The ‘Switch off and Connect’ PhD Retreat, by Marc Yeats

In May of this year, Marc Yeats and a small group of fellow PhD students took time out of their busy lives to take part in the ‘Switch Off and Connect’ retreat in the isolated Lake District. In this feature-length post, Marc reflects on this unique and beneficial experience.

Marc Yeats

School of Music

University of Leeds

Arriving at a wet Penrith railway 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 wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of fun. Especially if part of the plan involved talking about your personal PhD concerns with a group of unfamiliar people – and not least when PhD life is so busy and time so precious.

Dalemain Bungalow, Martindale, Cumbria
7th-10th May 2019

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 above) 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 was charming and rustic, with gas lighting, heating, cooking and gas fridges. Most bedrooms and bathrooms were shared and there was a large kitchen and communal lounge/dining area. The building was pine-panelled throughout, making for a slightly dark but cosy feel within. There were windows in all the rooms that look out onto the hills – the views are simply stunning – and the building had 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 is not for you.

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.

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.

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 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. 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.

WRoCAH and CHASE run regular Action Learning Sets in London, York, Sheffield and Leeds. If you would like to be part of one of these groups, please email Julie Parker

All photos ©Marc Yeats and Julie Parker

Find out more about Marc and his PhD on the WRoCAH Research Pages