It’s Spring and I’m emerging from a winter of not being very visible! Having re-read my last blog, written while being ill and still processing the departure of my daughter to University, I am happy to report that much has been going on underground this winter, and Spring has brought all that growth to the surface!

Still, I realise that when one gets out of the habit of doing things – (for me this winter, that has been rowing and blogging), there is a great deal of inertia to overcome in beginning the process once more. I have written many blogs in my head, but have somehow felt I needed to have something profound to say after such a long break.

I am delighted that I can leave that job to my guest blogger, Marc Yeats, PhD candidate, artist and composer extraordinaire.

One of the many flowerings this spring, has been the realisation of a long-held dream of running a retreat in the Lake District mountains! I dared to book an amazing house a year ago, and then bottled planning it for quite a while.

I invite you to join Marc on a journey to the wilds of the Lake District and the wilds of the self!

Dalemain Bungalow, Martindale, Cumbria May 7–10, 2019.

Arriving at a wet Penrith train station on a dark and cold day in May ready to spend four days in a remote Cumbrian valley without electricity, WiFi or mobile phone signal with a group of unfamiliar people to talk about personal PhD concerns wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of fun or a useful thing to do, not least when PhD life is so busy and time so precious.

We (the assembled group of five participants) were driven from the station deep into the Lake District until we reached a track that took us to the Dalemain Bungalow (the higher building in the photo below) that is situated on a small spur near the head of Martindale away from any habitation, the road, shops or any signs of civilisation apart from numerous sheep. The Bungalow was impressive and imposing. During the 10-minute walk up from the road we felt dwarfed by the scale of the surrounding landscape, an immensity of valleys, mountains, rivers and sky culminating in a location that was isolated from all twenty-first century distractions. Our excitement and expectation were palpable.

The Bungalow itself is charming and rustic, with gas lighting, heating, cooking and gas fridges. Most bedrooms and bathrooms are shared and there is a large kitchen and communal lounge/dining area. The building is pine-panelled throughout making for a slightly dark buy cosy feel within. There are windows in all the rooms that look out onto the hills – the views are simply stunning – and the building has a veranda on three sides. External sounds comprise sheep – always sheep – the many rivers and rivulets, the rustling of trees and bird song. That’s it. No traffic, just natural sounds. Living is a little like glamping and largely communal. If you need en suite bathrooms and fitted carpets, this location isn’t for you.

Cooking, prep and washing up were communal activities. There was more food than we could eat and plenty to freely snack on in between meals if you so wished. The days were structured thus: silent breakfast (much more fun than it sounds), morning stretch and meditation (meditation and stretching anyone can participate in), voice work (always fun and often profoundly surprising) pre and post lunch Action Learning Sets (concentrated and powerful), individual Alexander Technique and natural voice-work sessions followed by free time and food preparation and more free time. There were also guided walks on offer

I hadn’t ever participated in something like this before – a retreat – and always avoided anything labelled as such for fear of communes, dodgy spiritual leaders and endless New Age rhetoric with crystals. Although I had attended an Action Learning taster workshop in London a few months earlier, the whole Action Learning experience was still a new and relatively unfamiliar concept. Combining a ‘retreat’ with Action Learning was an activity I hadn’t envisaged engaging with but when I saw what was proposed and the location in which the retreat was based, I realised it was something I ought to try, not least because the outcomes looked very useful in relation to my PhD life. Overall, I was more concerned about being without social media and connectivity, something I always had access to. As it transpired, I didn’t miss connectivity for that period of time and without the distraction found myself listening more deeply to my own thoughts and particularly what others were saying. This was part of active listening. It changed how I felt.

The retreat objectives stated that by the end of the experience, participants would be able to question the veracity of their thoughts and beliefs in order to make more informed choices about behaviour; use their bodies to check on the impact of beliefs and emotions; use these strategies to improve their well-being and performance on their PhD journeys; use vocal and movement exercises to shift unhelpful moods; and call on support from the connections formed within the cohort to ease the sense of isolation often reported in Action Learning groups.

The Action Learning Retreat is the brainchild of Julie Parker, BSc, MSTAT. Julie facilitates the Action Learning Sets and offers individual Alexander Technique sessions and Natacha Dauphin, Julie’s co-workshop leader offers voice-work sessions. Julie describes Action Learning in her Action Learning Sets Handbook, quoting from Action Learning Handbook, McGill and Brockbank 2004 as: “[…] a continuous process of learning and reflection that happens with the support of a group or ‘set’ […] working on real issues, with the intention of getting things done. She continues: “The collaborative process, which recognises set members’ social context, helps people take an active stance towards life [and] overcome the pressures of life and work […]”.

Getting things done, as mentioned above, is important to me. Knowing that I faced inevitable and identified challenges in my PhD journey, especially from factors outside my control, and knowing too that the way I dealt with those challenges would contribute to my sense of well-being, I decided to invest four days away from my PhD routine to equip myself for the PhD challenges ahead in a productive and informed way. I made this investment because I appreciated that it is easy to slip into a range of familiar and often self-defeating patterns of behaviour and thought, especially when busy and stressed and things are not going to plan. These thoughts can become embedded if not challenged and increase levels of anxiety that in turn decreases clear-thinking, productivity and a sense of well-being. As I discovered, Action Learning processes along with the Alexander Technique and natural voice work exercises helped participants (and me) to open up, examine and discuss these thoughts and processes of behaviour in a safe, trustful and friendly group setting. This opening up and sharing of thoughts helped clarify why such patterns of behaviour occur and help the individual to take a different, more balanced perspective on their situations and what to do about them, leading to more informed choices and a greater sense of well-being.

I’m convinced from my own experiences and the experiences discussed and observed among others in the group that different people, different personalities, respond in varied ways to body, voice or cognitive interventions and processes employed to positively rebalance mental well-being. For example, the body through its stresses, strains and posture exhibits, often unconsciously, an externalisation of one’s inner emotional world. Inversely, the body (and voice) can be used to access that inner emotional world without recourse to cognitive gateways such as reasoning, conversation or intellectual understanding to bypass various levels of cognition to reach subconscious levels of disharmony through changing posture and using vocal sounds and movement. There is something visceral and primal about vocal and movement work that accesses the inner self at a profound level that can affect change of mood with little conscious attention. It is this direct access to our emotional core that makes voice and movement work so potent and when combined with Action Learning and Alexander Techniques give participants a range of tools and approaches to maintain well-being that best suits them as individuals. Such opportunities to take stock, to have the undivided attention of a supportive group of individuals where attention and care is, for a time at least, focused on one’s needs and circumstances are rare indeed. This focus is amplified by the location and conditions of the retreat where all external distractions are unavailable and people have to communicate and listen to one another and crucially, listen to ourselves in profoundly deep ways that are difficult to achieve within the hurly-burly of daily lives and particularly the pressures of PhD life.

Great care was taken by Julie and Natacha to support us all as individuals. Nothing was ever forced, and no one made to participate in any activity at any time if they felt they did not wish to. All activities and all aspects of communal living were undertaken with flexibility and mutual respect for others, their needs and wishes. Everything about the retreat and its activities were geared around the individual: this was particularly evident within the Action Learning sessions where everything moved forwards at the pace set by the participants and within the individual Alexander Technique and voice work sessions, every effort was made to support the subjects in ways most appropriate to them.

Challenges around PhDs are legion and shared by us all at some time. I speculate that for every person that openly discusses these issues many more do not speak of them or disguise their difficulties and have no idea how to best manage their stresses and strains. Knowing that I am not alone in experiencing PhD-related anxieties is a comfort and this comfort is amplified by the honest and candid discussion of PhD challenges shared by others in the retreat Action Learning group, most of whom I did not previously know or know to any great extent. The very close, personal and honest communication shared by members of the Action Learning group has established as a set of people whom I can rely on and communicate with as and when is necessary.

The same applies to Julie Parker and Natacha Dauphin workshop leaders (Natacha above with me and cake), as firm, supportive friendships have been established. It is difficult to come away from an experience like the retreat having shared such personal and significant information with others and not feel a profound sense of connection to those with whom the process and journey was shared. These are people I know I can reach out to at any time.

I came away from the retreat feeling refreshed and renewed on many different levels. I also felt positive about my ability to manage the inevitable stresses that were coming my way as well as managing how I reacted to the situations that I had no control over within the PhD process where these situations are the primary causes of stress. I gained strategies through the Action Learning group sessions, their interactions, suggestions and outcomes and also through the Alexander Technique sessions and natural voice workshops where all three areas of communication and investigation relate easily and seamlessly to one another to generate an overarching environment that provides the tools and the understanding around how to use them that together will help improve my performance on the PhD journey. The retreat delivered on its proposed outcomes completely.

If you have the opportunity to participate in a retreat like this, do take it, you won’t regret investing time in yourself and your well-being and if you feel you’re just too busy to take part, you’re probably most in need of the experience.

By Julie Parker

The Coach and Trainer with lived experience, empathy and intuition. Contact me when life is messy, and the answers don't fit into a neat strapline!

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