Paul Simon is Head of Policy and Communications at Suffolk Chamber of Commerce. Here he explains why he made the decision to go on a retreat, recently – and why he plans to go every year from now on
During periodic flights of fancy, I like to think of myself as something of a Renaissance man. My children, however, based on my lack of modern technical knowledge, consider me to be something from the Palaeolithic era.
More seriously, I’ve enjoyed a personal and working life that has been constantly developing and varied: the former made utterly better by faith and family and the later broadly focused upon communications – marketing, public relations, journalism and policy development.
I’m responsible for working with the chief executive and other members of staff to enhance the reputation of Suffolk Chamber, explain its role in supporting our members and the wider business community, developing and delivering our campaign priorities and lobbying Government, our MPs and others to ensure Suffolk gets the recognition and necessary investment it needs to contribute to the country’s sustainable growth and prosperity. In short, this and that.
At a professional level, the pandemic has turbocharged my role in that the needs of Suffolk businesses in the initial months of the crisis and now in terms of the recovery and renewal phases are more urgent than ever. I’ve probably never worked so forcibly and constantly as I have during the last year and a half: like playing 3D chess at warp speed for a lifetime!
Against that, there is a cold, hard political headwind in the Levelling Up agenda that seems to assume that Suffolk is uniformly affluent and so little deserving of significant Government investment in our infrastructure and skills. That is rather frustrating – and short-sighted.
Personally, the pandemic has been very challenging. My wife is an NHS nurse of south Asian heritage and I still recall my absolute fear during the first lockdown that she would contract the virus and be seriously affected by it.
Our children’s education has also been affected at times, but I’m very proud as to how they have adapted and grown in the last 18 months.
A friend at the church we attend mentioned Othona Essex years ago. I recall thinking “how wonderful, but I’ll probably never need its help.”
How wrong I was. By the middle of this year, I was beginning to feel extremely anxious and weary and was struggling – more than normal – with the sheer tsunami of professional and personal ‘to dos’ that each day seemed to bring.
One of the advantages of advancing middle age is the bank of learnt experience that one builds up. Recognising that this wasn’t sustainable, I booked a short retreat at the Othona community in Essex as something to look forward to and as a fire break, to put into place a more structured approach to mindfulness. My time at Othona provided just that.
Othona was founded in 1946 with an ambition to bring together people from different faiths and none, so it has accumulated over the decades a kind and non-judgemental culture that allows people just to be and leave their worldly issues or hopes behind if they so choose.
This is a profoundly holy site, having been a place over many centuries where people have lived, prayed and hoped. The seventh century chapel of St Peter’s, itself built on the site of an earlier Romano-British fort, is used for evening prayer, attendance at which is discretionary, where there is a palpable sense of our continuity with previous generations.
The landscape is awe-inspiring. Located on the confluence of the River Blackwater and the North Sea, the area is haven for wildlife and walkers alike!
It’s important to recognise that a retreat is not really a holiday as such, although as with Othona it doesn’t have to be an austere prison sentence either!
There are as many approaches to what a retreat entails as there are places offering them. It’s important, therefore, to think about what you are looking for and match that, via desk research, to relevant places.
I think that we are seeing a welcome generational shift, whereby the confessional openness and honesty of younger people to identify, own and address their health and wellbeing issues is encouraging older folks like me to stop ‘grinning and bearing it’!
There is also a wider realisation that good mental health not only benefits individuals and their families, but wider society and indeed the economy as whole. The more businesses get involved in supporting the health of their workforces the better and quicker good mental health will become the norm.
I’d aim to integrate going on a three or four-day retreat at Othona Essex every year from now on.
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Featured image: Tony Pick Photography