Mindfulness Journeys review | Meditation retreats, Greece & Morocco
The Quick Read: Mindfulness Journeys was set up in 2014 by American Tibetan Buddhist Brian Hilliard and his partner Shannon van Staden, a former stylist from South Africa. Aimed at anyone interested in meditation from any walk of life, their holidays seek to make meditation and mindfulness more accessible by removing the jargon and approaching it in a lighthearted way. The date-specific group journeys run at locations chosen for their tranquility – we checked them out at an agriturismo in Umbria in Italy and at a luxury villa in Greece, but they also run at a boutique hotel in Morocco. You can expect morning and early evening sessions dedicated to meditation, with afternoons generally free for swimming, sunbathing, reading, exercising or perhaps a cheeky nap. Evenings tend to be sociable, with founders Shannon and Brian’s relaxed approach setting the tone.
More on the meditation: This is not a retreat where you are expected give up pleasure in the name of enlightenment. Rather you are encouraged to embrace life with all its abundance, look at it from different perspectives and explore how to experience it more deeply. Read a word from the queen on her experience in Italy, where the company first started running retreats.
Brian is a meditation teacher – a Lama in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. His style inspires you to look into yourself and observe what you find in a non-judgmental way. Whatever is there, it’s truly ok, and through meditation practice you can learn to be with both the positive and negative aspects and discover an unconditional sense of well being.
He instructs you to meditate with your eyes open, and focused on the ground just in front of you, to incorporate your environment in your practice. There is singing and dancing to the Tibetan yogi milarepa’s joyful song each morning too, which provides some mirth, especially for the men. Someone seeking a lot of detailed instruction might struggle a bit, for Brian’s approach is to give brief guidance and then let you loose in your own mind to explore. He’s available for one on one instruction at any time during the retreat though.
The ratio of actual practice to instruction and discussion is quite high, so come with an open mind, prepared to make friends with yourself and be willing to surrender to the practice, whatever it might bring. The technique is the simple yet powerful principle of paying attention to each element of the breath with the support of a good meditation posture.
More on the other activities: During a 7-day retreat, one day is held in silence and one day is set aside for exploring the local area and taking a break from the meditation schedule. This model works well, as by the middle of the week a change of scenery is welcome and the return to meditation the day after feels fresh and revived. In Greece there’s scuba diving, wind and kite surfing, hiking, cycling, horse riding within close reach, and at the villa you can ask for aromatherapy. In Morocco you can shop in the souks, go horse or camelback riding or take a long hike with endless views of the Atlas Mountains.
More on the hosts: Brian Hilliard and Shannon van Staden are a lively yet laidback couple who make you feel instantly at ease. Their combined talents help their holidays appeal to a wide cross section of people interested in the practice of mindfulness whilst not compromising on style, culture and great food and wine.
Brian brings 36 years of experience to the meditation cushion and has studied ancient wisdom traditions under the guidance of various Tibetan Buddhist masters. As part of his life-long practice he completed a three-year retreat under Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, which involved long periods of isolation and (he says) led to profound self knowledge. He is appointed Shastri, senior teacher, in the Shambhala tradition, which takes him far and wide as a teacher and guest speaker. His approach is down to earth, caring and witty.
Brian’s skills are excellently complemented by Shannon’s deep knowledge of the high-end hospitality industry and years working as a stylist. Style could indeed be her middle name. She has been meditating for over six years and raises funds for a meditation centre in France in her spare time.
More on the locations: In Morocco the base is La Pause, a boutique hotel with adobe villas and lounges in the stone desert, 30 km from Marrakech. It’s sprawled over a large area, so though you may share the space with regular guests it feels private. You dine in Berber tents and there is an unheated pool with hammocks to relax in. With no electricity, evenings are cinematic, when the property is lit up by candles and fires.
In Greece the holidays take place at Urania Luxury Villas on the verdant island of Lefkada. The stunning other-worldly views of distant sleeping islands in the Ioninan Sea, the sunsets, double rainbows on the water and sense of sheer space are wonderful, as is the 40 minute trek down to the private beach. The property has architecturally designed villas surrounded by oak and olive trees, its own private beach and a nature reserve for dolphins and seals.
We reviewed the company in Italy at Casa Faustina, an agriturismo property set amongst olive groves a 15 minute drive from Assisi in Italy.
Food and drink: In Morocco suppers are mostly tasty tagines, with meat and vegetarian options, and there’s wine in the evening for those that want it. In Greece, the food is tasty and macrobiotic, and sample dishes include kale garden salad with millet; buckwheat burgers with roasted vegetables, and brown rice with barley and stewed vegetables in a miso sauce. Vegan cheesecake and raw avocado chocolate mousse are among the yummy puddings offered.
Fellow guests: Everyone is welcome, of any age and walk of life, whether you have meditated before or if you want to deepen your practice. It is ideal for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teachers and students too. Greece is limited to 15 guests, while the venue in Morocco can take up to 20 guests. Groups are likely to be diverse, which allows you to share and see things from a different perspective, enhancing the retreat. If you feel strongly about having your own space, double check what the arrangements are.
On our week in Italy, a female psychologist from Australia in her 40s had a number of years of experience in mindfulness while, a male consultant also in his 40s had been doing self-practice for a while, while our reviewer was a complete beginner – which was also fine.
What’s lowly: This company is young and growing into their retreats – there were teething issues with the food and programmes on the Italy and Greece retreats we tried, but we hear these are now all sorted.
© Queen of Retreats