In the throes of multi-employment, I found myself stressed enough to make the decision to go on a retreat. Somewhere along the lines of being in a better place, that retreat came through for me – so last week, I got on a plane and a train and a shuttle bus to somewhere in the middle of France, to a Buddhist monastery founded and upheld by Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hahn. I was one of forty women in Plum Village’s New Hamlet, one of the three campuses in that area.

Somewhere a few years ago, I found myself starting a vipassana practice – which was useful for me at the time, it taught me how to be disciplined and regimented in my practice. But more recently, off the cushion, I found it very difficult to work out how to be mindful in my daily life. And it turned out that Plum Village was exactly the right place for me to learn how to do that.

So, Plum Village has a few foundations – the lazy day, where meals are the only thing really planned and everything else is allowed to unfold as you want, whether that’s going to a chateau, going for a really long walk, or sleeping all day long. The visits to the other hamlets – or mindfulness days. But a regular day starts at 5am. You wake up, get ready, walk to the hamlet, and sit from 6 to 6:30am. 7am is breakfast, or exercise. Breakfast is really good – the plums are excellent. The food in general is pretty good – a little soy- and carb-heavy, sometimes, considering we didn’t get a ton of exercise, but still good. We start something else at 9:30 – usually a lecture, a talk, an activity of some kind. 11:30 is mindful walking (my favourite part of the day). 12:30 lunch, 3-5:30, mindful service, 5:30-8, dinner. 8pm, the evening sit, then noble silence from 9. When we visit other hamlets, there’s an hour-long dharma talk and a sharing session. Everything is very peaceful and very well, and even when people are emotional, it is safe (some fellow attendees definitely felt unable to relate to some of the material at times, though – which created some resistance). Every fifteen minutes there is a bell to remind us to be mindful and take a breath. We eat in silence – and at lunch, we wait for everyone to be seated before digging in. I learn to eat slowly for the first time ever – thirty to forty chews. It takes me nearly an hour to finish my oatmeal every morning. Sometimes, for fun, I sing the entire Parks & Recreation theme song in my head between taking one bite and the next. I’ve made eating slow into a bit of a competition at time.

It’s not often that what I think I need is what I do need. But in this case, I struck gold. For the first couple of days, I found it really hard – there were moments were I found myself so frenetic, seeking something to do, not sure of how to be productive or how to be. Times where I was so antsy to start my meal even though it would take another fifteen minutes for everyone to be sitting down, or to get up when I couldn’t. It’s funny, because lunch was the only really restrictive part of the day in that sense – in the sense that it seemed less voluntary than anything else, and I still wanted to get away from it. And in those moments, I had to think, ‘Why are you like this? You have nowhere else to be.’ And I guess that I’ve rarely had nowhere else to be before – I am always doing.

I think Plum Village gave me some major perspective on how to live the elements of my life that I miss more mindfully. I find myself conscious of my feet, or my breath, when I get a second. That is a good place to be in.


RETROSPECTIVE/HOW TO: Creativity as therapy

I make a lot of things. I have been for a really long time. So I wanted to talk about creativity as therapy – and how making things can help, hinder, and where it can take you (or where it took me).

I started making things really young – I think I loved cross-stitching as a kid (and have been playing with the idea of learning to sew for real this year). I made a lot of things with paint, and kind of sucked at it. I’ve always been someone who writes – and has been quite lauded for it. In my adult life, I have over 20,000 people looking at my creative work. This has certainly added a different dimension in some capacity, but I think in a lot of ways, I still think of creativity as something I just do and then push online to say, ‘Hey! I made a thing! Let me know what you think, maybe!’

I think, as I’ve mentioned, zines are my favourite way to get my feelings out in a creative capacity. But I worked a lot with writing, and for a long time, that was both a way of doing something artistic and really summing up a situation. My poetry professor in university, Ruth Padel, said, ‘Poetry is the most beautiful and efficient way to express a message.’ So for me, I found compressing life events into something that was pretty gave me the capacity to process hardship and see the beauty in it.

That’s a bit about how art helped me – and I don’t think it’s a good summary, because I didn’t get a lot from writing stuff down. I get something out of it – I think there’s connection – but for me, it’s more about moving on than it is about processing. Like yelling at someone and then walking out and being okay. I think writing can help you process your feelings when done in a specific way, as I mentioned in a post about writing to your feelings – and I think there’s also a lot of development in journaling and developing a voice where you don’t feel judged. A lot of art is difficult in a sense because you often create twice – for yourself, and then for others. There’s a sense of being looked at – and it’s hard not to care when people don’t like your work, I think.

How would I recommend starting an art as therapy practice? Similarly to journaling, I would say that it’s important not to care too much about the quality of what you’re making and just to get something down for the sheer sake of achievement. You don’t need to be able to rationalise or explain the things you are making, because that might come in time, or not at all, or immediately – you just need to make something, even if you think it’s trash at the time. You can layer on top of stuff, as well.

I think a lot of what people find appealing in art is the busyness and meditativeness of the activity – you’re focusing on something beyond your feelings, or on expressing your feelings in a very specific way, so I would recommend keeping an eye on your emotions and physical sensations throughout the process – if your breathing’s getting shallow, if you have a stiffness in your chest, if you feel heavy or sad and can’t say why. It’s not about explaining, but exploring.

For some ideas:


Oh boy, have I been in and out of therapy a long time. I think my first stint when I was eleven years old, when two women I barely remember came to my house and gave my parents a bunch of CBT techniques that I barely remember.

Talk therapy is interesting, and I’ve done a great deal with it, from EMDR to CBT to psychoanalytic approaches. Even now, I’m not really sure what to make of it a lot of the time, but I will always call it worth doing. I think having a space to work with yourself and engage with your thoughts, and making that space for yourself, is really important to do. I would highly suggest talk therapy, but moreover, I have some tips for how to engage with therapy in a more productive and healthy way than I have in the past.

So, when I first started therapy properly and in a way that I remember doing, I had a counsellor come to my house every Monday for over a year. His name was Richard, and I never told him anything important. Once I nearly cried in front of him, but mostly I just talked to him about music. I didn’t really feel like that space was for me – maybe because he came to my house and we would talk in my living room. But I just had no idea how to engage with that space at all, or how to exist in it, or how to be emotionally vulnerable, even when I had the option.

So – lesson #1 – you might have to break some boundaries with yourself, and stretch your comfort zones. Don’t push where it hurts too much,  but push enough that your therapist knows how you’re feeling. That is literally what they’re there for. I didn’t engage with a therapist again after leaving home until I was nineteen and rejected from something I thought was a shoo-in (the experience really did shake me to my core, and I was left dealing with very pervasive angst and self-doubt, as well as a lot of negative internalised beliefs).

With therapist #2, I learned a lot about how to break wide open and talk about everything. And I did! It didn’t really do me too much good, in a lot of ways – I stayed anxious and scared. It was weird. But I did learn to go in and blather about everything that had happened in my week, and then come out feeling better, and then about an hour later I’d be all, ‘Hey, I don’t feel good anymore?’

Lesson #2: everyone needs to vent, but try to use therapy to engage with your memories and your experiences beyond anger. There are feelings beneath feelings and it’s really good to have a way to explore that.

I started with my most recent therapist in November. There have been ones in between – a psychiatrist whose mother died after four sessions and she had to step back from work. A brusque university counsellor that I stopped seeing after two sessions because the first time she was rude, and the second time she forgot everything I’d said before. A few others, one of whom even suited me quite well, but the university ran out of funding to put me through free sessions.

More recently, therapy has been about talking about recent things, and exploring why I might hold those opinions presently when they aren’t productive. It has been about talking out patterns, and realising where those patterns came from – and interestingly, I’m remembering more than I ever had about my childhood before. Some sessions are less ‘productive’ than others, in that I remember less and draw less conclusions, but they are all important. Something I have learned a lot in this session is about my relationship with therapy, and around my expectations for it.

Lesson #3 is not to have expectations of your therapy. People work differently – and it’s really important (because for a long time I definitely didn’t come to terms with this, both in terms of therapy and in my relationship with my parents) to factor in that just because someone is qualified, it doesn’t mean they can fix things for you. It doesn’t even mean they know what to do. They’re doing the best they can, and that might not be enough. It is about the combined work – therapy and therapists are a tool to help you do the work, and sometimes the work is fallible and scary and difficult.

Another thing I’m also picking up in all this is #4: don’t be scared of your therapist, if you can help it. I’ve trained in therapy to a degree, and I find myself worrying that my therapist might be privately judgmental of me, the way I might be about someone I am helping. But the thing is that not only is that bad practice, but that’s what they’re trained not to do – therapists are trained to provide a safe and non-judgmental space for you to release what you need to release. That is the benefit of a psychotherapeutic environment.

Other gentle tips:

  • Look for low-cost therapists if you can – many do sliding scales.
  • Be willing to try different styles – almost every therapist will call their style the best kind. You don’t know what will suit you, and delivery varies a good deal between people.
  • It’s worth looking at group therapy, and how you engage with that – particularly if you’re not agreeing with one-on-one.
  • Be willing to be open to what arises in each session – and to work with things, if you can’t actually be open. It’s okay to sit with that, and it happens over time.
  • Don’t expect immediate progress – a great deal of the progress I have made has been incremental and slow, and I’ve only realised it when I do something and I think back to four or five years ago and how I couldn’t do that back then.

So, that’s what I’ve picked up so far. I’ve also studied psychotherapy a decent amount, so I want to use the last bits of this post to tell you how to listen to your friends in a therapeutic matter. You can also look up ‘active listening’ for more advice in this vein.

  • Mirroring – mirror the person you’re talking to subtly with your body language, to make them comfortable and demonstrate your empathy.
  • Empathy, not sympathy – place yourself in the other person’s shoes. A lot of people have trouble fathoming empathy. My distinction is that sympathy is ‘That sucks.’ Empathy is ‘I feel you.’
  • Summarise what the person is saying, or parrot it back to them where you feel it’s appropriate. Summarising stuff in your own way can help, sometimes, by giving the person your own (accidental) perspective on things and often reprioritising a little.
  • Reflect – keep in mind what you’re feeling in response to the things that are being said, and keep an eye on yourself, too.
  • Ask non-directive and open questions. Also, listen to the answers – they usually lead to more questions. Not things you can just answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to, if you can help it, though those questions have their place.
  • Use non-verbals where you can – ‘mm’s and nodding and ‘yes’es, to affirm that you are listening. Don’t overuse these.
  • Don’t advise (as a friend, I guess give your opinion where it’s wanted, but not without prompting). Don’t bring a solution where you’re not necessarily being asked for one, and don’t assume that you’re being asked for a solution.

Conveniently, these are all also tennets to being a good listener, and will stand you in good stead for forming strong relationships with people in the future. Therapy is working for me – in terms of establishing patterns and figuring out how to question them, and in terms of making time to engage with myself, with the guidance of someone else. A therapist is a tool for you to work with, to channel your development and engagement with yourself in a productive direction.


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. With Silvercloud, woefully, it seems to be the kind of average times that make your stomach sink a little.

So, first off, what is Silvercloud, for those of you that have never experienced the NHS online programme? It’s a British website that you can be referred to if you’re having a mental health problem that can be dealt with via Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I felt optimistic about this at first.

Let me set the scene for you: I got a review from my Silvercloud supervisor this morning.

Hello Ishani,

Missed SilverCloud Appointments:

I am sorry that you have not logged onto SilverCloud for the last two review periods. I hope this means things are going better for you and that you are well.

If you still wish to be seen by our service, please telephone or email me as soon as possible to re-start your SilverCloud reviews, or to discuss alternative treatment options. We would be very happy to speak with you.
If I have not heard from you within two weeks, I will assume that you do not wish to continue therapy at this time and will discharge you from our service. Please contact me by the 6th February at the latest.

I hope to hear from you soon and we would be very happy to discuss the best option for you.

Yours sincerely,


Honestly, I’m very grateful to have been referred to therapy via my school, because doing it with the NHS has been one of the most roundabout things in my life. Moreover, Silvercloud is the worst CBT service I think I’ve ever engaged with, but it is also the only online one I’ve had any experience with.

So here’s the gist of what you encounter when you start Silvercloud. They give you a questionnaire about how you’ve been feeling the past two weeks. Then a big screen comes up if you indicated any form of risk (ticking ‘I have had thoughts of being dead or dying’ is something I find I have almost definitely done in the past two weeks, even if it’s not even a particularly probing or troubling thought). Then, if you have indicated risk, you get a big screen saying how your supervisor can’t deal with you outside of office hours and how if you’re having trouble you should contact a service like Samaritans. Good start, right?

So, Silvercloud is basically a bunch of presentations – along with slideshows, and sometimes relevant questions or hard-to-access sections where you’re meant to journal every day about your feelings or thought patterns. I have a couple of thoughts about this. First is that I’ve seen this all before somewhere…right, it was when I first read about mental health at the age of twelve.

There are a bunch of learning modules to go through, each of them paraphrasing information you can find on the NHS website easily:

  • Getting started and understanding CBT
  • Understanding feelings and how they are connected to thoughts
  • Managing worry, and worry’s role in anxiety
  • Spotting thoughts
  • Challenging thoughts
  • Combining what you’ve learnt

Other modules include:

  • The basics of self-esteem
  • Sleep hygiene
  • Difficulties around work/unemployment
  • Basic relaxation techniques

Let me summarise this for you: be mindful, apply that mindfulness in your daily life, also develop good sleep habits.

CBT is a means of doing a fair amount of self-work – mostly in developing awareness of your reactivity patterns as they are happening – and you would be better off developing a daily mindfulness practice (using a guided meditation app, if you like – people love Headspace, I like Stop, Breathe, Think more and it also has more free options) and putting that into place. Those apps allow you to develop exactly the same practice, and you can even log your progress, only it’s more intuitive because it’s an app. But CBT is rooted in the same theory as mindfulness – your beliefs are negative, but they are not true, and seeing things as they are will do you good.

The problem with Silvercloud is, it’s fine, but it’s also completely unintuitive and not for anyone who’s ever googled ‘sad all the time what’s wrong with me’ and ‘know i shouldn’t hate myself + that i’m inherently valuable but feel horrible about myself nonetheless’ and ‘struggling with beliefs that i know aren’t true but that still weigh on me’. If you’ve looked that stuff up, or taken any remote action for your mental health, this isn’t really for you. In fact, if you’ve learned to go to a therapist and do more than blather out everything bad that happened that week and then leave feeling lighter for like an hour (I used to do this until my most recent stint, and there’s no shame in it, but it isn’t that productive), this might be for you.

Overall, I’d recommend using a free meditation app and mood journal combination instead, though. It’ll probably be better for you in the long run.


Vipassana is something that you can really only talk about once you’ve been. Every so often I meet someone else who’s done it and we put our heads together and chatter and leave everyone else in the room out a bit, because it’s kind of like a big secret club – something I enjoy a lot, but am a bit conscious and wary of. I did my vipassana in September 2015 at the Dhamma Dipa centre in Herefordshire. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back. I have a lot to think about, with regards to it, even now, two and a bit years later. I think I will, at some point, but I catch myself holding a lot of resistance to the thought of doing it. However – it did me the most good that anything has ever done me. I went from crying every time I missed a bus, panicking at the concept of being late to things, sick with worry about worst case scenarios a couple of years into the future about being unemployable and jobless and empirically worthless, wanting to kill myself – from those things to feeling okay. At first, I actually felt great, but it subsided into okay. But I’ve never been so worried about things that aren’t even likely to happen again, even now in the throes of nearly-graduate anxiety.

So, what is vipassana?

Initially, it’s a ten day long retreat, though after doing the first one you can switch it up and go for three day refreshers, or longer retreats (a lot of our course volunteers were there for thirty or forty days). Its disciplines lie in Buddhist mindfulness meditation techniques. Every retreat runs exactly the same way. Each day is split into chunks, but all of the chunks see you meditating a lot – some sits are in the hall, where you’re held accountable to the others around you to make sure you’re sitting and staying and Really Doing It. It’s scheduled as following:

Wake up at 4:30am
Meditate in your room or in the hall until 6:30am
Breakfast, 6:30-8am
Meditate in the hall, 8-9am
Meditate in a location determined by the facilitator, 9-11am
Lunch, 11am-12pm
Break and interviews with the facilitator, 12-1pm
Meditate in your room or in the hall, 1-2:30pm
Meditate in the hall, 2:30-3:30pm
Meditate in a location determined by the facilitator, 3:30-5pm
Tea break, 5-6pm
Meditate in the hall, 6-7pm
Discourse in the hall, 7-8:15pm
Meditate in the hall, 8:15-9pm
Questions in the hall, 9-9:30pm
Rest, 9:30pm

So, let’s break that down.


First off, the courses are gender segregated. Like, going in, they literally put a giant barrier up that prevents you from seeing any men except for walking into the hall and in the hall itself. There are separate paddocks to walk around in. The whole place is divided squarely in half, even in the hall.


There are two facilitators per course – both very experienced vipassana meditators, and both sit at the front of the hall from 4:30am until 9:30pm, with the exception of the designated break times, when they retire to their quarters. If you do your first vipassana, you will almost definitely talk to the facilitator (dubbed the ‘teacher’ there, but I prefer not to use that terminology) at least once. The facilitators are there to assuage your fears, calm you down when you want to go home, and answer any burning questions you have about the process (and there’ll be a lot, because it’s really boring and that’s when you think of every question ever to probably exist). You get to talk to the facilitator at the end of every day during question time, where everyone queues up in the hall and waits their turn and has a very hushed conversation with them (I don’t think any of mine lasted longer than three minutes). This is enough, usually. But if it isn’t, you can have a private sign-up meeting with them, too, during the hour after lunch. I think I signed up for that six or seven times – often in tears, often feeling the pressure of wanting to go home badly. My roommate left on day three, and left me this tiny secret note that said ‘fresh start’, and I held that note really dear. I thought about handing it in, about what I should do with it, but in the end I kept it, and lost it after a while. But I valued that motivation. Every time I wanted to go home, I thought about her, about her watching TV,

A very important note is that this course rules that you go off any meds you’re on – if you’re not in a position to do so, I suggest you don’t attend. They seldom select anyone who discloses a mental health issue – which may not sit well with you, and I wouldn’t fault you at all for feeling that way. It’s an act to cover their asses, because the courses are volunteer-run and there is no psychiatric help of any kind available there, so they can’t condone that you don’t take meds if you need them to function happily and healthily. Follow the rules at your own discretion, and if something isn’t right for you, flag it, but don’t end up without adequate support because you lied about medication or your needs.

Meditating in your room

You’re left to manage your own time to a large extent – but the thing is, there’s very little to do, if you’ve followed the rules. I handed in any method of stimulation at the very beginning, and every time I would find myself thinking, ‘God, I don’t want to meditate anymore’, I’d immediately follow it with, ‘Well, there’s literally nothing else to do, so a-meditating I shall go!’ Disciplined only by limitation.

I will say that I did try the early morning sit in the hall on the first two days and after that I decided that I was going to sleep through that morning period. I slept for that period with the light on and the curtains drawn so that no one would check on me. Cheeky, perhaps, but I just couldn’t do that period of time. I have no regrets about taking that small bit of time for myself and my needs. A lot of people slept in the time that they were supposed to be meditating in their rooms – I would not suggest you do it if you don’t need to. But 4:30-6:30, I definitely needed to. The time is largely about surrender to the protocol and not about striking individuality. You’re also allowed to go for walks in the paddock during your meditation time if you really need a break, but they don’t encourage it – if my wander got too lengthy, I would usually see the volunteers out and about. Usually their presence was enough, but once or twice they had to verbally chivvy me back inside.

Meditating in the hall

Hall sits were merciless at first. For the first three and a half days, we were supposed to focus on the small space between the nose and the lip – where the air comes out, and to just focus on the breath. Just that. That’s it. That’s the whole thing. For three and a half days. I must stress that ‘and a half’, because despite my prior reading, I bounded into the hall on day four excited for something new, and was crestfallen because we weren’t due to learn it until the afternoon sit. Totally crushed. I’ve never known disappointment like knowing I’d have to sit through another eight hours of focusing on my breath. It’s important though, because developing that kind of sensitivity on a smaller scale really paves the way for the fourth day.

The fourth day, you learn vipassana itself, which you might have heard referred to as the body scan. It’s scanning from head-to-toe, or toe-to-head (I preferred starting at the top but I think I’m in the minority), registering sensations with as much neutrality as you can muster. And I found that a lot more fun and a lot more fulfilling – there was so much more to concentrate on, so much more room, and I found it much easier to focus on hour-long sessions. I found that I could do five body scans an hour – you’re meant to go faster, but I much preferred to be slow and thorough and do one every ten minutes.

At that point, you’re encouraged to have your hall sits be sits of discipline and strength – that is, not moving at all. I managed to do this a few times, and it was good for me to do. I have eczema, and often struggled with itching, but I was able to dissect it pretty easily and have it dissolve into vibrations by day five. I actually had some very enjoyable meditations, though that’s not the point – the point is to cultivate a sense of non-attachment. That’s not actually what helped me, I thought – at least partially. What did help me was failing over and over again, having to constantly drag my mind back to square one, and realising that the world wasn’t ending. Like, yeah, I’m a failure, but no one even knows, leave alone cares. It was also a relief to stop attaching a story to things – but actually, the most poignant thing I took away was a sense of feeling okay about myself, for the first time since I was four years old.

That didn’t come from a sense of self-love. It came from figuring out experientially that everything is in flux, including me. So I didn’t have to love myself, because I’m constantly changing. I could just be neutral about it. I’ve actually since lost that to an extent, though I definitely don’t hate myself as extensively now, I just struggle with my worth whilst knowing that my worth is inherent. But the intellectual knowledge isn’t enough anymore. The point is, in the moment, and for a few months after the moment, it worked for me.


Every evening we’d get to sit and watch an hour long recorded lecture by Goenka himself – the guy who brought these retreats to mass popularity. These lectures are honestly the most interesting things ever, because you’re totally lacking any other external stimulation. But they’re very timely and poignant, and designed to emotionally resonate with where you’re at in the course. He has lines for everything – for being tired, for seeing things, for not seeing things, for wanting to go home, for wanting to talk to other people, for hating where you’re at, for pain, for joy, for not really liking the things he’s saying. He really does cover it – a lot of the questions I wanted to ask the facilitators were quelled in this portion of the day. He crystallises a lot of the points I was going through experientially of figuring out how to overcome my desire and aversion to certain sensations.

You can watch Goenka’s lectures online, but they won’t seem super revolutionary out of context. They’ll look like a wise old man spouting a bunch of fables.  They are absolutely brought to life by the places that meditating takes you.


Breaks were pretty much for walking, laying down in the paddock (I would advise doing your retreat in a warm season for this reason), showering and doing laundry if you needed to. It was very pleasant to have the time to spend with nature.

With regards to food: the food is excellent, and it’s vegetarian. Oatmeal with stewed fruit and toast with peanut butter or honey and fresh fruit for breakfast, and usually a stew or a curry and rice for lunch. Sometimes dessert. Normally you don’t eat anything large after midday – in the evenings you have tea and a piece of fruit. People who’ve sat more than one course don’t eat fruit or have milk with their tea – they just have tea or hot lemon water. This limitation caused some real interesting reactions, actually – I remember a lot of people eyeing the bananas with distinct envy. But I will say that you’re definitely not physically active enough to be very hungry, and I adapted to that quite quickly.

Do make the volunteers aware of your dietary needs prior to the course beginning, and if you suspect something is up with your food, take aside a volunteer and tell them. They aren’t always careful – I’m allergic to nuts, and despite my declaration, one meal made me throw up so I had to miss the afternoon sit in the hall. They do make accommodations for this – I got a couple of pieces of toast that day during the tea break. But it wasn’t the last time it happened – they were particularly wary of me after that, but a meal of mine on the seventh day had visible cashews in it, so I had to flag that. Don’t be afraid to ask for the recipe if you get a stew you’re dubious about.

The last day

The last day you’re allowed to talk to each other. Compared to the first day, everyone was bright and happy and peaceful, and full of laughter. Everyone was friendly and people I’d made up narratives for just to make something up and have something to do proved themselves to be completely different. It was incredibly light and interesting, like years were sloughed off the room.

In conclusion: Ten days seems long, and it feels like the longest ten days ever, but it’s not in the grand scheme of things, and it does need to be that long for you to learn it properly. The difficulty is all concentrated, so it feels longer when it’s happening. Each step is important – if I’d gone home in the middle, I don’t think I’d have returned home with a sense of calm so much as one of upset and guilt. If you’re tired and filled with anxiety, if you’re making stories out of everything, attaching meaning to things, this will probably help you, but it will also be super hard and require you to surrender a lot of your ideas and just go with it. But overall, if you’re feeling like that, it’s a lot easier than carrying on being the way you are.