Retreat

I just came back from a week at the Buddhist monastery that I go to every once in while. I go far too rarely, in fact. It is a place and an experience that fills me back up, that gives me a renewed sense of the priority of spirit, and the relative priority of other concerns in life, which always look smaller afterward.

We all need to take retreats. They may be obviously spiritual, like a stay at a monastery, attendance at a religiously affiliated getaway, or a yoga weekend. But the stay at the cottage, the trip to Bermuda, the days hiking in the woods, these are no less spiritual – if you choose to treat them that way.

The five-star hotel vacation can just as easily be a vapid, materialistic escape from the self, where sobriety is shunned and hedonism is – sometimes actually – the name of the place. Frankly, so can the yoga retreat. We often accept that this is the definition of a real vacation, but I have seen too many people come back from trips like this feeling tired, drained, and ready for time off to simply recuperate. A vacation needs to be not a time to fly from the self, but to reconnect to it. It ought to be a time of rejuvenation of the spirit, to connect to the things and thoughts that drive you and nourish you, rather than the mere pursuit of sights and experiences.

Unless, of course, that is your thing. Who am I to say? Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to have two chunks of time off, back to back. One was a trip to Europe, the other was a 10 day silent Vipassana meditation course. It was fascinating to see how they fed entirely different aspects of my self, but coming home from Europe I was exhausted, overstimulated, and certainly less clear. I had a great time, but I was too busy drinking in the wealth of new information in every moment to spend a lot of time letting my heart settle into its most harmonious beat. On the other hand, days later I was spending the day in stillness and silence and at the end of this time my life had notably shifted.

This is not something that necessarily comes easily to us. The world generally tells us that with our time off we need to be pursuing pleasures and experiences, whether that be under the guise of learning, or to simply feed the ravenous hunger of the mind to gobble up experiences like they were scraps of food to a starving person. Therefore we neglect the deep experience that we could find when and if we turned within. This is not just some cliché of theology. We speak of the deepening and growth of self – but like with any subject this requires study of the subject.   When we spend all our time looking externally, no wonder it takes us 30 or 40 or 50 years of this life to discover basic truths of our own character.

Maybe the real vacation needs to be a break from the world of the habitual. Let the retreat be an escape from the demands of the daily world so that you can explore the landscape of your own person, take stock of your own wilderness, and gather images that reflect truths that will be useful to shine light on your problems, questions, and crises in the days to come.