I am, for the most part, a very busy human. I’m a mother of two daughters, the daughter of a 91-year old live-in mother, a writer, a health professional, a blogger and a Weight Watchers leader. Perhaps because of the busy-nonstoppedness of my life, my secret weapon/favorite thing is retreats.
I love retreats.
What is a retreat? It can mean to take a few (or a lot) of steps backward, instead of endlessly trying to hurtle FORWARD. I also think it means to “re-treat” (i.e., to treat again!) oneself.
A retreat is defined, officially, as “a signal given by bugle at the beginning of a military flag-lowering ceremony (2) : a military flag-lowering ceremony” – (NOT MY INTENT; no bugles at my retreats!) or “a place of privacy or safety; refuge, or a period of group withdrawal for prayer, meditation, study, or instruction.
I went on my first retreat over 26 years ago, as a newbie
fancy writer calligrapher. The Friends of Calligraphy annual retreat was being held in a beautiful former convent called Santa Sabina. We silently dipped our metal pen nibs or hand-carved goosequills into bottles of ink, and wrote exquisite alphabets in what had been dubbed The Scriptorium. We ate our meals in companionable silence, contemplating our food in what was to be my very first experience of mindful eating.
On the hill of the beautiful ex-convent sat a sweet little straw bale cottage called The Hermitage. On the gate leading up the path was a sign (written by one of the calligraphers, of course) that indicated if it was vacant during any given hour.
One might sit in the window seat and just think, while gazing out onto the hillside while deer wander past. Or meditate (cushion provided). Or write at the desk. Or read. There’s even a bed if one wants to nap. Napping is a wonderful option.
Since that first retreat back in the eighties, I have returned to this Place of Refuge time and time again. Sometimes on my own, sometimes with a group, sometimes with just one quiet friend. Sometimes I have stopped in for just a few needed hours, and other times for several days.
I cannot even describe what a gift it is to mind and body to just have that freedom to do whatever. To wake up when one feels so inclined, in a plain little room that is just enough. To nap or walk. To do yoga or receive a massage. Often I go with the intention of writing, but underneath that wish is just the desire for quiet. To be alone with my thoughts, with my self. How often do we take time to be with our selves?
It was especially precious to take time as a Hermit/retreatant when I had small children, when it seemed that my body belonged more to them than to myself. I was grateful to have a spouse who recognized that these brief times away brought me back to my family re-energized, with infinitely more patience and kindness than before I left.
Two years ago, I led a multi-experiential retreat at Santa Sabina called Stories of the Body. It was an amazing time for a dozen “retreatants” to both be alone and to be together, and to explore the unique and varied tales our bodies had to tell. For some it was in words. Others chose to create art through painting or collage.
One woman used her hermit time to catch up on sleep. Others painted and drew in the art cellar.
David Kuntz says in his valuable book, Stopping: How to Be Still When You Have to Keep Going,
Are you in business and focused on the bottom line? Struggling to grow? Anxious to gain a competitive advantage? Then maybe you cringe at the thought of Stopping.” “Why would I Stop? The idea is to Go!” But the Going is getting us into deep trouble. That is, if we are Going without first Stopping.
For whatever length of time we do it, we need to spend fallow time, still time, quiet time, time with no agenda at all. I believe we’re talking about the difference between merely surviving and really thriving. We must learn again to become peacefully still.
Stopping is doing nothing, as much as possible, for a definite period of time — whether a moment or a month — for the purpose of waking up and remembering who you are.
And what do you “do” during these times? Again, nothing. And just how do you do nothing? Just hang out, breathe, walk, sit, mess around, pace, gaze out the window, wander down the lane, observe, notice, daydream, take a break, slowly drink a glass of water, be still, practice smiling, stretch…. The list is limitless; it is limited only by our lack of comfort with what we might call “down time.”
We are such a rushed society, zooming through life as if running scared. We tend to treat moments of stillness as strangers, even as enemies, or at best as a waste of time.
Stopping is anything but a waste of time and has nothing to do with laziness. It is, I suggest, the most important time of your life.
It seems that some pockets of the world are recognizing the importance of slowing down, of quieting and finding that place of refuge.
Have you ever retreated from your busy life? How did it feel?