January 21, 2019 / 1 comment
Tasha Bassingthwaighte on imagination, meditation and wifi-free retreats.
Earlier in this series of interviews, I spoke to Dr Larry Rosen who told me, “I would say that our imagination is probably on the decline, exactly in the opposite trend of our time spent on our smart phone”. If, as I’ve been recently musing, our imaginations need time and space, and much of that time and space is currently being sucked up by smartphones, social media and our online lives, then what happens when people stop, turn these devices off, and deliberately make time to reflect? To explore the answers to this questio, I headed out to The Barn Retreat on the Sharpham Estate, close to where I live, to talk to Tasha Bassingthwaighte who is The Barn’s Manager. I arrived just as participants in one of their week-long retreats were heading indoors for some fine-smelling soup. Tasha and I sat in The Barn’s library, and I started by asking her to explain what happens at The Barn.
“People come for week-long retreats and the retreats are based on Buddhist meditation, community, and connection to the land. We have a pretty standard structure of retreat with three periods of meditation a day, a period of working in the garden together, including harvesting food that we eat, and living as a community for that week. A kind of pop-up family. There’s 10 or 11 retreatants per week here.
When people arrive here, what would you say is a lot of people’s experience who turn up here, in terms of their relationship with digital technologies and stuff?
I’d say the most number of people we have from one place is London. Most people are very tapped in to digital technology, and we ask them to either leave their phones in their car or we’ll take their phones and devices in the office and keep them for the week. There’s no Wi-Fi even if they did use it.
There’s very little reception for any mobile phones either so it’s pretty safe that people aren’t using their phones. That is part of the transformation and part of the profound experience they have here, is just not using any digital technology for a week, because most of them haven’t had that previously.
Do you find people going off trying to find a hillside somewhere where there might be a signal?
Very occasionally, yeah!
How do you observe that process of coming out of that trance, or breaking that pattern?
For most people, it’s only what they tell us, that we’d notice really. There’s a few people who do, in a confessional way, admit to the group that they’ve used their phones. That they knew there was some information coming – their kids G.C.S.E scores or a job that they had applied for and they’re waiting to hear back, if they got an interview – something like that, there’s occasionally things like that.
There are also occasional times where people talk about how they notice that they reach for their phone every time they feel slightly uncomfortable or bored or unsure what to do next. That they automatically are putting their hand in their pocket to grab their phone and realise that it’s not there.
But for the most part, the majority of people talk about how freeing it is. Because it’s not just the removal of the phone. They’re also being supported in a meditation practice and mindfulness practice, as well as being in a community of real living breathing other people who are also sharing in a more vulnerable way than we usually do in regular society.
That moment when that hand reaches for the pocket – almost automatically without even thinking about it – when you teach people an attention practice, when you teach people a mindfulness meditation practice, what comes in instead of that? What are we doing when we’re doing that, and how can we do something else instead?
We’re distracting ourselves from something that’s uncomfortable. It could be just ever so slightly uncomfortable, or it could be something that’s bigger and quite potentially overwhelming emotions, but most often it’s just slight discomfort. We’re used to, whenever there’s a break in tasks that we’re accomplishing, that many of us are used to just reaching for our phones and filling in that space.
We encourage people to connect with what they’re trying to distract themselves from. That’s very powerful when you know that you can hold more emotionally than you knew previously, or you know the community can at least, if not you as an individual. But with the help and support of the community you’re able to.
When you invite people to explore what it is that they’re avoiding by doing that, if a smart phone is like painkillers, when you get people to sit with, “What is it that you’re suppressing with that?” what kind of things do people tell you about?
I’d say that it could be such a variety of things, from boredom, uncertainty of what they’re doing or who they are, that slight texture of existential angst, to it could be something like a grief that they haven’t processed that their father passed away three years ago and every time there’s any silence or any space, then the grief comes up again and they’re wanting to avoid that, and they recognise that.
It’s not that we are teaching them what to do with it, so much as giving them the support to, and encouragement of, being aware of what it is, and the space to recognise and acknowledge those things that come up, and that opens things up for people.
When people arrive here – I don’t know how long you’ve been around people learning meditate I suppose – but have you noticed the state of health of the attention spans of people who come, who want to learn, has it got worse over time would you say?
I’ve been around meditation for a couple of decades and the thing that I notice most is the way that what people think of as meditation has shifted with the popularity of mindfulness, and how they learn to meditate has shifted. It used to be, I’d say 15 years ago, it was definitely you’d either go to a group that meditates to learn, or read a book quietly in your room and try that out. Now more people are using apps to learn to meditate and think of meditation as guided meditation.
We do some guided and some unguided here, and it seems – even in the two and a half years I’ve been here – there’s been a shift in the number of people who are surprised that there’s silent meditation. Because they’re used to using an app and having a guided meditation at all times. We’re needing to make changes on our website for example to be really clear that there are unguided meditations, that there will be silent sittings. We also are finding ways of increasing support to people who have only sat with guidance, and haven’t sat silently before.
Can you really learn to meditate from an app?
I think so. It wasn’t my experience, but it is lots of people’s experience. It’s just guided meditation. The apps I assume – I need to confess I don’t have a smart phone, I never have and I’ve never used any of these apps, but I’ve talked to lots of people who have – my understanding is that their apps give you a progression that generally works for people. So starting with shorter periods of meditation and more guidance, and slowly progressing to less guidance and longer periods of meditation.
It might only start with 5 or 10 minute meditation, but within a couple of weeks you might be doing 25 minute meditation. So I’m not against the use of apps, and other technology, to learn to meditate. And I think it leaves a lot. Buddhism isn’t just about mindfulness meditation. It can be more nourishing in an environment like this where there is community and where there is connection to the land. That that’s very supportive as well.
If we go from being a culture where meditation is silent meditation, self-guided, to being increasingly focused on guided meditation, what’s the difference in the quality in terms of awareness and attention and stuff?
The attention is less emphasised. Sustained attention is less emphasised when there’s only guided meditation and there’s not more than 5 minutes of silence. It’s a good stepping stone, and I do see it. There are some meditators who have meditated for a decade or more who use guided meditations, but that’s quite rare, I’d say. It is more of a stepping stone I think…
It’s kind of a beginners’ thing, isn’t it really?
Yeah, it’s a support for beginners. Not always. It depends what you’re trying to cultivate within your mind. But in this context, in talking about attention, I’d say that definitely if one of your intentions for your meditation is to increase your attention, then moving towards silent meditation, and longer meditations, will be more helpful in cultivating that attention.
So when people present, using a medical term, is your sense that people are more distracted than they were 20 years ago? That people’s attention is more scattered, maybe, than it was 20 years ago? Or is that a projection?
I think so. I don’t know from 20 years ago because I’m in a very different context than I was at that time. But in thinking about teens, I used to work with teens about a decade ago, and I’m around teens now as I have a teenage daughter, I can see a difference in the last ten years in the attention span of younger people. That’s quite obvious to me.
In terms of meditators, I don’t think I can say. So much is invisible in meditation that you can’t see how many thoughts people are having and how distracted they are while they’re sitting on the cushion.
In terms of teens, what are the risks of that? If we’re producing a generation of teenagers, and I see it in my own as well, who struggle to focus on anything for more than a few minutes with their minds off somewhere, and there’s always the black hole of the phone to be sucked down, what are the risks of that? What are they losing, do you think?
Well, they’re losing all of life that takes more than a few seconds to notice, which is most of life. So it’s so much. We need sustained attention in order to notice the context of our thinking, to notice the change of seasons and the beauty of nature, in having an intimacy in relationships. So much takes more than a few seconds of attention to deepen. So yeah, I guess it’s a superficiality.
You skate over the surface rather than diving deeply?
Yeah, that being said, it’s very easy as grownups to look at kids and say that their lives are more superficial than ours were when we were teenagers.
And actually often adults are worse, if anything.
Yeah. And it is so encouraged in so many ways to be distracted and to multi-task.
In your own life, as somebody for whom attention is really important, and a meditation practice is really important and cultivating that inner space where attention can emerge is important, what’s your relationship with technology? You said you didn’t have a smart phone but I’ve emailed you…
I do use computers, yes.
So how do you find a balance point where you can interact with that technology without it following you home?
It’s dynamic, yeah. The balance point is dynamic. I definitely use internet and computers and email and all of that. I have a brick phone that’s for emergencies only for anything that happens at the Barn, so that I can be reached right away. I use social media but I try to be aware of when I get caught.
I do get caught at times. I’m not in any way enlightened, or always aware of my attention. I guess I could summarise it saying I’m trying to have just enough technology in my life that I’m not completely out of touch with what the rest of society is doing, and not more than enough.
If you were talking to somebody who themselves, or maybe one of their kids, seemed to be really struggling in terms of that relationship – they’d been sucked down that vortex and were struggling to get out – what would your advice be to them? What tools might they implement to start pulling back a bit from that?
I think it’s noticing why we use technology, and at times it is distraction as we’ve talked about. At times it’s a need for connection. So noticing the need underlying, the reason for reaching for technology, and then trying to find more wholesome ways of meeting that need, rather than it coming from a place of discipline only. There might be some discipline involved but I don’t think I’d ever give anyone the advice of just chucking everything out.
Living in a cave.
Yeah, yeah. That’s unrealistic. For example social media, and people’s addiction to that, it is often a real desire to connect with other people, and that’s a very wholesome and human need. So finding ways to ensure that instead of going on Instagram, or Twitter, or Facebook or whatever, every time that there’s a moment of space in your life to make sure that you’re seeing friends a few times each week, or every day connecting with someone in a more real and social way. And then seeing if that helps. Try to balance things out with looking at the underlying need and trying to meet that.
One of the big things about here is you say people spend time in the garden. As I arrived people were out chopping stuff back. It’s been a long tradition in Buddhism, back to the Buddha himself, and under the tree, that a meditation is something that has this connection to nature and to the outdoors. Why does that matter? As we become increasingly sedentary and increasingly based indoors, in terms of awareness and attention and mindfulness, what do we lose by not spending enough time outdoors?
I’d say part of what we lose is a sense of belonging. With a lack of sense of belonging we feel more anxious. We go for the more junk foody things like technology, like social media, and what not. And connection with ourselves and our bodies, that’s very important, and something that with increased amount of technology in our lives, increased digital world in our lives, we lose connection with our bodies and with ourselves in that way as well.
Being physical, being outside, is very helpful in noticing that you’ve got a body, you’re not just a floating head. And again, doing that with others really nourishes a sense of community, and a sense of belonging, and a sense of place, and a reverence for this earth and for wherever you are on it, even if it’s not in a beautiful wild or rural area, but wherever that is, there’s beauty within that.
Could you have a retreat centre with Wi-Fi? Would it work?
Yeah, I’m sure there’s lots. It depends how you classify retreat centre, and it depends what you’re retreating from. Would I want to go to a retreat centre? There are retreat centres that are just relaxing spa kind of places. I’ve never gone to any of those that might be appropriate to watch Netflix at the end of the day, I have no idea. It depends on what you’re wanting to cultivate.
The people who come to the Barn, they’re generally wanting to cultivate connection to themselves, self-compassion, loving kindness and sustained attention, and being more present to their lives. We often hear people say that they’ve been living in a dream state of lack of awareness for the past year, or decade, or many decades. They want to connect enough with themselves that their lives don’t just pass them by.
How does that impact people when they emerge after a week here, of a week of sustained attention? If they’ve spent years in this dream like you talk about, what do people feedback at the end about how that changes their perspective?
It’s very transformational for people, of course. Yeah. And it is the other pieces, the community and the connection to the land that also have an impact to that. The conversations that I have with people at the end of their retreats are often about how they are seeing their lives in a clearer way, and they have different decisions that they’re going to implement in how they’re living their lives.
They want to have deeper friendships, that they want to continue having some form of meditation in their daily lives. They’re more present and loving. In the weeks where I’m just here on the first day and the last day, I can definitely see this very obvious glow that people have. Self-acceptance is a big part of it, and attention is another part of it.
There’s a question that I’ve asked everybody that I’ve interviewed for this, but which I’ll adapt slightly in this context. I’ve asked everybody, if you had been elected as the President or the Prime Minister of the place where you live, and you had a run on a platform of ‘Make Britain Imaginative Again’ – so you had decided that actually we’re seeing this erosion of imagination at a time when we most need it – so if you were to prioritise the imagination in policy, in education, in public life, in architecture, across the board, you said we need to ramp this capacity up in our collective psyche, what would you do? But I wonder if it was to ‘Make Britain attentive again’, or if you were elected to power on a platform of restoring the nation’s attention span, what might you do? Where would you start?
Yeah, interesting question. Well of course I have found personally, and have seen, that meditation really aides in that. This isn’t a long ad for meditation, but for imagination and attention there needs to be some space, and meditation is one way to provide that. I’d say solitude and in nature is another way that that can be provided.
In terms of government policy, I wouldn’t mandate everyone to meditate or have solitude in nature if I was the Prime Minister of Britain. But the standardisation of education definitely limits that spaciousness and creativity and imagination. Encouraging creativity is important for adults as well as our children, so having community spaces for that. Having community spaces for adults to do creative ventures would be wonderful. Having more meditative spaces accessible would be important. I don’t know how we’d have less…
Decrease the amount of stimulation, but it does feel like we keep on trying to increase the amount of stimulation and the amount that companies are vying for our attention. That can only lead to less of the spaciousness that is essential for imagination. Lots of things are more social change that needs to happen, rather than government policies, like parents not feeling like they need to put their kids in classes every day of the week.
In fact maybe it’s acknowledging that boredom is important. For kids to feel bored sometimes is important for them to not fear that space, because that’s the other thing that I see here. We have one day that’s in silence each week, and for some people who haven’t experienced that before, and who have had very full schedules their entire lives, it’s something that they’re really scared of. There’s very little on that day, it’s just three periods of meditation together, the three meals in the day. Nothing else is on. There’s nothing else scheduled.
There are some people who are really fearful of having that space. Finding ways to create that space in our lives, in our young people’s lives, and have that socially supported thing for adults to have as well. Even if you don’t meditate but to have that spaciousness in some way that calls to each person, to have that in their lives.
That’s all my questions. Just if you had any last thoughts on attention and imagination I haven’t asked you the question and you’re thinking, “I hope he asks me that question so I can tell him all about that thought I had…” Now is the moment.
I don’t think so. I guess there’s a connection with what I was just talking about, with having some kind of spaciousness, and the aversion towards that. On top of that aversion, there’s also often an inner critic that comes and says, “Oh, you can’t even be by yourself for whatever length of time” but that’s important, some level of self-compassion or self-acceptance is important in order to get over a bit of a hump of not having any spaciousness, acknowledging that we haven’t had that in our lives, that most of us have had very scheduled lives and so of course it’s going to feel uncomfortable, and that’s okay. And that’s normal, and nothing to beat yourself up about.
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