Return to Yourself: A Practical Guide on How to Retreat

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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.

Intention

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. 

Environment

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. 

Retreat 1: A time of healing and processing

Works for a solo or small group retreat.

As many who’ve endured traumatic events know, the memories around trauma can be paralyzing. Years ago, I was moving through some grief and pre-grief surrounding my brother’s suicide attempts. I realized that, even when he had made some progress and was in a healthier place, I wasn’t. When I took stock of myself, I saw the need for a more spacious setting to process and heal. That was my intention: to make space to hear more about my own grief, worry, anger, sadness, and fear. 

When I realized my intention, I realized what I needed may very well have been what others needed, too: I invited my mom and sister to join me. They let me lead them through the day.

Environment was an important factor. We went to another part of town, to a cafe we didn’t know, full of people I didn’t notice. We gave ourselves a whole day, with pens and notebooks and no technology. I planned this retreat so we could easily walk to a local house of worship, where the sounds and smells and presence of other people turning inward encouraged a sense of being at once anonymous and yet connected. 

On this day-long retreat (a Saturday), we… 

  • Ate breakfast in silence (I recommend hearty food that fills you but doesn’t make you lethargic).
  • Responded to prompts from a book on grief in our separate notebooks.
  • Walked slowly along new routes, letting our bodies process what our minds began in writing.
  • Had lunch and discussed some of what was beginning to emerge.
  • Sat on the steps outside a worship service, reading a prompt together and jotting down immediate responses.
  • Shared altogether once more before ending with a prayer and poem. 

How to make this your own… 

  • Decide on an intention that colors, but doesn’t control, the time you set aside.
  • Find an environment that evokes something familiar (like a coffee shop) but is new-to-you if possible, so you feel at ease but can benefit from a sense of anonymity and new possibilities.
  • Consider the cost. Following the format above, it could be whatever you would spend on two meals, unless you want to pack food.
  • Prepare your tools. I recommend some prompts related to your intention (the internet can help you with this, or me!—I will personally help  you with this if Google fails you) as well as a notebook, a pen, and/or books.

Retreat 2: A time of taking stock and transitioning

Works for small groups and, in particular, works even when all participants don’t necessarily hold an identical intention for the retreat, as long as there’s a common, large question to take into consideration.

First, the environment: Near the end of my graduate studies, our school offered a weekend retreat at a retreat house owned by a religious order of nuns. It was on the bay in Connecticut. It was a misty spring day. It was a small group of other students eager to give up a weekend to turn inward. This was a facilitated retreat—that means someone (a professor of spirituality) told us when to show up, what to bring, when lunch was served, and so on. All this structure was just what I needed. I had decision fatigue from all the questions I was answering about life after graduate school, but I also had regular fatigue from losing my brother earlier that year and nonetheless still needing to move through life with some semblance of responsibility for myself. (Writer’s note: I was also in therapy and embedded in communities of support during this time. Retreats emerged as an additional means of guidance alongside those existing support systems, not as a replacement for them.)

In one of our opening sessions, we were asked to go around in a circle and talk about why we were there—what intention brought us to that space. I said, simply, “I am here to look inside and take stock of myself. I don’t know what’s in there anymore. I don’t know what I’ll find because I haven’t been quiet enough to hear.” 

The components of this retreat were varied…

  • We started and ended each “section” of the retreat in prayer, which sometimes included music.
  • One person guided us through the day without participating in the day.
  • We met three or four times as a group and dispersed to process whatever sharing or prompt defined the most recent gathering. In this way, we had a kind of “spacial anchor” to the retreat—always leaving from and returning to the same set of chairs, no matter what or where the time of solo reflection took us (physically, emotionally, or spiritually).
  • The solo time was utterly (almost paralyzingly) free. Sometimes I spent my time sleeping. Sometimes journaling. Sometimes lying in the grass. Sometimes finding a companion to talk with. Sometimes walking along the shore, taking in the sounds of crashing waves. Without a prescribed or assigned way to move through the days and no external obligations on my time, I had to simply practice asking myself, What feels right right now? What am I moving toward?

Without a prescribed or assigned way to move through the days and no external obligations on my time, I had to simply practice asking myself, What feels right right now? What am I moving toward?

How to make this your own:

  • Decide on an intention that colors, but doesn’t control, the time you set aside. 
  • Find an environment that encourages coming together and dispersing as part of the movement of the retreat (think of it like an anchor or centering point that also helps your body, mind, and soul wander and return, wander and return).
  • Consider the cost. In the example above, the cost is free—but that won’t always be the case for facilitated, overnight retreats. Besides the potential (extreme!) cost of renting a retreat house, the elements of this retreat can be replicated for little cost. But if several friends were inclined to do a retreat, you might use a family cabin or rent an Airbnb to create a similar “retreat house” feel.
  • Prepare your tools. A single facilitator can be ideal for some retreats, but is not always possible. If planning with friends, agree on a common vision (e.g., “to weigh a big decision” or “to incorporate more creativity in my life”) but divide up aspects of “leading” (who cooks the first meal, preps the prompts for the first gathering, etc.) so it feels like it has the rhythm of familiarity and surprise. Other than facilitation roles, you may need a pen, a notebook, prompts, etc.—whatever materials make sense for the content of the retreat. 

Retreat 3: A time for renewal and reconnection 

Works for small or medium-sized groups who are gathering with a fairly focused intention and who are otherwise busy or dispersed. 

Earlier this year, my good friend Maria Bowler and I kept running into our own shared frustrations with creative (and domestic, and professional, and so on) stuckness. No doubt a combination of winter, motherhood, and the prolonged reality of the pandemic, we decided to build what we needed and—on the chance others needed it, too—offer to host a retreat for some friends. We called it Wakefulness: a retreat to renew your capacity for curious attention (how’s that for a clear intention!) and we simply posted on Instagram: Email us if this sounds like you could use it, too. About two dozen people emailed, and just over a dozen could make it on the morning we planned. 

The environment was a virtual Zoom session. I know, I know—earlier I insisted that environments are supposed to change to best encourage the mind, body, and soul to imagine new possibilities. And Zoom is just about the last space people want to gather on a day off. We worked hard to set parameters about virtual expectations so those who joined us could have the best experience possible. We encouraged them to do the following: Limit responsibilities over the next four hours. (You’re not on dog or baby duty! You don’t need to call your insurance agent quickly between sessions!) Go in a room with a comfortable chair and door that closes—or locks. Bring what you’ll need (water, snacks, notebooks, pens, etc.) so you can keep this small, sacred bubble intact. Close other tabs on the laptop. Just be fully here for this small time.

In this virtual group gathering, strangers met from around the country. As part of the retreat, we…

  • Invited guests to name their hope or intention for the next few hours as part of their introduction.
  • Walked everyone through the plan for our time together so there was clarity about time spent listening, sharing, or individually reflecting (knowing what to expect, broadly, can help people feel more free to immerse themselves in what’s currently going on, rather than feel preoccupied about what’s coming).
  • Participated in guided meditations, including meditations on embodiment.
  • Shared as a large group, in small breakout groups, and utilized the chat feature for anyone more comfortable chiming in with writing.
  • Took time offscreen (with cameras and sound off) to journal, move around, or meditate as individuals in response to prompts that remained on the main/shared screen.

How to make this your own…

  • Decide on an intention that colors, but doesn’t control, the time you set aside. 
  • Find an environment that is highly accessible for many, like Zoom, with clear instructions on how best to protect the time together so that it can feel as spacious as possible for the duration of the retreat. 
  • Consider the cost. Access to a computer and an internet connection are not free, though many already have these things. For those individuals, the cost would be zero dollars. The host(s) of this type of retreat may need to consider purchasing a professional membership level to Zoom if they want to be able to have certain features. 
  • Prepare your tools. The host(s) will need to create an outline for this retreat, including discussion points, prompts, and selected guided meditations. Other than this, each guest will need internet connection, access to a computer, a quiet room, a notebook, and a pen. 

So! Those are three retreats I’ve been on, and hopefully three models of what a retreat could look like for you. Earlier this year, I wrote about how paying attention is hard because of both the monotony and the disruption of life we’ve experienced these past two years. A retreat can help renew that attention, especially as you attend to yourself in ways that encourage deep listening. 

I would be so, so happy if you felt encouraged and capable of carving out some time in these final months of 2021 to really retreat. I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t benefit from the time, space, and intention to gather oneself up. 

I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t benefit from the time, space, and intention to gather oneself up. 

But one final note: I’ve mentioned INTENTION and ENVIRONMENT throughout this post as the two ingredients for any retreat. But really, there’s a third core ingredient: TIME. You may be tempted to think you don’t have any, but, please! I insist! You do. Make some. Shift priorities and responsibilities for a morning or a day or a weekend. Evaluate whether your day is full of obligations or just habituated ways of spending time. Communicate to a partner or friend or parent about what it might look like to carve out this time and be uninterrupted for it. And if you really don’t have time: I’m sorry and I hope this season of busyness will be over soon. I hope you can find even twenty minutes to do some centering exercises to take stock of yourself. Most of all, I hope someone in your life offers you unexpected relief from an obligation and that you can seize that newly free time to rest. 

I want to know: What intentions would you bring to a retreat? For those who have been on retreats before (facilitated or self-directed), what felt like an important element of that experience that others might benefit from knowing? 

I’d love to hear from you in the comments! 🙂

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