Since I am co-facilitating this meditation and yoga retreat in Calistoga in a couple of weeks, I find myself reflecting on retreats in general, in a certain amount of awe at their profound impact and value.
There are things to be said for learning something new while staying in your normal life – living wherever you live, with whomever you live with, driving your car, going to work, doing the laundry and cleaning the toilet – all the while learning and integrating new material. I have done this a lot myself. Sometimes it is just what we need.
There is also a lot to be said for going away to a different place to learn and integrate something new, especially if we want to make big changes in our lives. When we go to a retreat center, an ashram, or some other controlled environment focused on growth and healing, we are immediately removed from most of the structures in our lives that support our bad habits. For instance, what if a person has a long-term habit of watching TV until late at night every night, even though they really want to get some stuff done, like finish some songs or paintings that have been in the works for a while, lose the weight gained over the holidays a couple years ago, or fix up their old bike and start riding again? All the time is getting gobbled up watching TV, and maybe they know that, but habits are hard to break! We all know this. What if then this person decides to spend a week on retreat at a Zen center a couple hours away? There is no TV at the Zen center. No internet. No opportunity to stay up late, lights out by 9:00. Sometimes this is hard at first, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes we don’t really notice it, because the environment is so different. Sometimes these old temptations are just….gone, in the new environment.
The challenge is returning home of course. Then this person has a choice. But, they now have the experience of what it is like to be away from this habit. They have actually built new connections in their brain! They KNOW now what it is to do sometime relaxing, conscious, and healthy in the evening. They don’t have to guess or imagine it anymore. Now, they can choose to bring it back home with them in a way that feels good.
Sometimes after being away on a retreat, people find they simply cannot go back to living their old life in the old way. It just doesn’t feel good; it fits like the shoe they outgrew when they were twelve.
Another wonderful thing about going on retreat is that it usually involves leaving the city. Maybe the setting is in a prairie in spring, or in the arid rolling hills and pine forests of Northern California, maybe on a cold, lonely sea coast, or a redwood forest, a tropical island surrounded by turquoise water, or perhaps Death Valley in winter. Whatever place it is, it has such gifts for us. Natural places remind of us our own nature. They rekindle our sense of wonder and childlike joy and allow our minds to become quiet (quiet as far as minds go, anyway). A flowing creek will wash away our negativity and cynicism. Sitting in silence with others in these beautiful places stills us so deeply, stills all our rushing and excess thinking. It can dispel our desire to gossip or seem clever to others. How can we be arrogant or overly critical standing in an ancient redwood grove, resting on a boulder in a great river, or staring up at a sky filled with stars?
When I go walking in the woods near my home, I try to not just to see and hear, but to really soak in the natural splendor around me, so I can take it home. So when I am stuck in traffic on the freeway, or crowded into a commuter train, or in a drab waiting room, I have a deep well inside of me to draw nourishment from. This is one form of wealth, this well of rich images and sensations. It reminds me who I really am and what is really important in times I might forget.
Going on retreat is a bigger version of my regular woodland walks. It is a space where some deep healing can occur. Of course, one can create their own solitary retreat, but many people find they prefer some direction and structure, and that they enjoy the quiet company of others. We are essentially pack animals, after all.
My first yoga teacher training was also the first retreat I went on. I was 21 at the time, and on the cusp of some life changes. I felt I needed to do an intensive retreat-style teacher training because I wanted to see what it might be like to live a healthy and conscious lifestyle all day long, and at night too. I had no idea what that might look like! I had some good influences in my life, but I didn’t have them with me all the time. I was defaulting to some version of what I saw my friends and coworkers doing – working too much and drinking too much. I was not unhappy, but I was getting restless with such a life. Three weeks studying yoga in an intentional community on a mountaintop was a dream come true. I was exposed to so much in such a short amount of time. I had never seen people silently bless their food before eating, or consistently eaten such wholesome, whole foods. All these relatively young, attractive people got up early and went to bed early also, willingly, of their own volition, something I had also never seen before.
When I returned to my old life, everything was different. I found it very easy to get up early and practice yoga on my own for an hour before work, when before it had seemed insurmountably difficult. I also wanted different foods. I didn’t know how yummy and simple to make sprouted brown rice and sauteed kale could be, drizzled with olive oil, lemon juice and salt. That might sound boring to some, but my tastes had changed and that meal became a favorite, so flavorful and delicious to me.
I still go on retreats with relative frequency, each time returning to my regular life with renewed clarity, vigor, and purpose. I have long thought the time would come when I would have the honor and pleasure of leading others on retreat in turn, because it is something so precious to me that I’d love to share. So…now it is happening; I am co-leading this small retreat, along with my colleague Shannon O’Bryan, whose experience and wisdom I am benefiting from very much. (Click here for more info about the retreat itself, and to register: MAYACAMAS RETREAT REGISTRATION). It is going to be a really lovely and rejuvenating time that we’d be honored to share with you.