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When You Finally Go on a Retreat ...

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What to keep in mind—and what to steer clear of when deciding on a retreat.

Retreats have been an honorable American tradition since Henry David Thoreau went off to Walden Pond. “I love Nature partly because she is not man, but a retreat from him,” wrote Thoreau. By the time I was growing up in New England, it was well understood that poetry and art, as well as nature, were part of spiritual questing. I attended my first retreat as a preteen, along with my family, through our Unitarian church. Off we went for a weekend in the woods of Vermont, where my father would teach a jazz workshop and my mother a painting workshop. Retreat-goers of all ages enjoyed the fresh air and the camaraderie, shared values and the communal kitchen, and learned new ways to be and to see.

A good retreat teaches (or refines) the skills you need to be a better person, to live a better life. A good retreat offers physical, emotional, and spiritual nourishment in a safe environment with trusted teachers. It offers camaraderie or silence, depending on what you seek. It offers a chance to reconnect with nature or with yourself. Nowadays, a retreat can mean building a straw-bale house, a stone wall, or a permaculture garden.

Especially during this time of isolation, there is a need to shed anxiety, to take a break from screens. Retreats offer a chance for voluntary solitude as opposed to pandemic- induced solitude. In today’s world, it has become increasingly important to take good care of ourselves, so we in turn can take good care of others (and our planet). In my three decades of writing about wellbeing, I’ve never witnessed such a hunger for what we now call self-care—both inside and out.

So, if you feel ready for a retreat, there’s good reasons why. Take the time to quietly sit with yourself and make a list. What are you yearning for? Is there something specific you are going through that needs guidance? What do you need to work on? How much time do you want to, or can you, dedicate to a retreat? What do you hope to gain by attending? What is a realistic budget?

Three Things to Look For

The setting. Think about what kind of an environment makes you feel safe. Going to a place without cell service, phone, or Internet can be liberating—or just anxiety-making. What works for you? Do you prefer a women-only or men-only retreat? Do you need a single room or cabin? How flexible are you willing to be—that’s the edge. You may be much happier with much less than you think. Or not. How open can you be? Maybe you need TLC instead of a spartan getaway.

The activities. A good retreat is most often a well-marked path. You should know where you’re going and what you’re getting into. That may mean that nothing is happening at all—but you should know that in advance.

The intentions. Most retreats come into existence because of a founder’s personal passion—does that passion resonate with you? There are retreats founded by billionaires, there are retreats founded by penniless monks—and everything in between!

Three Red Flags

Fishy founders. If you’re not familiar with the founder or teachers, do your homework! Make sure the leader (and teachers) of the retreat are the real deal. Do they have the qualifications needed to be leading the retreat? The rules and expectations of the retreat should be clear and readily available and not subject to the whims of a potential nut case. Sadly, pretty much anyone can create a “retreat” and gladly take your money.

Lack of planning. Look for well-planned itineraries and detailed agendas. Is there an easy-to-navigate website and a telephone number with a live voice at the other end? A good retreat may not be easy to reach immediately; staffs are often small and take their own retreating seriously. That said, a good retreat should feel accessible and welcoming.

Extreme experiences. No one should have ever been cooked in a plastic-tarped sweat lodge—as occurred in James Arthur Ray’s infamous Sedona retreat. But crazy things still happen in the name of self-improvement. Don’t check your good sense at the door. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.

“Life itself becomes one long retreat, if you are open to seeing it that way,” Jon Kabat-Zinn shared with me during an interview a few years back. “I love looking at life that way, whatever unfolds is the curriculum of the retreat, and the challenge always is: How are you going to be wise in relationship with whatever arises, be that wanted or unwanted?”