A retreat – a time of solitude in a secluded, natural place – is a wonderful opportunity. The word ‘retreat’, though, can bring up resistance in some people, particularly if we associate the idea with running away. We may feel it is an admission of defeat, a sense of escaping from life, rather than facing it head on. Yet there is immense potential contained within time away from daily concerns. Sometimes we need to retreat, in order to chart the most skillful way forward. In order to advance, we need time to get to know our own mind. We need to dive deep.
When we are in the fast flow of an urban life, we can easily lose sight of who we are, and become distracted by outer experiences. Our self-image is filtered through social perceptions. Every single person has a slightly different view of us, based on their own mind, so we twist and turn, trying to fit into the mould that others create. Social media has exaggerated this, as we get real time feedback through ‘Likes’ from others, instead of realising that we have far more authentic real time feedback, by tapping into the world of our feelings, physical sensations and intuition. We need to take time to inhabit our own mould; our own body, heart and mind. Is this selfish? Let’s see. When we turn to our unique selves we find that we connect with the universal aspects of all humans. We can understand our own shadow, and the shadow we see in others. We also recognise our own light, and help to bring out that light in others. When we notice what makes us happy or sad, we are more able to recognise or even pre-empt those feelings in others, and behave skilfully in order to provide support.
Time on retreat gives us the chance to shift our level of consciousness, so that we suddenly see solutions to challenges or habits more clearly, and are easier able to let them dissolve away. As Einstein is often quoted:
“No problem can be solved
from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
Two key aspects we have time to explore on retreat are finding ease, and being aware. These sum up my favourite simple definition of being mindful: awake yet relaxed. The Pali word for mindfulness (sati) has been translated as remembering or returning. What are we returning to?
Finding Ease: on most retreats there are times of sitting practice and times for movement, often yoga or qigong. Movement practices enliven the body and activate the musculature, so that we become aware of how our body feels when it relaxes. Sitting practice allows us to get to know our own mind. In combination, these practices allow us to cultivate softness and ease within body, heart, and mind, and to know more intimately how to remember the tenderness that is our human birthright. We find ease in practical ways too: sleeping early, waking with the morning sun; eating easy to digest vegetarian food which others have prepared for us; ease in moving from place to place, guided by the bell, rather than the constant need to look at a phone or watch. We also leave our cars behind, and find ease through walking mindfully.
Being Awake: We explore inner methods of energy balancing, and sitting meditation to cultivate an increased capacity to attend to all of our experiences. We become curious, interested and attentive to our moment-by-moment experiences, rather than zoning out into past memories of future plans. We wake up in this moment.
Three ways of waking up and exploring our own minds are to: study; contemplate; and meditate.
Study: Many of us love to study. We read and read and read. We seek external information to understand what is going on inside. This can be hugely valuable, yet the other two provide a more direct path, and these are the two where a retreat provides a great opportunity.
Contemplate: Contemplation is a process of holding a question or idea in our mind, and giving it the freedom to reveal its own answers. This is a disappearing art, as we tend to lose the ability when we are time-bound and lost in a busy mind. When we want to know something quickly, we just ‘Google’ it! We can approach questions that may scare us in daily life, when we are paddling away under the water just to maintain an appearance of calm. Four concepts that are often contemplated in the Buddhist tradition are precious human birth, impermanence and death, karma and the truth of suffering. Contemplating death may seem morbid and inappropriate, yet it can be very useful. When we realise that ‘life is short and death is lurking’ (Thubten), we can move in one of two directions: become miserable and panic; or live each moment with clear intention, great meaning and value. Focusing on the end of life means we may start to re-orientate our compass, point by point, until we are being guided forward, finding our true north in this life.
Meditate: Meditation provides a container for getting to know, and maybe even befriending our own mind. We start by listening in to our superficial mind; the one made of conditioning, habit patterns and tendencies. This mind may have served us well in the past, but as our circumstances have changed, it could be holding us back, or restricting our transformation. There is an irony here. The more we crave and want to be different, the more we are rejecting who we already are, and that entrenches the very tendencies that we are wanting to be free of. If we can take time in nature, to slow down our mind to its natural pace, then we can allow the inevitability of change to carry us towards our human aspirations – to be happy, to be kind, to contribute to the world around us.
When we use retreat time to bring a sense of understanding to ourselves, a sense of befriending all our tendencies – skilful and unskilful – then we find change happening effortlessly. We build an enthusiasm for our practice and feel grateful that we are in a position to take time away from daily life. There is no need to feel guilty about people who are not in a position to take time out, but rather appreciate the opportunity we currently have, and make the very best use of it. Their turn might come, and ours might pass.
A weekend retreat provides time away from daily life concerns and provides the chance to recuperate and recharge before heading back into the normal cycles of life. An extended retreat provides the chance to enter a transitional space intentionally. It seems to slow down time so that we can see ourselves more clearly, to learn new skills and ideas that may help in the prioritisation of our daily life activities, or the intentions behind them and also allows for fundamental internal shifts in the way we relate to the world around us.
Personally, I have found that shifts on retreat have come in a number of forms:
Shifts in priority: making a commitment to spend more time on certain activities, particularly those that nourish me, and less time on those that I find depleting. Many of us are trapped in a cycle of stress and threat. The importance of finding ways to care for ourselves can help to reduce empathy fatigue and burnout, and make us more sustainable, particularly if we are working towards the well-being of others and the environment.
Shifts in attitude towards daily life activities: Once I learn to imbue daily chores with meaning, they can shift from feeling dull and dreary or a waste of time, to having significance and value. On one retreat, I tended the herb garden, mulching it and watering it each day. I imagined that I was caring for this little patch of earth and 7 billion others could care for their own patch, allowing the entire environment to be protected. I found that this task which I did to help others also brought great happiness to myself, as I watched new shoots appear over the month, and ate from the produce.
Opportunities for healing: particularly from sickness, situations of trauma, or from addictive tendencies that keep us trapped in constant grasping or aversion. Retreat gives us the awareness that it is possible for change to happen, when we set intentions and then let them lead us, moment by moment, day by day.
Shifts in habit patterns: Retreat time allows a refining of our awareness so that the habits that others often see so clearly, which we are blind to, can be exposed and transformed into more skilful behaviours. This can feel sore, as we release parts of ourselves, but on retreat we are given the space to feel sore, or to feel happy. We are given the space just to feel.
We feel pain and experience difficulty when we project our own happiness onto outer things. We feel unsafe and unstable when we rely on the unreliable. When we start getting to know, and then relying on our own expansive mind, we start touching into a dependability that is beyond the material world. We look into ancient teachings that have been helping people for centuries, and we realise we may have found some nuggets of gold. Time for study, contemplation and meditation may help to restore us back to our natural state of ease and wakefulness. And at this unstable time in global politics, this could be a great place to start.