Beyond the experience of duality


‘The heart’s leadings in challenging times’

‘In the midst of these very stressful times, I realised the benefits of having such a community to share in prayer and meditation, and the wisdom of some very profound spiritual readings. I feel very blessed to be part of this community, and I want to thank everybody who shared in it.’  Daphne

Into the unknown

With the arrival of coronavirus our retreat morphed into hermits-in-company@home as we experimented sculpting a virtual gathering on zoom. The retreats theme – ‘The heart’s leadings in challenging times’, which had rather synchronously been picked before the onset of COVID 19, was particularly pertinent. Preparing for the retreat felt strange, with the absence of normal rituals, packing the car and driving through the forest of Dean to Ty Mawr.

On the first evening, despite a few hiccups, we ‘zoomed’ into each other homes. Facing a screen of smiling faces, jokes were swapped about the traffic en-route, maybe reflective of the challenge of zoom. I sensed a strong commitment from us all to arrive, and a web of connection between, London, Gillingham, Cirencester, Nailsworth, Suffolk, Stratford upon Avon, Sussex, Chesterfield and Bath. Time was needed to go over the retreat schedule, and also to explore the protocols of using zoom – such as learning to put our hands up if we wanted to speak! We were going into the unknown. Participants were invited to adopt an attitude of self -accepting, gentle, kindliness and curiosity as we became a 21st century contemplative, experiential learning community. At the end of the first evening I felt a surge of excitement, as if we had crossed an invisible threshold into a new space. 

For the next three days, we met at 8am for morning prayer and meditation, 3.30pm for contemplative sharing, 5.30pm for evening prayer and meditation and lastly at 9 pm for a candle-lit namajapa. On the last morning, we had a closing gathering.  Towards the retreat the idea to meet up for contemplative sharing and meditation a week after the retreat emerged. This we did. Given this was a pioneering experiment we invited the participants to send reflections. In this article, I have set out to draw on and honour their reflections. 

The retreat brought challenges and discoveries.


We were Hermits Together in Lockdown. Pauline reflected, 

I was surprised by how seamlessly the retreat experience merged with the lockdown experience, because so many of the things I look forward to in Ty Mawr were already there as happy side-effects of the lock-down – the silence, the removal from usual activities, the slowing down, the cleaner air, the bluer sky, the bird song no longer in competition with the noise of engines. What wasn’t already present, of course, was the facilitating structure, the beautiful chants and readings, the contemplative sharings, the sense of like-minded purpose.

We had been anticipating going to Ty Mawr, where we had all been before. This prompted fond memories, expectations of what had been hoped for, a sense of disappointment about not going, and inevitable comparisons to an actual retreat. Having met before and all been to Ty Mawr brought remembrance, and this may have helped us to more quickly grow a sense of community. I sense that it would have been different with a group of new people.


Zoom was our medium of meeting, some of us were familiar with this. For others, it was new. Ryszarda commented that the  

…very process was a painful reminder of what a terrible situation the country is in, what we were missing due to coronavirus. 

It was a steep learning curve. The desire to meet pushed some of us to the edge of our comfort zones as we tried to embrace an initially unwanted technology. But with the learning came a sense of achievement, surprise at what was possible, and real meeting. Maybe we were being successful at combatting a fear of alienation through a medium that is potentially alienating.  

As well as frustrations, the experience of zoom brought opportunities for practice. For Eric,

A lesson in mindfulness was to absorb ‘noises’ off from time to time, and try not to let it distract or irritate. Also, to be mindful of others. Not everyone is easy with Zoom and keyboard functions, so time spent getting us all up to speed felt like ‘’be kind ‘time. 

It also brought some concern as Ryszarda shared,

I did have a niggling worry that the camera would reveal some heaps of ‘stuff’ waiting to be sorted, so I had to manoeuvre these out of sight!! 

But perhaps a certain intimacy as Pauline reflected,

I’m new to Zoom and it was extraordinary sitting here at my own desk with all of the other hermits in their own spaces coming into my space.  I was surprised by how real their presences were, framed against what became their very familiar backgrounds, and of course facilitated by the fact that we had shared actual space on previous retreats.

Furthermore, zooming necessitated tweaking our normal way of doing things in a number of ways.

Zoom brought abrupt entrances and exits. With one ‘click’ we were either with the group, or not. Leaving especially felt rather sudden, almost abandoning. In response to discovering this, we sculpted in about 5 minutes ‘leaving time’ at the end of the sessions.  Time in which participants could leave when they were ready, rather than John, as zoom host, controlling the situation and simply switching us off!

We also decided to have prayer times before meditation, reversing our usual pattern.  Usually, silent retreatants, having been sharing the same environment, quietly arrive to meditate together, then listen to readings and chant, before moving to a silently social shared meal. Our situation was different. People were arriving from different environments, and rather abruptly on zoom. Having the prayer time, with readings and chants seemed to assist our arriving and settling as a group before going into meditation. After which we left silently to connect back into our home world.

Chanting was interesting! A zoom chanting protocol was developed. In order to avoid a cacophony, the lead singer was unmuted and heard by all, others were muted, so able to sing along with the leader but not be heard by everyone else. There was also a protocol for meditation. If ‘unmuted’ the smallest ‘noises off’ from any of our worlds was heard by all – from doorbells to noisy neighbours. So, during meditation people were generally ‘muted’ to prevent intrusive noise. This was helpful, however for some, it had the side effect, of making them feeling a bit ‘cut – off’. Thankfully, not everyone was muted all the time and nature made its presence felt on more than one occasion when John’s resident blackbird sang heartily.

Space, silence and the ‘outside world’

The Tibetan word for retreat is ‘tsam’, which means a boundary. The boundary is often created by going away to a conducive place, entering silence, and following an organised schedule. On this retreat, each hermit had the responsibility of sculpting their own space and schedule depending on their circumstances –  some of us were living alone, some in community and some with family. So, how to negotiate and craft the time, space and silence? We were able to share our discoveries and dilemmas during times of contemplative sharing. 

For those living alone silence was not such a challenge, but for others it was. Eric shared his challenges.

Silence and spaces was perhaps the hardest part of the retreat for me. I share my life with four lovely women, of whom one is a hugely affectionate dog, and two are cats! With a moderately large Victorian house, we have a garden room and a walled garden. (…)  I took the decision that when I emerged from my study, I re -entered and re engaged with home and the outside world. It was therefore, a repeated disconnect and took some time for me to find a balance to that both practically, and in my mind. 

I sense for many of us, it was a case of moving in and out of silence, and noticing our thought processes around it! After all, we were hermits@home and this brought inevitable dealings with the outside world, for example phone calls, and the occasional family crisis needing attention. There were also immediate issues that needed dealing with, such as Daphne needing to talk to BT when computer issues threatened to make connecting on zoom impossible. 

We were hermits in our familiar surroundings, yet interestingly, words like ‘temple’ and ‘sanctuary’ began to be used to describe some peoples feeling about their retreat spaces – as if their home space was being felt, or viewed in a new way. 

In his reflections, Eric commented

Several times others, Daphne in particular, spoke of their spaces at home, referring to their sense of them as sanctuary. I found, absurd though it may sound, that the simple act of door opening, door closing, changed the room from public to private –  world to retreat.

A simple physical act enabling a transition between an inner world (personal) and social (interpersonal) world. Also, the use of words like ‘sanctuary’ and ‘temple’, point to spaces being imbued with new meaning, and suggest a transition from the secular to a sense of the sacred. Would this experience help support hermits increase their contemplative band- width in their ongoing everyday lives?

Sharing our journey

I had wondered if, with the absence of all the usual deepening, bonding rituals such as – washing-up – setting the table for meals and contemplative walking etc, our sense of community would grow.  However, over the days, I sensed a calming, settling, and our sense of community strengthening; also, our meditations deepening. It was as if, during meditation, some sort of connection was happening on a level that that seemed to transcended our zoom medium. My experience was echoed by others.

Daphne reflected that, 

As the days went by, with the rhythm of the services, readings and bhajans, and meditation, and the sharing, the sense of communion did begin to build up. 

This growing sense of community was supported by everyone contributing readings. For Ryszarda, these were important, she reflected,

The readings stood out, I think more than they usually do, it could be that we were all longing for wisdom more than usual and it was very connecting to share.

Given we are living through an uncertain time of upheaval, in social isolation, I felt there was a strong desire to connect with like- minded people. 

Eric commented,

What delighted and surprised me, was how close our virtual community became, so quickly. Insights were offered that cut through the barrier of screen and physical distance. The feeling of sharing and being invited into the chosen spaces of all our homes felt very special. And we aired and shared vulnerabilities in a way I had not expected. And indeed, that I too was comfortable in that. 

Our times of contemplative sharing felt an important part of growing our community. During them I sensed open, honest reflection on the process of the retreat, as we shared both challenges and ways that we were meeting these, which felt mutually supportive. 

In her reflections, Daphne wrote, 

It was interesting to see how to deal with the different challenges as they came up. For me, a new discovery was the repetition of the Jesus prayer, which certainly helped me when I became agitated or anxious.  

She went on to say she had I started practising Zen walking when on her daily walk.  The impulse to be mindfully present was expressed by many. 

When going away on retreat, home life with its stimuli and demands gradually recedes. This often brings a quietening, a deepening; also, a softening of the usual ways we harden ourselves against the outside world. This in turn, can bring an increasing awareness of our inner worlds. People spoke of this retreat as challenging. Was this,  in-part, because we were having to process stimuli from ‘within’ and ‘without’, with less defences? People reflected on increasing awareness of habitual distraction techniques, such as checking emails. Also of dilemmas – ‘How much to listen to the news and COVID 19 updates?’ ‘Whether or not to check FaceBook?’ We were seeing our familiar patterns more clearly, and still having to deal with the outside world.

Daphne highlighted the value the supportive group presence as we faced our dilemmas, 

Because of the group energy, I found I was able not to watch too much TV or news, and even cut out looking at my emails, except for once when I found myself becoming quite agitated by what I was reading, so I cut them out altogether. I think being on retreat, and indeed this whole lockdown period, has made me more acutely aware of my different states of feeling and how important it is to maintain my equilibrium. 


I wonder if the unique value of this style of retreat is as a ‘bridge’ – giving us the challenging opportunity to become more aware of our familiar patterns in our home environments. To learn to encompass and transition between different aspects of our ‘personal’, ‘social’ and ‘spiritual’ selves, between different modes of ‘doing’ and being’; and to help us integrate skill-full spiritual practises in daily life. 

In her reflections, Daphne commented

Sometimes at Ty Mawr one can have a wonderful experience and then, once home, one can let it all slip away. In fact, perhaps the advantage of doing this retreat at home has been to make me realise how I could incorporate this structure into my daily life, and in that way, it has been very valuable. 

Having a gathering a week after the end of the retreat, for contemplative sharing and meditation, gave us time to reflect on and share where retreat insights had taken us.

 Eric mentioned

This week, I took part in my weekly Qigong/Tai Chi class, now via Zoom as well.  This time I lit the candles from the weekend, closed the door, and put on a calming (…) As the session progressed, I perceived that I and the space had transitioned into sanctuary. Almost that simple. It was there all the time, but the weekend concentrated me into seeing the bridge. The retreat nudged me into seeing this ‘‘inmost recess’’ as both in my mind and in how it relates to the outer spaces I occupy. 

Each person reflected discovering ways of integrating appropriate for them.  For example, Gillian had the insight that she needed to be more ‘ruthless’ policing her boundaries to allow for restorative contemplative time in everyday life.

Pauline felt that 

What may work is attempting to incorporate meditation into the fabric of my life – not just a few minutes of calming deep breathing in times of stress, but moments of gratitude, moments of stillness, moments of awareness.

Taking stock

I have come to think that this style of virtual retreat may have a lot of potential – not as second best to going away on an actual retreat, but as offering overlapping and different, but equally useful, opportunities. I see them as different animals with different natures and functions, but both with beating hearts and both valuable. As Eric put it ‘the one does not replace the other, it can act in a complimentary way’. This way of retreating may help us on our spiritual journeys, in ways that going away can’t.  

Given the situation with COVID 19, at present it is hard to envision a way of having actual retreats any time soon. Maybe virtual gatherings, which can be joined from anywhere, can be a positive way of growing and sharing our spiritual journeys. Also, of generating healing energy for our planet – as Daphne put it ‘I feel that by creating this silent space, we are helping the ‘outside world’, so it is an important thing to do’. 

 We asked participants ‘If the need arose would people do this again?’  The answer was ‘yes’.

Jane Lichnowski

This review of our first hermits-in-company@home Zoom retreat was first published in the Sangha Newsletter Summer 2020