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The Restorative Power of the Personal Retreat

Posted By Mark Sisson On March 1, 2012 @ 8:00 am In Personal Improvement | 106 Comments

I’m not talking here about the two-day relocation of everyone in the office. I don’t mean the family vacay, enjoyable but fraught with chaos as it often is. I don’t mean a couple’s getaway, (which of course has its own unique benefits). And as much as I look forward to PrimalCon [7] and encourage everyone to join us in April, I don’t even mean that kind of event. I’m talking about a different kind of retreat here, specifically the personal retreat, that solo venture in which one gets away on his/her own with no responsibilities but ample quiet and/or adventure. For some people this might mean a week in the wilderness. For others, it’s a few days at the spa or a meditation center. It might be the chance to enjoy anonymity playing tourist in a large city or to try out an alternative occupation for a week. It could be a solo road trip through a stretch of open country. Or maybe it’s something else entirely.

A friend of mine every year would pack up her camping gear, kayak, and sheep dog and venture out to a remote corner of the Northwest coast for two weeks. Only a few of us knew exactly where she was going and when she’d be back. Her goal was specifically to get away from everything and everyone and hunker down with just her thoughts and the barest essentials. No matter what else was going on in her life in a given year, she never missed that trip. The year her mother died, she took three weeks instead of two. It was her way of finding time to center herself in the midst of life, to perform a kind of psychic reboot.

The meaning of a retreat of course is inherent in the term itself – a withdrawal from normal life. We leave behind the daily routine, which can become mind-numbing over time. We shed the roles that rule our lives and can – in their confines – strangle even our closest relationships. In the midst of our hectic lives, it’s easy to get caught up in the details of the daily grind. At a certain point – especially at vulnerable times of our lives – they can feel like a network of ties holding us down, binding us increasingly inward. Our sense of emotional coherence and genuine connection seems to give way. We can lose our bearings as well as the mental focus and emotional resilience they give us.

A New York Times article [8] some months ago highlighted the influence personal retreats have had for overworked professionals. (Big paychecks or not, I think the same degree of stress applies to most of us.) For the men and women mentioned, retreats were a time to entirely disconnect from a life that is oppressively connected. Giving up their smart phones and laptops, going without any communication initially instilled a distressing sense of isolation and anxiety. Nonetheless, the experience recalibrated their inclinations. As one man put it, “‘Going into a retreat is really about breaking down the constructs of ‘you.’… The whole idea is for you to take a very close look at the you you have become in your mind. The you you are in your real mind isn’t necessarily the real you.’” Distance yourself from the everyday buzz and chatter, and it’s amazing to hear what becomes audible.

Anyone who’s taken a retreat understands the restorative power here. In stripping away the roles and routines, you’re able to unearth elements of yourself long neglected, even unrecognized. You remember strengths that you have. In the best retreats, I think, you take them out for a drive again and test them. You recall the interests that you’ve had, dimensions that complexify and enrich who you are and what you have to offer. Most of all, it’s a time for opening up your sense of life – like getting outside under the big blue sky after being shut in during a week long cold snap. An undercurrent of irritation releases itself into the sudden space. A sense of calm and balance settles into its place. The personal retreat, however one designs it, is a cure for the emotional cabin fever I think we all feel at times.

For better or worse, we don’t have the leisure time our hunter-gatherer ancestors did [9]. We can go weeks or months without enjoying a real break from an endless daily drill. (Cue the Sonny and Cher wake-up call – for all you Bill Murray fans out there.) They may not have had the climate controlled shelters, cultural and entertainment centers, or slew of possessions we do, but they had the ultimate Primal commodity: time. It was time to pursue what they wanted (however relatively limited their prospects might seem to us today), time to invest in their relationships, time to tinker and try and turn off.

We all have busy lives. We do our best to incorporate all the healthy, Primal activities we can. Nonetheless, we find times when the everyday strategies aren’t enough. Stress [10] is building up, difficult events turn our lives upside down, and we seem at a loss to keep up. It’s time to fill the well, so to speak. A retreat in that respect underscores a point I’ve made before. The optional isn’t always optional [11].

Although time and resources might make getting away difficult, I’d label many things discretionary before this. From a logistical standpoint, not everyone can take an actual “trip” retreat at any given time, but there are ways to adapt the concept to fit a more modest form: camping overnight, a full day’s hike, a weekend’s worth of long evening meditation practices, an extended walk to meet the sunrise. The key is to home in on what we need at a given time. Solitude [12]? Inspiration? Rest? Risk? What aspects of ourselves are going unstimulated in our current circumstances? What patch of our mental terrain needs tending? I think the best retreats aren’t measured by expense, novelty, or even duration. They’re gauged by growth, repose, and restoration. Answer the instinct that presents itself.

Likewise, appreciate the aggregate benefits of carving out mental space if not physical distance. The men and women highlighted in the Times article felt a pull to “return” to the retreat. As one of them put it, “‘Each retreat, I go deeper…. The first one made clear to me that I needed to make gross shifts in my life. These last two have become more and more subtle in terms of seeing the issues that I face, as do all beings, in order to separate the true nature of reality from the habituations of my mind.’” The retreat in this respect becomes more than an isolated experience. It’s a continuing personal endeavor we undertake in portions. In the best scenarios, it’s a journey that runs alongside our everyday lives, intersecting at points, never fully suspended.

Thanks for reading today, everybody. Have you taken personal retreats? What was your intention, and what did you find was the ultimate benefit or crux of the experience? Whether you have or haven’t, what is your vision of the perfect solo retreat?


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