The Need for Retreat: Five Days on the Danish Coast
Sometimes we need to take time away from the hustle and bustle
Posted Jun 10, 2019
We have just returned from a five day retreat on the coast of Denmark and thought we would write about the experience. While we have led a variety of intensives and retreats for almost twenty years, this one was different for a number of reasons. The location and configuration of the space had a direct impact and has much to say about the wisdom of complete removal from day-to-day life.
Our intensive on dream work and meditation took place at a religiously affiliated retreat centre that caters to spiritually based groups. The setting was for me (Gillian), as a North American, straight out of a fairy tale with a large thatched building serving as our dining hall and the centre looking out over the ocean. The building that we used as our classroom had large windows and wooden floors, all with ocean views. A series of small attached rooms for sleeping and studying were nearby and so close to the woods deer were a common sight. The whole arrangement was highly compact and very quickly contributed to a sense of community.
These accommodations were in no way luxurious. The spaces were simple, bright and clean in the Nordic style. The rooms were very basic with a single bed, chair and shower. Think monks and nuns! There were no televisions, no screens and although there was no rule about cell phone use during private time no one brought their phones to class. In my case (Gillian) having a break from email and internet was a crucial part of the retreat. As we all know the minute you start reading email you are drawn inexorably into the outer world with its noise and demands. Being without devices allows for the sinking into the introversion that is necessary to do inner work.
As previously mentioned we have led many workshops but these have all taken place in large cities where participants would go either to their homes or a hotel after the work of the day was done. Even as city lovers ourselves we recognize that to talk about deep, very personal topics and to practice meditation and contemplation and then walk out into snarled traffic and rush is not an optimal situation. Being in a beautiful, natural setting established a serene environment in which to work and think. All cultures have recognized the innately healing qualities of nature and walking in the woods and along the ocean instantly proved this to be true.
This was the first time during a workshop that we were able to have everyone stay on site for the duration of the workshop. This contributed to the feeling of community and allowed people to get to know one another in a more natural and casual way. The retreat centre provided simple healthy meals three times a day plus cakes of the day with tea and coffee–a big favourite for many of us! Having good, nourishing food reinforced the idea that it is important to pay attention to all aspects of the self: mind, body and spirit.
Another effect of being in a retreat setting was that there was a distinct sense of what the Jungians call temenos. This is the idea of creating a container in which spiritual/psychological work can be approached with a sense of reverence, safety and security. Moore writes that the creation of temenos sets aside “certain dimensions in any space to increase the possibility of enchantment”(290) Also, because people were not going off-site in the evening the energy of the work was maintained and able to build rather than being broken by returning to one’s mundane life and chores. It can be very disorienting when on retreat to have to have to chit chat with others, or in some cases defend what you are doing!
As anyone who has participated in travel with a group, or who went to camp as a kid, these situations allow for a kind of openness that tends to be very unusual in regular life. As a result, it was easier for participants to share material that was extremely personal, knowing that it would be treated with respect and sensitivity by the other members of the group. It was also important the everyone could head back to their own room if they wished to have time alone.
Interestingly, this camaraderie began to spontaneously express itself as everyone brought flowers, stones from the beach and branches to create a collective altar that we built in the centre of the practice room. It was a perfect symbol of the undertaking made up of the contributions of each person - simple, beautiful and drawn from nature.
This experience on the Danish coast was a profound one for us as it felt like a culmination of much of the work we have been doing for so many years. The proper location, we now realize, was the missing piece. As religious groups the world over know – it is necessary periodically to remove oneself from regular life and all its demands. Having our retreat in a beautiful natural setting, built to foster community, allowed for a deeper attention to the inner life for all of us.
Thomas Moore. 1996. The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life. New York: HarperPerennial