When we ask others how they’re doing, the response we often get is, “Busy!” The reality is, all of our lives are very full. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We are often busy working, raising families, engaging in projects, planning our future, etc. Even if you do not consider your life to be very full, maybe your mind and heart feel full. We can be lying around all day and still feel overwhelmed with life! We often do not realize our need for true rest until we actually get it. Have you ever had that experience? You crawl into bed at night and exhale deeply, as if you had been holding your breath the entire day. Sometimes it can feel like we live our lives holding our breath, forgetting our need to exhale and then inhale deeply again. This is precisely the reason why it is important to plan for regular times of retreat.
What is a retreat? A retreat is intentional time set apart. It may look different for each person, but it is generally different from vacation. Vacations may be just as full, if not fuller, than “real life” – especially when we are vacationing with small children! You may even feel like you need a vacation after your vacation to recover from the craziness of it. A retreat can last for a day or for a week. It can be tailored to what works for your life and what you specifically need.
So what are the benefits of a retreat? Retreats give us the opportunity to rest and to look clearly at our lives without distraction. When we intentionally take time apart from “the world” and from our daily responsibilities, we have space to think, to feel, and to be. Out of this being, we can enter back into the activity of our lives with more intention, clarity, and purpose. Places of worship or meditation/yoga centers sometimes offer guided retreats. However, if that is not available or appealing to you, you can create your own retreat! We’re going to explore some important elements to consider when creating your own retreat:
1. Choose a different location. A retreat should be done in a place set apart. It should not be in your home where there are distractions and other people competing for your energy and time. Sometimes we need to be in a different place physically in order for our minds to reset. When creating your own retreat, find a location where you can stay for at least a day. Maybe you find a secluded area of nature or a cabin somewhere. Maybe your friend offers you their house for the weekend because they’re away. Maybe it’s an Airbnb or a tent in someone’s backyard. Get creative – there are ways to do this without breaking the bank.
2. Identify what helps you reset. How much time do you need away? Do you want to be near water or woods or somewhere clean and tidy? Is music or journaling grounding for you? Is it helpful when you move or exercise? Take time to reflect on what brings you back to yourself, which is unique to each person. This may also mean identifying what your distractions and barriers are. What gets in the way of re-centering? Again, this is unique to each person.
2. Go alone. For some of us, it is very difficult to be alone. It may bring up some scary feelings, but if you’re able, stay with those feelings. Retreating alone helps us to face ourselves and to face the emotions we try avoiding. Many of us are good at being alone, but not so good at being alone without distractions. The former feeds loneliness and the latter helps us face it. It may be very uncomfortable at first, but if we are intentional about our time alone, it can provide insight into who we are, what we want, where we’ve been, and where we’re going.
3. Be present. Arrange what you need to arrange before your retreat begins. When creating your own retreat, make sure to finish up work projects so that nothing is hanging over your head. Let the office know you will be out for the day/weekend. Turn off your phone to be fully present (turn it on to check on children/family if needed, of course). If you want to read, make it intentional reading for the purpose of reflection. Movies and games are wonderful leisure activities, but will likely fill up your retreat time without inviting you into a deeper space.
4. Plan for times of intentional silence. We don’t just fill our lives with events and activities; we fill our lives with noise. Oftentimes, this noise is productive and beautiful – we are listening to podcasts or music or having conversations with loved ones. All good things! But we can forget how to listen to ourselves and to the world around us. Silence teaches us to truly hear and enter into “the noise of life” with new ears. For some, an entire day of silence sounds heavenly. For others, not so much! It might be good to challenge yourself a bit, but certainly not to the point of misery. When creating your own retreat, find a good balance that works for you.
5. Plan, but be flexible! One of the benefits of creating your own retreat is that it is tailored to what you need and can change at any moment. If you plan a hike but don’t feel like going on a hike, don’t go! If you just want to sit under a tree all day, sit under a tree all day. Don’t place too many expectations on yourself, but do be intentional. If you want to incorporate yoga or spiritual reading, make sure you bring along what you need. The purpose of a retreat is not to achieve or produce! We spend most of our days doing that. Retreating is anti-producing; it’s about being. Let yourself be and let that lead you. If more of a structure helps you stay present, great!
6. Trust the process. You will likely move through several physical and emotional stages over the course of your retreat. Oftentimes at the start, your body simply wants to rest. You’re exhausted and you need to return to a place of equilibrium. Once you’re rested, you’ll have more mental and emotional space to engage in intentional reflection. You may also go through a period of wrestling, as you allow yourself to process things that have been pushed aside for the purpose of surviving. We sometimes practice self-preservation by choosing not to engage with certain emotions because we know we don’t have the bandwidth to manage our life while simultaneously exploring those deeper questions. Do not resist this stage! Retreat is a time when you can put all of your energy into those messy feelings – or not – depending on what you need. If you begin feeling overwhelmed by what’s coming up for you, remind yourself that you are just giving yourself a window of time to process and that you don’t have to stay in this place forever. It might even be helpful to read this tip about processing emotions.
After the rest, reflection, and wrestling stages often comes the restoration stage. Phew! Be patient with the process and trust that your time of retreat will be what it needs to be. Again, remember that it’s not about producing; it’s about transformation, which comes from being exactly where you are.
If you’re able, plan for regular times of retreat – maybe four times a year or just once a year for an extended period. Any time set apart is better than no time at all. We need to carve out these times for retreat, because without it, we lose our sense of self, beauty, and purpose in this crazy world!