Go Away to Find Yourself

go away to find self

Could you use a break from your daily routine? Some time away for rest, reflection, and renewal? Maybe it’s time to go on a retreat.

Whether you take a few hours, days, or months of downtime, going on retreat offers you a chance to unravel your thinking, be kind to your body, and revitalize your spirit.

Here are the stories of how four Minnesotans create worthwhile retreat experiences for themselves. Two go on occasional retreats. For the other two, retreats are central to their spiritual life.

Get Far Away from the Everyday

Since his early retirement five years ago, Mike Griffin has spent a week out of every month on retreat. From March to October, Mike takes his respite time with his wife, Terry Hagenah, at a cabin they own in a remote area of Superior National Forest. The cabin is “off the grid,” with no electricity or running water, a half mile way from neighbors. Visitors are rare, and may have to snowshoe in. The isolation and the natural surroundings give both Mike and Terry the perfect opportunity for quiet time in prayer, meditation, reading, and reflection. Sometimes they do these activities alone, sometimes together. In the evening they listen to guided meditation recordings from spiritual teachers and engage in qigong or other personal development practices.

Mike finds the cabin’s natural setting a great place “to focus on being in the present moment. It’s a place to notice the beauty and spirit in everything, to recognize the oneness in all beings,” he says. “When you get to know the animals – the bear, the deer, the chipmunks – it’s more difficult to do any harm to them.”

In the past, Mike went on frequent retreats at Ananda, a yoga community at the foot of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. These weekend or week-long retreats include yoga practice plus meditation sessions lasting as long as five hours at a time, chanting and other spiritually enriching activities. In these group retreats, says Mike, “your normal life is set aside and you do your meditation and prayer practice with a group focused on similar interests.” In April of this year, Mike and Terry headed to Unity Village in Kansas City for a week-long prayer retreat.

Teach the Children

Spiritual growth is central to Mike’s life. He’s heavily involved in his church community, Unity Minneapolis in Golden Valley, and serves as a guide in the Youth of Unity teenagers’ program there. Mike takes part in periodic weekend retreats with the youth, and recently he assisted them in providing an all-day retreat for adults in the congregation. These retreats include times for prayer, meditation, small group sharing (“family groups”) on spiritual topics, “joy songs,” and also “truth talks,” during which individual teens share their own spiritual journey with vulnerable honesty. The youth not only gain experience in attending retreats but also observe how meaningful they are for adults.

Giving young people exposure to retreat experiences can help them establish a lifelong pattern. When her children were young, Constance Casey made frequent stays in a hermitage at Clare’s Well (now Wellsprings Farm), in Annandale, Minnesota. Her children helped her unpack, and she showed them the nature areas and the cozy geodome in which she would be staying. “They were excited for me,” she says, and felt at ease knowing where she would be. She recalls them saying, “I can’t wait to do this when I grow up.” Now, as young adults, they are doing just that.

Slow Down and Dive Deep

Constance is a Buddhist dharma teacher and a spiritual director. As with Mike, spiritual growth is central to her life.

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“I love retreats,” says Constance. “I’ve been on hundreds of them.” Provided with healthy meals and the safety and comfort of a nurturing setting, she finds that she can take a deep internal dive to sort through important matters in her life. It’s a time for “clearing and clarifying,” she says.

On one retreat Constance faced a long-held traumatic incident of childhood abuse and neglect by her mother. It took four days to go through the healing process. She reached out to other retreatants for support along the way. “After that retreat,” she says, “that event is no longer with me.”

Doing a Fourth Step inventory or other Twelve Step work is another reason Constance goes on retreat. She likes giving her full attention to writing about her patterns of behavior and having others nearby to talk to.

At times, her retreats are alone. She has pitched a tent in Glacier National Park to create her own retreat.  Sometimes her retreats are silent. On one five-day retreat, she set out to contemplate the Lord’s Prayer, beginning with “Our Father.” “I couldn’t get past ‘our,’ she says. “I kept exploring, what does that mean – our?”

Now Buddhist practices interest her. “I like the discipline of becoming blank and open,” Constance says of Buddhist meditation. She even likes the disciplined posture of sitting upright without back support. “When I find myself slumping forward,” she notes, “I question where my attention is going. Not analyzing, just noticing. It has connected me a lot with honesty, and I have found the center of my posture and my body.” She also enjoys a super-slow walking meditation that fosters present moment awareness.

Last year, Constance spent several months meditating in a Malaysian monastery. “Being with a teacher who was radiating loving kindness allowed me to go deep,” says Constance. The serene, supportive setting allowed her to focus completely on her spiritual practice and enter “stream entry,” a Buddhist goal important to her. 

Going on retreats, says Constance, is a way to “get to know ourselves. For beginners, she recommends starting with a day or half-day. And don’t spend all your time sleeping, eating, or taking photos, she advises. While sleep and food are needed, it’s important to stay aware of your experience, “learning about sleep, boredom, sorrow, regret. These things are going to come up. Find out what’s there.” Also, she warns, it’s easy to want to snap pictures in a setting of beauty, “but our eyes can get greedy, reaching and grabbing everything. Instead, go inside and see yourself as part of that beauty.”

Listen To Your Body, Revisit Your Goals

House painter John Armstrong likes to take time alone for an occasional retreat. “When I’m by myself, I can tap into my soul, my spirit, without a word structure,” he says. “I value tuning into my body clock and my thought body.” He also uses the retreat time to check in on his life goals. He doesn’t do much writing, except to note a “constellation of things in my field,” he says. “It’s more a practice of being with my experience, and sitting with questions.”

In recent years, John has been attending annual weekend retreats put on locally by Ibrahim Jaffe, a well-known Muslim Sufi teacher. The Sufi chanting appeals to John. “I am a somatic learner. The vibration of chanting connects me with my emotions, my spirit.” He also likes hearing Jaffe’s lectures. “I want to hear everything he has to say.”

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At times John carves out a three- to four-hour period at home for a retreat, where he sets aside his routine activities. “I create an intention or come up with one to three questions to consider,” says John. He also takes “little-bitty moments during the day to connect with my vision.”

Joining with people you know well is another way to go on a retreat. Body worker Kath Shaw and two close friends spent time at Wellspring Farms in a domed cabin, where the group made simple meals together. They stayed mostly silent during the day so they could individually explore their current life circumstances through quiet meditation, reading, reflection, walking the labyrinth, and embracing nature.

Get Grounded for Wise Decision Making

“We didn’t want to waste time dredging through what wasn’t going right in our lives,” says Kath. “We wanted to sink into ourselves to find out what we needed to do next.” Because they knew each other so well, they felt supported and understood just by knowing their friends were nearby and caring.

But they allowed each other to work through their own personal tough moments without offering advice. “We have to feel our own pain to get to the other side of it,” Kath says. “We don’t grow if others are there to meet all our needs.” Kath was herself in the midst of deciding whether to leave her marriage. The retreat helped her find more peace moving in that direction, trusting that she would know when the timing was right.

Kath also has gone on solo retreats. After the divorce, when her ex-husband took the children on weekends, she sometimes drove to a favorite quiet spot in Wisconsin, where she could sit on the rocks, reflect, and pray. “My life was in a state of chaos,” Kath says. “Getting away helped me to find a more grounded sense of myself. I went home feeling more responsive to life rather than reactive.”

“I trust my God that he’ll sustain and guide me,” says Kath, “but I have to go inside to get answers. That’s what retreating does for me.”

Stay Open

That desire for internal reflection is one reason silence is maintained during mealtimes at Shalom Spirituality Center, a Catholic, Franciscan-based setting for retreats and other spiritual learning programs in Dubuque, Iowa. “We want to give people time away from both internal and external noise,” says Shalom Director Sister Marci Blum. Like most retreat centers, Shalom is open to people of all faiths for group or solo retreats. Also, retreatants can meet with a spiritual director for individual guidance as needed, or daily for individually directed retreats. Some scholarships are available to offset retreat costs.

Interest in retreats is growing in our busy world, says Sister Marci. Many types of groups use centers like Shalom for their own events such as Twelve Step retreats or spiritual study. Eco-spirituality is currently a popular retreat theme, allowing people to deepen a sense of the sacred in nature.

Retreats can be “a time of transformation,” Sister Marci says, “if one is open.” She recommends setting an intention before you go. “Be open to what God may be asking of you or offering you.”

Pat Samples is a writer and a facilitator for creative aging, body awareness, and creative writing. www.patsamples.com

Last Updated on July 9, 2021

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