Experiences and recollections from the 2024 Wilderness Retreat

from Andy Mills

Towards the end of last September, Junior Zen teacher Penny Clay and Daizan led a three-day retreat based in the Scottish Highlands. The retreat was a combination of traditional Zen practices with mountain walking. Andy Mills was one of the Zen practitioners who took part in this event and he kindly took some time to answer a few questions about the retreat.

How would you describe the wilderness retreat?

This was an incredible experience with a lovely group of people. We were in an area between Glen Coe and Ben Nevis in the Scottish Highlands. I had already spent a couple of days solo hiking in Glen Coe after getting some recommendations from our guide and Zenways teacher, Penny. The landscape is breath-taking, eye-popping and jaw-dropping. All six senses were very active!

Our Zen Yoga helps us focus on mindfulness of sensations or, mindfulness of aliveness as Daizan refers to it. During my time in the Highlands, and on retreat, I often felt a very vivid sense of aliveness. Both walking solo and with our mountain sangha. A beautiful sense of belonging. Just being. Smiling.

We heard that it was very wet. What was the most insightful finding during the challenges of the retreat?

The great Sir Billy Connolly said, “In Scotland, there is no such thing as bad weather – only the wrong clothes”. Penny is as wise (and funny) as Sir Bill and gives you all the kit preparation advice. Take heed!

It is also said, “If you don’t like the weather in Scotland, just wait 30 minutes!”. This is generally true, but we had some ‘pretty bad’ weather on this adventure, and it followed a summer of much higher rain than normal. This meant that there were difficult conditions underfoot – picking our way through slow going, boggy ground, treading carefully on wet rock, and some wading through burns due to high water levels.  We all slipped and fell but our mountain sangha looked out for each other.

Scotland seems like good Zen training ground. I remember experiencing beautiful sunshine at the waterfall where we set off. Early Autumn leaves on the ground. The sound of water everywhere. Very little effort required. This soon turned to heavy rain, hoods up, full attention on where feet were being planted. Maximum effort required. Then the sun came out again, we saw a deer, the glass surface of a loch in the distance, hoods down, Glen Coe Munros I had climbed two days earlier visible behind us. Then heavy rain again and boggy ground. And so it went on. Sensing into how I was feeling, thoughts arising and passing. When I was resisting and when I had let go and was flowing. 

How did you integrate the experience of the retreat into your daily life?

Integration is an ongoing process. I’ve learnt that daily life can flow so much smoother when I learn to accept things as they are. When I can become one with where I am and what I am doing. Nari Kiru. I think we all experienced this on Day 2 of the retreat when the weather warnings persisted, and rising water levels forced us to shelter in a Bothy. We couldn’t go any further. But we all accepted this. Many began to feel very in touch and connected to their surroundings.

During the retreat you were given a koan to work with. Could you share with others how you worked with this koan and how you found it?

The koan we were given was taken from the Mountains and Waters Sutra. We read it as a group before leaving and several times during the retreat. Daizan teaches us to drop the koan down into your hara and be with it as you walk in the wilderness. Like a BZR, you keep the koan with you throughout the retreat and Daizan was available for Sanzen. I found it helpful when we had the opportunity in the Bothy on the second day to work in a Dyad with the Koan.

Three words to describe my experience.

Tough, Alive, Happy.