Retreat (n.): a going back or backward; withdrawal in the face of opposition or from a dangerous or unpleasant situation; a safe quiet or secluded place; a period of retirement or seclusion for spiritual renewal. Bingo! That last definition from Webster’s works.
A few months ago, I spent five blissful days in a yoga and meditation retreat. My time there got me thinking about the definition of “retreat.” Either a noun or a verb, there are obviously many different ways to view this term. In war, to retreat on the battlefield is a shameful thing—it signifies a loss of territory and giving up, at least for the time being. In life, what does it mean when we go on retreat?
I have to admit, I’ve never met a retreat I didn’t love. Even when I was the planner, presenter, and funder of retreats for the college students I advised—and the effort and cost sometimes seemed more than it was worth—once we got there, I always had a great time. In what other context can you get twenty college students to play games uproariously for hours on a Saturday night, without an alcoholic beverage in sight?
There is something about being away from our normal routine, in a beautiful setting that can bring out the best in us. With or without a carefully planned agenda, the experience can seem almost magical. Whether the people you are with are friends, colleagues or total strangers, the retreat setting lends itself to great ideas, sharing and opening up to those around you. It can bring out the best in people.
In the past fourteen months, I have been on four retreats: the first was for cancer survivors and caregivers at a beautiful facility in Tucson; the second for work in a rustic log cabin in the snowy mountains of Colorado; the third, called Courage and Heart, about taking the risk to do something different in life, set on the beautiful California Coast in Big Sur; and finally, the yoga retreat at a Zen mountain center north of Fort Collins, Colorado.
My time at each of the retreats was wonderful, centering, relaxing, memorable, and enlightening in some way—the work one maybe not quite as much as the others—but it had its moments, too. I always think, when I’m in the thick of the retreat, that I will carry that feeling with me back into the daily grind, that I will stay in touch with all the great people I met, and that the experience will have changed me in some significant way.
Some of those things do happen, for a time at least. I have shared the occasional email here and there with my fellow retreaters, though none have yet become close friends. I can often recall the relaxed and blissful mood with some effort, though I can’t reproduce it exactly. I have had the most success perhaps in practicing the new skills I’ve learned, though it takes dedication to meditate for thirty minutes a day back in the “real world,” and we all slip on even the best intentions when faced with the busyness of real life.
Just the fact that we take the opportunity to retreat for a time renews us, and helps us live our daily lives better upon return. Often, when I am on retreat, I think about how great it would be if my everyday life were like this. I meet interesting people and spend time doing amazing activities in a beautiful setting. It is a wonderful life for a brief period of time, but really that’s all it can be. Even when I fantasize about getting a job at one of these amazing places and actually living my daily life in that setting, I know it wouldn’t be the same.
Retreats are renewing only because they are temporary. They give us a break from the everyday. I think we have to have the mundane, commonplace experience of daily life in order to appreciate the special magic of a retreat. The kids still need to be driven to school, the garbage has to go out, and the oil needs changing—life happens—and thank goodness we can occasionally escape all of that to focus on ourselves for a little while.
So what are you waiting for … retreat! I have been talking about a yoga and meditation weekend for four years. Don’t wait that long. Whether you travel out of state or find something fun closer to home, do something organized, or plan your own mini-retreat, go away for a week, or an afternoon, and find a way to do something for yourself. You deserve it.