change or needed space to think about the past and future, and had opted to fully switch off from the world to be able to gain clarity, focus, and renewal.
Silent retreats are nothing new, they have been happening for centuries, yet in the digital age where it gets harder and harder to switch off, they appear to be an up and coming trend. As Albert Camus wrote in The Minotaur…” In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion; in order to serve men better; one has to hold them at a distance for a time.”
It takes courage and confidence to choose to be silent in the company of strangers. Never having led a silent retreat before, I didn’t know what to expect and I am aware it isn’t to everyone’s taste. A whole day stretching before you can feel daunting with no plans. Yet, there is structure. Each day offers three delicious meals, a 1-1 coaching session and begins and ends with an optional short time of prayer. As well as walking through the East Sussex countryside, retreat guests chose to curl up with a book, sit by the fire, create in the art room or nap in the summerhouse!
Personally, I found the silence to be powerful, uplifting, beautiful, surprising and rewarding. It is amazing what you can find, hear and see when you stop and retreat. Walking through the bluebell and wild garlic woods that surround the retreat centre, the stunning white, purple and green colours of nature dazzle your eyes; and the cacophony of birdsong is so constant that you begin to distinguish the different voices. With no-where to rush to, I stopped on a bench by a pond. Whilst sitting still, two grass snakes, adult, and child, poked out of the reeds, dived down then sat silently on the surface, watching a large dragonfly as it skimmed the water. I wasn’t expecting that! What moments of unexpected wonder, have I missed because of mental distraction or busyness?
Over the three day period, I was astonished at the change in demeanor of the ladies. On arrival, faces looked stressed, peaky, tired and interestingly it felt as if bodies were groaning in desperation for the solitude to start – like a car letting you know when it needs to change gear. As the time unfolded, having had the opportunity to reflect and reframe, each person departed glowing, feeling more confident, refreshed and renewed. During the final meal together each brightly vowed to come again with one person saying ‘it hit just the right spot, thank you’.
Going back to Albert Camus, the next line of his essay says, “But where can one find the solitude necessary to vigor, the deep breath in which the mind collects itself and courage gauges its strength?” If you are a woman, I can answer that. The next Silent Retreat for Women in Leadership is being held between Tuesday 23rd to Friday 26th April 2019.