Journey to Self-Discovery

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Life-visioning retreats can free you from your routine, spark new revelations about how you really want to live and equip you with a plan to get there.

Moths are dive-bombing my headlamp as I hunch over my poster board at midnight, but I’m so intent on arranging magazine cutouts that I barely notice. This collage is the linchpin of my solo life-visioning retreat, set in a rustic hut at Shoshoni Yoga Retreat in the Colorado mountains. With the exception of electricity, I have it all this weekend: acres of trails, yoga and meditation classes, wholesome meals, and just enough solitude.

The insects inspire me to paste giant butterfly wings behind a photo of an ethereal woman wearing a dress of hydrangeas and roses. A picture of the Hindu elephant god, Ganesh — remover of obstacles — goes on my board, too. I need all the help I can get eliminating personal roadblocks, which is one reason I’m making this collage (a.k.a. vision board) representing my ideal life. With help from Visioning: 10 Steps to Designing the Life of Your Dreams by Lucia Capacchione, PhD, ATR (Tarcher/Putnam, 2000), it’s coming into focus.

Driving to Shoshoni, I’d been nervous. Could I slog through my worries, setbacks and fears to emerge with a new life map? Could I really transform my life in one hasty weekend? Well, no — but I made an auspicious beginning. My life-visioning weekend led to even more self-exploration and a new determination to launch my own Web site.

My vision board now hangs beside my desk as a constant reminder of my life dreams. Images of dancing women, along with pens, typewriters and calligraphy to represent my writing. A boat’s sails billow with exotic locations I plan to visit. Shells unfurl secrets. Doors stand ajar with possibility. The words “magic,” “adventure” and “fearlessness” leap out.

The Power of Retreat

Fueled in part by the popularity of books like Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (Atria Books, 2006) and Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now (New World Library, 1999) and A New Earth (Penguin, 2005), vision boards are showing up on people’s walls all over the country, and seekers of all stripes are flocking to life-planning retreats.

Initiating change can be daunting, but a getaway in which you can focus on creating the life you want can work wonders. Whether you plan time alone, like I did, or join an organized retreat led by a life coach or spiritual teacher, you’re freer to imagine — and manifest — your dreams.

Stepping back from your routine and, ideally, into nature, gives you perspective on where you are and where you could be headed.

“To get clarity of vision on your life, you have to get away from it,” says psychologist Joan Borysenko, PhD, who leads retreats based on her book, Your Soul’s Compass (Hay House, 2007). “Gazing at the ocean, feeling the desert sun or watching deer can actually help your ideas and dreams become richer,” she says. “Being in nature puts you into your creative right brain.”

Most of us function primarily from our linear-thinking left brain, which controls organization, logic and rationality, Borysenko explains. But too much critical thinking can inhibit the free-associating, wildly intuitive right-brained ideas that can launch us on a new path to happiness and fulfillment.

During life-planning retreats, teachers or coaches often use right-brained techniques such as collaging, visualization exercises and journaling to coax you into boldly imagining the future. After you focus on an exciting mental picture and dispel the voice of your inner critic, you then can re-engage the left-brain and follow the steps to realizing your dream. (See “Design Your Own Retreat,”  below.)

All Together Now

Signing on with an organized retreat gives you the benefit of a facilitator’s steady hand guiding you through the sometimes-dizzying process of re-envisioning yourself. These three-to-seven-day getaways are held in enticing spiritual and retreat centers worldwide. Most of them balance group exercises with personal time so you can hike the hills or paddle across a lake while pondering your infinite possibilities.

Working with complete strangers may sound scary, but it can actually be easier to open up to a new acquaintance than to loved ones. “Sometimes talking with someone you’ve just met allows you to see yourself in a new light,” says Margarita Rozenfeld, executive coach and CEO of Washington, D.C.–based Incite International, which leads group visioning retreats.

“My retreat helped me focus my energy and define what I want to do personally and professionally,” says former Marine sergeant John O’Shea, 29, now a Washington IT management consultant. Six months after his military service ended, he and his wife, Kristie, attended one of Rozenfeld’s three-day gatherings with a dozen others at a retreat center in western Maryland’s mountains. The experience helped O’Shea complete the complex transition from military to civilian life.

The art exercises especially resonated with O’Shea. “I tend to be analytical, but I reconnected with my creativity that weekend,” he says. “During a nature walk, we hunted for an object that encapsulated our retreat experience. I found a feather, which represents freedom to me.” During the retreat, he made a display for his feather, a physical reminder of his aspirations.

Although he and Kristie partnered with other group members for exercises and guided visualizations, they came home with a focused, common goal: to launch a life-coaching business of their own. “I realized that my new niche might be as a coach helping other veterans smoothly transition to a nonmilitary career,” O’Shea says.

A month after their retreat, the couple had already made strides toward creating their new business. “It used to be easy to procrastinate,” O’Shea admits. “Now, we practice visualization to remind ourselves daily that we have to take action to keep our dreams from going dormant.”

Shifting Perceptions

A change of scenery also can recharge your batteries and help you break out of mental and physical ruts. A Costa Rican retreat opened Joyce Zonana’s eyes to how she could make her life more fulfilling. After Hurricane Katrina forced her to relocate to Brooklyn, Zonana missed New Orleans and didn’t settle comfortably into New York life.

By fall 2007, she was feeling burdened by the stress of teaching English at a local community college, writing, administrative work and family responsibilities. “I was ˙ unhappy and unable to relax,” recalls the author of Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey (Feminist Press, 2008). Then she discovered the Panacea de la Montaña wellness center, which offers the “Take a Peace Home” Life Plan, a program run by co-owner and yoga instructor Mary Byerly.

“A big piece of my retreat was rest, sunshine, birds, flowers and gazing at the Pacific,” says Zonana. But she also outlined the components of her dream life with the help of Byerly, who suggested she seek out elements of New Orleans in New York.

Months after her Costa Rican respite, she’s following that plan: Cajun dancing, attending yoga and meditation classes, walking outdoors, and getting involved in her community. While she dreams of one day returning to Louisiana, Zonana is content with the present.

“This retreat was pivotal for me,” she says. “All that stress I felt never came back — even though I still have the same job, live in the same place and have the same responsibilities. Nothing external changed, just my perceptions.”

As both Zonana and I discovered, dreams can become reality when you have patience, space and support to create your future. Next time I go on retreat, I’ll set aside more time — and it might be nice to invite some friends who also want to explore their futures. But I won’t expect that I’m going to fix every aspect of my existence in a weekend. Because life visioning, like life itself, is a process. 

Design Your Own Retreat

You can save money and take a personalized approach by embarking on your own retreat. Here, life-planning experts offer their tips:

The Plan
Sink into nature.
Find a retreat center or cabin in a natural setting that’s comfortable and free from modern-day distractions, advises Clive Prout, who helps professionals plan sabbaticals (www.thesabbaticalcoach.com).

Explore on your own or with like-minded friends. Either way, plan free time, and consciously focus on your mission.

Set aside adequate time. Plan to spend at least two to five days. It can take 24 hours to relax into retreat mode.

Decide what to cover. Before you depart, read an inspirational book that suggests exercises, such as Visioning: 10 Steps to Designing the Life of Your Dreams by Lucia Capacchione, PhD, ATR (Tarcher/Putnam, 2000) or Your Heart’s Desire: Instructions for Creating the Life You Really Want by Sonia Choquette, PhD (Three Rivers Press, 1997).

The Creative Inspiration
Draw, paint, collage.
“If you want something in your life, make it physical,” writes Capacchione. “When artists or architects get an idea, they manifest it by making a sketch, storyboard, blueprint, diagram or 3-D model.” A collage is effective because it’s a visual representation of your heart’s desire — and doesn’t require drawing skills. (For more on visioning, read “See It, Believe It” in the January/February 2006 archives.)

Quiet the inner critic. It’s normal to bump into blocks and negative voices during life planning. In Visioning, Capacchione encourages her clients to confront their fears in the pages of their journals.

Speak your dream. Joan Borysenko, PhD, uses partner work on her retreats. One person listens while the other describes his or her perfect life for 15 minutes. “Just being heard without anybody giving his opinion brings you clarity,” she says. Afterward, the listener shares when she heard special passion in the speaker’s voice.

Keep your vision alive. Check in during the weeks and months that follow, either with yourself or your friend. Being accountable increases the chances of follow-through. On a group retreat, Borysenko suggests each person write a letter recapping what the other envisioned. Seal and address the letter immediately, then mail it a month later to remind the recipient about his vision.

Web Extra! Retreat Center Resources

  • Esalen Institute: Retreats among California’s Big Sur cliffs focus on exploration of human potential and transformative practices. 831-667-3000; www.esalen.org
  • Hollyhock: This nonprofit British Columbia educational and retreat center offers life change and spiritual development programs taught by world-renowned leaders. 800-933-6339; www.hollyhock.ca
  • Incite International: Executive coach Margarita Rozenfeld leads life-visioning retreats in the Maryland mountains and Italy. 703-989-8016; www.inciteinternational.com
  • Panacea de la Montaña: The individualized “Take a Peace Home” Life Plan at this Costa Rican holistic retreat center helps guests clarify their physical, emotional and spiritual goals and develop ways to achieve them. www.panaceacr.com
  • Omega Institute: Courses and workshops help people explore spiritual and personal development at this holistic center in Rhinebeck, N.Y. 877-944-2002; www.eomega.org


Laurel Kallenbach is redesigning her writing career. You can read about her projects and dreams at her new Web site: www.laurelkallenbach.com.

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By Laurel Kallenbach