There was a series of decisions that had been quietly forming for at least a year, probably three, maybe my whole life, that lead me onto my first retreat.
Not my first journey. There had already been many of those.
But, my first retreat from the world into my world.
I had lost touch with my soul.
Lost and Found
It’s a rare occasion that a decision gets conceived and made simultaneously. Not the millions of mundane choices we make every day. But the real decisions.
The ones that carve the course of one’s life.
Most of these decisions were made long ago.
As John O’Donohue says, “in out-of-the-way places of the heart, where your thoughts never think to wander, this beginning has been quietly forming, waiting until you were ready to emerge.”
After two cross-country moves in six months followed by a soul-full, but draining, year teaching kids in the outdoors followed by several temp jobs, I landed an hourly receptionist position at a company I unknowingly admired. After all, the founders started their own company and they made beautiful things.
This was basically the same job I had the summer before I left for college.
The decision to quit lingered in the initial decision to accept. This initial “Yes” marinated in desperation and impatience.
I was three years out of college already and with no career in communications in sight. Intern, sales associate, program leader, administrative assistant, daycare supervisor…okay, no career in sight at all.
A full-time job with benefits paying slightly over minimum wage seemed like a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, insteading of seeing The Devil Wears Prada movie that came out that same year, I lived it.
It took an entire year until the “No” was ready to emerge.
And then, the “No” boldly gave two-weeks notice with no plan in place except to be whole again. But how?
Deciding ‘what color of parachute’ to claim? No. Not the career how.
This was the life how.
Retreat and Reset
This was not the first time I had been unhappy or confused.
But, it was the first time I considered that my life wasn’t whole. As it does when you’ve completely lost touch with who you are.
Or realize for the first time that you don’t really know who you are because you’ve been so busy building a life that matches what you think you’re supposed to be.
So how does one start?
By retreating to our core. Tapping into our deepest knowing, naturally attuning, again in harmony with all.
These are the words I use now, 50+ retreats later to describe the “how” to regaining wholeness.
Back then, I didn’t have these words. Nor did I have any practices, tools, resources or answers for how.
Seeking Answers Without
I did have the 2006 edition of “What Color is your parachute?,” a gift from my Dad during the grueling job search of those last few years.
This book alluded to wholeness: considering one’s whole life in the job hunt, such as preferred location. And that edition even included an epilogue on “How to Find Your Mission in Life,” that would soon be devoured and dog-eared.
So, during the initial days of deciding and informing those close to me about the decision to quit my job, I asked and received about the how.
Many of their answers were answers: Do what you love. Go back to your passions. Use your talents.
But one, was a path, a way, to wholeness.
After having tea and sharing my news with my retired-therapist-turned-friend, I got a call from her with instructions.
She would be dropping off a bag at my apartment in the next few days. It was supplies for me to bring on retreat at their beach house for a week. She would email me with directions on how to get there and instructions for the house. All I needed to do was let her know which week during the next month I wanted to go.
It sounded wonderful. And necessary. And true. But, what was a retreat? Was it like camp? Was it like camping? Was it like vacation?
And, what did one do on retreat?
Having traveled a lot with family growing up and and with friends during college, the travel and preparation part was very familiar: Check weather. Research activities. Plan meals. Pack accordingly.
But, that still left the question of what to do? And, what to do by myself?
Having spent endless days playing on my own as a kid and a semester with a single dorm room in college, being alone for a week wasn’t the part that phased me. If anything, that felt like the greatest part of the gift.
But, what to do in order to find myself again? That was the mystery.
Seeking Answers Within
My sister did not feel as confident about the idea of me being alone in a strange house faraway at the coast for a week, so she volunteered to come down for the first night. As a big sister would. And as requested by our Dad, I suspect.
She brought her puppy and groceries. She inspected the house. She walked me into town after dinner for a beer at the pub. She explored the beach with me and her dog the next morning. And then, satisfied I was indeed safely doing some soul searching and not sinking into a depression, she headed back to the city.
And I sunk into my retreat.
I opened the bag that my friend and spiritual patron had dropped off.
Out of it I pulled book after book:
- The Artist Way: A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self.
- The Vein of Gold: A Journey to Your Creative Heart.
- The Dance of Fear: Rising Above Anxiety, Fear, and Shame to Be Your Best and Bravest Self.
- Imperfect Control: Our Lifelong Struggles With Power and Surrender.
- Intimacy and Solitude.
- The Intimacy and Solitude Workbook.
An avid reader, I leafed through these in wonder and delight.
And set them, one by one, on the dining room table next to the pile of books I had packed:
- A Gift from the Sea
- Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change
- Transitions: Strategies for coping with the difficult, painful, and confusing times in your life
- and, of course, The 2006 What Color is Your Parachute?
Over the next few days, I explored these books in the way that I explored the beach. In short bursts. Until hunger or tiredness set in. Broadly in general, intricately at parts. Listening. Noticing. Wondering.
It would be many years before I would consume many of these books and be transformed by them. Some I have yet to read or use.
Falling into Consolation
On this first retreat, as with all of them since, it has been about the dabbling, the tasting, the savoring. The connections and co-creation.
It was as Wayne Muller (whose books I didn’t know then, but highly recommend now) describes as “the intimate, fertile conversations between our own heart’s wisdom and the way the world has emerged before us.”
The deep, profound conversations that can be heard and had when things are quiet and still and candlelit and comfy in an overstuffed leather chair and with chocolate within reach. And when its overcast and windy and shells crunch beneath rain boots and there’s driftwood strewn across the shore where the waves are crashing.
When one’s away from the clutter, away from the distractions, away from the demands, away from time and measurement, is as if one is seeing the world through a child’s eyes. The clarity of these deep, profound conversations is simple, magical, truth.
Spurred by a passage in a book or by making a meal or by a scene in a movie or by artwork on the wall or by the sunset or by the rhythm of the waves, the truths show up and are relished as a gift. Often its one big truth. Sometimes there are ripples.
Basking in these truths, the minutes turn to hours turn to days. Some call this flow.
The spiritual director I’ve worked with for the last few years calls it being “in consolation.” Not the comfort one receives after a disappointment or loss. That’s consoling.
He describes being in consolation as a state of being with the world. Or rather, the world being with us, soothing us, taking care of us. As we take care of it.
For some, as it has for me, this state of oneness goes out of this world and extends from the physical waves and sand and shells into the spiritual, to a feeling of connection with the Source.
Moment of Truth
On this first retreat, I remember getting beers at the pub with my sister and talking to some scraggly local fishermen. I remember making popcorn in the microwave and watching a movie together. I remember throwing tennis balls on the beach and the puppy chasing after them. And, then I remember being on my own and time stopped.
I can’t recall the details of each day that followed and each revelation. I don’t remember changing or feeling the healing happening. Nor do I recall the magic showing up immediately, rather sinking into it as the days passed.
I do recall one afternoon when I was lazily draped over the overstuffed leather couch, a leg over the side, an arm dangling, with several books strewn around me. My ponytail drooped and the knit blanket sagged off the couch. The fire had died down in the wood stove since I hadn’t risen in hours to stoke it. A break in the grey day, the late afternoon sun came pouring in the picture window that faced the deck and overlooked the ocean a mile away. I set the book down, spine open on my belly, like a hug, and paused, watching the ideas of the past few hours, and days, start to line up. There were so many pieces of information coming together from my head and from my heart and from the world. It was as if the bits of information started square dancing. Partnering up to create ideas, and then joining up to promenade, one idea emerging after another. Amidst the clatter and joyful dancing of these ideas, I could hear the caller shout out directions.
And in this moment, I recall feeling, hearing, understanding, making the decision to attend graduate school. Important yes, cosmic no.
This was not one of the universal, soulful truths that has shown up during some of my retreats.
But it was the seed of a decision, the beginning that would start quietly forming until, to echo the words of another beautiful writer, Charles Bukowski: it came bursting out, in spite of everything, coming unasked from one’s heart and mind and mouth and gut.
This decision (one that would emerge unasked several months later) was important, because it was connected to my path, my mission, my reason for being. A way for the light of my soul to shine through the deeds of my life.
That retreat – the first and most formative – took me away from everything and allowed me into my core. To the place where I am always whole. Where there is no searching or seeking. Tapping into my deepest knowing, naturally attuning, so that I was again in harmony with all.
This is not how I would have described it back then. Far from it.
What I knew then was that I felt good. I felt grounded. I felt in sync. I felt assured.
Over the last decade of retreating nearly every season, for a night or for weeks, I have discovered the “how” to regaining integrity, the state of being whole and undivided. In addition to this practice, I have studied and read and discussed and written and drawn and done all sorts of inner work to learn how to stay that way.
I am not yet one of those people who live in a way that keeps them in a constant state of wholeness. I would venture to guess that there are not many people left in the world who can.
And so, retreats offer a way to practice integrity. As does prayer and meditation and intentions and blessings and altars and cleanses and sabbath. And I enjoy all of those too (often during retreats!).
The power of retreat is not only in its practice, but also in its application – the promise of return.
Integrating that blissful, temporary state of being whole and undivided into our daily lives. Returning to taste, savor, relish and bask in the everyday.