Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Let’s take a quick detour from the connections between meditation and freedom to discuss something so important that I did this past week: a meditation retreat. I spent the last five days in extended periods of personal and guided practice, and even though we could not gather in person, the experience was deeply meaningful. Perhaps it was even more powerful amidst all the heightened uncertainty. With each retreat, I am more convinced: everyone should go on retreat and the sooner the better. Don’t hesitate. Find one that resonates with you and give yourself a profound gift - time to rest, to heal, to grow and even to deeply transform your experience of life. For many of us, it’s long overdue.
A retreat is so important because it accelerates all that meditation naturally brings, so that powerful change is attained in a short period of time. After my first retreat, I felt so much had happened, it didn’t seem possible that only five days had passed. I immediately called my closest friends and tried to capture the power of my experience and transmit it to them in the right way, so they would be emboldened to experience it for themselves. Words inevitably fall short in this task. I feel that same enthusiasm today as I write this to you, as well as a tinge of sadness as I recognize my friends have not taken this advice.
Retreat testimonials are often received with skepticism and even fear. The thought of devoting precious vacation time to silence can feel wasteful and, to many of us, terrifying. To this I first emphasize that many retreats, including mine, do not enforce absolute silence and instead allow you to approach it gently, easing into it and coming out of it as you feel comfortable. Silence is a beautiful part of the retreat process that I have come to love, but retreat is about so much more than practicing silence. Don’t let the thought of silence deter you. Instead, think of it as a bonus feature that won’t make or break your experience but, as you step into it slowly, will start to show its sweetness. Silence may even become a welcoming space for you, from which you can allow each moment to settle into its depth before disturbing it with speech. From this place you can then choose your words carefully to preserve that peace as much as possible. This is a great gift of silence.
The most powerfully transformative aspect of the retreat comes simply from the prolonged periods of meditation. Like wool that is repeatedly dipped in dye and then dried so the color holds a little more each time, the benefits of meditation are secured and held fast over the days dedicated to practice. Although flashes of insight may occur, the greater realization is the deepening sense of meaningfulness, that what matters most in life is coming more and more into focus. And the realization that part of what matters most is simply this process: taking this time to strengthen the relationship we have with ourselves — to really know who we are in the deepest sense — and then to bring forth from within us those things that are most meaningful, most fulfilling, most important for us to do in life.
Retreat also brings into sharp contrast the ways we undermine our full experience of life. By simply dedicating a few days to practice, we quickly see that many of our typical habits and diversions don’t bring the levels of relaxation, growth, joy, or satisfaction that we seek in them. Retreat often triggers a natural and easy letting-go of these habits as we recognize they simply don’t serve us anymore.
Each day on retreat is unique. Many will be blissful and serene, while some may be marked by anxiety or frustration. As we’ve discussed, meditation reveals deep fears and fundamental insecurities, while at the same time revealing our strength to endure and then to grow beyond them. This process is intensified and accelerated on retreat. On difficult days, know that the next day will be different and often dramatically so. These ups and downs are very common and are themselves indications the process is working powerfully.
Retreat is about giving yourself what is most needed: the space and silence to heal old wounds; deep rest and the rejuvenation it brings; a strengthened relationship with yourself; a focused clarity on what matters most; and, a natural shifting towards a lifestyle that supports all of this in an ongoing way. You deserve all of these things and you simply have to start giving them to yourself. You will not regret dedicating this time to yourself; the benefits are so much more profound and long-lasting than a typical vacation. It’s not only about the time you spend on retreat, it’s about the time after, as you experience how the trajectory of your life has shifted in profound and subtle ways.
Finally, a word of caution: all retreats are not created equal. Please take care in selecting a trustworthy, reputable retreat to ensure you have the proper experience. Unfortunately, there are always a range of options, including some that are rightfully called scams. There are many good options, however, and many available now as fully virtual, online experiences. Although these are not a perfect substitute for an in-person retreat, they have the great benefit of convenience. Take advantage of this opportunity and give yourself a long overdue gift. It will change your life. Better yet: bring your partner or a close friend and change your lives together. You will forge a special bond and a deep closeness that will last long after the retreat ends.
drawing by isabel gryschka