It’s 4:50 a.m. and the proper place for me is in bed. But instead, flashlight in hand, I’m walking through the chilly mountain air at Shoshoni Yoga Retreat near Rollinsville, Colo., to participate in an ancient ceremony from India called the yajna, or “sacrifice to fire.” The ritual will supposedly clear negative thoughts, purify the space and possibly radiate goodness to the whole world. Universal peace is not foremost in my mind, however; I just hope to stay awake for the elaborate two-hour ceremony.
As it happens, I’m in no danger of snoozing. Apprehensive that I’ll do something wrong, I remain alert, following along with an English translation of the Sanskrit ritual. The ceremony includes rituals and chants, which are calls for peace and the elimination of ignorance, violence, confusion and improper conduct – not just for me personally but on a global level. Then the leader lights the fire and hands me a bowl of uncooked rice, and I toss a few grains at a time into the flames while visualizing problems and negative attitudes I want to burn away.
Afterward, I emerge into the Rocky Mountain sunshine and the air really does seem purer from my effort. I’m calm, buoyant and ready for breakfast. Then later that day, after a relaxing yoga class and meditation, I get flashes of inspiration about a novel I’m developing. As I’m wildly scrawling them in my notebook, I wonder: Are my creative energies unblocked because I’m on this retreat?
Refuge from Busy Lives
Leaving home for a day, week or month to stay in a place that’s devoted to meditation, prayer and contemplation isn’t a new idea, but it’s gained momentum in the last few years, as increasing numbers of people seek peace and refuge from overly busy lives.
“Even Christ took time to go off and reflect on his life,” points out Gail Battista, executive director of Dominican Retreat, a Catholic ministry of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de’ Ricci in McLean, Va., which offers individual or conference-style getaways. “A retreat removes you from the demands of your day-to-day routine and gives you a chance to gain perspective,” she adds. “It’s almost impossible to reflect on the meaning of your life when you’re caught up in activity.”
Whereas vacations or outdoor adventures are designed for fun and physical exploration, spiritual retreats actively engage your heart, mind and sense of soul.
As the word “retreat” suggests, most of these experiences invite you to depart from your normal routine in favor of a simpler, unhurried existence. Many also offer the peace of solitude: Even if you choose to go with a friend or family member, the emphasis is on inner exploration, not external chatter. By taking time away from habitual actions and responsibilities, you can more fully be with your thoughts and feelings.
Although there are numerous religious traditions and styles of retreats, they all address the human desire to live a more engaged existence, in which there’s room – and respect – for the soul. Most spiritual retreats have clergy or teachers available if you choose to seek their guidance. While these people are trained in a particular religion or spiritual path, guests generally aren’t required to be affiliated with that faith to attend the retreat, although they should be tolerant of traditions and beliefs that might be different or unfamiliar to them.
At Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, Calif., where Buddhist vipassana meditation is practiced, visitors from all spiritual backgrounds attend, says Stacey Butcher, the retreat’s registrar. “Jews, Catholics, Protestants and atheists all come for the Buddhist teachings, which speak to people of all faiths,” she says. “Lessons on loving-kindness, patience and living mindfully are applicable to everyone in the real world.”
A retreat is an excellent place to get in touch with your inner self. Freelance musician David Crowe chose to forgo a traditional vacation for a monthlong Zen training at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, N.M. Eight hours of daily sitting practice was challenging, he says, but ultimately rewarding.
“Meditation is not always so relaxing,” Crowe acknowledges. “You have to sit with whatever thoughts come into your mind,” he explains. “It can be exhausting to deal with those thoughts breath by breath.” Still, Crowe says, the peace he came away with was worth the discomfort. Upaya’s program included practices of eating with awareness in a formal Japanese dining ceremony, called oryoki, as well as work practice – in his case, chopping firewood. “My perceptions truly expanded,” he says. “After the retreat, everything seemed more vibrant. Playing my bass was easier because my mind wasn’t distracted.”
Choosing the Right Retreat
The soul-searching process of a retreat actually begins before you go. With so many styles, from self-directed and silent retreats to family programs, you’ll need to ask questions to figure out what’s right for you.
1. What do you seek? “There are about as many definitions of a retreat as there are people who go on them,” says Dominican Retreat’s Battista. “A lot of people want to get away from their busy schedules and meditate about their life. Many want to renew their relationship with God. Some come to heal and recover from life challenges, whereas others need to weigh life decisions, such as marriage or divorce, or to reflect on major life transitions, such as a new job, retirement or aging.”
Try to identify at least one thing that will nurture you. For instance, a few months ago, I spent a weekend in silence at the Self-Realization Fellowship Retreat in Pacific Palisades, Calif. I was nervous about spending two whole days speechless, but I wanted respite from my frantic, noisy life. I found that not talking suited me, and silent meals, potentially the most awkward times, were in fact very refreshing.
2. What spiritual orientation are you comfortable with? Consider whether you want to connect more deeply with your own religious faith or if you feel like exploring other, less familiar, spiritual traditions. Be honest about whether you can respect people with different beliefs; a retreat is not the place for guests to judge or proselytize.
3. What structure or content would you like? An individual retreat that you attend alone can be devoted entirely to private contemplation. If you want a bit of guidance, schedule a private consultation with a spiritual leader. Or you might choose a conference retreat during which reflection time is mixed with group classes. Workshop themes vary: There are retreats for men only, for women only, for gay people, for people facing serious illness and those in 12-step recovery programs. You can learn a particular type of meditation, contemplate Scripture or a Zen koan, or engage in a couple’s or family retreat.
4. How long do you want to go? Most spiritual centers accommodate weekend visits, but if you can manage at least a week, you’ll have time to truly unwind and explore spiritual questions. If budget determines the length of your stay, here’s encouragement: Most retreats are inexpensive. “A vacation for the soul turns out to be the bargain of the century,” Battista says, noting that a weekend at Dominican Retreat, including five meals, private room with shared bathroom facilities and speaker programs, costs just $235.
5. Are you ready for simplicity? Monastic life in any religion is uncluttered by material possessions, so be prepared to live without television, radio, newspaper and other amenities you might find at hotels. Retreat accommodations range from private rooms to dormitories to rustic cabins to tepees. Meals are served on a schedule and are generally wholesome and delicious. Centers affiliated with Asian or East Indian spiritual practices tend to be vegetarian and eschew caffeine and sugar. While this may sound a little disconcerting, the rewards of eating simply may actually carry over to encourage better eating habits at home.
6. Where do you want to go? There are retreats in every U.S. state and in many countries, so you may choose to travel far or stay close to home. Many centers are located in rural areas, so guests benefit from a quiet setting and nature’s spiritual environment. Yet some retreats create peaceful oases within cities, so you can feel worlds away in the midst of an urban center.
Once you’ve found a retreat, relax and stay open to the possibilities offered by making time for your soul. “People often call us after a retreat to say they found that the Buddhist teachings, which are simple and from the heart, returned them to a spiritual, peaceful place they lost touch with long ago,” says Butcher at Spirit Rock. “They tell us that taking a retreat was a life-changing experience.”
- Find the Divine: online guide to U.S. religious and spiritual retreats. www.findthedivine.com
- SpiritSite: online retreat center directory. www.spiritsite.com/centers
- Going on Retreat: A Beginner's Guide to the Christian Retreat Experience by Margaret Silf (Loyola, 2002)
- Sanctuaries: The Complete United States – A Guide to Lodgings in Monasteries, Abbeys, and Retreats by Marcia and Jack Kelly (Bell Tower, 1996)
- A Place for God: A Guide to Spiritual Retreats and Retreat Centers by Timothy K. Jones (Image, 2000)