The Power of Retreating

A funny thing happens when we step off the merry-go-round. Things stop spinning. The dust settles,and we can see more clearly. We have time to reflect on how we are living, what’s working and what isn’t, and prepare for moving in new directions. A personal retreat is one way to step off and onto more solid ground.

There’s an old saying about the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. A retreat is reaching for sanity: Doing something different, to create the fertile ground for a different result to emerge.

For people caught in cycles of stress, anxiety, relationship conflict, anger or addiction (or all the above), who have tried by force of will to change these patterns, a retreat offers a surprising different approach: Stopping all the effort, temporarily. We might call it ‘surrender to win’. The surrender part is admitting that the way we’ve been doing things hasn’t worked. Sometimes when we’re ready to admit things aren’t working, although it can seem like admitting defeat, it’s actually the beginning of a new kind of success.

This kind of success isn’t the conventional view, which tells us the way to win is to keep trying, with more and more force. And there is of course some truth in that view.

But the opposite is also true-  that a new possibility comes when we stop and open to receiving help in a different way. We allow ourselves to unclench, breathe more freely, and take our hands off the steering wheel. It’s the success of learning to let go. It’s the beginning of being kind to ourselves. It begins to create a balance of effort and letting go. It’s a real, concrete step to living in a more balanced way.

Often people try to de-stress by doing more things, like going on vacation, to the movies, or out to dinner. Those things are fine. But sometimes these attempts to reward ourselves just reinforce the pattern of more consuming, more doing, more distraction and more running from what we feel, and what troubles us.

If we keep running and consuming, it prevents us from facing our deepest fears, our entrenched problems, our negative habits. This type of running is stressful, and anxiety producing, because we’re trying to outrun something that is actually inside us. It can work temporarily, but in the long run our pain has a way of catching up with us.

The power of a retreat, whether it’s a few hours or multiple days, is in the courage to stop running and turn toward our fears. Turning toward our problems, we often find they’re not as unworkable as we imagined. And there’s another benefit- we begin to build resilience, the capacity to experience and examine our difficult feelings without resistance or self-judgment. Mindfulness is one of the key technologies to build resilience. It’s not a magic cure for all our problems, but there is a kind of magic in it. As we change how we respond to our problems, it allows us to meet them with less stress, shame and anxiety. In shifting our responses, we begin to turn lead into gold. Our problems, still difficult, usher us into an opportunity to become more whole, self-respecting, and self-regulated. We begin to feel more at ease in our own skin.

Mindfulness is a turn toward sanity, because of course our fears and problems are present, and denying and avoiding them is a kind of insanity.

Often an important aspect of a retreat is reflecting on values- what is most important in our lives. It may be we reconnect with honesty, integrity, connection to nature, or simply making time to sit quietly and reflect. With some clarity about our values, and a sense of growing resilience, we prepare for new actions to address the challenges we’ve identified. That action plan usually includes how we will make a little ‘retreat time’ each day- like sitting in meditation  for a few minutes each morning or evening.

The formula might look like this: Stop. Surrender. Let go. Breathe, relax, feel, watch and allow. Reflect on what matters most. Plan for new action steps. Return to life refreshed, with a new perspective and new skills. Repeat as needed.

Creating new, healthy, sustainable life patterns requires both acceptance and action. We have to make effort, and we need to know where and when to let go and accept things we can’t control, most importantly our feelings. When we can create a reasonable balance of letting go and talking action, we have the best of both worlds. We’re able to feel our feelings, but we’re not paralyzed by them. We’re riding the waves of experience, one at a time.

Post-retreat, we slowly step back onto the spinning merry-go-round. But we remember where the off-switch is now and then. We may even go back with a plan in mind for our next retreat.