Lifting the weight that no scale can measure. What I learned from five days in a silent retreat.
I’ve always believed the key to success was to train harder, work longer, compete more fiercely, and that by following this simple formula I could hold my head high knowing I could have done no more. What I never considered was that effort and output may not always be aligned.
The sense of working to exhaustion, often at the expense of fitness and health, may help fulfil my vision of the hardened warrior, but I’ve begun to wonder could the quality have been improved if I’d just got that balance right?
What I’m about to share is the moment it all clicked for me, which occurred during a bizarre five-day silent retreat in Bali when I was awoken by a German angel who began whispering about the importance of becoming a turtle, a moment that completely changed the way I view my mind and I’m sure it will for you too.
So the immediate next question is obviously, “why the hell did you want to go to a silent retreat?’ closely followed by ‘has Heath lost his marbles?’
I’ll focus on answering the first one by providing some context of the past two years.
In 2015, I set myself the adventurous goal of leaving the sports sector, walking away from my dream job at the AFL Players’ Association, to prove my skills were transferable across any industry.
Having never worked in the not-for-profit sector, the prospect of joining World Vision, one of the world’s largest NGO’s would sound absurd to most, but the scale of the organisation (45,000 employees globally) and impact of the challenge led me to commit the next two years to tackling globally poverty.
My skillset was vastly different to most, but I knew there was opportunity for both worlds to combine and soon after the move I co-created the Run Indiaproject with ultra-marathon extraordinaire Samantha Gash, who would run 3200km run across India to support children’s education, capturing the entire journey on film and allowing people to track their own footsteps against an interactive map and experience this adventure in real-time.
It was an absolutely epic adventure, which became even more surreal when I found myself travelling with the team in a campervan for five weeks across India as Samantha ran between 50–70km per day whilst I helped navigate the route, manage a huge range of stakeholders and try my best to tackle every challenge that came our way (whilst also plodding 5km next to Sam each day as a way to maintain my sanity).
Waking at 4am, sleeping by 9pm, minimal sleep, minimal food, enormous responsibility, it took its toll. When I returned to Australia I had shed 14kg since I began the project in 2015, now weighing a measly 67kg (losing around 8kg whilst in India).
Whilst some wanted to know my secret, those close to me knew something needed to give.
I had given it everything I had, I had poured it all on the line, I was tipping the scales as light as a feather, but yet the burden was crushing me. My nerves were shot, my armour was up, my vulnerability was protected and I felt terrified of judgement and ultimately failure.
We’d raised over $200,000, built partnerships with brands like Nike Run Club, Polar, lululemon and many more, and reached over 50 million people globally. These were results I could never have dreamed of.
Yet at a time when I should have been most proud of what had been achieved, I lamented on what could have been and what I could have done differently. I wondered if I had missed my chance, I felt frustration and even cynicism and scepticism started to creep in as the doubts of others began to weigh more heavily on my own insecurities.
It’s a feeling I’ve seen many times in others, particularly elite athletes, who appear so unbelievably fit and strong and have everything at their feet, yet are plagued by the fear of looming failure, and even as hard as they train they can’t break through these mental demons.
So fast forward to June this year, when I decided to take a leap of faith and make the journey to Bali with my beautiful girlfriend Nichole, in a line in the sand moment where we were choosing to make our health a priority, and see whether I could make my body and mind actually unwind (for once).
The destination was called the Bali Silent Retreat, and I’ll avoid revealing the entire experience as I believe the magic would be different for every person, but I will share the magic moment when it all clicked for me.
It was dark but we’d prepared ourselves, and slowly opened our eyes, grabbed our torches, poured our ginger tea and proceeded down the jungle path to the open aired tepee where meditation and yoga would become our morning ritual.
As we patiently sat within the octagon arena wondering what would happen next, the voice of an angel began speaking ever so softly and slowly from somewhere in the shadows (remember the German I mentioned?).
“Be curious” she advised, “be like the curious turtle. Lift your head high, without fear. Look around.”
Having never done meditation I was eager to please and began awkwardly raising my neck, straining my face, completely unaware that I was about to hear one of the most illuminating messages that would perfectly capture the internal battle I’d been fighting.
Note: Now read this slowly *, and take in every sentence (*German accent optional)
“Try to relax your mind. The mind is a tool. It has been designed for us to use.
It is for us to use, like every other tool in our body, to help us survive, to solve problems and to improve our lives.
For many of us however, it now controls our lives. We have lost that control, and we need to take that balance back.”
It was so simple, yet completely contradictory to how I’d been managing my mind. I had prided myself on the power of my mind. It’s creativity, it’s focus, its ability to juggle so many ideas at once and I’d been constantly trying to push it to juggle even more. But in all of this I was now aware that the scales had become lop sided, and through such a stressful time, my once clear thoughts had now become cluttered with frustration (and even negativity), a tangled mess of burdensome weight.
This mental waste had also been accumulated from other challenges in my life, and as the instructor spoke about the need to nourish our minds and bodies, I reflected on my habit of binging on hard work, and the frustration I experienced when this came at the detriment of health and fitness knowing I only had myself to blame.
I realised the rationalisation that this hard work was ultimately delivering the best outcome possible was actually false, and more than ever recognised the critical role this careful life balance plays in allowing our mind to function at it’s optimum.
As the journey of discovery continued over the next five days, I experienced the healing effects of a healthy lifestyle as I ate food prepared straight from the jungle (the best food I’ve ever eaten) whilst also following a simple routine which began with five chimes at 5.30 every morning.
But now comes the critical question. We don’t all live in a jungle, nor do we have food prepared three times a day, and life is bloody busy and definitely noisy, so what do you expect us to do with this revelation?
What I learned during this experience is how powerful the mind can be when you clear the space to allow it to focus. Just reintroducing my daily practice of using Trello, has allowed me to take any thoughts or ideas I may have, and if they don’t need to be actioned right away I put them in my lists and refocus on the moment at hand.
Secondly, I’ve delved so much deeper into what was really behind that feeling of failure and so much of this came from me. I’ve started to embrace the idea that we are all just living in collective ignorance (see my blog on Sapiens) and embracing the idea that it’s ok to say ‘I don’t know’.
With this fear removed (or at least reduced) I feel so much more comfortable to focus on the other areas of my life like health and fitness, which I know are so closely linked to my performance but which I often felt guilty prioritising for fear that people may question my commitment to the huge project at hand.
Building that structure and routine has been so empowering, and whilst breaking life-long behaviours is extremely hard, it has certainly shown me a path I want to keep pursuing.
These insights may not be not earth-shattering revelations for most, but it has provided a simple start for me and I hope it has resonated for others .
For me, sharing this story has been a symbolic gesture of my desire to be more vulnerable, and challenge myself to fight the temptation to fear judgement and just focus on giving back to the world as much as I take.
Finally, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt during those magical days in the silent retreat is to remember to also be thankful, and extend gratitude as often as possible, without holding back for fear that it may not be returned.
So I want to thank-you for your time, thank-you for being part of my community, and invite you to share your thoughts and feedback, and connect with me in the hope we can continue learning together.
It’s a small step, but it’s an exciting new direction.