Quiet in France, mania in Spain and how the essential link is mutual support

The Queenager: Eleanor's letter (October 22nd 2023)

A fortnight of contrasts - meditation and extreme busy-ness

Dear Queenagers

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Greetings from Spain where the rain is not staying in the plane! I am here with 18 members of my extended family celebrating my mother’s 80th birthday. I just swam in blue/green sea under a grey sky far out to a buoy at the edge of the bay; the water is not the warmest. I’m sitting here typing in a woolly hat, jumper and pashmina. Hopefully it will warm up soon. The family members range from two years to 80 – all my five siblings and their partners and kids (unfortunately both of my daughters are at university). But I am enjoying being an attentive auntie, potato peeler and general scrubber. It is NOT quiet!

That is where my ‘fortnight of contrast’ comes in. This time last weekend I was just finishing seven days of an entirely silent retreat deep in La France Profonde, tout etait tranquille. Having handed in my book I was in need of replenishment. And I know of no greater treat I can give myself than a re-treat; a week in silence, six hours of yoga and two hours of meditation every day.

To begin with my mind was like a TV on static, all black and white fuzz, it was hard to settle – I had to remind myself over and over again that the remembering, the coming back to the now, is the practice. But after five days with no speaking, no phone, no emails, no meetings, no whatsapp, no TV, no LinkedIn, no radio; going to sleep looking at the stars out of the window of my monastic room, immersing myself in the autumnal Dordogne countryside, eating vegetables – it was amazing how much more peaceful I felt.

On  day 5,  I rose at 7am in the dark and made my way to the meditation hall, a glorious space of high wooden buttresses and glass windows. I settled myself on my bean-bag meditation mat, heard the gong chime and when I closed my eyes instead of static, I felt a deep calm, a sense that ‘I’ the Eleanor of work and busy-ness had so receded that she had almost disappeared.

I emerged into the sunshine of dawn at around 8am and made my way to breakfast through the rustling bamboo grove. I stood for a moment underneath golden poplar trees as the dappled sun played upon the river’s surface below me. It looked like an Impressionist painting and then as I watched, everything went white and golden and I found myself so moved that I began weeping tears of joy at the pure beauty of the morning.

Later that day, the teacher read us a poem by Mark Nepo called Ungloved:

We waste so much energy trying to cover up who we are
when beneath every attitude is the want to be loved
and beneath every anger is a wound to be healed
and beneath every sadness is the fear that there will not be enough time.

Our challenge each day is not to get dressed to face the world
but to unglove ourselves so that the door knob feels cold
and the car handle feels wet
and the kiss goodbye feels like the lips of another being,
soft and unrepeatable.

That poem summed up exactly what I was feeling. I think that week I became ‘ungloved’ – the callouses, the barriers which usually protect us from the world were removed. There were times during the yoga – which wrings out of the body the secret places where we keep sadness – that I felt deep pain. Over the week I shed many tears of regret and hurt. But the corollary of that, of having ventured into the places I usually avoid, was this incredible sensitivity to the world. The ‘ungloved’ feeling; the sensitivity to the coldness of the river as I swam upstream, a heron darting from its tree above me, the yellows and gold of the leaves, the mist rising from the water into the morning air. Or that time I wept from sheer joy. Or how after lunch I would lie on a bench, the sun on my face looking up at the sky and the trees and the leaves which drifted down on the breeze. Just being.

In our normal lives we ‘glove’ ourselves. Maybe we don’t say exactly what we really feel, or we ram ourselves who are round into square holes. Or we hide who we are out of a sense of lack, or unworthiness. Or we just numb ourselves with stimulation and distraction so we can forget what we truly feel, or even who we really are. For me the point of the silent retreat is this ‘un-gloving’ – to re-find myself, re-connect, re-calibrate, re-learn how to feel; to spend extended, quiet, reflective time with myself. To feel at ease, comfortable, at home, safe, within my own skin. To be ‘ungloved’ – re-born into the world. Enough just as we are. With a sense of internal spaciousness (a consequence of all that yoga in the body) but also a feeling of coming home to ourselves in the mind.

I write this because so many times since I have returned I have been asked why I go, why I’d rather spend a week in silence on a yoga mat or meditation cushion, surrounded by a community of relative strangers. The answer is it’s a break from all the stories we tell, from small talk, from distraction – a chance to go deep and replenish and work through everything we normally run from. There is community here and kindness here in the silence, a hug, a touch on the shoulder, half a deliciously ripe peach slipped onto a breakfast plate – just of a different, unspoken, kind.

On one morning we were practicing balancing poses; my bete noir. I ruptured a cruciate ligament 20 years ago and my pro-prioception is not great. I wobble in tree pose. But this time our wonderful teacher Ayala Gill suggested that as we raised our arms, we join hands with our neighbours. Suddenly rather than wobbling I rose straight and true, held aloft and stable by the women around me. Individually we were shaky; holding hands we became a mighty, indomitable forest. It was a wonderful  feeling of embodied support. How together we are stronger, how we literally lift each other up. A powerful lesson in our divided world.

Returning to London to a mega busy World Menopause Week I was reminded of the importance of mutual support. On Monday I was honoured to be one of the 450 invited to the Women of the Year lunch. On my table was a 24 year old woman called Hannah who worked on a Lifeboat in North Shields; she told me how she had plucked a woman from the stormy waters and given her CPR solidly for thirty minutes as they got her to shore and saved her life. Baroness Brenda Hale reminded us all of Madeleine Albright’s great quote that there is a ‘special circle of hell reserved for women who don’t support other women’ and the other winners reinforced that message: we all rise when we support each other. On Wednesday I hosted Noon’s World Menopause Day debate – big thanks to Dr Nighat Arif, Dr Lucy Ryan, Ritula Shah and Rachel Weiss for giving up their valuable time to take part. We concluded that while the emergence of menopause from the shadows of taboo is brilliant – and how much more work there is to do there; we Queenagers don’t want to be seen as walking hot flushes. There is so much more to us than that. And the challenges of these years are also broader than menopause.

On Thursday I went to HSBC in Canary Wharf and lunched in an executive boardroom high in the clouds. Gathered there were a super-impressive bunch of women in finance, talking about how we might get more investment in female entrepreneurs (currently only 1 per cent of Venture Capital funding goes to women and it is not changing fast enough). Lydia Amoah talked about the power of the Black Pound and I talked about the Queenager Pound (we are behind over 90 per cent of all household consumer spending decisions but are too rarely talked to directly). We discussed how we women don’t have to ask permission, we just need to start investing in and supporting each other. We don’t need to wait for others to give us money, we can start supporting our sisters through angel investing, or using our consumer power to force companies to improve their female representation. Thanks so much Sam Cooper Gray of HSBC and a great supporter of women for inviting me. This is a subject I will be returning to soon.

But now the sun has come out and a paella for 18 is about to arrive. My baby niece – naked – is at my feet, gathering up her army of teddies to take them out to the beach (it’s the first time she’s ever been by the sea). So it’s time to say goodbye to you all till next week.

Ps Maybe try and find a little piece of peace of your own this week: my teacher Ayala reckons a good place to start is to meditate or have breakfast or go for a walk BEFORE picking up your mobile phone. To make a conscious attempt to just spend a little time with yourself before you are ‘on’ , back, plugged in, on duty. Or maybe just go for an autumnal walk with someone you love – human or four legged or just yourself – and take a moment in beauty.

Meanwhile I’m going to try and carve out the odd oasis of peace in the middle of my noisy family!



PPS We’ve just launched our Noon Queenager Ski Trip – it’s in February 2024 here are the details. Places are limited – do come and join us!

By Eleanor Mills

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