People have gone on retreats within various spiritual traditions for hundreds of years. The definition of the verb retreat is to “withdraw” or “move back.” In a spiritual context, an individual usually withdraws from the world and goes within, seeking a deeper connection to self, to spirit, or both. Today, many people go on retreats that provide time and space apart from day-to-day life in order to renew their physical body and inner spirit. Both yoga and meditation are frequently offered for week-long retreats in peaceful locations where participants can relax into being instead of doing.
My first retreat was a 10-day trip to Tulum, Mexico, with Brooke Medicine Eagle and Angeles Arrien in 1997. Fifty of us stayed in palapas (stone structures with thatched roofs) next to the Caribbean and met daily for shamanic journeys and sharing in small groups. We visited Maya temples and also spent 24 hours in silence at the end of the retreat. That day/night was the most powerful part of the trip for me because I felt deeply aligned with something greater than my own life as I walked and sat alone in silent meditation. Upon returning home, I decided I would find a way to include retreats in my life regularly.
Since then, whether on a longer trip to a sacred site outside the United States or more locally at New England centers such as Kripalu, Omega, or Rowe, I have periodically stepped away from my life and gone inward to connect with spirit. Last month, however, my time/space apart took the form of an at-home retreat in combination with one of Panache’s Desai’s online programs. I found that if I formed the intention of “retreat,” I actually didn’t need to leave my home or travel great distances to get away. Instead, I limited social and online activities and spent longer periods of time in meditation and silence. Retreat became an inner place of the soul that I could access any time I took a deep breath, relaxed, and tuned in. The key was making space for that experience.
In our busy, multi-tasking lives, we often run from one activity to another and then fall into bed exhausted. We think we don’t have time for anything else, and certainly not a retreat, of any kind. Yet, it is possible to step back, even for a moment, and experience a quieter, unhurried part of ourselves. Your spirit is always waiting for you to connect with it. Find a quiet corner, close your eyes, breathe deeply, and you are there. The mind will try to keep you spinning along on a high-speed wheel of mental activity, but the breath can sidestep that compulsive tendency. View thoughts as passing clouds in the sky, or passing waves in the ocean, and gradually, with each deep breath, you will be able to rest in the space beyond thought—soul as silent witness.
Of course, the goal is not to abolish thinking entirely (unrealistic for most of us) but to become aware of it. In so doing, you are seamlessly connected to the part of you that is witnessing your life peacefully and without judgment. That experience alone, whether a minute, an hour, or a week, can provide you with a renewed inner spirit and refreshed physical body. Suddenly, the need to rush through every task on your to-do list seems less urgent, and you begin to allow other possibilities to arise. One or two consciously centered deep breaths can make that inner space available. A retreat is as close as your next inhalation. Give it a try, and the edges of your life may begin to expand in all directions. Make space for the infinite within and without, and your spirit will be forever grateful.