a retreat: taking time

I’m currently in the midst of a two and a half day retreat focusing on a longtime interest of mine that I’ve been feeling blocked about for, well, years.

Anyway, I thought I’d do some comments on how, why, and when I do retreat work (and hopefully, by the time I’m done, my subconscious will have sorted out the next step in what I’m working on.)


What is a retreat? Most basically, it’s a time to step away from your normal schedule and obligations, and to focus on some aspect of spirituality or religious practice (or, I suppose, something else, but it’s generally seen as a spiritual process.) They can take place at home, or at a retreat center or other religious location. (This latter one is quite common in both Catholic and Buddhist practice.) They can be structured (having a set list of things you expect to do) or unstructured (much more open.)

My first experience with them was for confirmation retreats when I was going through the Catholic confirmation process – but I also went with my mother to a couple of retreat weekends after that. When – more than a decade later – I started looking at something similar for my own practice, it was a pretty natural fit to try this as part of my practice.

How long? I’ve been trying to do one a quarter for about eighteen months now. I try to do one retreat of 3-5 days every year, and then the other three are often much shorter – sometimes a full day, sometimes a weekend, depending on how much time I can get free and what I want to focus on. In other traditions, retreats might last a week or a month or forty days – but these obviously require a lot more planning.

Sometimes the reason is a Really Big Deal thing – for example, I did a fairly structured one before my 3rd degree last November. Sometimes it’s simply a chance to get back to basics of what I really want to focus on, and to create some time in my life where I won’t feel guilty if I don’t do anything else on the long list of things I should be thinking about for a few days. My current retreat’s toward the structured side: I have a specific thing I’m mulling over and writing about, and playing music about, but I’m being pretty open to what happens during this time.

Where? I’ve done all of mine at home. This is easy, as I live alone, and I have a lot of control over my living space. Obviously, if you live with someone else (or have kids!) it’s going to be a lot trickier, but I know plenty of people who manage it. What a retreat really is is taking space and time for your own focus, and there’s a lot of ways you can do that that will fit with almost everyone’s life and commitments.

Common barriers:

When I’ve talked about this in the past, I’ve heard some common comments. “I can’t do that – my family wouldn’t manage without me.” and “I don’t have the money for it” and “It’s selfish to take that much time for myself.” So, before I go any further, I want to look at these.

My family can’t manage without me: It feels good to a lot of us to feel indispensible, to be that needed, right? The only thing is – what happens if you honestly *couldn’t* be there? If you were sick, or there was another urgent crisis (a dying parent, say). Do you have a backup plan that your family is comfortable with?

I remember, when my mother was very sick (and in the hospital for 2 weeks) when I was 11, we were very much at a loss. My father couldn’t cook (much), he wasn’t familiar with how the household ran. And, of course, he wanted to be with my mother. I was 11, and Mom was very protective of her kitchen and housekeeping duties. I was only dimly aware of what needed to happen to keep things running (and I certainly couldn’t drive myself anywhere). In the end, my older brother came home to help with the cooking and chores, and to make sure there was someone home with me when my father was at the hospital.

Here’s the thing: the world didn’t end. I still got to school and to the other things I needed to be at. We ate dinner together. Laundry got done. But it would have been easier on everyone if we’d already had a plan for what to do if Mom wasn’t available – for whatever reason. And I think she’d have been happier if she’d had more time to explore her own interests at some point before her children were grown and out of the house. (She’s certainly loved it since then – she’s been travelling extensively, going on retreats and other study courses.)

There are, of course, some situations where it’s really tricky – caring for elderly parents can make it hard to find substitute caretakers. A single parent may not have a lot of options for childcare. But there are some long-term solutions, like being aware of respite care, or building extended family and community resources. Or of making use of the time when kids are in school, day camp, or visiting a friend’s family. The good thing about these two issues is that they do change over time – one year, you may have very few options, and the next year, you may have more, simply because aspects of the situation have shifted.

It costs too much:
Obviously, staying at home is pretty inexpensive (and actually, often cheaper than when I’m busy doing things, since I’m driving less, and often eating pretty simply.) But there are a number of inexpensive options for a short retreat away from home. One is to arrange to stay at a friend’s home when they’re out of town – they get a housesitter, you get space and time to reflect.

If that’s not an option, a number of retreat centers are open to people from a wide variety of religious traditions (even if they’re run by people from a particular religion or denomination) and are often less expensive than a hotel. (There’s one about 90 minutes north of me I really want to try sometime – it’s run by Franciscan sisters, but they have a labyrinth, walking trails, and welcome people from many traditions – for $50 a night including 3 meals.) An off-season bed and breakfast deal can also give you privacy and space without being particularly expensive.

Even a day spent off by yourself away from your usual haunts can be rejuvenating depending on your focus. I once spent a very powerful day hanging out in coffee shops in Madison reading and taking notes, while waiting to meet up with my older sister to give a presentation to one of her classes that evening. Madison wasn’t my home ground, so I didn’t have many distractions once I’d wandered the State Street area for a bit. (It was actually this experience that convinced me that I needed to start making that kind of time more regularly.)

Isn’t it selfish?
Personally, I think it’s important to think about what the true costs of burnout, stress, and other similar things are. They take a huge toll on us – and they mean that many people are constantly running on near-empty. That’s not healthy for our bodies, and it’s not healthy for our spiritual lives either. Even a weekend off (totally off – using it to catch up on all the stuff you should be doing around the house doesn’t count) can be tremendously rejuvenating.

I think it’s actually far *more* selfish, in some ways, to assume that I can do everything, and that I’ll be able to help with everything. Taking time reminds me that I’ve got limits, too, and that pushing past them often makes things harder for other people – or prevents them from learning things that might actually be useful.

So, what to do?

I start by planning food. I enjoy cooking, but generally do not see retreat time as a good time for demanding cooking. I aim for things that are simple, natural foods, and that I can put together with relatively little time and effort. This time around, I’ve been doing a lot of soup. (Pre-made organic from my local co-op) and crackers and cheese. Tonight, I anticipate wedges of sweet potato baked in the oven. In the summer, I tend to make a batch of chicken salad, and eat it with various things (greens, etc.) or pita bread and hummus and other dips.

I also start by cleaning – because otherwise, I will use it as an avoidance technique. Part of my pre-retreat prep is getting the house clean and in order, at least enough that I can focus without distractions. (In my case, this means I have several baskets of mail and papers to finish sorting through this weekend, but that’s okay.)

I have a general plan. Key word is ‘general’. I usually come into the retreat with between 3 and 10 questions I’d like to spend time focusing on. (3 questions tend to be broad. 10 tend to be interconnected.) I may not answer them all to my satisfaction, but I want to come out the other end with a plan for what happens next.

Music is good. Music is a huge part of my personal practice, so I usually create a long playlist of music related to my general focus, and have that playing when I’m not doing something else that requires different sound or silence.

Bathing is extra good. I’m a huge fan of the bath as a ritual tool, and I generally start all of my retreats with a focused cleansing bath. (Lots of sea salt, taking time to use a salt or sugar scrub, condition my hair fully, all the stuff I sometimes skimp on because I’m tired or tight for time.) I’ll usually light candles in the bathroom and settle in for a bit to read in the bath – something related to whatever my focus is.

A formal start. I generally start with a formal declaration of intention, of what I want to do in this time, what I want to come away with.
This isn’t necessarily a formal ritual circle – but I do usually speak to my Gods, and ask their blessings, and otherwise do things that help me feel like I’ve entered into the work of the retreat.

Arranging my altar for it can be helpful – here’s the altar from the current retreat.

Altar during my winter retreat

Altar during my winter retreat

Simple, but practical. The actual retreat specific items are the two bottles of massage oil (for some annointing and other body-care work), the little figure just above the greenery on the shelves, and the notebooks on the lower left side. (I’m also doing a lot of work with my harp, but she doesn’t fit on the altar!)

Some kind of plan: I’ve found it’s important not to be too rigid about this. (“At 1pm, I will meditate. At 2pm I will have a major religious experience. At 3pm I will exercise.”) because really, life doesn’t work like that. I’ve found that leaving lots of time for napping and otherwise my have days like yesterday, where I woke up at 8:45, did some pieces of work, fell asleep at 10:30, and woke up after 2:30. Part of that is catching up on sleep from last week, but part of it was just my brain needing to process without me getting in the way.)

I generally consider it a really productive good day if I manage 6-8 hours of focused attentive work to the topic of the retreat in some way (of which about half of that time is probably obviously focused, and a bunch of the rest is doing other things – art, music, movement – that help me in generally, but might not be as directly connected to my focus.) I make sure my lesiure time is connected somehow, but pushing myself into misery is counterproductive.

Being flexible is also good in other ways – my body is currently being demanding in ways I hadn’t quite anticipated, and that’s okay. I’ll work with it, rather than fight it – but it means that some of the moving meditation work I was considering is probably not my best choice right now. It’ll keep.

When I’m done: I generally plan to have a low-key morning following a retreat (or to end at dinner, if I’m back at work the next morning), to catch up on online things and other tasks. (In this case, I’ll be catching up on Thursday morning, and then going to have festive dinner with close friends.)

Things I’ve found useful: (in no particular order)

  • Making music. Harp, singing, singing along with the music that’s playing. It’s all good.
  • Art : drawing, working with modelling clays, etc.
  • Journaling : I do some by hand, some online. Depends on what I’m writing about.
  • Writing in general.
  • Reading: Books related to my topic of focus, generally – but I’ve found both fiction and non-fiction very useful. I’m currently reading a book that got me started on the topic I’m focusing on, way back in 1990, and I’m finding there’s a lot of stuff in there that I had totally forgotten is in there. (Including a song that’s since become one of my favorites – who knew?) I’ve reread the book since then, but it still hadn’t stuck.
  • Ritual : Depends on my focus – this has been a ritual-light retreat, but I’ve done other retreats that did a heavy focus on cleansing stuff no longer needed in my life, on shifting some patterns of interaction, etc. where structured ritual has been very helpful.
  • Moving meditation: I’m partial to Gabrielle Roth’s general approach, but in general, just getting moving is a good thing.
  • Petting the cat: Always important – and it’s good to have some kind of tactile interaction with the world while I’m focusing on other things. (Plus, the cat doesn’t actually let me get away with not doing this.)
  • Long baths, tea, taking time to soothe and tend my body in general.
  • Ignoring the clock. I eat when I’m hungry. I go to bed when I’m tired. Naps are fine things. (This is a lovely break from my normal life where I have to be very clock-aware due to my work schedule and need for sufficient sleep.)

In the current retreat, I’m finding my most productive time has been after dark – another part of the reason for this post, where it’s only just gotten dark, so I can do some of the other work I want to do.

Things I avoid:

  • My phone: I am not particular fond of the phone most of the time, though it is useful. But for retreats, I warn anyone who might need to get hold of me that it’ll be off and I’ll check messages for emergencies.
  • Online communication: I generally avoid this, too – though I did check email this morning while waiting for something to load.
  • Cleaning and other similar household chores, other than picking up my own day’s mess as I go. This is not time for home projects. This is time for other things.
  • Things that are truly a distraction from my focus. (If I am doing something not directly connected, I need to be able to justify it to myself clearly and specifically. Like, well, this post.)
  • I generally don’t go out. Yesterday, I shovelled snow a bit, but I avoid errands, etc.


When I was doing the original retreat planning 18 months ago, I did a fair bit of reading.

If you’re going to get one book, I recommend Jennifer Louden’s Woman’s Retreat Book: A Guide to Restoring, Rediscovering, and Reawkening Your True Self — In a Moment, An Hour, or a Weekend. (While aimed at women, most of it is gender neutral – though she does spend some time discussing some particular issues like why women have a hard time taking this kind of time in our society.) Originally written in the early 90s, there’s a 2005 revision.

What I particularly liked about it is that she talks through both the planning and doing stagesĀ  – including what to do when you come out of the retreat, so the experience isn’t jarring. She also has a lot of practical advice for some of the common concerns I mentioned above, and for other things like timing and different amounts of available time/space.

There are a number of other ones out there – if they’re not available in your local library, check for interlibrary loan access from any religious colleges or seminaries near you (which is where I found a bunch of others.) Obviously, you have to read around the existing religious pieces, but the actual ideas behind the concepts were helpful to me.

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