Why Retreats Inspire Advances

re·treat noun \ri-ˈtrēt\

a (1) : an act or process of withdrawing especially from what is difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable (2) : the process of receding from a position or state attained b (1) : the usually forced withdrawal of troops from an enemy or from an advanced position (2) : a signal for retreating

2: a place of privacy or safety : refuge

3: a period of group withdrawal for prayer, meditation, study, or instruction under a guide

In a world that typically encourages us to advance—subscribing to outdated conventional notions of progress involving some perpetual motion forward, onward, and upward to some where—the idea of a “retreat” can seem somehow regressive and unappealing, even conjuring images of defeat, escape, and failure. These associations, though limiting, are not unfounded. Indeed, the phrase “beat a retreat” arose during times of early warfare in which a drummed communication, a particular beat, customarily signaled troops on the battlefield to disengage from combat.

However, the essence of retreats—temporarily withdrawing from the fray—extends well beyond military conventions and connotations.  

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to confront only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Throughout the ages, sages, saints, poets, spiritual seekers, and humanitarian revolutionaries around the world have retreated into caves, convents, woodland cabins, running streams and starlit nights to discover and stabilize the inner peace necessary for outer peace. In the context of peace, retreating within to be still, here, now, going no where is where (when and how) all significant advances begin and end. Sequestered in solitude, temporarily relieved of the responsibility of attending to others and the frequent interruptions, distractions, and coming attractions of our regularly scheduled programming, we are free to be—to rest in ourselves, shift our perception, and gain some perspective.

Retreats offer us the opportunity to water the sacred within, between, and all around us, cultivating the seeds of intellectual honesty, emotional stability, and moral bravery planted in the hearts of all human beings, thus ripening the inner work that supports our outer work in its most fruitful forms.

In the yoga tradition, one of the eight foundational limbs of traditional yoga practice is pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses, an intentional turning inward beyond the sensory distractions of the outer world to experience the profoundly sacred aspects of being that naturally arise when we immerse ourselves in the quality of attention usually reserved for that and those we adore. Without this intentional, reverent attentiveness, what is most essential is often both overwhelmed and overlooked. To withdraw in this way is in service of profound advances that require our full attention—an attention rarely mustered amidst the day-to-day clutter and clatter of ordinary existence.

For those unpracticed in the art of solitude and unfamiliar with the pleasure of one’s own company, the idea of being alone can be somewhat daunting. Happily, solitude need not be solitary. There are those who can act as guardians of our solitude, inviting us to inhabit ourselves more deeply and wholly in the company of others. A retreat in the company of such others who enhance our ability to be present with ourselves and each other in life-affirming, often life-changing ways can be richly rewarding.

Imagine setting it all down—papers, plans, appointments, everything—leaving only a note ‘Gone to the fields to be lovely. Be back when I’m through blooming.
— Lynn Ungar, Camas Lilies

Likewise, we don’t always have to venture far into the wilds to reap the benefits of retreats. It is possible to explore the wilderness of our own hearts and minds while enjoying the comforts of civilization. Sometimes, it is as simple as turning off the television, computer, and phones, and sitting quietly for a few minutes, or perhaps, walking barefoot, lying in the grass and gazing at the sky or into the eyes of someone we love. What is most essential is a context and companionship that support our ability to relax and focus our attention inwardly on meaningful matters without disruption and intrusion—restful space and unrushed time free of phones, texts, email, television, radio, and non-retreat-related contact with others. 

More often than not, to access the quality of being that retreats support, and resist the temptation of immediately responding to the many things vying for our attention, most of us need to physically remove ourselves from our usual habits and habitats. Technology, for all its lauded benefits, has left our sacred, quiet, and private spaces more vulnerable to intrusion. It is increasingly difficult to truly get away from it all, disentangling ourselves from the technological tentacles of contemporary life, which isn’t to say that technology has no value in retreats, but rather, that often, it’s more disruptive than conducive.

In this day and age, to be unavailable and inaccessible has become almost unthinkable. Even in the most remote locations, we are frequently expected to share, obsessively refreshing our screens at the expense of refreshing ourselves, roaming the cellular networks of industry instead of roaming the cellular networks of earth. Ironically, an unnatural dependence on technology to stay connected often undermines our experience of our natural interconnectedness.

Just drop all your seeking, turn your attention inward, and sacrifice your mind to the OneSelf radiating in the heart of your very Being.
— Sri Ramana Maharshi

We all need to time and space to breathe, rest, reflect, enquire, wonder, meditate, and rejuvenate. Far from cowardly escape, retreats require the uncommon courage to face the reality of oneself and one’s existence unflinchingly. To enter into the undivided heart of revelation that precedes all meaningful revolution, we must be willing to change life as we know it from the inside out and root ourselves in the sacred ground of eternal being that supports being in the world with any real integrity.

So if you really want to get ahead, please beat a hasty retreat that we may all benefit from whatever advances you are brave enough to realize. And of course, if you're ever in need of a facilitated retreat, I invite you to join me in aspiring and conspiring to nurture the natural rhythms of your personal and planetary well-being.

Meanwhile, take a mini-retreat. Walk in nature. Practice some yoga. Meditate. Schedule a massage.