Retreat: a place of security or safety; withdrawal for a period of meditation, prayer, reflection, silence.
I think it’s a common misconception that we have to go to Costa Rica for ten days to practice yoga 6 hours a day or check into a pricey bed-and-breakfast for a long weekend with a stack of novels to be officially on retreat.
While I’d jump at the chance to stand in Tree Pose in the rainforest and encourage you to pamper yourself with room service and down comforters if you can, I’m a huge fan of the simple DIY-style retreat (do-it-yourself). Designing your own personal retreat has the advantages of being spontaneous, free or almost-free, totally customized, and flexible.
Our culture doesn’t celebrate solitude (aside from Thoreau) very well and offers a 24/7 buffet of distractions. We may not have learned how to feel comfortable being alone with ourselves. When I facilitate trips or retreats that incorporate solo time, I notice this pattern:
- First 10 minutes: Wow, this is awesome! It’s so peaceful. I’m totally diggin’ this.
- Second 10 minutes: Damn, it’s too quiet. I can’t get comfortable. Who can I text?
- Third 10 minutes: I’m bored. This is ridiculous.
- Next 10 minutes to 10 hours (seriously!): Where did the time go? That was amazing, and not long enough.
If we can work through our initial reactions of anxiety, restlessness, and boredom, we can break through to the authentic peace and quiet that comes from being still, without distractions. We say, “I can’t even hear myself think!” when things are chaotic. Peace and solitude create the opportunity for us to say, “I can hear myself think…”
My personal recommendation is to have your retreat outdoors where the acts of breathing fresh air, feeling sun or wind on your face, and observing the vast diversity of Life all around allow us to put ourselves, and our problems, in perspective. There is research that shows that people’s stress levels decrease just from being outside, without doing anything special out there.
I like to pick out a nearby tree and then project my human thoughts on it to gain perspective. It becomes comical to think that a tree’s inner dialogue might be, “Have I gained weight? Why did I get this spot? I’m sure the tree on the riverbank has a better life than I do. I wish I were taller like that oak over there, all that sunshine it gets, and here I am in the shade. Am I being a good enough tree? I’m not sure I’m making enough leaves, or if they’re shaped right. Would I be happier if I were another kind of tree?”
While we’re not able to stop our thoughts (that’d be like stopping the waves in the ocean), enjoying meditative quiet is about letting our thoughts pass by like clouds in the sky without reacting to them or pursuing them. We simply notice them as, “I’m having a thought about ___,” and let it go by. In time, peace arises. Two things that can help with this are focusing on the sensation of your breathing as it happens naturally, and noticing each of your five senses. What are you hearing? What do you see? What do you feel on your skin or body?
For a simple DIY retreat, here are my recommendations:
- Find a spot in nature. You don’t have to drive 7 hours to a national forest, although kudos if you can and do! There is plenty of nature to be seen and lots of quiet, beautiful places to be found close to home and in urban environments.
- Bring a blanket or camp chair to sit comfortably where you want to be.
- Leave the electronics at home. Unplug, be unavailable, disconnect. Remember when we used to have to actually be home – in our houses – to get a phone call? Life was like that for decades, and for centuries, we didn’t even have phone calls. You and the people who love you can survive without connection for a few hours.
- Pack a small bag or daypack with: water bottle, healthy snacks (apples, trail mix, etc), sun block or bug spray if needed, journal and pen. Reading can be a distraction as well, but you may wish to bring a short inspirational article or a poem to spark reflection.
- Allow time. But don’t look at the time. Give yourself a large enough block of daylight to respond to your natural rhythms. Eat when you’re hungry, nap if you’re sleepy, move when you want to stretch or walk, do nothing. Your body is really smart and will let you know what it needs (which is not to be confused with “want” – a cheeseburger is a want, drinking water is a need). If you need to get home at a certain time, set the alarm on your watch or phone and then hide it away, volume off.
- No agenda. I think this might be the hardest one. We can approach our retreat like work, or a household project. We can make lists, have goals, structure our time, decide what we want to accomplish. Now, you can have a retreat like that, but…consider just once going on retreat without a plan other than to be.
I hope you give it a try! And I hope you share how it went with us in the Comments below. I’ve really come to believe that the more peaceful each of us becomes, the more peaceful the world becomes.