A retreat springs from and is guided by your inner knowing. A retreat is about stepping out of your ordinary existence to listen and attune to your truest, most authentic self. It is about being self-referenced to become self-restored. It is about setting aside time to tend the hearth of your inner life, feed your muse, and reclaim your dreams. A place to reaffirm your values by giving yourself permission to do what you need when you need it, not when you think you should or when someone else thinks you should. About using loving self-discipline to push past limiting beliefs, to instigate change, to bring closure.
I am not suggesting that we discard the ancient traditions of retreating based on obedience and discipline. What I found in my research writing The Woman's Retreat Book is that we also need a way to retreat that allows us to listen to and obey our own hearts. Sometimes this happens in a more formal religious setting and sometimes we need to create it for ourselves.
How do you create it for yourself? How do you retreat outside of a formal program?
Set an intention. Intention is what distinguishes your time off. "Retreat is not about a statement, it's about a question. 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" Christina Baldwin, author of Calling the Circle and teacher of Peer Circle workshops, said in an interview. Understand what the longing is."
Investigate the yearning. 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 twenty-four hours I intend to ask myself 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 this question."
Your intention is a still point of purpose to refer back. It helps you to concentrate your time in a way that has heart and meaning. Whether you have five minutes or five days, intention helps you make the most of that time.
WITHDRAW FROM ORDINARY LIFE
Withdrawal from ordinary life happens through symbolic action and by creating a safe space, either physically or emotionally, to withdraw into. These are the signals to your psyche that you are entering altered time. Cynthia Gale, a ceremonial artist in Cleveland, Ohio, speaks about her retreats this way. "What I try to do is make sure everything I do matters. 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 because you are not always able to go someplace to retreat. You may only have a few minutes or hours to yourself. It isn't about the amount of time away or even your physical proximity to others. It is how much they occupy you when you don't wish them to. One of the great benefits of evoking the archetype is the ability to withdraw into your own interior, sacred space. Choose or create such a space, your container. It could be your bed, your garden, a visualization of a place you love in nature, the crook of a tree, taking the phone off the hook and closing your office door, or a prayer of protective light and love surrounding you. Next perform a symbolic ceremony to separate. This ceremony can be as involved as a sweat lodge, as simple as a purifying soak in the bath, slipping 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.
LISTEN IN SACRED SPACE
Being in sacred, liminal space is perhaps the hardest part of the retreat to maintain in our modern world. Yet it is where the work of transformation takes place. You remain outside your daily life. You don't do the dishes, answer the phone, take care of others, work, watch TV, listen to the news, read magazines, or do other everyday things. You arrange your time differently, doing what enlarges your intention and enables you to listen to your inner knowing. This can be done in a myriad of ways (asking yourself thought provoking questions, writing in your journal about how you are feeling or why you are retreating, moving to music, meditating on metaphorical words like poetry or the Psalms, visualizing your Divinity blessing you, 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 because by doing so, you shift how you view yourself and your life. Shifting out of your comfort zone often creates anxiety and fear. For example, leaving your comfort zone might entail hiking alone on a local trail or being alone at your home with no TV and no phone. 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.
REEMERGE INTO ORDINARY SPACE AND TIME
Reemergence 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 ______ (fill in your reasons for going or what you learned.) 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.
Excerpted from the Woman's Retreat Book by Jennifer Louden, published 1997 by HarperSanFrancisco.
Jennifer Louden is a best-selling author of The Woman's Comfort Book, The Comfort Queen's Guide to Life and three other titles. You can visit her popular website at ComfortQueen.com where over 600 articles about self-care, an interactive Inner Organizer, and a wonderful CQ store await you. Jennifer also works with a few clients at a time as a life coach.