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 more than three decades 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 flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.

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