Away from it all;Mind and Body

15th May 1998 at 01:00
And, no, you can't take your mobile phone, says Nicki Household.

It is better to be silent and real, than to talk and be unreal. So said Saint Ignatius of Antioch in the 1st century. He wasn't thinking of the teaching profession but of humanity in general. Yet there must be many a teacher for whom silence and reality would be a godsend at the end of the school year.

One of the few places you are guaranteed to find these is at a retreat - a space dedicated to helping you stepoutside your everyday life and get in touch with your inner self and, perhaps, your spirituality.

Retreats come in many varieties and are open to people of any religious persuasion or none. Many still offer the traditional silence and contemplation in peaceful surroundings. Others, known as "themed" or "guided" retreats, include activities such as yoga, dance, painting, singing, nature rambles and creativity workshops. There are also healing retreats, gay and lesbian retreats - even under-water retreats where you can commune with dolphins.

Sylvia Lucas, head of a Catholic primary in Redbridge, Essex, is convinced she wouldn't still be teaching if she hadn't taken regular retreats at The Friars, an ancient Carmelite priory in Aylesford, Kent. Now 60, she says the only reason she has been able to stay the course, unlike so many colleagues who have taken early retirement, is that she has found a place where she can go and simply be herself, away from the pressures of work and the demands of home and family.

"I go there to 'stop'," she explains. "One ought to be able to do that at home but it's difficult because there are always so many things to be done. When I go on retreat, even just for the weekend, I experience a feeling of letting go which helps me get things in perspective for Monday morning."

It was her previous job - as head of a primary school with problems in a deprived area of east London - that drove her to look for peace and quiet. "My family kept saying I ought to give up teaching if I found it so stressful but my commitment to teaching was as strong as ever. It was just that the job had become very demanding, and I needed space to renew my energy and regain some balance."

With its fine medieval buildings, tree-lined lawns and acres of green fields, The Friars is a place of beauty and calm. It is run by a small community of seven Carmelite friars who welcome both groups and individuals seeking peace and quiet. No questions are asked about religious affiliations.

"People can do whatever they find helpful," explains retreats co-ordinator Father James Moran. "There is no bell ringing, and the only fixed things are meals. It's an opportunity for busy people to slow down and make space. We offer counselling, and there is a programme of preached retreats. But if being quiet is what people need, they don't have to speak to anyone."

Rivendell, a Buddhist retreat in High Hurstwood, Sussex, is the choice of Suzanna Lockwood who teaches art and drama at a large West Sussex comprehensive. She went initially because a doctor recommended meditation to ease her migraine, but then found herself drawn to it as a way of relaxing. "I was unsure about going, but when I got there is was idyllic," she recalls.

The emphasis at Rivendell is on simplicity. Visitors - about 25 at a time - stay in single-sex dormitories, although single rooms and solitary cabins are available. They take it in turns to serve the vegetarian food cooked by the permanent community of three or four men.

A typical weekend begins with a welcoming session, followed by an early dinner and a visit to the candle-lit, flower-strewn shrine room. "People with no experience of meditation can just sit quietly with closed eyes, as they'll be introduced to meditation techniques over the weekend," explains Suzanna. The aim is to get better acquainted with your essential self, and thus find peace, harmony and a more positive, joyful outlook on life.

"There's no regime, and that's what I like best," says Suzanna, who has been back several times. "Ideally I'd like to go every holiday because it makes me more calm and clear-thinking in my day-to-day life and in the classroom."

Standing at the foot of Glastonbury Tor, Shambhala, which describes itself as a centre for spiritual growth and healing, offers a very different experience. Run by a husband-and-wife team with the unlikely names of Isis and Argon, Shambhala (which means "perfect love and peace" in Sanskrit) is a four-bedroomed Bamp;B - but one where you go to find, as the brochure puts it, "tranquillity in a sea of confusion".

Some visitors simply find the communal, new-agey atmosphere more relaxing than a hotel; others want to do some serious spiritual regeneration. Among the therapies on offer are "Isis and Argon soul healing"; "learning to channel"; "breath of life" and "Sha Karma healing" as well as massages, saunas and Jacuzzis.

For a retreat, it is on the wackier side of holistic - especially the rebirthing therapy which involves stripping off and getting into a warm tub with Argon. But Shambhala receives a rare "highly recommended" star in the very respectable Good Retreat Guide.

Jackie Harvey, headteacher of a Cambridge primary school, and her husband Ted Harvey, deputy head of a Cambridge secondary school, found the centre much to their liking during the past Easter holidays. "We both felt in need of a rest-cure and thought it would be a nicer place to stay than a hotel because the atmosphere is warm and personal," says Ted. "There were things going on that I haven't encountered before but there was never any pressure to join in anything you didn't feel comfortable about, and I came away feeling rejuvenated and reassembled."

Jackie is equally enthusiastic: "I only took up my current post last September and have had a demanding year. My two days at Shambhala left me feeling freed, cleansed and ready to go back to the fray."

Those who seek the ultimate in solitude may find the answer in a small wooden hut called a poustinia (which means "a place apart" in Russian) in the 10-acre wooded garden of the Grail Centre in Pinner, Middlesex.

Poustiniks, as the temporary dwellers in the garden are called, make their own breakfasts and suppers, using food provided, and can either eat lunch with the large, friendly community of lay Catholic women in the main house or take it away on a tray.

Poustinias are available from a minimum of a day to a maximum of a week, although not more than 24 hours is recommended for a first visit as many people find they can't deal with the total silence. "A few have come out screaming after only an hour because they are just not used to being alone with their thoughts," says Pat Edwards, a primary teacher who has taken a year out to live alongside the community and look after the poustiniks. "It's hard for people who are used to a lot of distractions to know what to do when there's no radio, TV or phone. All we ask is that people come in search of stillness. The rest is up to them."

* Retreat yourself

The Good Retreat Guide by Stafford Whiteaker is published by Rider, pound;12.99 The National Retreat Association, The Central Hall, 256 Bermondsey Street London SE1 3UJ. Tel: 0171 357 7736

The Friars, Aylseford, Kent, ME20 7BX. Tel: 01622 717272. Stays cost about pound;29 per day, full board

Rivendell Retreat Centre Chillies Lane, High Hurstwood, Sussex TN22 4AA. Tel: 01825 732594. A weekend costs pound;65, midweek retreats pound;85, and one week pound;190

Shambhala, Coursing Batch, Glastonbury, Somerset BA6 8BH. Tel: 01458 831797. Bamp;B from pound;27.60. Treatment packages from pound;183 for the two-day "relaxing break", to pound;318.50 for the three-day "spiritual growth experience"

The Grail Centre 125 Waxwell Lane, Pinner, Middx HA5 3ER. Tel: 0181 866 2195. Poustinias cost from pound;9 for one day, without lunch, to pound;14.50 for 24 hours with lunch. Larger poustinias cost between pound;10 and pound;1

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