Editor’s Note: This article is a helpful resource on cultivating a healing retreat, written through the personal lens of the author. It touches on themes of mental illness and grief. If you’re struggling and feel you need more individual attention, please consider reaching out to a trusted mental health professional for more in-depth, personalized care.
There are so many seasons of and reasons for unquiet, chaos, and distraction in our lives—so many reasons to rush instead of pause, hustle instead of inhale—that the very way we move through life can become mechanical, like we’re on autopilot. A few months ago, Kate and the team prompted us to think about going back to basics. Is there anything more foundational to which to return than yourself?
There are lots of ways to return to yourself, which can include tuning into your body, attending to some uncomfortable emotions, or just determining what sounds sooo good for dinner after a day of distractions. Perhaps you have some practices already in place: journaling, deep breathwork, prayer, weekly phone calls with someone who knows you well and tells the truth. I’d like to add another to that list, especially if it’s not already on yours: retreats.
Now that we’re heading into cooler temps (at least here in the Midwest), we’ll soon collectively face the dual temptations of spending the upcoming season in hibernation or hyper holiday chaos. Consider resisting both (or perhaps giving into both, but only a little) by instead taking up this middle space of retreating. And here’s why: Retreating helps us look squarely at life and at ourselves—what needs are going unmet, what small, quiet longing refuses to subside, what’s working and what isn’t and maybe even why. There’s no escaping through hibernation nor avoiding through willful busyness.
Retreating helps us look squarely at life and at ourselves—what needs are going unmet, what small, quiet longing refuses to subside, what’s working and what isn’t and maybe even why.
Lucky for you, a retreat doesn’t have to be some elaborate getaway or some highly structured, expertly facilitated event (though it can be—more power to ya!). I’m going to suggest, instead, that the most important elements for retreating are two things that are more or less in your control: intention and environment.
You may be itching for a retreat if you’re holding a special intention—something you want to commemorate or celebrate, some idea you want to spend time writing about, or a big life decision you’re facing. You may just feel a vague fatigue of restlessness and hope to slow down for a bit. Perhaps you feel distant from yourself and need a break from the routines of daily life that keep you from digging deeper. The point of your intention isn’t to hold it in a grasping way that controls all that unfolds, but to let it color what you want a retreat to yield. It is a way of starting to turn inward and attend to yourself, listening to what questions or hopes might unfold in a more spacious way if you let them.
In addition to intention, environment is the other important factor. Retreats are different than, say, escaping to your favorite coffee shop for the morning with a notebook, or turning your cell phone off in order to read for a bit. While those things are both wonderful (do those things!), they aren’t necessarily retreating—because in ways I don’t fully understand, making small physical shifts in your actual location is a powerful way to help facilitate mental, spiritual, relational, and emotional shifts in your mind and soul. By taking up actual new space, you are free to take up space differently—and that freedom and permission permeate into other parts of your body, mind, soul, and reality.
These two things are the basic ingredients, and from these ingredients, we can make a lot of different delicious and nourishing things. Let me give you three examples of how intention and environment have impacted retreats I’ve been on, with some thoughts on how you might begin to imagine retreating as an individual, in a small group, or in a medium-sized group.