“He does not seem to me to be a free man who does not sometimes do nothing.” — Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman lawyer and statesman; 1st century BC
The letter confirming the August 1986 10-day retreat in California’s high-Mojave Desert contained the usual details about weather, suitable clothing, facility, housing, and this: “During the conference, there will be no television, radio or newspapers. Office telephone is for emergency use only. Please ensure that all matters at home – family, pets, job, etc. – will be taken care of during your absence so that you can devote full attention to the work of the conference.”
A billowing dust cloud behind the shuttle van settled slowly as we arrived at the retreat center set in sparse vegetation and sparse population some 30 miles from the nearest town. I stepped onto the dry desert earth as late afternoon shadows softened the intensity of the sun. The desert, rich with mystery and wonder, was patient. It did not try to overwhelm me. The landscape was both strange and familiar. I was supposed to be here. I had come home.
I checked in and walked to my assigned room. On the bed was a “Welcome” letter and schedule: each day, two meditation sessions, three interactive group sessions, three meals. Afternoons between lunch and evening meditation were free time. What got my attention was something midway into the 10 days. Without fanfare it said: “Three-days of fasting and silence during which time scheduled activities will be suspended.”
As that period approached, our teacher informed us that silence would be observed throughout the complex. However, the fasting, while encouraged, was left to individual choice and he made it clear that there would be no handholding or cheerleading anyone through the process. Those opting out could find food left by the kitchen staff and there would be no judgment. This level of fasting was new to us and we were urged to drink plenty of the provided liquids including nutritional juices.
As the three-day period began, an almost magical quiet set in. Our teacher left; housekeeping and kitchen staff left; grounds maintenance left. Retreatants scattered. Some set out for three days camping in the desert. Someone went for a walk with the resident dogs. Some went to the meditation room. A few, looking totally bewildered, went to their rooms, crawled under the covers and slept for the better part of three days.
I spent most of my time outdoors, hiking out into the desert during the day and sleeping on cushioned patio furniture at night. Two years later, on retreat at the same center in February, I would hike farther up the mountain and sleep overnight, counting on the snakes to know they were supposed to be in hibernation. While this was not the desert sojourn of biblical proportions, it was life-changing for me.
The importance of these retreats (nine more in subsequent years) is difficult to articulate. While “lightning-strike” moments can happen, they are rare. Beneficial effects are more nuanced and become evident over time. What I can state is that this teacher’s belief in remote solitude, quiet and respect for the transcendent as vital components of personal growth and renewal, is absolutely spot on.
It’s a huge planet and most of us have no easy access to, or longing for, a desert. So let’s think of “desert” as a state of mind, as a place apart from our over-stimulated day-to-day life that drives us to be bigger, louder, faster, to do more if we want to be relevant. We tell ourselves that’s just the way life is. We think maybe we’d like to slow down, but not sure if that’s good. Eventually, we forget that slowing down is even an option. The pressure, we say, is coming from “them” – peers, advertisers, colleagues, society; if “they” would just ease up, then we could, too.
The good news is, “them” is us, “they” are we. Zen Master John Daido Loori said: “Only you can make yourself free. No one can do it for you. The only one with the power to do it is you yourself…and it is nowhere to be found other than on top of the seat that you’re sitting on.”
From the seat we’re sitting on, we know there will be no mandate for society to slow down; each of us is “the only one with the power to do it.” Scary? Absolutely! For someone accustomed to constant movement, slowing down or doing nothing is, as Oscar Wilde said, “the most difficult thing in the world.”
Carl Honoré, an ambassador for the Slow Movement (check out his TED talks), says: “In this media-drenched, data-rich, channel-surfing, computer-gaming age, we have lost the art of doing nothing, of shutting out the background noise and distractions, of slowing down and simply being alone with our thoughts.”
What’s the big deal about slowing down, anyway? Why would we desire a state of doing nothing? Why spend time in solitude? Because no matter how talented or intelligent we are, we need to power down and allow our being to regenerate, renew, regain balance. Solitude and quiet is the only way we can even begin to formulate the right questions and be receptive to the answers, ready for what we need as opposed to what we think we want. Whether we call it prayer, meditation, reflection or just thinking, the key is taking oneself away from the hyper- frenetic everyday world to a space where we can let go of expectations, where we can invite a sort of conversation with our transcendent self and reach a point where we say without reservation, “O.K. I’m ready. Surprise me!” The message can only be heard in solitude and quiet. Period.
We all want to be good human beings, want our lives here and now to have value. So relentless movement gives the illusion we are accomplishing something. We’re like the creatures in the adage: “A bee is never as busy as it seems; it just can’t buzz any slower.” Perhaps we don’t want to spend time with ourselves because we’re afraid of learning something we’d rather not know. In his book Smile at Fear: Awakening the True Heart of Bravery, Chogyam Trungpa writes, “By developing gentleness toward ourselves, the irritation of being with oneself is taken away. When that kind of friendliness to oneself occurs, then one also develops friendliness toward the rest of the world. At that point, sadness, loneliness, and wretchedness begin to dissipate.”
Retreats are perfect for cultivating that gentle friendliness. By guiding us to shift perspective, a mentor can us help appreciate an extended retreat and sitting quietly each day for 15 or 30 minutes. To differentiate, an afternoon of pampering or a week at a resort can be restorative but it is not a retreat. We want a discrete change from daily commotions.
Where to Begin
Minnesota and Wisconsin offer many possibilities. An investment of time and patience will help you find something that resonates with your sensibilities. Start with asking friends, colleagues, social media connections and groups you belong to. Personal recommendations should be followed up with your own research.
The internet is a great source but can be daunting. The word “retreat” is used broadly and paired with spiritual, personal, yoga, quilting, scrapbooking, rehab, military, sports and more. Retreats can be individual, group, guided with a counselor/mentor, or personal/self-guided. You want group retreats to also include “alone” time. At some venues you may interact with others but have your own private space and your own agenda. To accommodate the criteria we are discussing here, you’ll want to weed out those that cater to, say, family reunions or men’s fishing trips. Communicate directly with the facility to clarify details and never make a reservation based only on website or advertising.
Housing is diverse: comfortable private rooms in dormitory-style buildings; rooms in family-style houses; groups of individual cottages; hermitages – small individual cabins usually in secluded settings. Comfort runs the gamut from all modern amenities to no plumbing or electricity with shared bathrooms and showers. Settings are forest, lakeshore, river, farm and urban. A few offer campsites.
Meals vary from food baskets to full meals in a dining hall, sometimes with staff and facility personnel; some have kitchens where you can cook your own food.
Fees range from $50/day to $100 or more and may or may not include meals. For our purposes, a good starting point is Spiritual and Healing Retreats Directory (www.RetreatFinder.com). It lists facilities all over the world with basic overview information; check individual websites for thorough and current details. While many are affiliated with a monastic order or church, participation is typically “open to all.” Many seem tailor-made for our purposes and are worthy of consideration whatever your spiritual inclination.
An exhaustive list is not feasible here, however, a few of note are:
Pacem in Terris, a Franciscan spirituality center near Isanti, Minnesota, offers 16 hermitages that allow one to enter “into the freedom of a desert-like environment… free from the fast-paced…life” making it “possible to truly listen to one’s inner voice.”
Shire in the Woods, set in the Solana State Forest near McGrath, MN, has seven lodges from single/two-person cabins to a three-bedroom house suitable for a large group.
A Room of One’s Own in Lutsen on Lake Superior’s North Shore offers a “personal retreat center…to disconnect from the busy world and reconnect with yourself.”
Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, home of Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, offers a six-week stay for those who want a deeper retreat experience.
Wellsprings Farm (formerly Clare’s Well) near Annandale, Minnesota, is under new ownership and will accept inquiries later this summer.
Christine Center near Willard, Wisconsin, promises a woodland sanctuary for personal retreats, guided retreat programs and private groups.
Once we signal our intent, the universe has a way of giving us the help we need. Results will ebb and flow, but we are patient and committed to the ongoing journey. Henry David Thoreau said: “We must learn to reawaken and to keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.”
Dawn – fresh and quiet: a perfect time to make friends with Silence, feel the presence of Nothing.