What is a Spiritual Retreat & Why Should You Take One
Next week (though when you are reading this that is probably wildly out of date) I leave for my annual Advent Reading Retreat. Which is a fancy way of saying I spend a week every December alone in a cabin on the Hood Canal with a pile of books, a few bottles of wine, and absolute silence. It is heaven (for me). Retreats have been as long as there have been human beings.
If you are feeling the need for a retreat you are in the right place. We will discuss what a retreat is (and is not), how to avoid common pitfalls, and how to plan and take your own retreat. It doesn’t need to be expensive, difficult, or exotic. So read on!
What is a retreat (and what it isn’t)
The word retreat means to withdraw or move back. When we use retreat in the context of a spiritual retreat, a meditation retreat, or similar we generally mean drawing back from the busyness of our everyday life to devote ourselves to things we rarely get to spend a lot of time on. In general we go on retreat to rest, to recharge, to reconnect with ourselves and the Divine. And here is where we should be very careful. Because there are a lot of people out there that want to sell you a retreat.
And that might be OK, it might be just what you need, but it also might be a whole not of wasted money. So let me start with something I have learned the hard way, what doesn’t constitute a retreat. A conference is not a retreat. If you are Christian (and maybe Jewish or Muslim too) you’ve probably been on at least one “women’s retreat” that was so packed full of activities you were exhausted afterward.
The difference between retreat and conference
That isn’t a retreat. It might be a great thing, it might be educational, it might build community, but it isn’t a retreat. So right off the bat: a retreat requires space. Your brain and body need time to decompress. Which is why a personal retreat, while less common, is sorely needed for many.
There is a “joke” from a popular fiction book (the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams) that states that the human soul can only travel as fast as a human can walk, but with the advent of technology human bodies zip around in cars or spaceships at ludicrous speeds meaning most souls are left wandering light years behind their bodies lost and cold and grumpy. While it’s a joke, there’s some wisdom in that grim joke.
The faster our lives go the more we need time and space to be quiet, and still. We need space to meditate, pray, and create. And that is what a retreat can give us.
Planning A Spiritual Retreat
Planning a retreat isn’t nearly as daunting as it might seem. You can indeed buy a package, yoga retreats are popular, or meditation retreats at Buddhist temples. But such things cost money, often a lot of money and that isn’t really necessary. So if it works for you, go for it: the advantage is you won’t have to plan anything.
But if you’d like something a little more DIY retreat style, read on.
The location of your retreat is not in fact magic. Flying to Mexico will not make your retreat better. Spending big bucks to get to Fiji for your yoga retreat won’t magically make it life changing. But there are some things to keep in mind when choosing a location for your retreat.
If your budget is huge you have your pick of retreat locations. Fly somewhere exotic, or go stay at a famous monastery or temple. But you might be surprised how little money you need for some retreat locations. I have done retreats at local Benedictine monasteries where the brothers were welcoming and hospitable and the cost was entirely by donation. When I was very poor I gave what I could, when I had a good job I gave above the “suggested” amount to help cover others. Most monasteries will have similar policies and you might be surprised how welcoming monks and nuns are, regardless of your (or their) tradition.
Other options might include renting a cottage (I prefer one on the water), hotel room, or Air B&B. I do not suggest a hotel or resort except in the furthest off season as a busy vacation atmosphere is probably going to be distracting. And if you can’t get away? You can take a great retreat in your own home with a little forward planning.
Questions To Ask
No matter where you are retreating consider these things:
- Where will I feel comfortable, safe, and least stressed?
- What boundaries do I need to set based on my location? (If you retreat at home consider disconnecting your phone, holding your mail, and hiding your car keys.)
- How will I eat? Many retreat centers take care of meals, but if you retreat solo consider whether cooking will be conducive to your retreat or if you should have prepared meals on hand. Always plan ahead and shop/stock up before your retreat so you won’t need to interrupt your retreat with grocery runs.
- How should I pack? Think about what sort of clothing is appropriate to your retreat location, what bedding, or other items you will want to bring to be most comfortable. (An at home retreat has the advantage of needing no packing!)
You also need to decide on the length of time you will be gone. And here I am going to be firm. A retreat needs to be more than three days. It isn’t always possible, I understand that. But for nearly all people the first two days of a retreat are spent catching up on sleep, and generally just letting your soul and body land in one place at the same time.
A retreat that lasts only a weekend is a nice break but rarely do you get the chance to really enter a different rhythm. I find that five days is just about perfect for a regular yearly retreat. By the third day I am really well settled into this new pattern, and then I have a good three days (day 3, 4 and 5) of solid time for whatever work I have come to do. A longer retreat is of course possible and can be a great gift, but most of us will have a hard time getting away for more than 5 – 7 days.
As you are planning a spiritual retreat consider first and foremost what you most need right now.
I normally schedule my days down to the minute. I have two jobs, both of which require me to be entirely self-starting. Plus I manage a home, and a busy modern life. So my rule on retreat is that I have no schedule.
My first ever retreat was at St Gregory’s Benedictine Abbey in Three Rivers Michigan. (Check them out, they are wonderful.) The first two days I set an alarm on my phone for every one of the daily office services, plus meals. (For those counting that’s 8 services, and three meals.) On the third day I was so exhausted I slept most of the day (through all my alarms) and finally dragged myself to tea bleary eyed and apologetic. The guest master sat looking at me for a moment over his tea cup and then finally said. “Well Josephine, have you considered that what you need most right now is rest?”
I missed quite a few services the rest of the week, but it was a wonderful retreat. And I learned to listen to my body. So my retreat schedule is very loose. I eat three meals a day because that’s good for me, but it doesn’t matter what time they are (I retreat on my own and cook simple meals for myself when I’m hungry.) I set no alarm, but go to sleep when I’m sleepy, and wake up when my body is ready to do so.
I have general goals for the retreat, but they are just that: goals. So on my reading retreats I bring books I hope to read, but also art supplies, music, and my camera. They do not dictate my schedule. Your location will impact this. If you go on retreat in a community environment you may have to pay attention to community meal times, or any expected activities (like attendance at services or mediation times), be aware of these things as you choose your location and plan your retreat.
Special Consideration for Planning Home Retreats
If you have decided to go on retreat without leaving home there is some extra planning and preparation you should do to ensure an actual retreat experience.
First you are going to become a boundaries ninja. Taking a retreat at home isn’t easy, but it’s doable if you set some firm boundaries. These will look different depending on your situation but here are some suggestions:
- Decide how much contact you want with the outside world during your retreat. I suggest that less is better. Disconnect your router, log out of all social media accounts (on all your devices), put your phone on silent, let your friends and family know you will be available only for emergencies during that time. Let all calls go to voicemail and set a time each day to glance at them, only respond if it is an actual emergency.
- Plan your meals ahead, whether you will order in or cook make sure you have enough food and other supplies in the house to not need to run any errands during your retreat time.
- Check that schedule, do you have bills due during your retreat time? Set them up on an automatic payment, or send the check ahead if you can. Pretend you’ll be out of the country for your retreat, what would you need to do before you leave? Do it even though you’ll be at home.
- Take care of distractions: I don’t do well in clutter. If I’m going to do an at home retreat day I clear away at least one room that is neat and clean and clutter free. Make sure the place you will spend most of your time is a place you can relax and be present.
- Make sacred space. Make sure your retreat space has space for you to connect with the Divine. Build yourself a home altar, create a meditation corner, set up your art supplies, make sure your favorite chair has space next to it for books and a mug of cocoa. Whatever you need to create sacred space do it before your retreat begins.
- Enlist help. If you will be retreating at home with family about let them know what you are doing and your goals. It might mean reducing family activities during your retreat, doing game nights in the evenings instead of TV time, or even other accommodations. If you have children however it is likely that your retreat time will be best when they are gone to school or day care and you will need to reenter normal life in the evenings and mornings. Set realistic goals and expectations and give yourself a lot of grace.
Here’s a checklist of things to do before you leave.
- Set a vacation reminder on your email accounts and then remove them from your phone, log out, etc.
- Pack your most comfortable clothing (appropriate to climate and location.)
- Pack the tools, books, and spiritual objects that are love the most.
- Plan your meals (if not provided) and grocery shop.
- Confirm your reservations and double check arrival times, and what your retreat location provides (and what they suggest you bring).
- Choose a theme for your retreat (if this feels appropriate) and bring books, and spiritual activities (prayers, guided meditation) that fit. (I always overpack books and other enrichment material, you never know what will resonate once you arrive and settle in.)
- As many retreat locations are remote or have limited internet be sure you have downloaded any electronic books and music you wish to use to your chosen device.
While On Retreat
So. You’ve planned your retreat. You’ve reserved your location. You’ve made your shopping list, and packed your books and paints and rosary (or whatever you choose). And now you are on retreat!
Congratulations! I hope you have a wonderful time, here are some gentle reminders from me to you for your spiritual retreat time.
- There is no wrong way to do a retreat; except to not do it. So leave the judgement at home.
- You can learn from anything, so take a deep breath and dive in.
- Remember to listen to your body, it is wise.
- The things you planned might not turn out to be what you need, adapt.
- Sleep lots.
- Pray a thousand different ways (with your camera, watching the sunset, cooking your meal, silence) try something you’ve never tried before.
- Hide the clock (unless you are at a retreat house with set hours for meals and required activities) and let your body and the light dictate your schedule.
- Pray or meditate a little longer than you normally find comfortable, push yourself just a little each day.
- Try something new. (Read, paint, try a new spiritual practice)
- Do something comfortable and familiar. (Read, paint, listen to your favorite album)
- Do nothing at all.
- Remember to feed your body.
- Remember to move.
Returning well from your retreat is just as important as leaving. Returning to your regular after a retreat can be more difficult than coming back from vacation. Vacation takes you out of your regular routine, but a retreat adds extra complication. You’ve spent days resting, creating, and meditating. And now your phone is ringing, your inbox is overflowing, and the refrigerator is empty.
There are things you can do to make your life easier as you return to your everyday life from your retreat. Here are my top suggestions.
- Try to keep the first few days back from retreat as lightly scheduled as possible. If you have the luxury of scheduling your return for a normal off day (a weekend for most), do so! This gives you time to adjust and settle back in more slowly.
- Continue reading a book you read on retreat, or working on a piece of art. Set aside time your first week back.
- Schedule (before you leave) time for meditation and prayer in your first days back. Take that quiet time however you like.
- Set aside some time in the mornings (or evenings) to journal or otherwise write about your retreat time. What did you learn, what did you experience, and what do you want to keep with you in the weeks and months to come?
- Feel free to scan your email inbox for absolutely essential emails. (Bills that aren’t on auto pay, your Mom’s update about your siblings). Delete or Archive all other emails. (Yes all the offers, and forwards, and random bits, you really don’t need to read those.) Make this a habit. You’ll be surprised how little of your email is actually essential.
- You may have discovered while on retreat how nice it is to not jump at the whim of every phone call or text. Leave your phone on silent (most systems let you allow a white listed set of contacts call or text). Continue to let nonessential calls go to voicemail (hint, they are nearly all nonessential). Deal with calls when you have time and energy, not just when the phone rings.
- Schedule coffee or a date with a friend to talk about your experience. You might just find a companion for your next spiritual retreat.
If you would like more information on how to plan for a mindfulness retreat head on over to that retreat guide for more details!