Retreat and Return

Part 2: The value of time-out-of-time—and how to invite more of it in.

Posted Oct 05, 2019

Read Part 1 of the "Retreat and Return" series here.

Big, existential questions can feel overwhelming and impossible to tackle—and so we charge on, buried in the latest news alert or snarky tweet. During moments of retreat, however, we are called to go big and go deep. One way to answer this call is to anchor ourselves in that moment with a simpler question: What do you hope to take from this time-out-of-time, and what do you hope to let go of and leave behind? 

The breadth of responses to this question from my peers inspired me, and I’m sure many of you can relate to their sentiments. 

They hoped to leave behind:

  • self-doubt
  • anxiety
  • old identities
  • a fear of being alone 
  • outcomes
  • their armor
  • concern about being successful

One man summarized it best: “I want to burn the dead wood in my life.” We all have dead wood—habits, hangups, wounds. Time to fire it up. 

What they hoped to take with them was equally relatable:

  • presence
  • serenity
  • balance and an escape from “competing energies”
  • time away from family and obligations (there were some new parents in the group, feeling slightly guilty but mostly exhilarated in taking this time away)
  • to answer the question, “What next?”

Some came with no agenda, eager to be surprised by what they took in and what naturally lingered or stayed behind upon departure. One man responded, “I work at a bank. I don’t get to be naked there. I can be fully naked here.” (While at first I thought he was speaking metaphorically, it is possible he was referring to the clothing-optional hot springs. If you can’t bare it all emotionally, strip until you can!) 

Anna Akbari
Source: Anna Akbari

As for me? I came into the weekend hoping for some clarity in several aspects of life, as well as a reconnection with stillness. I hoped to reset my mind and body so that I could re-emerge refreshed, approaching challenges and opportunities old and new with a clean slate. I also wanted to leave behind unnecessary distraction and retain the ability to flip the switch and recapture the way I felt during the weekend once I returned. It is an attempt to live in “wu wei,” the Chinese concept that instructs us to live in effortless, unforced action; stillness in motion.

Did I succeed? Yes and maybe. “Doing the work” during these precious moments of retreat is only part of the equation. The other, more difficult challenge lies in how you live it once you return. 

Here is my pledge for integrating these lessons and retaining a feeling of embodied peace amidst the chaos of daily life. Perhaps some of them will prove useful to you:

RETREAT and RETURN: 

  • I plan to make quarterly weekend retreats and go fully off-grid—48 hours, four times a year. 
  • During the other 357 days of the year, I’m ramping up my daily digital detox:
    • No phone in or near bed habitually
    • Use my smartphone as an old school wired telephone, plugged into the wall and out of reach, with only phone calls and text notifications turned on
    • Turn on airplane mode more often, including a full hour before going to sleep
  • No phone in or near bed habitually
  • Use my smartphone as an old school wired telephone, plugged into the wall and out of reach, with only phone calls and text notifications turned on
  • Turn on airplane mode more often, including a full hour before going to sleep

RETRAIN and REWRITE:

  • It’s easy to become stuck in old ways of thinking and acting. I commit to three months of retraining my brain and body, in an effort to change how I perceive myself, my health, and how I believe others perceive me. This includes daily meditations and affirmations, as well as more profound tools for mental and emotional transformation
  • Even when we create space and rewire our brains, we can still self-sabotage with negativity bias. Rewriting our personal stories can help to curb reactivity by focusing our attention on the facts, not the fictions that undermine us. Reframing these narratives allows us to return to the blissed-out baseline we achieve during times of retreat, even when we return to “reality” and are triggered. As a result, we are rewarded with greater resilience, and ultimately, more happiness

But even if we do all this, bad stuff will happen. Even when we align and feel vibrant, we will still experience failure. So what then? Perhaps the greatest bit of wisdom I took from one of the weekend leaders is that failure is a feature of lived experiences, not a bug. Life is always composed of peaks and valleys, even when we are at our best. In the words of Rubem Alvez, “The frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the actual.” 

Even if you won’t be joining Don and me in the California cliffs anytime soon, my wish for you is to create your own habitual routine of retreat and return. If you think your life is just too busy, challenge yourself to defy that line of thinking and do it anyway, then observe its effects and soak in the afterglow. Let that residual vibration motivate you to make retreat and return part of your own life rhythm. 

Often, your time of retreat may be self-guided, rather than within the confines of a formal workshop. So here are three short pieces that were shared with me this weekend and which may prompt some reflection during your next retreat, however brief: 

"The Invitation"
"What Is Hope?"
"She Let Go"

Do you regularly retreat and return? What do you gain from it? If not, what keeps you from making it happen, and what might help you to work around those hurdles? Tell me in the comments!