In my world, the word 'retreat' is generally associated with going on one, rather than the act of retreating. I have recently returned from what I describe to most people who ask as, 'a retreat'. It must seem strange to many that there is a need to take respite from this life. On paper it looks pretty good. Why would I need to retreat from it? And the answer is that it's hard to say out loud why I felt it necessary, but really it's because I needed to stop. And look inside. Ask big questions. Have the time to ponder and respond to them. Seven days on retreat doesn't let you hide. And the questions follow you around until you are brave enough to answer them.
But to the question "How was it?", I have two responses. 'Amazing' or 'Do you really want to know?'.
There's not many people who have the interest or the time for the second answer. That takes a comfortable chair, hydration and snacks or at least a 10km walk to give it justice. In a nutshell, the time I spent away was all about providing opportunities for holding a mirror up to the mind. And once you've surveyed the damage, it's time to get to work. Just like exercise, there are many different ways to get the mind 'fit' and we were exposed to many such means to workout the mind. Running, tea ceremony (first three bowls in silence), daily yoga, workshops, art as a means of expression, fire ceremony, dancing, swimming in the (freezing) ocean all in the beautiful grounds in the Irish countryside. So the brief was simple, lift the lid and peek inside. Then crack on.
The surroundings were beautiful and really helped when one is faced with matters of examining the mind. Retreating from life sounds great in theory but the truth is that for me it's more than slightly uncomfortable. Looking at my actual face in a mirror is hard enough but what about the mind? When I think of what my mind looks like, I think of that Mr Men character, Mr Messy. Just a whole lot of sqiggles, with no boundary or fence to keep them under control. Free range thoughts that can take me anywhere from the highest of highs to dragging me down through the mud of lonely sorrow.
I remember a few years ago a meditation teacher said to me "Do you believe that you have control of your mind?". I thought the correct answer was that this was an impossibility and I responded with some garbled answer like "I would like to think that I am but I have so many things on my mind that no I don't believe that to be true". She answered in the kind and wise tones of all meditation teachers, that this was THE foundation of meditation. The belief that we can be in control of our minds and meditation is the practice of developing this control.
That for me was the a-ha moment. I just couldn't believe that it was possible. But I trusted her and I now do believe this to be true.
And this was the purpose of retreat. To try out lots of different way to lasso the wild thoughts and just be in the moment. Write them, yoga them, run them, talk them, burn them, silence them, blank them, meditate them, laugh them, create them. To just become aware of the chatter, know that I can acknowledge their existence and chose what to do with them. Say hi to them. Then put them on a high speed train to nowhere. Put them in a hot air balloon and wave them farewell. Place them on a leaf in a fast running river and watch them float away. Again and again and again. Over and over until well, forever. This stuff is never mastered. It's the battle of life. To be free from the prison of our mind and just be. Anywhere. Not just on retreat but where ever I am. And hopefully when it really counts, have my mind in it's fittest position ready to take on whatever is thrown at it. At me.
It was a true priviledge to retreat from life and take the lid off my mind and assess it's current state of being. And what I found is that it sure is busy but the sabre tooth tigers are really just tiny kittens, wanting to be seen and loved.
Try a retreat. You don't have to go travel to far lands or take time from work. Try a day. Take yourself into nature. With a flask of tea. Sit. Watch. Observe. Write. It doesn't even have to be a day. An hour. A moment. To remember who you are. Be amazed by the sheer beauty and joy in being alive. That's the true purpose of retreating. To remember.