Stepping out of Retreat, and Valuing Solitude

I share here an experience from a few weeks ago. I stepped outside, I made it into town for the first time for two weeks. The world appeared so vivid and colourful, so bright, so varied. I was reminded that the world carries on regardless of whether I am a part of it or not. That was freeing. Through unplanned circumstances I had spent a week in relative solitude. Let me explain.

It had been raining here on Maui for two weeks. My wife left the island to visit her mother. When she flew out the weather was good, or was maybe on the turn. When she returned, the weather was good. In between it rained, and rained, and rained. Island wide.

Now I like my alone time. I like solitude and quiet. It nourishes me, allows me to ground myself and refocus, but this was different. Why? In part because it was unplanned. While I knew that I had time to myself, I still expected to get out and about. The weather kind of put a stop to that. It just poured and poured and with that I just found myself staying at home. Commitments where I had them and work were honoured. Otherwise I just stayed put. I rested, read, reflected and fed myself. Before I knew it the first week was over…..And with it a deep sense of fulfillment, contentment and healing, but I found myself stopping and reflecting on what had just happened. I even wondered if I had been selfish?

Retreat

You see my step-daughter and her family live next door. I normally see at least one of them each day. I saw none of them during that week. My doubting mind started asking if I could have used my time more productively, more usefully, without actually quantifying what those terms might have looked like? When I sat with this, asking if it was true, what I found coming up was a question. That question was,

"Why was I questioning taking this retreat time?"

When I lived in a Buddhist Community in the early 1990’s, retreat time was part of our yearly commitment. Either supporting people who were taking time out to just focus on their spiritual practice, indeed they supported me in such an endeavour before I moved into the community, or doing a practice together as a community. There was always work to be done inside in the community. There was always work to be done outside of the community. But in these times of retreat, individuals were saying,

"I need and want to take time to feed myself inwardly. Life will carry on just fine without me, and when I return to the outside world I'll be refreshed and ready to carry on my commitments."

For me that was a major insight, maybe slightly unsettling at first, that life carries on just fine without us. It is good before you drop into retreat that you make sure that all your ducks are in a row and that you have got all necessary business wrapped up with family, loved ones and work colleagues. Don’t just disappear. But with that taken care of, you can close the door and be assured that others will get on just fine without you.

Nature of your time away

You can choose to go completely offline while in retreat, or as I did for this wet week, to honour commitments that you have but don’t do anything ‘unnecessary.’ In my case, my quiet time had not been planned and so just disappearing would have been very inappropriate. People were relying on me in some areas of my life. So I did what had to be done, and then returned home, staying within the confines of my home.

I listened to my body and did what I felt I needed. This retreat was as much about resting, reflecting and nourishing my body. A retreat might be about focusing on, say, a meditation practice. That needs its own preparation, which might also include some rest before getting started for if you arrive exhausted, you will not have the mental stamina to make it through the retreat.

The men’s weekends that I attend occasionally require that I wrap things up with family before I head off (this retreat is men’s work, but is also ultimately about family and those in your life). Making sure that all unfinished business with family is made good and that they have any contact numbers should an emergency arise - otherwise I am offline.

Are you making time for retreat?

One take away for me in my week’s retreat was how much I don’t make space to take time out from my life. Going forward it is something that I want to prioritize in my life. It might not be for a week. A weekend might be more appropriate, or maybe a day, or perhaps even just an afternoon. However, I want to be wary of where I sell myself short and let excuses get in the way of time taken. Life has a tendency to make its presence felt a little too heavily at times - at least I know that I can bow very easily to my life’s demands.

Finding time

So if retreat time is something that you would like to bring into your life, how and where can you make time for it? Where are you making excuses to avoid retreat time? What needs to happen so that alone, quiet time becomes a part of your annual rhythm?


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