I am a big fan of organised retreats. There is something so potent and human in being with a group of people who signed up for a week or weekend of simplicity. And on many occasions, I have found the presence of other humans a catalyst for insight that I might not have found alone.
But I also love solitary retreats.
And let’s face it, many of us do not have the time or finances to pay for a long stretch of time in a retreat centre.
(Though on that point, many Buddhist and Christian monasteries have provision for people to stay for free if they observe the monastic routine. Chithurst Monastery in Sussex is a good example.)
But if you don’t feel able to attend a structured or communal retreat, don’t give up.
Much of the benefit of retreat can be attained on your own in simple and inexpensive ways.
One thing you will need is time.
It doesn’t have to be weeks or months. A couple of days can be enormously beneficial. Even a 24 stretch if it is properly sanctified. But the whole motor of retreat is relinquishment. And one of the first things we need to let go of is time pressure.
So even if you can only carve out a day, make that time sacrosanct. Make sure you can turn your phone off, and be undisturbed and still. Tell family and friends that that time is ringfenced and tell yourself that you are dedicating that time to yourself.
This is the first circle of the retreat enclosure: time.
The second circle is place.
Ideally, you want to be somewhere cut off from the prompts of everyday life. Housesitting a friend while they’re away. Borrowing a friend’s spare room. Or even sanctifying the garden shed. It’s important that you go somewhere that is set apart from the energies of your everyday life.
In the best case, you could find somewhere near nature: in a woodland setting, by some open fields, near the sea. But a shed with a window looking over a garden. Or an attic room in a friend’s house with views over the skyline. These are perfect too.
This second circle of place is important because as we become still, we listen and the new place will teach us something new.
The third circle of retreat is simplicity.
Some people like to fast or eat very lightly during their retreat. Some people squirrel away some basic foodstuffs and teas and keep their mealtimes very simple.
The absolute negation of simplicity is the internet and smartphones, so under all circumstances, make sure you turn these off. Lock your phone in a cupboard. Watch the waves of phone panic rise and pass and then finally ebb away.
Decide if you’re going to abstain from reading and/or journaling. These, while pleasant, can be a not-so-subtle form of escapism.
Have a simple structure to your day. Get up early but not so early that you fall asleep. Build in time for naps and walks in nature. Ensure (if you’re eating) that youhave time to eat simply and without rush. Try and go to sleep at the same time.
Especially if you’re going for a longish retreat (>7 days) then a schedule is going to be a lifesaver as the inner chaos starts to spill out.
The fourth circle is intention.
What are you setting this precious time aside for? Would you like to rest? Or spend some time with your mind? Do you have some grief that needs processing? Is this a big time of life change for you?
Whatever you want to explore, feel good about setting aside time for it. It is a gift to yourself. So let your intention fill up your days and soak into those moments when your mind is going haywire. “Ah, yes, that’s why I’m doing this!”
The fifth circle is that of practice.
Some people like to leave this circle empty. They sanctify a week or a day just to be with their mind just as it is. No special practice. No special techniques.
But for many of us, having a practice (be it Zen shikantaza or Tibetan visualisation or whatever) can allow our time to rotate around one activity and feel our way into the depths it opens up. Even the simplest awareness of the breath can take you all the way to enlightenment.
And the final circle which is at the root of all retreats is enjoyment.
To set time and money aside to be with the mind might end up feeling sepulchral and heavy, but in my experience the core of retreat is joy. A sense of letting go and relaxing that - weirdly - only comes from this rather cultivated and restrained act of relinquishment.
When we let go of our time pressures, our deadlines, and our to-do lists - if only for a day - there is a space that opens up underneath all those itchy and scratchy things that is pleasant. That space is the joy of simplicity. What the Buddhists call “the mind of letting go”.
And in that space, all things can be found.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of advice for simple solitary retreats. I would love to hear your suggestions for a meaningful retreat. How do you structure this sacred time? What tips if any can you offer Mindsprings readers?
Please do contribute in the comment section below!