How to do a Retreat

How to Create a Retreat

In these challenging times, fortunate individuals have an unexpected opportunity to turn their attention inward and listen in silence to life’s inner callings. For those who seek larger understandings, it is customary to routinely retreat from outer activity and mental clutter.

Perhaps it is a short daily meditation, a longer silent retreat, related reading, or a vision quest. It is at such moments that we can mindfully listen and receive guidance from the natural rhythms and wisdom of life. It is how wise teachers and religious figures chose to align themselves with sacred harmony and deeper knowledge. It is in that inner silence that truth and wholeness are finally revealed to the earnest seeker.

Staying in one place and slowing down one’s “doings” is a consistent requirement of retreat. Although traditionally motivated by a personal longing for meaning and essence, today we are further enabled by a virus-forced mandate. That is where we are, and where we will be for a time to come. So why not grasp this opportunity?

To assist you in using this time well, I would like to share with you three types of retreat: outer, inner, and innermost. I hope this information will motivate you to create an in-home retreat, right where you are, right now. You can begin after reading these few words.

Outer Retreat

An outer retreat occurs when we establish the external conditions that are conducive to an inner and innermost retreat. As a result of the current restrictions that now shape daily life, creating an outer retreat is a bit easier. We are already set-off from the usual activities and distractions of daily life. So we begin by resisting the habit of filling newly found “free time” with more “stuff,” recreating our usual busyness. That’s a familiar pattern that runs deep in our psyche. Be aware of this mental habit when it arises. Watch it and let it go. There are deeper and more important longings and possibilities to now attend to.

Next, as best you can, bring harmony into your outer life. Your living space should be inviting to your soul and spirit, heart-warming, soft, and facilitate inner time. Meals can be prepared in peace and solitude. Harmony can prevail in relationships. Consider creating a special “sacred space” in your house for meditation and self-reflection. Some set-up a small table in a spare room upon which to place important photos, candles, or objects of a spiritual nature. That can bring a special sense of stillness and inspiration.

Think of the energy, sweetness, and peace of nature, a religious space, or a meditation room. The cultivation of that essence is how we create an outer retreat that facilitates harmony of body, mind, and spirit.

Inner Retreat

Inner retreat is the formal time we use for daily meditation practice, as well as the informal time we are in a meditative space during daily activities. The aim of inner retreat is to rest in the stillness of mind rather than the usual mental commentary. Our formal sessions begin, particularly in times such as this, by giving rise to compassion and care for those who are suffering in difficult circumstances. I suggest as one possibility reciting the Bodhissattva Prayer written by Shantideva in the 900s. I will offer a link below. However, you can cultivate a compassionate attitude in whatever manner most suits you.

The next step in inner retreat is calming the mind. We begin with calming methods, using what you already know that works for you. I am linking below a 10-session audio recording that might assist you. The first 3 sessions focus on approaches to calming the mind.

It doesn’t so much matter how you calm the mind, but that you calm it and then rest in the stillness that underlies mental chatter. Mind-talk will inevitably arise, but that doesn’t mean you cannot stay calm in the midst of background noise. You can. Disregard the pull of your usual mind. Allow mental activity to come and go on its own. Allow the usual mental commentary to play itself out. But you, you, remember who you are. The one who is aware, who observes, is still, and fully aware. You are not your thoughts, beliefs, and mental commentary.

What is the aim of an inner retreat? The aim is to empty our mind of afflictive/disturbing emotions, experience the peace and serenity of a calm mind, cultivate the capacity to remain emotionally stable in challenging circumstances, and allow an open space for new insights regarding self, reality, and life directions to naturally and spontaneously arise. As we continue this daily inner retreat, we will recognize its value and realize that even in the midst of outer turbulence there can be inner stability and strength. That is the essence of an inner retreat, we retreat into a calm, clear, alert, and peaceful mind.

Innermost Retreat

The final stage of retreat is an innermost retreat. I am sorry to say that this is the most difficult to convey in words, as to know it, you must experience it directly. Much as you cannot know the actual taste of a Mango by merely listening to a description of it, you cannot know the actual nature of an innermost experience without tasting the center of your being. However, I’ll do the best I can to point you in that direction.

There is an experience, an experience of the innermost and most expansive ground of our being, that we can call spirit, essence, natural self, true self, empty-awareness, or any one of the many names that refer to it. It contains and gives rise to all other levels of experience. One can say it is the ground of our being, a place of isness, thatness, beingness, or pure presence. It just is. When great teachers are asked what it is, they mysteriously answer “It is that.” That’s not much of an answer, because there isn’t an answer. When you experience it, you will know.

Yet, the good news is that we have all experienced our innermost being at one time or another. Whenever we experience the loss of a sense of personal self and its preoccupations, we experience life in that moment as an easy flow. We taste the expansiveness and pervasiveness of peace, and joy. We can catch a glimpse during when we “lose” our usual self in dance, music, art, meditation, yoga, exercise, nature, intimacy, and so on. These moments are usually considered lovely serendipitous experiences. They come and go with a smile. In contrast, what we seek in retreat is an intentional and increasingly stable meeting with our innermost self.

There is no particular effort or practice you can use to directly access this innermost presence. The best you can do is to remove the obstacles, experience a longing and desire to return to your inner home, and allow for grace. So you don’t “do” an innermost retreat, you let go and allow it to happen. Your efforts towards inner development enhance the probability that you will touch this natural self. And let’s remember, we are not visitors to this innermost place. It is who we are. Resting in the ground of our being is the innermost retreat.

So we begin retreat with an intention and commitment based on the understanding that outer experiences as well as mental experiences are transient. We realize the fatigue of a life spent searching for our self in perishable experiences. Increasingly, we trust that the only sustaining experience is the unchanging nature of our true self, our true nature.

We cultivate a harmonious outer environment that supports retreat. That is followed by calming the mind through meditation practice and resting in stillness and serenity. This inner retreat can at any time spontaneously open into an innermost retreat, revealing the essential nature of our natural essence and self – the truth of our existence. If not, we feel blessed and enriched with what we have learned and experienced.

Some final words – start simply, be patient, do not attach to expectations, and appreciate the here and now of meditation practice and retreat. And add a dash of discipline.

I do hope that this short description of the three aspects of retreat allows you to wisely use this in-between time. Perhaps you will then find the precious gold that is often most accessible at times of great adversity.

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Written by Elliott Dacher MD

Explore Wellness in 2021