‘The eye altering, alters all’- William Blake
Q: What’s the purpose of a walking retreat?
I like the word companionship. It’s an old word with Latin roots, meaning ‘to break bread with’. In a way this really sums up the feeling of these one-to-one retreats, suggesting a sense of mutual consideration, intimacy and thoughtful engagement through the sharing of food, words, ideas and silence in wild surroundings, a sense of time slowing and space opening for quiet exploration, through walking and working together in friendship, for inspired dialogue and relaxed conversation around questions or concerns of ultimate importance. It is not coaching, training or a problem-solving process in the typical sense of these words, more a shared encounter which loosely follows a certain framework of inquiry but is at the same time highly flexible depending on what arises out of the unfolding experience.
People walk with me because they want or need to look at something differently, to gain a new perspective on something that is typically difficult or challenging and hard to resolve. To paraphrase the poet Emily Dickinson in the process of our time together ‘we tell the truth but tell it slant’, which is to say we approach the issue with a desire to discover some kind of hidden ‘truth’ but do so from the sides and margins rather than head on. This can be very helpful when concerns are complex, multi-layered and personal. Typically, people seek this special ‘time out of time’ when they are facing or experiencing a period of profound personal or professional transition for which they desire greater insight and understanding. At root, the purpose of the retreat is really to allow the participant to connect or maybe reconnect deeply to themselves, to the earth and the questions they hold in ways that are helpful, sustaining and encouraging for the journey ahead and for whatever lies before them.
Q: Why walking?
Walking in a wild natural environment is part of the retreat alongside other things like writing, eating together, enjoying silence, sitting by a roaring fire and sharing stories and poems.
My base for this work is a pair of stone cottages on a remote hillside in a beautiful valley in the Black Mountains in Wales. It is a stunning landscape of mountains and rivers, streams and waterfalls dotted with areas of ancient forest and wild heathland. There are many varied walks I know well across the whole valley any of which we might take depending on our mood, what feels right and the weather conditions.
Walking as a practice is slow, ancient, rhythmic physical movement that relaxes and calms the body and mind allowing the walker to enter into a peaceful yet alert, awake and engaged state easily, something I have found to be remarkably conducive to creative, imaginative thinking, for deep reflection and good conversation. Walking slows everything down and changes our sense of time and space which can be very helpful in the creative process of inner exploration.
The whole process is enhanced by the fact that we spend our time together offline and digital free, allowing for ideas and conversations to unfold and emerge without the typical interruptions of busy schedules and multiple demands. In summary I’d say we are taking time out of time to be together in a companionable way, to hold important questions considerately, allowing a shared process to unfold naturally towards meaningful outcomes in good faith, with trust and without a fixed or demanding agenda.
Q: Why the wild?
‘There is another world,’ wrote the poet WB Yates, ‘and it is this one’. Put simply, the earth is a living intelligence and in this work the landscape is always an active participant. Wild landscape suggests spaces that are relatively free of human influence, that are quiet, open, mysterious and accessible to our imaginative and intuitive capabilities. As we develop our participative relationship with the earth through walking or sitting quietly outside- together or in solitude-we discover that this intelligence can and will ‘speak ‘to us if we are willing to be humble and to listen. The rocks, the trees, the river and the mountains all have voices that will engage with us – as has always been the case- in the ancient languages of symbol and metaphor. These voices can and will point us in the right direction if we are prepared to listen. Whilst I am responsible for holding the space over our time together my experience on these retreats is often that I actually need to do very little beyond being a good companion. It is the land, the earth herself, respectfully met with good questions, that very often provides the retreatant with the deepest and most striking insights that he or she has been seeking.
How does the process work?
Any Quest requires a good question as an activating principle, so part of the work is to identify questions that are of ultimate importance to the participant at the time of meeting. Deep engagement starts here. Sometimes this question is clear at the outset and at other times it forms fully during the retreat but it’s the question that creates the tension out of which the creative process of exploration can unfold holistically. Typically, we stay together for three days. What happens in that time is often quite mysterious and its hard to quantify because what occurs differs in each case. Walking in wild landscape is a great catalyst for developing insights. Sometimes we walk together and sometimes the participant will go out alone with some guidance from me. I like to use stories-particularly mythic stories, fables and fairy tales to encourage an attitude of wonder and to support non-rational, intuitive ways of thinking about things. Sometimes the process can be quite directed towards a specific problem and at other times the movement is more circular and fluid. Time spent beside the fire in the evenings and in eating simple food together is always valuable. Beyond that the process is hard to describe. I think the psychoanalyst Carl Jung was correct when he observed that the process of healing and the resolution of ‘symptoms’, those things that block a proper understanding of the problem, often occurs as a natural bi-product of engaging fully with the ultimate questions that concern us in life. This seems to be the case in this work and resolution often occurs in surprising and unexpected ways.