How to Design a Successful Personal Retreat

Personal RetreatA few years ago I did a post on The Restorative Power of a Personal Retreat. To this day, it’s one of the “lifestyle” posts I get the most feedback on. At the time I wrote it, I was gaining my own vision into this practice – first through hearing the experiences of friends and acquaintances, doing some research and later pursuing some intentional retreating myself. Beyond the basics of everyday health, I’ve found taking these retreats to be one of the most influential practices for my well-being. It’s a rare time when I can recalibrate my senses and listen to what thoughts come up in the midst of some quiet and solitude – whether creative or personal. Every once in a while, I’ll still get a personal email about that post or have people come up to me at an event and talk about it. They share their own retreat experiences or their own interest in the idea, asking how (or where) to get started. In the interest of their inquiries, I thought I’d revisit the topic and offer a how-to primer for those interested in making personal retreats part of their Primal journey.

I’ve certainly traveled on my own many times in the past, but there’s a serious difference between the experience of personal retreat and solo trip. I still take my own trips on occasion and enjoy them, but they’re more for entertainment and leisure purposes. I’m there to try a certain activity or explore a certain city or terrain. A retreat, on the other hand, is intentional in more of self-exploratory way. The concept invites us to live differently and think more openly for a time. Although many people travel to a retreat site, the experience really isn’t so much about a change in setting. In fact, sometimes it can be a great experience to retreat while staying home. What ultimately shifts in a retreat is our perspective. We put ourselves in different alignment with the world around us for a time, using the chance for some inner silence or soul searching – an intention likely akin to the vision quests and other ritualized seclusions practiced in traditional societies. The result can be something profoundly intuitive, uniquely restorative and personally sacred.

So, what exactly goes into a retreat? Because group retreats – which in their own ways are incredible experiences (e.g. PrimalCon) – can be so varied, I’m going to focus on personal retreats here. What are the considerations? What are the possibilities? What are some basic suggestions for framing the experience? Let’s dive in.

The Logistics – Budget, Place and Time

It probably goes without saying that these considerations, while hardly the most important elements, might practically speaking be among the first things you decide. When you’re short on cash, doing a retreat from home might be a good option if you can manage it with your living situation – and level of personal distractibility. I know several people who do at-home retreats (usually over a weekend) on a regular basis. As for getting some solitude, maybe your partner has a weekend trip out of town coming up, or the kids could enjoy a couple days with close relatives. Otherwise, house sitting for a friend or heading out on a camping trip can be good choices. (Personally, my best retreats have been in total, nature bound isolation – just the tent, my dog and I.) If you only have time for a full day’s retreat but not an overnight, you can sidestep any lodging costs or household rearrangement and spend the day at an area park/nature reserve, community meditation center and/or other close and quiet destination.

If you have even a modest budget you can allocate for the experience, this opens up several possibilities. You’ll find retreat centers all over the States (and abroad). I haven’t ever come across a comprehensive listing, but if you Google your state/region and retreat center (or meditation center), you can usually come up with a decent listing. Most centers allow you to do an “individual retreat option,” which means you can choose to be on your own for the time and do your own thing or you can at least on certain occasions join the community for a fully or partially guided retreat. Even if you opt for an individual retreat, you can often participate in community activities like morning or evening meditation time, an evening fire or meals. In fact, we welcome this behavior at PrimalCons, encouraging attendees to pick and choose the degree to which they want to be involved with the ongoing activities.

Some centers are traditionally religious oriented, while others describe themselves as spiritual but ecumenical without practices that explicitly highlight any particular faith. Some are elaborate and pricey with all manner of amenities, but plenty others are simple and relatively inexpensive at $30-$60 a night. Once in a while you’ll even find a center that operates “by donation.” If you’re unsure about trying an actual retreat center but aren’t up for the full camping experience, try renting a cabin or home for as many nights as you can afford time and budget-wise.

Overall, I’d suggest going for as long as you can, but if you’re just giving it a first shot, a weekend might be a good time span for that initial experience. Wherever you choose, commit to seeing the location with new eyes. Bring an open mind that can view the setting as a holding space for your intentions.

Your Intention – Themes, Resources and Support

Oftentimes, we’re drawn to the concept of retreat because on some level we know we need the space from everyday life to sit with a personal situation. Maybe we’re going through a significant life passage or processing a transition. We might find ourselves feeling adrift in life, unsure what’s next or just overwhelmed and out of touch with our own experience. We can use these thoughts to discern an intention for the retreat. It’s not about creating some kind of academic project or laser focus. It’s simply about asking ourselves what life question or situation or emotion needs to air in the silence and space of a retreat. What do we struggle to process in the chaos and clamor of daily life that we can bring to this time “away” from the routine? What wants to come up and rise to the surface? In a retreat, we can let it.

Some people find it helpful to identify a theme that feels relevant to their situation and interests. Again, it’s not about designing a project or agenda. It’s simply a thought to let rest in the center of your experience. (No, that phrase isn’t my own as you can probably guess, but you’ll pardon me if I can’t remember who exactly used it once in a conversation.) In my own language, I’d suggest what will come of an intention or theme will come of it. Don’t overthink it. Some themes could include traversing a life passage, making an important decision, envisioning a new sense of well-being in life, tapping into inner creativity, reconnecting to a spiritual path, grieving, reconciling to change, opening to new possibilities, catching up to your life or just taking stock.

It’s true that a retreat should be relaxing and restorative, even as you bring a “problem” or question to it. It’s not about forcing solutions or analyzing anything. It will be about staying open. That said, you can bring some things with you that might be meaningful to your time. Perhaps it’s a book or set of meditations you’ve been saving to try. Come prepared for anything. Bring some Primal food, a journal, a sketchpad, a camera, even a talisman or token of sorts if that’s your thing. Alternatively, you might find something intriguing on your retreat itself. I’m not into the metaphysical let alone the occult, but I do have a river stone I often bring with me. I found it on one of my first retreats, and something about it struck me. Hanging onto it felt like kind of a Primal thing to do, and so I did.

Beyond what you yourself decide to use, keep in mind that some retreat or meditation centers offer retreat “guides” who can work with you on everything from introducing you to the practice of retreating to clarifying your intention for your visit, showing you the areas and resources available at the center to acting as a mentor when during the process or at salient points of your retreat for check-ins. Even if you’re doing a retreat from home, maybe you have a friend-mentor you feel you could call on if you feel you want to at any point.

Your Plan – Preparation, Structure and Transitions

You know, for most trips I throw stuff in a bag the morning of, and I go. For retreats, however, I’d suggest being a little more mindful. Again, you might appreciate having put thought into bringing a few extra things that you later feel moved to use. It’s also about beginning the retreat in an appropriate mindset, however. A manic rush will take a while to work out of your system. Don’t set yourself up. Prepare and pack the night before.

As you begin the retreat – even and maybe especially if you’re at home – do something to mark the beginning of the retreat. Come up with a ritual ahead of time that you’d like to do. Light a candle. Do a short meditation sit. Read a certain poem or passage. Maybe it’s taking a bubble bath at home or going for a trail run close to the your campsite and then sitting to quiet yourself. Observe and create the transition from “normal” life to the retreat experience.

While an individual retreat needn’t and probably shouldn’t be subject to an uncompromising clock, it’s good to design some structure to your time. Have a plan at least for what you want a day to look like to ensure you use your time thoughtfully and intentionally. A retreat should restore, but it’s not really about relaxing the same way as a beach vacation is. Set a loose schedule. Decide what’s important to you. If you’re at a center, incorporate the resources and activities there as you see fit. If you’re at home, you have access to all kinds of materials and activities. What would feel relevant and filling?

I’d of course recommend plenty of movement as you can imagine. Enjoy the invitation to do something different – something at once solitary and thrilling. Maybe it’s renting a kayak for a few hours. Maybe it’s a series of long walks in an area park or over the retreat center’s grounds. Maybe it’s a session of stand-up paddling in the ocean – one of my favorites. Otherwise, you can make some time for meditating, reading, creating, journaling, or other activity that feels like it fits the mood. Spend as much time outdoors as you can. Making a fire, when that option is available, can feel significant. Some people choose to get some body work done during a retreat as part of the “release” or self-care aspect of their experience. There are no rules. Come up with the activities and rituals that make sense to you.

Finally, when your retreat time is coming to an end, bookend the experience with a closing practice. Use the chance to take stock of what happened, what thoughts came up, what shifted – in your body or mind. What are you leaving with? Don’t rush home or jump back into the routine. Give yourself some time and leisure. In the moment, I imagine many of us naturally think we don’t necessarily want to go back. Something about the retreat experience and mentality – what we find and what we allow in ourselves feels too good to let go. That in itself is justification enough for a retreat – and reflection that can inform how we might live our lives differently when we come back to them.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. Have you tried a personal retreat? Is it regular practice for you or maybe a goal to try? What considerations have you found helpful in making your retreat experience satisfying and meaningful?

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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28 thoughts on “How to Design a Successful Personal Retreat”

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  1. I think that a lot of people relegate these types of things to people who are extremely stressed, down on life, trying to find themselves, etc etc.

    Personally I find it amazingly beneficial just to “get away from it all”, even if “it all” is actually really good most of the time. Sometimes just being alone is really great, even if you’re enjoying the everyday.

    I’m planning a long one for next year — can’t wait!

    1. Agreed… It is so therapeutic to take down time. In the 60’s and 70’s my family holidayed in the West of Ireland in a cottage with no running water or electricity. We were pretty much out of contact for the duration. We took our children there too. Technology still banned. So fireside chats baking soda bread and so on became part of the family tradition. Always sad to leave.

    2. Well said Josh! I agree with you, I think MANY people think this sort of thing is only for the stressed, sick etc… But it can most certainly benefit anybody!

      For me, a daily walk/hike in nature is a crucial aspect of my well-being. It’s about being in the moment, rather than trying to achieve something.

      With so many aspects of our present society artificial, nature is one uncontaminated “thing” that has an ability to relieve and revive my spirit.

      All we need is the courage and strength to turn against our habitual lifestyles and engage in a bit of the unconventional.

      This is a great post, thanks for sharing.

    3. +1

      I believe personal retreats are good for all sorts of people. Maybe especially introverts? I don’t know… Anyway, wish more people would do this for themselves. Good for the soul <3

  2. I’m trying to plan my “retreats” into my every day life. For example, I make sure that I schedule two longs baths a week with lots of magnesium flakes. And schedule a few minutes each day to just be calm and read. I’m forcing myself to go to bed earlier and focus on ways to get the best sleep posible.

    A little goes a long way. 🙂

  3. I wouldn’t miss a solo trip for anything. Since I incorporated them into my life I have made some major decisions. Once I decided to retire from long term employment and complete my degree. Another time I envisioned what type of grandma I wanted to be. I now have 5 grandchildren that I spend time with camping or staying in a cabin.

    It is nice to get away from the phone (day with no cell phone). My favorite place is off a 2-track road in northern Michigan. I go there are least 3 times a year but not always for retreat purposes.

    And, although it is now snowing like crazy again, I’m still dreaming of my first camping trip and rolling a snow man as it is proper snow for that right now!


  4. I once had a professor say in seminary that his practice is “an hour a week, a day a month, and a week a year” to retreat. I loved that idea and wanted to incorporate it into my life but never did, I have ample time that gets wasted. It is time to make this practice happen!

    1. I really like that ‘an hour a week, a day a month, a week a year’ bit!

  5. a few years ago I took 4 days and rented a little cabin by myself on the shore of lake superior in northern Minnesota. it was march and really warm at about 30 degrees F. Second day it began to snow starting with sleet and straight line winds that seemed to come right off the lake. I decided to experience it with nothing between us, so I took off all my clothes (yup, all of ’em) except my hiking boots. I went outside and stood facing the lake, the wind and the snow, and felt like “I” disappeared, and just became part of the elements. Stayed out there about 15 min and never felt the cold. I was so energized that I actually wrote a book over the next 3 days! ( I’ve since added a set of cards and agame boarx with it so it is not yet published -could be time for another retreat!)
    Blizzard happening here in Minneapolis today with 6 to 12 inches expected. now I’ll have to make all new snow angels…

      1. It’s a religious retreat but most Trappist monasteries only ask for a donation. There are several in the US.

  6. House-sitting for friends has been a great practice for me. Not only does it allow some time away from “the everyday”, but lets me see life from another angle: another place and perspective.

    I’ve found it very restorative and re-calibrating: and of course if you like cuddling furry animals, there’s that perk as well 🙂

  7. Mark, I’m glad you and I got to talk about this on my podcast episode together.

    I think that the physical connection is so important as more of us are moving our businesses into the virtual world..


  8. Get-a ways are great–as long as you get to the heart of something–or in my case some One– I believe the need to connect with the Creator is a driving force for all of us.

    Some quiet, reflection, and communing with the wonders of creation is not only restorative– but the ability to be by one’s self without the noise of the world alone and in itself clears the soul for a long time.

  9. Sorry, did not read previous comments BUT, being an only child, I’ve been escaping/retreating into my own retreat/mind since I can remember. It’s easier (I think) than Esalen, or something) and just as effective.

  10. Brilliant timing – I was talking with a friend yesterday about how I needed to get away on my own for a few days. My plans to do so last year were gatecrashed by a family member but this June when my busy work season is over I plan to head to a beautiful bay a couple of hours from home, rent a tiny cabin by the beach and just take time to walk the beaches and hills, have a few massages, read some poetry and spend time in this amazing little town where alternative thinking, healthy living and an eco-conscious lifestyle are considered the norm. I often visit the area on day trips and leave feeling so revitalised so I hope a few days soaking up this awesome energy will recharge me.

  11. One of the things that I like best about MDA is that I continue to find relavent information that is related to my journey and not just part of the Primal Blueprint. The content of this blog is filled with advice that sometimes feels very personal and applicable to me, as if enjoying a personal conversation with Mark over lunch. I feel very fortunate to have this person as my “virtual” friend and advisor on my journey. Even more so, that all this good stuff comes at the best price around: free. Thanks Mark, for taking the time to share your experience and create inspiration for all of us. I really appreciate what you do.

  12. I took a week long course in silversmithing at a mountain lodge (no TV or phones). It’s totally different from my day job and I discovered my artistic side. Loved it so much I returned and ended up with a hobby I have enjoyed for many years. I generally take a week off work every year to spend out in my little studio…the solitude is refreshing, I feel re-charged, and I end up with jewelry I love to wear.

  13. Perhaps you’re cognizant of SurfYoga, Mark? (A primal convergence!) Imagine a craft where the ocean is one’s canvas, the body one’s brush, and its movement the paint. Anecdotally speaking, it is, indeed, the antidote to chaotic, contemporary living. You must practice, sir!

    To those whom might be curious, do Google: Surf Yoga: The Art of Poetical Movement.

    Grok on!

  14. My wife is a big proponent of “silent pray retreats.” She has stayed at a variety of monasteries that offer rooms for retreatants. They tend to be spartan in nature but very affordable. Except for music and books for reading, she has a no cell phone/computing device rule to completely unplug.

  15. I really need to work some things like thins into my life. It’s much to easy to bury my self in being busy and not just TAKE the me time!

    I have had one really profound retreat type experience and I want it again so very much. I spent a summer working on a glacier outside Juneau, Alaska and cell phones didn’t work up there. I was working and actually around people a LOT (it was a tourist thing so I had new folks to talk to every hour all day long) but it was very superficial as I only sopke to them for a short bit of time. And at the end of the day they all left and it was the 10-12 of us left on the glacier (plus 250 sled dogs, a beagle, a lab, and my pit bull!)
    Anyway there were MANY days when because of weather we didn’t even have tourists and we just took care of the dogs, maybe played some cards or board games, napped, read, etc. It took several WEEKS of living this way (6 days on the glacier and then 2 down in town) before my brain just ran out of things to fret over and think about. It was AMAZING to just have a quiet head. No thinking about what I need to do tomorrow or how I have to rememebr to ask so-and-so about the other thing, or gee I feel obligated to go hang out with this person or anything. Just quiet. It was a beautiful, restful, creative, introspective, amazing place for my head to be. So I DO want to do a retreat!

  16. I like the idea of a solo wilderness retreat, always wanted to try one. However, Mark, you left out one very important tip and that is safety. Always, ALWAYS tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back, and bring a whistle and mirror or other signaling tools to make sure help can find you. If Aron Ralston had followed that rule he’d still have two arms.

  17. We decided to add an extra storey on our house so that we could start a Bed & Breakfast.

    In the meantime our house has been like a pressure cooker with so many things happening all the time.

    Now that it is finished, when we get home from work or wake up on the weekend we go upstairs and enjoy some time together with a cup of coffee and watch the scenery (and ocean views) nearby. It is our retreat and gives us the break we really need which is so important with a hectic lifestyle.

    Other times our other retreat is walking to the nearby harbor, do burst sprints along the way & then have a ‘healthy’ dinner that we order specific to our requirements. Another escape from our hectic lifestyle.

    Anna 🙂

  18. I remember once biking from town to town overnight I got tired at dawn and stopped at an abandoned house to rest. There were some jarred condiments still there that included half a jar of honey. The label was worn but I think it was raw and based on the labels of other things there it was probably at least six years old. That doesn’t really matter for honey as it apparently lasts forever though it tasted a bit weird. Anyways I had cocoa in my backpack so I sat down in the grass and ate cocoa and honey to recuperate while watching a summer sunrise. Doesn’t sound that amazing, but I really enjoyed moment and remember thinking, “I have to write about this on MDA”.

  19. Every year, the second weekend in June, I go on a retreat with my Dad and my son. And this year, one of my brothers will join us! We go to the Holy Family Retreat House in West Hartford (CT), with great fellowship and spiritual guidance, great food and liturgical music!

  20. A retreat is so important, and I appreciate the distinction between that and a solo trip. There’s a huge difference.

    When I went on my first retreat, I had to have a process in mind. I needed a step-by-step checklist of what I was going to think about and what I was going to do to stay on track. I’m an entrepreneur and I can go off task at the drop of a hat.

    My retreat was work, and it was amazing work. So much so, I do a very small version every other week. It keeps me on top of my projects, happy, and productive!