When I first got married, my wife and I moved to a tiny hamlet in eastern Montana. It was her hometown and she had a job at a local community college teaching public speaking. My job was at a rinky-dink bank playing customer service rep and twiddling my thumbs in the back room pretending to work with the computers. It wasn’t bad, but definitely not a dream job. At least I had plenty of time after work to drink when wifey was off teaching in the evenings.
We belonged to a church where my wife had been baptized as a baby and where the two of us were married. I had aspirations to one day become a pastor in the denomination we belonged to, so I endeavored to act as if any and all church-related activities were compulsory.
The second spring we lived there, I signed up for a retreat. It was one of those “ponder-thy-life-and-change” weekend getaways for men only.
It’s not that I couldn’t appreciate the sentiment. After all, retreats are supposed to be a time to get away. It’s a time to stop, listen, breathe and reflect. And you’re there with a bunch of other people as they stop, listen, breathe and reflect. It’s a collective- wisdom kind of thing.
My alcoholic mind didn’t want to take any part in that. Don’t get me wrong—I can be a pretty contemplative guy (I suppose even back then), but the thought of being stuck in a church basement with a dozen other guys listening to lectures and talking about your feelings isn’t exactly what I considered stimulating.
I think I about lost it when we had to read a passage out of scripture and write a journal where we saw ourselves in the story.
On this side of recovery, I try to strive for patience. I’ve even managed to go to a couple of retreats and enjoy them—first as a participant, then as a leader. Weekend retreats have their place.
What I find challenging in recovery is how to integrate what you learn at those weekend getaways into daily life.
But all of us in recovery have an advantage. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants to see beyond the wall of life to the other side, serenity.
Are there mini retreats we can do throughout the day to stop, listen, breathe and reflect?
Here’s a list of collective wisdom about finding the retreat in any and every day. These are real, achievable actions I’ve found helpful in my own daily struggle:
This is a big one, but it’s important to not make a big deal of it. Meditation is simply being. For me, that means listening and being present. I’m naturally wired for anxiety and stress. Still, something happens when I stop and breathe. I don’t know why it works. It just does.
And the magic of meditation? You can do it almost anywhere! (Well, almost anywhere. Take care when you’re on the freeway.) Really though, being present to the present doesn’t have to be some esoteric, monk-like practice to find nirvana.
Here’s what I do—I remind myself the realization that Bill W. himself experienced in his famous “moment of clarity” he wrote about in the Big Book:
All about me and through me there was a wonderful feeling of Presence, and I thought to myself, ‘So this is the God of the preachers!’ A great peace stole over me and I thought, ‘No matter how wrong things seem to be, they are still all right. Things are all right with God and His world.’
Then I breathe. For about a minute. I focus on the gift of breath. That’s it. Simple, but it works. I get out of my head and go into the now, which, by the way, is all there ever is.
I like drugs and alcohol because they—instantly and powerfully—change my state of mind and mood. The unfortunate thing is that they quit working and end up futzing up your life more than you intended. I don’t do drugs and alcohol well. I kept going back to the same place, misery.
Music, magically, is almost like drugs. Except it doesn’t futz up your life.
It doesn’t matter if I’m writing at the home office (I write professionally) or if I’m driving to my folks’ place and I connect my iPhone via Bluetooth to the car’s stereo. Music can bring me to a different place. Sometimes when I’m writing, it can even elicit a mood I want to splash over the page.
I don’t do journaling very well. I’m too impatient. I know that it works though; when I was in treatment I had to journal a ton, felling a forest full of a trees that would even make Isaac Asimov proud. (Over 500 works in his lifetime!) Scientists even tell us the act of writing breaks down the mental barriers between the brain’s hemispheres.
I suppose I do this in a way on email and on social media when I chat with good friends. But science will have to prove this first before I make the claim…
Prayer is a brother or sister to meditation. It’s another big one in the program, but you don’t have to make a big deal about it either. Where meditation is listening and being, prayer is talking and being. Whatever your Higher Power is, I’ve found that saying what’s on your mind is just as important as listening to that Power.
Dr. Ralph Martin in his book The Fulfillment of All Desire wrote a little definition of prayer that is simply awesome in its simplicity, but chock full of meaning: “Prayer is, at root, simply paying attention to God.”
And you don’t need to let the “Big G” word scare you. Interpret whatever is bigger than yourself and has your best interest in mind as that. But talk. Even if its just in your head.
No. I’m not writing about just hot baths. What I mean here is to take time to wind down, in whatever healthy way that is for you. A hot bath (literally speaking) is like a little retreat for me. Make fun of me as much as you want quoting the old ad—Take me away, Calgon!—there is nothing like the feeling of escaping into pure pleasure. (Just no drugs, because I don’t do them very well at all!)
This last one is major. The best way you can find a retreat-in-any-moment is by knowing two things: 1) That you make a difference and find meaning in what you do, and; 2) That you can find flow in whatever you’re doing.
The first is a realization that came to Viktor Frankl in a Nazi concentration camp. He was a Jewish neurologist and psychiatrist, and unfortunately he was born in a time and a place none too friendly for him and his kin.
What he found in the camps is that if people could find a purpose and meaning to their existence, no matter how horrible, those people were more likely to survive. This brilliant realization he formulated into a therapy after the war, Logotherapy. Meaning, it turns out, is more important to the human experience than even happiness. People in recovery already have a head up over others—every time we pass on the gift of the Twelve Steps to another we find a great purpose. You can even find purpose and meaning in the most menial of tasks. That’s connected to the second point …
Flow is finding a “groove” to what you’re doing. Think about raking leaves. It’s not fun. It’s sweaty and there always seems to be a pesky wind blowing your hard work into the neighbor’s yard. Instead of focusing on how much it sucks, tell yourself a different story. Find the groove in what your doing and the work becomes you and you become the work. It’s about being fully immersed in the activity. Life, somehow, doesn’t seem to be such a drag anymore—you give yourself a treat … a re-treat.
Daniel Maurer curates the blog “Transformation is Real” and website Dan the Story Man. He was an ordained ELCA pastor for 11 years, but now pretends to be a writer, drinking lattés while sitting at his Mac. He is the author of two nationally-distributed books, Sobriety: A Graphic Novel (Hazelden Publishing, 2014) and the co-author of Faraway: A Suburban Boy’s Story as a Victim of Sex Trafficking (Two Harbors Press, 2015). He lives with his family in Saint Paul, Minnesota, the world’s coolest city.