19 Mar The healing influence of an intimate retreat
I’m not talking about a couple’s getaway. I don’t mean the family holiday, enjoyable but fraught with chaos as it often is. I’m talking about a different kind of retreat here, specifically the personal retreat, that solo venture in which one gets away on his/her own with no responsibilities but ample quiet and/or adventure. For some people this might mean a week in the wilderness. For others, it’s a few days at the spa or a meditation centre. It might be the chance to enjoy anonymity playing tourist in a large city or to try out an alternative occupation for a week. It could be a solo road trip through a stretch of open country. It might also be a retreat with a few other people, who perhaps share the same values as you. Or maybe it’s something else entirely.
My partner John used to pack up his camping gear, wooden boat and sheep dog on tow and venture out to a remote corner of the Scottish highlands for a while. Not even his parents knew exactly where he was going and when he’d be back. His goal was specifically to get away from everything and everyone and hunker down with just his thoughts and the barest essentials whilst he fished the lochs or the coast on his own. No matter what else was going on in his life in a given year, he never missed that trip. When things were going tough in his life, he would take longer trips. It was his way of finding time to centre himself in the midst of life, to perform a kind of psychic reboot.
The meaning of a retreat of course is inherent in the term itself – a withdrawal from normal life. We leave behind the daily routine, which can become mind-numbing over time. We shed the roles that rule our lives and can – in their confines – strangle even our closest relationships. In the midst of our hectic lives, it’s easy to get caught up in the details of the daily grind. At a certain point – especially at vulnerable times of our lives – they can feel like a network of ties holding us down, binding us increasingly inward. Our sense of emotional coherence and genuine connection seems to give way. We can lose our bearings as well as the mental focus and emotional resilience they give us.
Now more than ever, with these physical and mental restrictions from the authorities, we seem to want to free ourselves from the oppressive effects of such circumstances.
One New York Times article highlighted the influence personal retreats have had for overworked professionals. Whether our income reaches the 6 figures or the double figures, our stress levels are pretty similar. For the men and women mentioned, retreats were a time to entirely disconnect from a life that is oppressively connected. Giving up their smart phones and laptops, going without any communication initially instilled a distressing sense of isolation and anxiety. Nonetheless, the experience recalibrated their inclinations. As one man put it, “‘Going into a retreat is really about breaking down who you really are… The whole idea is for you to take a very close look at the yourself and whom you have become in your mind. The mental being of yourself isn’t necessarily the real you.’” Distance yourself from the everyday buzz and chatter, and it’s amazing to hear what becomes audible.
Anyone who’s taken a retreat understands the restorative power here. In stripping away the roles and routines, you’re able to unearth elements of yourself long neglected, even unrecognized. You remember strengths that you have. In the best retreats, I think, you take them out for a drive again and test them. You recall the interests that you’ve had – it could have been practising early morning Pilates or Yoga, or perhaps the deep connection you found when you managed to do some meditation. These early connections help you discover the dimensions that complexify and enrich who you are and what you have to offer. Most of all, it’s a time for opening up your sense of life – like getting outside under the big blue sky after being shut in during a week-long cold snap. An undercurrent of irritation releases itself into the sudden space. A sense of calm and balance settles into its place. The personal retreat, however one designs it, is a cure for the emotional cabin fever I think we all feel at times.
We all have busy lives. We do our best to incorporate all the healthy, back-to-basics activities we can. Nonetheless, we find times when the everyday strategies aren’t enough. Stress is building up, difficult events turn our lives upside down, and we seem at a loss to keep up. It’s time to fill the well, so to speak. A retreat in that respect underscores a point that the optional isn’t always optional, especially during Covid19.
Although time and resources might make getting away difficult, I’d label many things discretionary before this. From a logistical standpoint, not everyone can take an actual “trip” retreat at any given time, but there are ways to adapt the concept to fit a more modest form: camping overnight, a full day’s hike, a weekend’s worth of long evening meditation practices, an extended walk to meet the sunrise. The key is to hone in on what we need at a given time. Solitude? Inspiration? Rest? Risk? What aspects of ourselves are going unstimulated in our current circumstances? What patch of our mental terrain needs tending? I think the best retreats aren’t measured by expense, novelty, or even duration. They’re gauged by growth, repose, and restoration. Answer the instinct that presents itself.
Thanks for taking the time to read this blog. Have you taken personal retreats? What was your intention, and what did you find was the ultimate benefit or core of the experience? Whether you have or haven’t, what is your vision of the perfect solo retreat?