It seems that my May blog post on “stillness, silence, and solitude” struck a vibrant chord with readers. I’ve heard from several folks yearning to “go on retreat,” but then wondering how one prepares to “do” a retreat?
One SOS email came from a woman wanting to bail out of a retreat that ended up far more congested with other people than she anticipated. She felt herself “constricting” away from her co-retreatants, wanting to be alone. But, she said, that “feels a bit scary, because I have not learned to structure solo retreats for myself. Maybe I’ll create a daily schedule for myself that involves meditating, writing, walking, reading. Is that how it works, oh solo-retreat guru ;-)) ??”
I fear I have a somewhat ill-gotten reputation for retreating. Perhaps I’ve made my retreats sound way more spiritual and satisfying than the reality might warrant. I thought: oh, if only she knew how I REALLY “do” my retreats! But then, I guess that’s why she wrote to me, so I told her honestly: I’m an introvert; I understand “constricting.” I do it all the time. If remaining constantly “open” to others is what I’m supposed to learn, I’ll work on that one in my next lifetime, thank you. I wouldn’t survive if I couldn’t curl up in my snail-shell and close its door (it’s called an “operculum,” by the way, at least for snails, and maybe for retreatants too).
In fact, THAT’S what a retreat means to me – pulling back from daily demands to be very alone, with just myself and – if I choose to allow Her to join me (She never insists) – with the Holy One.
As for structuring solo retreats: the only advance planning I do is to answer these questions:
1) what do I hope for from this time away?
– to listen more clearly for the voice of the Divine?
– to write six poem drafts each day?
– to sleep as much as possible? (if so, do not take a clock)
– to simply wander in Nature and notice?
[note to self: focus on just ONE of the above – if you try to cram everything into a few days, you might as well stay home.]
2) where shall I go?
I’ve often stayed in inexpensive motel rooms, ones that have a small fridge, a coffee maker, a microwave, and a desk.
The hospitality offered by religious sisters, especially those of the Benedictine Order, comes with the option of spiritual direction, meals with the sisters (often silent), and is imbued with a gracious warmth – you can design your own solo retreat, do not need to follow any set pattern, do not need to be Catholic. (Check out https://www.retreatfinder.com)
However, I’m on a fixed income, and often I’ve been lucky enough to be offered hospitality by a variety of friends who have a studio, a guest house, a mother-in-law apartment, a guest room. The difficult part for me is the asking. It’s worth it to take the risk.
3) do I really want to lug twelve books with me?
Leave behind the spirituality books (do I care what someone else thinks, or do I want to learn what I think and what I hear inside?). Leave behind the how-to-pen-the-perfect-poem books (if writing is the focus, just DO the writing). Okay, maybe take two books of well-written poetry for inspiration, plus one well-written novel to fall asleep with. That’s plenty.
4) what shall I eat?
– if I’m going to cook, have I packed all the ingredients and utensils I’ll need?
– if I’m only going to snack, will I be satisfied, and do I have enough finger-food? (Sometimes being on retreat builds up a powerful appetite.)
[note to self: eating at restaurants breaks the rhythm and the spell of away-time – not recommended.]
5) is there any special clothing I’ll need?
– do I plan to get out of my pajamas at any time during this retreat?
– am I likely to need a rain jacket or hiking shoes?
So much for “structure.” I generally avoid anything planned or facilitated by anyone else. And I seldom go away with anyone else unless I am certain they are of like mind and know how to be silent and solitary. If I do go with another, we may share check-ins during a pre-chosen time each day. Otherwise, we agree to be mostly in our own snail-shells.
Don’t use cellphone or internet. Both cellphone and wi-fi can decimate an operculum!
The real “secret” of a retreat, for me – the real magic – is closing my operculum, but opening myself interiorly and letting go to whatever emerges there. Being an incurable wordsmith, I usually journal the thoughts or questions that arise, but I don’t try to reach definitive answers – nor finished manuscripts – in the moment; answers and obsessions close off the creative/holy flow just as would a crowd of people (or the internet) clamoring to be listened to.
For me, becoming comfortable within a silent-spirally-alone-uncertainty is what retreats are all about.