Recently I spent a week at the High Heathercombe Centre in Dartmoor. I camped overlooking a tor, alongside huge trees; ate deliciously healthy food, and practised old and new meditation techniques. It was a mainly silent seven days, to allow for stillness and insight to more readily arise. Reading and writing were discouraged. Apart from a daily walk across the moorland, my activities became small, slow and highly localised.
One of my favourite pastimes over the course of the week was watching the bees on a tall thistle growing at the top of the wooden steps that led down to my tent. There were usually four or five, always hard at work. I would watch how their long, thin, furry legs stretched across the thistle’s purple flowers, forming a perfect point of balance, while their heads dipped repeatedly up and down, seeking nectar.
One or two, always the larger ones, would stay on the same thistle head for some time, seeming to make very thorough work of their task. Others, always smaller and with more vivid yellow and black stripes, would buzz quickly about; they’d lift directly up from the purple pad like tiny, organic helicopters, to then land briefly on another thistle flower, then another and another, as if in a rush to prove themselves with as big a cache as quickly as possible.
I decided that the smaller bees must be at the beginning of their honey-making lifespan, whilst the larger ones were nearing the end. One evening a tableau presented itself which seemed to verify this. I was heading to my tent and, as usual, glanced at the tall thistle as I started down the steps. It wasn’t yet dark but the bank was no longer sunlit and I expected the plant to be empty of visitors. Instead I saw four bees, all large. But rather than going about their business, they were utterly still. It was as if they had been stuck on purposefully, like a bad taste joke. The angles looked wrong and without the poetry of their pollen and nectar-seeking movement, there was an air of sadness. I walked on down and noticed I didn’t feel like looking at the thistle as I came back up. Early the next morning I did pause to look. There was now just one bee, completely immobile. The others had disappeared. As I watched, this one too moved ever so slightly, but without agency, as if it had lost its tiny, tenacious grip and was being directed from elsewhere. Later it too had gone and I wondered about the life cycle of these stripey insects, realising I didn’t know much at all. Later again, I halted at the top of the steps to see the thistle plant was once again hosting several bees – busy, buzzing, very much alive.
Another regular activity of mine at Heathercombe was watching the clouds pass over the tor in the mid-distance, the one I looked across to from my tent. The hilltop was perfect for this, shaped as it was like the conical hats worn by people carrying water in those lovely Chinese pastoral scenes; or, less romantically, perhaps, like a huge flying saucer come to rest and overgrown with time.
As the clouds passed over the sun, their shadows would pass over the tor, changing the hill’s green hues for just a few seconds so they were continually shifting back and forth between brighter and deeper, darker tones. The shapes of the clouds would stand out against the hillside too, also changing constantly. I would follow them with my gaze as they drifted on from the tor, different nebulous forms now, blown by the breeze across the great sky.
We sat in meditation for several hours every day, interspersed with walking meditation, and I would watch my thoughts. Spending time noticing them like this, it was easy to spot my tendency, a very human one, to place myself at the centre of what was passing through my mind. I recognised how much time and space was occupied in this way; and saw how much I must be missing about the world around me, how many buzzing bees and high, white clouds must ordinarily pass me by.
Experiencing discomfort – from sitting in one position for a while, or from feeling too hot or too cool, or from dwelling on a difficult subject – I would also see how, again and again, the sensation would pass; it was not forever. Observing this continual process, always in flow, enabled me to loosen my grip, relax, let go.
As the days went by, I began to experience a feeling of more space. By slowing down my reactions, I was slowing down my mind and with each day I felt softer, calmer, more open, more grateful; and more alive.
Watching, waiting, seeing, acting
Not long before going on the retreat I had returned from Palestine and Israel. I found it astounding to think of the contrasts between the two experiences, to take stock of how the world could hold the extremes of suffering and ease, devastation and beauty, chaos and calm.
Before the retreat began, I had wondered if I would feel conflicted about taking a week to sit in the midst of nature, to completely stop. But watching the bees, watching the clouds, watching my mind, waiting before I reacted, all this added up to something really important, to something deeply enriching. Over the seven days of the retreat, I was supported by the other people there, by the meditation practice and by the place itself. And by the end I felt resourced, with a new steadiness and resilience, ready for the contrasts and shifting patterns of the world we share, ready for all of life’s bittersweetness.