Learning to rein in those pesky thoughts on a mindfulness retreat in France
At Bordeaux airport my phone tells me my screen time is down 40 per cent
Olive Towey and Charlie Ganly at Aulagnes.
We’re lying on the floor, scanning our bodies, and trying to still our minds. “Our thoughts are like a little dog sometimes,” says Martin Towey, who is guiding us through our mindfulness session. “They run off and we have to get them back on a leash.” Oh yes, I know. Only too well.
I realise it’s going to be difficult to remain in the moment with this mindfulness lark, when I’m already wondering how am I going to write about it afterwards. But I’ve jumped at the chance to turn off my phone and resist the siren call of Twitter for a few days.
We’d arrived at Aulagnes on Thursday afternoon, but after 24 hours I feel like I’ve been here a week. Deep in what the French call la France profonde, Aulagnes is an 18th-century manoir lost in the vineyards, close to the village of Blanzac, and just over an hour north of Bordeaux. It’s a three-storey country house, with grand proportions, French windows and blue shutters. My room at the top of a dinky wooden staircase has comfortable French country furnishings and views of the rolling hills of Charente.
Aulagnes is a long-term “house-sit” for Irish couple Olive Towey and Charlie Ganly, a place where they experiment with their idea of ceangal, or connection, to “create spaces where things can happen”. The mindfulness weekend is a family affair; we’re being guided by Olive’s brother Martin, who is a neurophysiotherapist and mindfulness coach.
“It’s not an immersion meditation retreat,” says Olive. “It’s an introduction, a taster, with other experiences. So it’s gentle, light and not at all intimidating.”
Perhaps not, but we start off sitting in a circle around a candle on the floor, with Martin asking us our intentions for the weekend. Not being in the habit of sharing my innermost thoughts with a dozen strangers, I describe myself as curious, and keen to see what mindfulness could do to help me with my “monkey mind”. Others share more of what was going on in their lives, but there is no pressure to do so.
Martin explains that mindfulness teaches us to bring our attention to the present moment, with an attitude of kindness and compassion. “This sounds quite easy in theory, but our minds are generally ricocheting between the past and the future, ruminating and overplanning. When we’re stressed we can become very reactive,” he says. “Mindfulness can slow us down, come to the present moment and become aware of our habitual thinking patterns. We can observe them, and then respond rather than just react.”
As we’re using the grand rooms in the main house for meditation, dinner is served in the converted pigsty, which is now a gite, and home to Olive and Charlie. Appropriately enough, our first meal is pork medallions in a wine sauce with celeriac mash. Local wine flows freely. We return to the main house by starlight, to be greeted by herbal tisanes, hot water bottles and extra blankets.
Next morning, after an early hatha yoga session and a big breakfast of homemade granola and yogurt, warm buttery croissants and pain au chocolat from the village boulangerie, we stride out into the countryside for a spot of mindful walking. Martin had prepared us earlier, calling on us to walk slowly and notice each part of the movement, as we lift our feet and plant them on the oak floor of the salon. When you slow down this much, you really notice things like balance, or the lack of it. I focus my eyes on the misty ridge visible beyond the lace curtain and try to get the “dog” back on the leash.
Later, out on the ridge, Martin gives us a signal to stop the chat, and we turn into a small copse of trees, to wander silently. Listening, touching, smelling, looking, and seeing anew. I find myself caressing the velvet moss on the trunk of an old oak, noticing the different textures of corduroy-skinned catkins and scratchier grey-green lichens. There’s a telltale call of a wood pigeon, the wind whipping through the trees and the comforting scent of a wood-burning stove from a nearby hamlet.
Even when Martin marks the end of our silence with a tap on his Tibetan bowl, we walk home soundlessly, no one wanting to break the spell. I fall into step with another participant. As it happens, we haven’t spoken since we arrived, and we don’t now either, but there’s a companionable silence as our stride matches each other’s, a tacit communication at junctions, and a contented sense of being at one with the landscape, the wind and the day.
While the others go off to visit a vineyard, I pop into the kitchen, where Gerard, a cousin of Olive who happens to run a restaurant in the Dordogne, has been roped in as chef. I find him chopping peppers and olives for a salsa to accompany tonight’s fish. Vegetarians and gluten/dairy-free folks are also well looked after; Gerard has prepared a tian of peppers, and some baked figs from a neighbour’s garden.
Mindfulness and food
Living in France, he really notices the connection between mindfulness and food. “People eat so fast nowadays because they are on the run, chasing their tail. This is where we can learn from the French, who often spend three hours over a meal, at least at the weekend. By slowing down and thinking about eating, you’ll get a sense of fulfilment you won’t get if you inhale your food. And you’ll eat less.”
That evening, we have another meditation session based on observing our breath, and this time I struggle to stay involved. I find sitting on a cushion for long periods awkward, and without movement or nature to focus on, my mind drifts off in a dozen different directions. Despite this hiccup, I still sleep better than I have for weeks.
Next morning, Martin suggests a mindful breakfast. We don’t speak, and instead concentrate on the sensations of seeing, listening, scenting, tasting and touching, noticing the crunch of a baguette, the rich aroma of fresh coffee, the tap of a spoon on a boiled egg. It’s one of the nicest breakfasts I’ve ever had.
While it’s tempting to stay in the cocoon of Aulagnes, on one morning we drive to the sleepy village of Aubeterre, with a château on a cliff and an extraordinary troglodyte church carved out underneath, a place where pilgrims once sought comfort on the road to Santiago de Compostela. While mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism, for many it is now a secular search for something some used to find in organised religion.
Olive and Charlie weren’t quite sure where their French adventure would lead them, but they knew that giving themselves space to allow things to happen was crucial. “This all started with my brother offering to come and do a weekend,” she says. “But for me there is something crystallising here. We’ve designed something with an ethos running through it.”
That ethos includes pleasure aplenty, and on our last night there is a French banquet preceded by apéritifs. We tuck into rillettes of salmon wrapped in a black flour crepe, boeuf bourguignon, and a selection of cheeses in wonderful condition; Saliers, Chaource and Bleu d’Auvergne. Earlier, we had helped Gerard assemble a gateau opéra, a rich confection of buttercream, egg-white sponge and chocolate ganache. All eaten mindfully, of course, and followed by another long and deep sleep.
At Bordeaux airport my phone tells me my screen time is down 40 per cent, and I don’t have a clue what’s happening with Brexit. On those two counts alone, the weekend is a result, but it’s also rekindled my interest in yoga and mindful movement. While sitting on a meditation cushion may not be for me, even a delayed flight doesn’t spoil my mood. I’ve learned to turn towards the (admittedly minor) problem, accept it and choose how to respond.
I’m well aware that mindfulness is not so much a skill that can be drawn on, as a practice that must become part of daily life if I’m to reap the benefits. I may not always get the dog back on the leash, but at least I know how to try.
Mindfulness weekends at Aulagnes start from €450 per person, including three nights’ accommodation, classes, all meals and wine, sightseeing, and return transfers from Bordeaux airport. ceangal.eu. Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly to Bordeaux from Dublin.