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A mind full of meditation in Assisi, Italy

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Mindfulness Journeys meditation holidays Greece Italy Morocco

Katrine Carstens explores meditation under the guidance of ‘Retreats’ in Italy.

‘I can be a relentless fidget, and patience is not exactly my virtue – a big part of the reason I’ve been so intrigued yet daunted by giving meditation a go’

Katrine Carstens immerses herself in meditation, food and culture in Umbria, Italy with ‘Retreats’.

Mindfulness Journeys meditation holidays Greece Italy Morocco

Shannon and Brian of ‘Retreats’

My journey of mindfulness started after a mad dash across Rome from the airport to share the train journey to Assisi with Brian Hilliard and Shannon Van Staden, the hearts and souls behind ‘Retreats’, formally known as Mindfulness Journeys. After the last stretch – a sprint through Rome central station – I was a sweaty and breathless mess in dire need of some serenity!

Brian and Shannon’s calmness immediately struck me as I collapsed in my seat, and as the Rome hinterlands segued into Umbrian countryside, our conversation meandered far and wide. As the train accelerated, my mind slowed down, relieved by their excitement that I was a complete beginner at meditation. 

Time for a confession: I can be a relentless fidget, and patience is not exactly my virtue. This is a big part of the reason I have been so intrigued yet daunted by giving meditation a go. All those worries fluttered out of the train window and dissipated into the golden late afternoon sun as Brian and Shannon’s easygoing and gentle manner soon relaxed me.

After a two hour train journey and a taxi transfer we arrived at Casa Faustina, a serene agriturismo set in the shade of cool pine trees and olive groves with magnificent views over the Umbrian countryside surrounding Assisi – not bad, I thought. 

Mindfulness Journeys meditation holidays Greece Italy Morocco

Katrine during her retreat in Assisi

The retreat started with a short evening meditation session in an airy space with white billowing curtains – the room that would be our meditation home for the next week. In keeping with what was to come, Brian created a safe environment for us, by being extremely relaxed and calm and explaining that this was a space for us to be completely ourselves. 

Accompanied by the rich aroma of rosemary and lavender in the dew, we drifted off to our first dinner, which was full of laughter, a spectacular sunset and getting to know each other. We were a small, intimate group of just five people and we gelled together easily – we ranged from our 30s to 50s and included a psychologist, a consultant working in the non-profit sector and me, a freelance journalist.

Mindfulness Journeys meditation holidays Greece Italy Morocco

Chef Sara created rich, tasty and healthy dishes

Meditation might be king but food, wine and the good life are definitely queens of a these retreats. You could call them meditations on relishing life itself. Casa Faustina serves vegetarian and organic food, and chef Sara’s expert touch turned out a myriad of intriguing, healthy delights that enhanced and surprised my senses. Her cooking defies the myth that whatever is enjoyable is probably bad for you. Over the week she startled us time and time again with treats I could not have imagined were healthy and at no point did even the meat eaters feel like something was missing. There were too many good dishes to pick an absolute favourite, but highlights were truffled eggs and sage leaves prepared in a tempura style.

Mindfulness Journeys meditation holidays Greece Italy Morocco

Silent meditation was relaxing

Each morning started at 7am with Lujong, a series of Tibetan Yogic exercises designed to loosen up and connect mind and body. It felt a little odd at first, as we, slightly awkwardly, sang the song that begins each practice. The words are positive affirmations of making the most of the highs and lows of life and the volume you sing along in is entirely up to you. I reminded myself how I’d quickly got used to the ‘Oms’ in my yoga practice, and that however strange it might feel it was a novel experience, set amongst the cool pine tree grove overlooking the Umbrian valley below, the world yawning and slowly coming alive around us.

After breakfast we embarked on our first proper session. Unsure what to expect, I was a little anxious at what might be ahead, but Brian has a very straightforward manner and gave us a brief and simple introduction to the technique of meditation. In his teaching, there is no particular emphasis on the in-breath, as this just happens as a natural part of life. Rather, as you breathe out though, you notice and touch upon whatever thought or feeling is present at that moment and then let it go (or try to!). The gap in between the out and in-breaths is where a tranquil space with no thoughts can be found through practice.

Brian made no secret of the fact that in the week ahead there would be a lot of sitting and being still with our minds – and that it might even get a little boring at times. It seems there are no shortcuts in meditation. The practice was split into sitting and walking meditation, interspersed with outside meanderings. These outside forays became buoyant breaks to the stillness and serenity of the meditation space. Making up a coherent whole, these segments made the hours pass by quicker than expected throughout my time on retreat.

'There are no shortcuts to meditation'

Katrine learnt that there are no shortcuts to meditation

Whereas parts of the programme can be challenging, especially if you’re unused to meditation, Brian’s approach is cheerful and funny, so at no point do things feel too serious. Do be prepared to spend considerable time getting to know yourself, looking closely at your thoughts and then practicing the intangible skill of letting them go. As an inherent doer, usually on the move, I won’t pretend it was always easy to stick with it. Yet I persevered.

Day two was a day of silence. So used to a constant stream of chatter, supplied by both myself and the world around me, the initial thought of it was disconcerting. Yet in reality it was a relief and genuinely relaxing. With space for my thoughts to roam and show themselves unclouded, this ended up being the most rewarding day of the retreat for me.

Mindfulness Journeys meditation holidays Greece Italy Morocco

The orange flower she could see from her sitting area kept Katrine motivated and in focus

As the week progressed I went through many different emotions, from wanting to run out of the room and hide, to complete calmness and brief moments of utter bliss. It felt like I was scratching just the surface of a sea of sensations I constantly swim through yet don’t acknowledge as I’m busily caught up in the cacophony of the world.

A focus for me was an orange flower directly in my sightline as we meditated. It became my anchor and a reason to stick with the practice at moments when it felt almost impossible to let go of my inner fidget and impatience. I also attached to a swing in the grounds overlooking the valley below, a favourite spot where I could indulge in a little pendulum pondering and which made me feel childlike and tranquil.

Afternoons were kept free for us to do whatever we felt like and there was the possibility of personal interviews with Brian, self-guided meditation, yoga or walks around the area. More often than not I indulged in a little nap and a spot of sunbathing by the pool with a book. The meditation meant I was too chilled out to consider doing much else – a welcome break from the everyday hustle and bustle at home. After the early evening meditation sessions, dinnertime was an unhurried and casual affair with no scheduled activities afterwards.

Mindfulness Journeys meditation holidays Greece Italy Morocco

The retreat was based at the peaceful Casa Faustina, where the gardens are filled with art

I had my own room in an apartment I shared with one other female guest with a shared kitchen and bathroom. It was simple yet comfortable, with a balcony overlooking the countryside offering a first row seat for superb sunsets.

The retreat wasn’t a learning curve in the conventional sense of the word. Sometimes if felt like one step forward and two steps back, yet my mind became increasingly relaxed as the week went on. As a testament to this, I realized one evening that I had been wearing my trousers back to front. Yes, to dinner and everything. I’m pleased to say that I was too peaceful to even bother being embarrassed by something so seemingly irrelevant.

Substance with style is what comes to mind when I think of Mindfulness Journeys. I left the retreat rejuvenated and keen on continuing to practice in my daily life. It seems that I had finally taken my first baby steps into meditation.

© Queen of Retreats 

Please note, ‘Retreats’ will not be using this venue in Italy in 2016. They also run holidays in Greece and Morocco. Read more about ‘Retreats’.

Mindfulness Journeys meditation holidays Greece Italy Morocco

Katrine’s bedroom had a balcony overlooking the countryside – a first row seat for superb sunsets

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