What are we searching for when we turn our backs to the world and look inwards? Nat Segnit’s first non-fiction book attempts to answer this question. Retreat is an investigation into the quest for solitude and silence across time periods, cultures and religions – and it is a sharp and lively one at that. It explores the undertaking in its various guises – as a spiritual practice with philosophical or religious underpinnings and in the context of secular mindfulness, artists’ retreats and the contemporary ‘wellness’ industry.
At first blush, Segnit seems a strange guide to the world’s hermetic retreats. A comedy writer and novelist, he approaches the topic with a wry humour and a healthy dose of scepticism. His account opens in a Devon yoga studio, where he wrestles his uncooperative brain through a mindfulness class to the soothing soundtrack of Indian flute music. This is a lay person’s guide, then. But soon, with a charming blend of sincerity and intellectual curiosity, Segnit leads us sure-footedly into the wilderness.
He visits Benedictine monasteries, Buddhist temples and meditation centres of all stripes. He interviews psychologists on the tectonic mental shifts that meditators can undergo and a neurotheologist on ‘the neural correlates of the numinous’. In every place, Segnit opens himself up to what these disparate practices have to offer, often training in them himself. He wants to believe, but he is not prepared to surrender his critical faculties to do so.
One withdraws to a religious, or religious-adjacent, retreat to have one’s ‘physical, emotional or spiritual integrity restored’, he notes. Therefore integrity in one’s mentors is key: ‘Any whiff of exploitation or inauthenticity and the deal is off.’ Unfortunately, the spiritual wellness industry is notoriously full of sharks. At California’s famous Esalen Institute, he meets tech tycoons and real-estate brokers searching for meaning in expensive, jargon-filled courses; at an ashram in India, one visitor derides the instructors as ‘spiritual leeches’ taking advantage of other people’s credulity.
Segnit is at his most withering when describing the embrace of mindfulness and meditation by the corporate world. Their effectiveness in reducing stress and anxiety improves staff retention and productivity, but their use in this way is a ‘distortion’ of Buddhist values and they work only by inducing ‘a level of passivity in the workforce’. A practice ‘designed to demonstrate the transience of all material things’ has been co-opted in ‘service of the profit motive’.
Sometimes he seems so doubtful, so leery of charlatans that one wonders why he has pursued this line of enquiry so exhaustively. And it’s true that he never explains his motivations explicitly. His group of friends, we gather, is unusually taken up with the meditative and the mystical. One has recently spent three months of silent retreat in a remote Nepali hut; another returns every year to a cave in a cliff face on Crete. Among these friends, and more generally – the commuters ‘training themselves in mental defection’ on the train home via apps like Calm and Headspace – Segnit senses a ‘mass stepping-back’, a vanishing in plain sight.
He is, it seems, envious. And though he initially struggles to find transcendence, or even a few consecutive moments of stillness, he perseveres. He concentrates on meditation, meditates on concentration, and slowly he improves. Over time he develops some level of mastery at sitting for hours, even days, at a time in silent rooms.
This personal-quest narrative I found moving, even inspiring. He learns to quiet his flailing mind, to accept and coexist with physical discomfort, and to let go of ego. He allows his boundaries to dissolve, to let time slip by unremarked. And yet there is a problem at the heart of this book: this cosmic blankness, after the first ecstatic glimpses, becomes more and more difficult to impart or to render on the page.
Time after time, Segnit meets the most skilled practitioners, the most enlightened minds on the planet, and time after time they fail to find the words. Early on we are introduced to Sister Nectaria, an elderly nun who has lived at a remote monastery on a Greek island since the age of eleven. She is, says Segnit, ‘a living, breathing, invocation of god’. But she finds his questions irritating, or invasive, or beside the point. Later, we meet Tenzin Palmo, a British woman formerly known as Diane Perry who spent twelve years meditating alone in a cave in the Himalayas. ‘I hardly remember any of it,’ she insists. ‘At the time it seemed very ordinary.’
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, God exists beyond knowledge and can only be described in terms of what He isn’t. This is apophasis, Segnit tells us, ‘the language of the unsayable’. Meditation, mindfulness and the deepest forms of prayer appear to exist beyond knowledge, too – or at least beyond words. For what is more uncommunicable than the voiding of thought? We learn, with apologies to Damien Hirst, the impossibility of ego death in the mind of someone living.
And we find it so with Segnit himself, as he surrenders to the abyss. Days pass in meditative retreat. Beyond the gates, we learn, international flights are being grounded. Covid-19 is taking hold. Lockdown has forced entire countries into retreats of their own. Inside, Segnit breathes in. Breathes out. He has gone on without us. I’m happy for him.