A journey to a Holy Isle retreat in Scotland holds one coach’s assumptions to account

On the ordnance survey map, Holy Isle, off the east coast of Arran, Scotland, is roughly the shape and size of my thumb. On the ferry from Ardrossan, it’s pointed out to me. It’s bigger than I envisaged, and more rugged, rising to 1,000 feet.

Taking leave of the everyday world begins with leaving my car at the port, and boarding the ferry on foot. Immediately, the pace of life shifts down a gear. Standing on the deck, Arran steadily approaches across a benign Firth of Clyde.

Suddenly, a cetacean leaps clear of the water, powerful, fluid, returning to its element so quickly I wonder if I imagined it. A dolphin?
A minke whale? I notice my desire to identify it, as if a label could augment such beauty.

Disembarking, travellers to Holy Isle fill the local bus to overflowing. Disgorged at Lamlash, we’re ferried 10-at-a-time across a second stretch of water, packed tightly in a wee boat. Time shifts down another gear.

At the jetty, we’re welcomed by retreat centre staff. Wild Eriskay ponies glance quizzically and return to grazing.

We’re here for a week of ‘joyfully taming the mind’. Our guide is the Abbot of Samye Ling Buddhist monastery, who founded the Holy Isle centre as a peaceful space for people of all faiths – and of none.

The sacred roots of the place run deep – a sixth century Christian hermit, Saint Molaise, inhabited a cave on the then-named Island of the Water Spirit. The island was holy long before it acquired the label.

On retreat, periods of silence, teaching and meditation replace the distractions and busy-ness of worldly life. We also walk, talk, laugh and paddle. Each of us is more-than-usually confronted by ‘self’ – especially when in silence. Over the week, I bear gentle witness to my tendency to aggrandise, to my need to be recognised and applauded, to my insecurities among unfamiliar people and practices.

These less-lovable attributes are balanced by acknowledging my warmth, my willingness to listen and support, and my capacity to transform judgement into curiosity.

When, as a coach or supervisor, I see myself more clearly, my clients benefit. Difficulties in my work don’t usually arise from lack of knowledge, but from the way my humanness interferes with putting what I know into practice. Without precision, it’s easy to overlook, or slide away from, my part in issues that challenge me. Labelling, or naming, is important in the inner work for a coach.

Back home, Holy Isle itself holds me to account. It’s taken many people 20 years of hard graft to tame a small part of the island. Slowly, the impact of climate, terrain, neglect and exuberant life-force has been moderated, dilapidated buildings made habitable,
land cultivated.

Such endeavours are far simpler than taming an unruly mind. Yet, in my conceit, I think a few months of short meditation practice will enable me to work skilfully with the impact of losses, imagined or real hurts, confusion, fear and
self-interest (to name but a few).

Years of hard graft will be required. And yet, beneath our human frailties, whether labelled or not, we have an essential nature that reflects the grace and spirit of a leaping cetacean, or an isle that is holy. And sometimes, effortlessly, we make contact with it.



Amanda Ridings is an executive coach and author of Pause for Breath, bringing the practice of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations (Live It Publishing, 2011). Amanda@originate.org.uk