Creating a Personal Retreat
We become so immersed in the requirements and obligations of our day-to-day routines that we barely notice that our lives are slowly slipping away. Although we feel an underlying dissatisfaction with our current life situation, we convince ourselves that we are too busy at the moment for any new undertaking, and we promise ourselves that we will set aside some time to work on things … later. As the days continue to pass slowly the years continue to pass quickly, until we awake one day … later … and find that we haven’t done anything to change our life situation. We’ve been so busy meeting the expectations of everyone else that we haven’t set aside any time for ourselves … yet. On and on it goes until one day, much later, it is too late.
The most deceitful form of procrastination is the one that we apply to ourselves. We put off doing the things that we want to do because everyone and everything else seems more important. We are very near the bottom on our own list of priorities. We recognize the need to take time out, to work on change, to do things that really matter to us, but we are caught in a seemingly endless cycle of attending to urgent things that seem important while neglecting important things because they don’t seem to be urgent.
A fortunate few occasionally manage to squeeze some time out of our very busy, and very self-important, schedules to attend a seminar, a workshop or a retreat. These are like mini-vacations because we take time out from our hectic schedules to concentrate on ourselves. Unlike a vacation, however, where we usually return exhausted from trying to squeeze as much recreation as possible into our limited time, we usually return from a workshop or a retreat energized, and with a sense of purpose. A retreat can be refreshing, revitalizing and rewarding … even if it only lasts for no more than a day or two as we reacquaint ourselves with our ordinary lives.
But we don’t need to spend a lot of money or block off too much of the calendar to reap the rewards of taking time out from life. Instead of continually putting off that infrequent break, we can schedule our own retreat. It can last for a weekend, a day or perhaps a few hours. We can schedule a couple of hours during each week, or a weekend every few months. We can reserve a cabin in the woods or we can do it when we’re alone at home. The details are up to us, because it’s our retreat.
Planning Your Retreat
The plan for your retreat depends on its purpose. Your retreat may be for spiritual reasons, to establish goals and an action plan for your life, to re-create your body, or just to “veg.” You may have time for an entire weekend, or it can be one Saturday or Sunday, or you may want to take a vacation day and plan it for the middle of a week. Your retreat can be at your empty home, a private office, a sparsely-populated recreation area or a rented cabin in the woods. The location of your retreat should be carefully selected so that others will not interrupt your or distract you from your purpose.
- Be natural. Awake naturally, eat naturally and sleep naturally. We spend our lives trapped in artificial time. We awake to the grating sound of an alarm. Our meals are dictated by the mechanical hands on a clock. We lie down to rest after the evening news or, worse, during the evening news. Trust the natural rhythms and needs of your body to wake you, eat when you are hungry, and rest when you are tired.
- Turn off all electronic devices. The purpose of a retreat is to focus on one area of your life. You can’t do this if you’re interrupted by phone calls or text messages, or if you are preoccupied with reality television or the internet. Turn off your cell phone, your computer and your television, and any other electronic devices that may distract you. If your cell phone has such a feature, you can set it so that it only rings with emergency calls.
- Be silent. In Buddhism, this is called the practice of noble silence. Without others present we have a tendency to talk to ourselves. Unless the purpose of your retreat is to practice your singing or hone your public speaking skills, resist the temptation to verbalize your thoughts. You’ve already made the decision to leave the radio and the mp3 player behind, so try not to fill the gap with your own noise.
- Be mindful. Just as important as resisting the human tendency to verbalize our thoughts, try to quiet the mental chatter that occurs in your mind. Endeavor to experience your surroundings, without judgment. Let everything come and go; let everything just be. You can practice mindfulness while you’re sitting, walking, eating and lying down. If the purpose of your retreat is spiritual, mindfulness will facilitate meditation and contemplation. If you have another aim — such as goal-setting — then mindfulness will provide you with the focus necessary to concentrate on the task at hand.
- Read meaningful literature. If you are on a spiritual retreat, you may want to read spiritual literature. If your purpose is to set goals for your life, you may want to read something that is helpful in that area, or something that provides you with personal motivation. When you read … read. Keep your mind from wandering through endless irrelevant detours. Read mindfully, focusing and understanding the words on the page. Read as though you were back in grammar school and had to take a comprehension test when your reading was done.
- Balance physical and mental activities. If your retreat is mostly cerebral, you will be better served by taking an occasional break to walk around or exercise. A spiritual retreat doesn’t require you to sit on a meditation cushion for twelve hours each day — you can be just as spiritual whether you’re sitting, walking or going to the bathroom.
- Keep a journal. What you write in your journal depends on the purpose of your retreat. You can write down spiritual thoughts. Or, you can write down observations about your current life situation, and the steps that you’ve decided to take to achieve your goals. You’ve turned off all of your electronic devices so your journal will have to be kept using old-fashioned paper and ink. Your journal will guide you along the way when you return to the mundane world, and provide motivation for your to engage in similar retreats in the future.
By withdrawing from the hectic pace and demands of our ordinary lives, and allowing ourselves to focus on what is important to us, we can achieve a clarity of mind and purpose that provides direction for our lives once we re-join the others. We can plan our retreats on a regular basis, or infrequently as we recognize the need. Eventually, if we permit ourselves, we may reach a stage where we can enjoy a retreat for just a few minutes — wherever we are.