On Retreat: Waiting for the Summer Lightning

Whether you create your own mini-retreat or take part in a retreat gathering with several hundred people, the intent is to truly retreat – pull back, get away from the usual, disengage, create downtime for all levels of your being – mental, physical, spiritual, emotional. In today’s fast-paced, always on, tech-connected culture, idleness or downtime can be difficult to come by. But not impossible.

Ferris Jabr, in an October 2013 article for Scientific American entitled Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime, quoted writer and meditation teacher, Michael Taft, who refers to cerebral congestion: “In a normal working day in modern America, there’s a sense of so much coming at you at once, so much to process that you just can’t deal with it all.”

Taft decided to deal with it and in 2011, he lived for 92 days at Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge facility in Barre, Massachusetts. The 92 days were in silence. Meditation, yoga and long walks through nature allowed his mind, he said, “to sort through a backlog of unprocessed data and to empty itself of accumulated concerns….On a long retreat like that there’s a kind of base level of mental tension and busyness that totally evaporates.”

And, truth be told, don’t we all long for that kind of total evaporation? Even as we’re rushing around, trying to keep up, always busy, busy, busy, don’t we hear that small voice inside us asking, pleading even, for a release from the tension and busyness?

Somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that being perpetually busy (or at the very least appearing to be busy) is a good, even noble, pursuit. Writer Tim Kreider’s book, We Learn Nothing, contains a chapter entitled Lazy: A Manifesto in which he writes: “This busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness: obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

Turns out the joke is on us because while we think we’re cool and engaged, our perpetual busyness is not only counterproductive, research tells us it is unhealthy. The antidote, says Kreider, is doing less and, even further, taking time to do nothing: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body…. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration – [idleness] is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

Paradox, indeed: In order to accomplish more, we need to do less!

I seem to have been born with a goodly amount of idleness in my bones. Summers growing up, it was easy to head across the creek with a blanket and a book, spend some time reading and then lots of time watching clouds and birds and seed pods floating against the blue sky. As my life sailed along, there was always time to just sit, to be captivated by the changing shadow of a lace curtain on the wall across from a window through which the setting sun was shining; or to watch baby ducklings test the boundaries of Mama Duck’s range of vision – and patience.

Without knowing it, I had been preparing most of my life for the 12-day retreat that I would attend in the high Mojave Desert of Southern California when I was 44. I and the other participants learned upon arrival that in the midst of the 12 days would be 3 days of fasting and silence. This was new to me and I was unsure whether I was up for it. I was and embraced it completely. More accurately, I was OK with letting go and allowing the experience to embrace me.

And that’s the point. A retreat is a good place to let go and be open to new awareness, insight, the unexpected; to play with a sense of curiosity and see what happens. This is true whether you’re looking for the mystical answers to life’s meaning or seeking relief from post-traumatic stress. You are looking for some major shift that will improve your life. But rather than going in with a predetermined expectation that life will be better if such and such happens, the key is to be open to possibilities you haven’t even thought of; to be ready to accept answers to questions you have not yet thought to ask.

The word “retreat” has taken on a more universal meaning in the past several decades. No longer is a retreat confined to the mythical or biblical stories of the hero, warrior or holy man going off to the desert for long stretches of time or wandering the mountain villages with a begging bowl. A retreat, however we want to define it, is available to each of us no matter our financial situation.

Stretching out to the boundaries of our imagination, we can insert a mini-retreat into our daily lives. For example, rather than rush home from work and plunge right into family or household chores, take 20 minutes of “idle” time. Shut out as much noise as possible, light a candle, put on some fluid music (nothing strident or with a beat), sit upright in a comfortable chair and close your eyes. All you have to do is simply “be” – no making lists in your mind or planning supper. Guided imagery that will soothingly and lovingly take you into the quiet spaces of your inner self is abundantly available. It may take some trial and error to find what suits your sensibilities but – and trust me on this – something just right for you is out there. Keep searching.

A walk in nature works wonders, too, and for my money is the best daily retreat easily accessible. You’ll reap the most benefits if you allow yourself to engage nature with all your senses – seeing the tiny flowers along the path, hearing the back and forth chatter of crows or the leaves rustling in the breeze, feeling that breeze on your face. In other words, don’t just walk through nature, become part of nature, converse with it. All this presupposes that you have left the electronic devices at home.

A recent feature on CBS Sunday Morning introduced us to Slow TV, a surprisingly successful Norwegian television show that got its start with film footage shot from a train along its route from Bergen to Oslo. It is exactly as it sounds – just looking out various train windows at scenic vistas, cattle, mountains, the railroad track; no narration, no plot and no commercials. For seven hours!

What was first labeled “weird” turned out to be very successful and Slow TV has since broadcast knitting with cameras filming every stitch, logs burning in a fireplace and an ocean cruise that at one point was being watched by almost half the population of Norway. The cruise was five-and-a-half days long (134 hours) – all of it broadcast live on Slow TV. It was so popular that Norwegians often showed up along the ship’s route to welcome it into port with waving flags.

Espen Ytreberg, professor of media studies at the University of Oslo, says Slow TV is “like opening a window, an escape valve, from fast-paced eye-candy TV.”

Maybe the Norwegians are on to something. And maybe we are, too, if Tim Kreider and his “Lazy Manifesto” have any say: “Do less….[t]that should be my mantra. What does matter? What will count for something worthwhile when I look back on it? What makes for a really good day? Focus on the quality of those things that will send me to bed each night with the satisfaction, not of having been busy, but of having spent my time wisely and joyfully.”

May we all have plenty of idle time to catch that “wild summer lightning strike of inspiration.”

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