I had many expectations about going on a silent retreat. Some realistic (finding some quiet space and alone time), some not so much (writing a novel in five nights and six days). What I didn’t expect was the effect of a massive drop in anxiety and stress levels — less farting.
I’ve had Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) since I was a teenager, and let me tell you, it is NOTHING like those dumb adverts for medication make it out to be. Oh, I’m a woman dining out with my friends, but my tummy’s a little bloated and uncomfortable, I’ll just take a magic tablet and it’ll all go away, then I can go back to giggling and pointing at men. Fuck you pharmaceutical and advertising companies. Try making an advert that includes pain so bad you spend the night doubled over on the bathroom floor, or how about one where you run around a large shopping centre, clenching your butt cheeks together, trying to find a toilet before diarrhoea explodes out of your arse and pebbledashes the underwear section of M&S. And don’t get me started on the apocalyptic trumpets that build up in your stomach before announcing the end times from your arse. Still think your little peppermint flavoured tablets are going to help?
This is my life, and it stresses me out, makes me avoid certain situations and I only go out for food with friends who understand that at any time I may need to run for the loo and they won’t see me for a while.
So, how did a silent retreat help with all this? Firstly, the diet. It was vegetarian and mainly produced from items grown on the farm that was part of the retreat. I’m a vegetarian anyway, so no change there, what did change was the amount of processed food I ate (less, although I did sneak in a few chocolate bars) and fibre intake (more). This would, of course, have an impact on my digestive system. Secondly, my stress levels bottomed out — honestly, I think my Garmin thought I’d died.
Stress is a major trigger of IBS and well, there’s been a lot of that going around over the last few years. I also have tinnitus which has got worse due to the stress and increased local-level noise during lockdown — this makes me stressed, my IBS plays up, this makes me more stressed, my tinnitus ramps up, and around and around we go. The purpose of the silent retreat was to help with my noise and tinnitus-related stress, I’d never even thought it would help my IBS.
It took a few days for me to notice the effects. I was lying in bed one day, looking at the River Dart meandering past, swallows flitting and swooping past the window, when I suddenly realised I hadn’t farted for a while. Honestly, your mind starts to think odd things when you go on a silent retreat, but this was unexpected. I’d already noticed that there hadn’t been a single Usain Bolt style dash for the bathroom since I arrived, but where had all my farts gone?
Several of my medical issues have stress and anxiety at their root. The difference removing that stress made was incredible. The meditation sessions helped soothe my body and brain, and the sheer quiet that existed in this little corner of Devon removed all the noise that usually churns around my head. I was also fascinated that the removal of choice could be so cathartic. We had a strict timetable, someone rang a bell and we walked silently to the mediation, food was limited, you ate what was there — it might sound a bit prison-like, but in a world where we are overwhelmed with choice taking some time out from it was like letting out a sigh that started in my toes and went all the way to the bottom of my reptile brain.
I’m not going to discount the effect of diet, but the effect on my mental wellbeing was so profound that there is no way it didn’t impact my physical being as well.
I remember an episode of QI when the host, Sandi Toksvig, announced that she had never farted. The audience and panel of comedians went from silence to disbelief to laughter, of course, you must have farted Sandi, don’t be so silly. But she stood by her guns. She had never farted. Now I realise that she must be the most zen person on the planet.
I’ve always struggled to stick to meditation and mindfulness, I know it’s important for my mental and physical health but I just get bored with it. But now I know it is a miracle cure for my IBS* I’m going to become as Zen as Sandi, surround myself with quiet spaces and practice mindfulness until my bum melds with the mediation pillow.
*Usual medical disclaimer — I’m not a doctor, this is based on my experience only, please see your doctor before making any lifestyle changes — don’t stress me out or I will send all farts in your general direction.
This article was originally published on 8 July 2021 on my Medium page.