When we think about retreating, we usually think of pristine spots in nature, secluded retreat centers, or perhaps even pampering spas. But truly we can retreat anywhere. How about a dentist's waiting room? A library carrel, in a church, on your commute home, a fountain in a park on your lunch hour, a friend's home when she's out of town, or a window seat in your favorite café will do as well.
If you feel you must be in motion to be retreating, try a bike ride, or even a car ride across town. But anyplace where you can find stillness will do, and the list of spots is endless: a rooftop garden, in front of your favorite painting in a local museum, the back of the bus, a pier, a houseboat, treetop, or even in the kitchen with your teacup.
A retreat springs from, and is guided by, your inner knowing. It means stepping out of your ordinary existence to listen and attune to your truest, most authentic self. We tend to think of retreats as experiences that begin with journeys, or that take place in a religious setting; oftentimes with a group, where obedience and discipline are an integral part of the retreat. But sometimes we need to create a retreat for ourselves, to use loving self-discipline to push past limiting beliefs, to instigate change, to bring closure. In writing "The Woman's Retreat Book" I found we need retreats that allow us to listen to and obey our own hearts.
This kind of retreat need only take 10 minutes. Or you can make it a vacation of 10 days. However, or wherever, you do it, creating a retreat for yourself outside of a formal program takes some preparation, and concentration.
Set an intention. Intention is what distinguishes your time off. "Retreat is not about a statement, it's about a question," says Christina Baldwin, author of "Calling the Circle." "Most of the work of giving yourself a fruitful retreat is in understanding what your question is. That question is an articulation of an inarticulate longing." It is important to understand what the longing is.
Form your intention by identifying the most passionate, heart-rending, or irritating longing in your life and then frame that itch as a question. For example, "For the next 24 hours I intend to ask, 'How can I be kinder to myself?'" A loving, questioning intention gives your inner knowing something precious to gaze on, the illuminated essence of your retreat. "Why am I on retreat? Oh yes, because of this yearning question."
Your intention is a stillpoint of purpose to refer to. It helps you to concentrate your time in a way that has heart and meaning. However long you designate for retreat, intention helps you make the most of that time.
Withdraw from Ordinary Life
Withdrawal can take the form of symbolic action. By creating a safe space, physically or emotionally, to withdraw into, you signal to your psyche that you are entering altered time. "What I try to do is make sure everything I do matters," says Cynthia Gale, a ceremonial artist in Cleveland, Ohio. "So when I sit and have a cup of tea, I don't just have a cup of tea, I think about what tea I'm going to have, where I'm going to sit, what direction I'm going to sit in, how that ten minutes is going to be different."
This effort at disengaging is especially important when you aren't able to go somewhere to retreat. You can go to your bed, your garden, a visualization of a place you love in nature, the crook of a tree. Take the phone off the hook and close your office door.
Perform a symbolic ceremony to separate your retreat time from normal time. This ceremony can be as involved as a sweat lodge, as simple as a purifying soak in the bath, putting on a special shawl and staring at a candle, reading a poem you love and then stepping over the threshold of your front door to go for a walk.
In our modern world, sacred, liminal space is perhaps the hardest part of the retreat to maintain. Yet it is where the work of transformation takes place.
This can be done in a myriad of ways. Ask yourself thought-provoking questions. Write in your journal about how you are feeling or why you are retreating. Move to music or meditate on metaphorical words like poetry or the Psalms. Visualize your Divinity blessing you. Many types of relaxing activity can create sacred space: painting, walking on the beach, knitting, lying on your couch listening to music. But the end result is always to place you in your center, working toward a truer relationship with all that is within you. Silence and solitude have their place here. You can't contact your wisdom and come to accept your self without spending time alone in silence.
Another way you maintain sacred space is to push yourself out of your habitual comfort zone. This might entail hiking alone on a local trail or being alone at your home with no TV and no phone. By doing so, you shift how you view yourself and your life.
Shifting out of your comfort zone often creates anxiety and fear. Encountering your fear, not running from it, brings great richness to the retreat practice. That doesn't mean put yourself in danger, but it does mean leave deadening comforts behind and be willing to take risks.
Re-Emerge into Ordinary Space and Time
Re-emergence into the world at a new place is the final part of retreating. It is fraught with the difficulty of leaving sacred space and returning to ordinary life. You must acknowledge what you have done and where you have been, that you have been changed, even when your retreat has lasted for only a few moments.You can simply say, "I am returning from my retreat. I have done this and this is why."
Give some thought to your reentry so that you don't lose the gifts of your retreat too quickly in the daily array of demands. Bring back a talisman from your retreat - anything from a small rock to a vivid memory. Give thought to how you will communicate your experience to those you love, how you will physically reenter your work or home life, what would make it easier.