10 Things I’ve Learnt from Going on Retreat
It might seem bizarre, even absurd, to go into a retreat setting after a year in and out of lockdown, but these days I’m more grateful than ever that going on retreat is part of my wellbeing practice.
1. There’s a different kind of retreat for everybody
Firstly, retreats, even the spiritual kind, vary a lot: from a solitary retreat hut in the countryside to a ten-day silent intensive at a dedicated retreat centre. Yoga, meditation, breathwork may feature in some way, and you can choose to go humble and basic or luxurious and spa-like.
But the principle is pretty much always the same. A retreat takes you away from your day to day, unplugs you from your phone and your worries and allows you to focus on your own wellbeing.
2. Isn’t a retreat just a holiday?
Yes and no. A holiday might also be about relaxation and taking a break from the routine, but a retreat takes it a step further—more of the rest, less of the recreation. The idea is that you break from more than the commute and the Zoom calls. It’s a break from as much of the ‘doing’ side of life as we can manage. We go offline, eat simply and well; we might even put down communicating verbally for a while. For many, it’s a retreat from over-consumption (of news, social media, constant communication) and the stimulation of being ‘always online’. We might follow an activity schedule specifically designed to aid letting go of the day to day, to get a flavour of life in a different way. Plus, depending on the kind of holiday you’re used to – you don’t come back from retreat feeling hungover, broke and like you need another holiday.
Sound boring? Well, it’s not. Here’s what I have learnt from being on retreat.
3. Happiness is the best makeover
After I’ve been on retreat, I get so many compliments. You look five years younger! You’re radiating! ‘The retreat glow’ is a thing, and it’s cheaper than the beauty treatments it would take to make me look five years younger. And the thing is, it lasts. People tell me I look great because I feel great to be around. Sleeping and eating definitely help, but I know that I have more energy for life when my mind feels clearer, and it shows on my face.
4. My mind is busy… doing nothing
Once I slow down enough to listen, it becomes clear why I’m so tired. My mind is busy doing so much work that, quite honestly, it does not need to.
5. I have too much stuff
It’s simple, really. I am so aware of how much stuff I don’t need when I’m only surrounded by the things I do need. I’m not talking about giving up anything – I like my comforts – but so much of my home is cluttered with unused stuff. If you’re a two-suitcases-for-a-longweekend kinda person, going on retreat can be a refreshing change. The priority for packing is comfort, not style. You don’t even need things to keep you busy. The best retreats I’ve been on, I haven’t even taken a book. Going without for a while, taking a break from making decisions about what to do even, means you experience life very differently. The results of doing nothing deliberately can be amazing. Somehow the world seems brighter. It’s not uncommon to see retreatants staring in awe at nature.
Ironically, we take away from life in order to feel more alive.
6. Silence is HORRIBLE…then it’s golden
The first time I went on retreat nearly ten years ago, the silence was the loudest thing I’d ever heard. I don’t think I’d ever really been in silence. Not real silence. I avoided it altogether. The silence of retreat was so uncomfortable. It was excruciating.
7. ‘The way to do is to be’
I can’t be productive and reach my goals while I’m tired, anxious, lonely or stressed. I always knew that. But it wasn’t till I started going on retreat that I realised that I also couldn’t ‘do’ my way into wellness. In fact, it’s this productivity mindset that is probably causing much of
my anxiety. I would find even the idea of doing nothing filled me with dread. I would read the ingredient list on the back of a cereal box rather than sit doing nothing.
Many regular retreatants talk about dropping expectations. Our culture is so hard-wired for getting things done, we’ve even made rest into a productivity tool. While we’re thinking about what we can achieve (and therefore how we might fail) at relaxing, we’re taking ourselves even further from the possibility of proper rest.
8. I’m not alone…
Living on retreat is a taste of community living. We’re all committed to the same time, in the same space, with largely the same goals – switch off, do yoga, eat nice food. Recentre, ground, or find peace. While I often don’t know my fellow retreatants, we get to know each other in this magical way. We probably don’t talk about work; we might not talk at all. But we’re living in a sort of slow-motion way that means we really take each other in. I remember a retreat where a guy said, ‘How are you?’ and I was totally amazed at how much it felt like he wanted to know how I am. ‘Fine’ wasn’t going to cut it.
9. …but our society often makes me feel lonely
Apart from sparking some fantastic friendships, one of the benefits of retreats is realising that human connection is more than being mentioned in an Insta story or a quick text. Our usual forms of communication provide little in the way of a meaningful relationship, which becomes so apparent when you’re away from it. And so, when I get from retreat home, and I feel the pull to text 3000 people or swipe through FB frantically, I might be able to stop and realise that what I need is a cup of tea and a moment to myself.
This gives rise to another irony – the more time I spend alone, the less alone I feel.
10. I need more ‘retreat’ time at home
Going on retreat is one big unfolding lesson in what I need in life. Then the test is how I’m going to incorporate it into life back in the normal. So, the best part of a retreat for me is the reminder that there’s a slower, easier, kinder way to live that prioritises the right things.
And going on retreat shows me I don’t need a big fix; I probably need more time doing nothing, less time on my phone and a couple of good night’s sleep.