Two years ago this month I attended a six-day meditation retreat, my first. It was a subtle, yet powerful experience. One that changed my life, though not in a demonstrably dramatic way. I didn’t shave my head, renounce all possessions and run off to a monastery. It did change my life in a very essential way, though, generating a shift in the order of my priorities.
The retreat came at a time of transition; a time when I needed answers. Almost instinctively, I knew that to get those answers required time away, free from the noise and clutter of day-to-day living; time away from daily routines and busy distractions; time to be alone with thoughts and feelings; time to listen for my heart’s quiet whisperings.
The six-day journey inward took me to a place I had never been, and though the answers I sought didn’t materialize instantly, as on demand, they did evolve over time from that newly discovered place of stillness and calm within.
Without the departure from the familiar that the retreat afforded, chances are I might still be seeking those answers. Sometimes, in order for us to see things in a new light, we have to see new things. New places, new routines stimulate our senses and break us free from old mind ruts – those grooves we carve by continuously playing the same thoughts over and over.
While a life transition triggered my quest, there are as many reasons to go on a retreat as there are people who go, and one thing is certain, more and more people are doing so. The popularity of retreats has skyrocketed in the last decade. Whether spurred by a growing interest in reconnecting and deepening one’s spirituality, or simply as a means of respite from a world filled with excessive stimuli and speed, retreats abound. They are spiritual, creative, or restorative in nature and range from time spent in silence and solitude to time spent nourishing artistic creation and expression, or healing a wounded heart. Retreats can last less than a day to 40 days or more, and accommodations range from luxurious to minimalist, some even primitive.
A retreat is not only time spent away in quiet reflection, but the word “retreat” also refers to a “place” of contemplation such as a monastery, a retreat house or an intentional community. Most retreats are located on quiet, serene grounds filled with natural beauty that encourages peaceful walks or gentle hikes spent in reflective thought and contemplation.
Monasteries have long been known as places of retreat. Their popularity grew following publication of Kathleen Norris’s, The Cloister Walk, in 1996, which recounted her experience at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. Monasteries, abbeys, convents or spiritual centers offer simple accommodations and meals to those who seek space and time alone, and most do not require the retreatant to be of the same faith.
The husband and wife team of Jack and Marcia Kelly visited more than 250 such locations throughout the United States, and brief descriptions of each can be found in the book they published, Sanctuary: The Complete United States.
While monasteries are run by a religious group, retreat houses are typically non-sectarian or non-denominational and often incorporate a wide range of beliefs. They offer classes or workshops, and communal meals but solitude, reflection and contemplation are encouraged.
At intentional communities – a community of people living and working together around a common belief or goal – the retreatant is usually expected to participate on some level in the daily working of the community (helping out in the kitchen, or garden, etc) in exchange for room and board.
From monasteries to modern day retreat houses, there is a place and a program for everyone who seeks sanctuary to connect with the sacred.
Creativity comes from the soul, and so an element of the spiritual is intrinsically present in creative retreats as well, though the focus is different. At a creative retreat the emphasis is less on silence and solitude and more on opening to creative energy, and self-expression. These retreats are lighthearted in nature, utilizing play, laugher and joy to let creativity seep out in unexpected ways. Whether embarking on a new artistic pursuit, or seeking insights to get beyond an obstacle, spending time in nature, and drawing upon both the energy and support of fellow artists helps to open one up artistically, spiritually and emotionally, allowing for creative breakthroughs.
There are creative retreats for every art and craft – painting, writing, songwriting, dancing, photography, weaving, pottery-making, beading, quilting and more, and they are as varied as the subject they cover.
The final category of retreats is restorative. In a sense, of course, all retreats are restorative. Spiritual retreats help restore our connection to God and the sacred. Creative retreats help restore our creative energy and flow. There are retreats, though, that especially heal a mind or body wounded by disease, loss or excessive stress; these retreats help to replenish an individual’s health, spirit and energy, and give hope for a brighter day.
There are fewer and fewer opportunities for silence in our noisy, hectic lives, which explains the popularity of retreats. We must go away to find the peace and quiet to leads us to discover the truth, the stillness we seek lies within.
New Camaldoli Hermitage (Big Sur, California)
Situated in the rugged coastal mountains overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur, California, is a Benedictine monastery known as the New Camaldoli Hermitage. At 1,300 feet above sea level, it offers a view of both ocean and woods. Since 1958 more than 150,000 individuals have sought its serene haven, and nearly half a million have visited spending a full day on the grounds. Its retreat house features a number of private rooms, each with a half bath and a personal garden overlooking the ocean. There are also five trailer hermitages located along the hillside which provide greater solitude and privacy. Retreatants are provided a mostly vegetarian meal which is eaten privately in one’s own room or garden. Radios, typewriters, and musical instruments are not allowed in order to maintain a silent and contemplative atmosphere. While retreatants are invited to attend prayer services, it is not required, and they are also invited to request spiritual guidance.
The Cenacle Retreat House (Houston, Texas)
The Cenacle Retreat House, located in Houston, Texas, is nestled on nine acres of lush, wooded grounds and situated between two bayous in the heart of the city. Its spiritual ministry invites people of all faiths to an awakening and deepening of their spiritual experience, offering simple private rooms, prayer areas and acres of quiet space in which to wander and reflect. Retreatants can walk the labyrinth or the bayou trail, relax in a hammock or swing, or simply sit outside and read or reflect. They offer a wide range of programs and workshops, including a Spiritual Spa Day that conveniently begins at 9:00 am and ends at 4:00 pm. It features a light breakfast, gentle body exercises such as yoga or tai chi, time for prayer, mediation, journaling, reading, and lunch. It’s amazing what seven hours can do. “The atmosphere at the retreat wrapped around us like a protective cocoon… nurturing us in your warm embrace; then, releasing us like a butterfly, regenerated, to our world – uplifted to take on any challenge.” Olivia O’Brien
Expeditions of the Heart (Virginia)
“Adventure, with all its request danger and wildness is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of man,” writes John Eldredge in his book, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul. That is the premise for Expeditions of the Heart, a Virginia, non-profit organization that hosts wilderness-based Christian retreats for men – especially those who find themselves unengaged while sitting in a church pew. Jeff Andrechyn, director of EOH, is an airline pilot who attended a Wild at Heart conference in Colorado in 2001, and decided to bring the message back to Virginia. Whitewater rafting down the Gauley River provides the backdrop for high adventure and a brotherhood that goes beyond teamwork, Andrechyn says, and offers a glimpse at what it looks like for a masculine soul to follow God.
For those who seek to find their true nature in nature, Circles of Air, Circles of Stone, offers a 10-day vision quest program. Set amid the dramatic vistas of the desert southwest, or the verdant hills and mountains of Vermont, participants spend four days preparing themselves to cross the threshold of sacred ground; four days and nights are spent alone, fasting on the earth. The final three days are spent in reunion, understanding and sharing their experience, and learning how to incorporate into civilized life, the lessons learned during the threshold period. The emphasis is on grounding and owning the lessons learned, for the true work of the vision quest begins when the individual returns.
Wild Creative Soul
Your Wild Creative Soul is a weekend retreat held in the Los Angeles area. Fun, messy and free-flowing, it is designed to get the stuck places on the inside moving, and let the participant feel the joy within. Nature provides the inspiration, and a variety of art projects serve as jumping off point into effortless creative impulse and expression. Drawing, writing, mask-making, collage making, coloring, and finger painting are a few of the activities with music and movement incorporated. Yoga and meditations designed to open the flow of creativity are also available to augment the experience. Those who believe they are not creative discover how misguided the belief, and those already in touch with their Inner Artist can dive more deeply into the creative process. “Your Wild Creative Soul was really wonderful — so fun and so deceptively deep and inspiring. I appreciate all the work and time you put into the workshops you give… thank you so very much” — Anne Haynes, Idaho
Salt Spring Weaving and Photography
“There are no mistakes – only the joy of creation,” explains Terri Biddy, owner of SAORI Salt Spring Weaving Retreats and the nearby Honeysuckle B&B Retreat on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia. SAORI is a form of freestyle weaving that promotes creativity and self expression – weaving without boundaries. SAORI helps the weaver to meet one’s inner self. Biddy, a fibre artist, offers retreats for all ages and abilities. Retreat accommodations are arranged at the nearby Honeysuckle Cottage, a fully equipped, self-contained cottage just a short walk through the woods to the weaving studio. Husband Alan Biddy, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and photographer, offers photography retreats for those wishing to explore the art. The island provides an abundant variety of photographic opportunities including vistas and landscapes, harbors, boats, flowers, as well as both wildlife and sea life. “What a fabulous experience to create such a beautiful weaving with my daughter. It was a wonderful example of how Spirit takes a bit of color here and a mistake there to weave together the fabric of our living.” Lisa & Muriel, Sitka, Alaska
Tucked away in the Canadian outback, REO Rafting Resort sits in a wilderness canyon, overlooking a beautiful jade-green river with rushing rapids, and surrounded by unlimited mountains and forest. Bryan Fogelman, REO owner, also happens to be a songwriter who wanted to improve his craft and meet other songwriters. Devoted to his rafting resort and and challenged to find the time and resources to get away, he decided the only solution was to bring songwriters to him. Nine years ago he began hosting the annual Songwriting Retreat, recruiting the best mentors and teachers he could find. Today, the event is attended by 25-35 fellow songwriters and features lead instructor Pat Pattison, professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston. They gather to work one-on-one with the instructors and other songwriters, private critique sessions, open-mic and co-writing session, with an exhilarating whitewater rafting trip or a relaxing scenic float trip thrown in. Fogelman added a second retreat this year entitled, How Songwriting Really Works, led by Wayne Chase, author of the book by the same name. This was a wonderful week for me. I loved having four professionals instruction and input. The location is beautiful – great food & lodging, not to mention the scenery- Martha Williams
Reeling and Healing Midwest is a non-profit organization that provides fly fishing retreats for women diagnosed or surviving breast cancer. When the human spirit, combined with courage and faith to overcome cancer, meets up with a river and the chance to fly-fish, magic happens. The retreat works on many levels. It provides social support, reducing the sense of isolation some women experience; it provides a healing connection to the natural world, and it provides a gentle exercise for joint and tissue mobility. Reeling and Healing Midwest provides a one-of-a-kind experience, on and off the river, which renews the spirit of hope. It is 100% donor supported and all-volunteer run. There is no charge to the women who attend. Each woman who participates in the Reeling and Healing is touched in a way that renews their spirit, their joy, their hope and their view of life. “I learned so much. Not only about fishing and the outdoors but about myself and what I am capable of.” Alexa, Participant
“Think of The Guest House as a greenhouse in which you can be saturated with nutrients while being protected from harsh weather and distractions,” says Joan Smith, owner of Healing Soup, A Restorative Retreat at the Guest House in Rockland, Maine. Smith, offering a ministry of hospitality and spiritual counsel, crafts custom-designed retreats at The Guest House, for individuals who are experiencing a major loss or transition, or serving as caregiver for family or friend, discerning a new calling or navigating a spiritual transition. Meals, amenities, silence, focused conversations and spiritual support are all tailored to individual needs. Smith’s life has been one of helping people navigate change. She has been a teacher, career counselor, spiritual director, retreat leader, minister, and hospice chaplain. “She is very good at creating a place for you without putting herself in it.”
Ananda-in the Himalayas
Blending the ancient traditions of Ayurveda with a contemporary Western spa approach, Ananda–in the Himalayas, once the residence of the Maharaja of Tehri-Garhwal, offers a complete mind-body-spirit experience. The Ananda Ayurvedic Therapy Programs are prescribed by a physician after a detailed consultation, which specifies daily routines, diet and wellness activities. The personalized therapy and activities programs is designed to meet individual needs and health goals – de-stress, detoxification and cleansing, deep relaxation, anti-aging, weight loss, while also providing guidance in the areas of nutrition and exercise. The spa offers special workshops and private sessions with visiting Masters in different areas of Wellbeing. These teachers, therapists, healers, Ayurvedic doctors and guides visit from around the world to share their talents and gifts with those who choose to explore and understand the deeper realms of holistic well being for the body, mind and spirit.
Author’s Note: This appeared in the October 2008 issue of Change.