The Art of Retreat
An important part of developing a spiritual and creative life is going on retreat. A retreat can be for a day, a few hours, in your back garden or in wild places, such as islands and mountains. In fact it doesn’t really matter where you are on retreat, what matters is your intention. I go on retreat 2-3 times a year, and think I need to do it more often, especially since it has such a transforming effect on my emotional, spiritual and creative life.
It’s a funny thing saying to people you are going on ‘retreat’, often I am met with blank looks or misunderstandings. It goes against the grain of our society to spend a few days in contemplation, without all the entertainment and trappings of our modern ways of life. But it’s probably something that a lot of people could benefit from, whatever their religious or spiritual leanings.
So, I thought I’d write this blog with a bit of advice about retreat making.
The first thing to do is find somewhere to go. There are some excellent places to go to be found at http://www.retreats.org.uk. But you don’t have to go to a dedicated retreat centre, you can book a b&b for a night, go the local park or sit in a spare room in your house.
The next thing is what to take with you. I often take a pile of books, since I love reading, I have provided a list of helpful books at the end of this blog. If you are a creative type, taking a sketch pad, pencils, manuscript paper, modelling clay, whatever, helps you process your thoughts. Its best to stay away from technology, i.e. don’t take your lap top, or only take your phone for emergencies. The cascade of information we receive through social media, and the world wide web is not conducive to meditation or contemplation. Then take all you need practically, warm clothes, rain hats etc.
Going on retreat is an act of intention, it’s not a holiday or a mini break, its more like going to a place with the intention of listening.
Since I am a Christian, I go away to listen and pray to God and the Holy Spirit.
As a ‘creative’ person, in retreat I am also refreshing my creativity, giving my mind a rest from focus on particular projects and letting it wander to other ways of being, other creative ideas. This is a really important point, that out of stillness and contemplation can come creativity. Creative projects can have their roots in times of stillness.
When you are on retreat, use your senses, and practice the art of looking, listening, touch and smell. Either walk, or sit and notice the environment around you in small and big detail. On the beach, you might notice a beautiful shell, or sea flower, or a smooth round pebble. Listen to every sound you can, and build up the sound scape of the environment, and touch, run your hand through the sand, pick up cool pebble. Use the environment, to inform your listening. Listen through your whole senses.
It may take some time to start to listen, a few days even. But once you are listening and have found a still place. Then take some time to either write, paint, draw, sing. Express what you have thought or heard in a medium which expresses you. In my most recent retreat, on a beautiful beach, I listened and thought I heard words from the holy spirit (this is my belief). I picked up some pebbles and wrote words on the pebbles, as a way of expressing the emotion, content and feeling of what i was hearing. So find a way of expressing what you hear.
The retreat doesn’t have to end, when you get back home. Often after being away on retreat, I have started the process of listening intensely, and i continue the practice in my daily life. Picking up the book I was reading and finishing it, going into the garden and contemplating again what i heard. One of the most exciting things for me, is the art or music that flows from these times. My recent series of poetry art cards, developed out of retreat walking and times of intense, mindful listening.
So I would encourage you to try this. Of course you don’t have to do it the same way as me. But the art of retreat, is making space for yourself, listening to your God, and finding health in world where there are so many pressures. If you can, go on retreat, for an hour or a few days, I think you will find a freshness and new spring to your steps.
Adam, D. (2004) Music of the Heart: New Psalms in the Celtic Tradition. Great Britain: SPCK.
Adams, I. (2013) Running Over Rocks: Spiritual Practices to Transform Tough Times. Norwich, Canterbury Press.
De Waal, E. (1992) A Seven Day Journey With Thomas Merton: Making A Private Retreat. Guildford, Surrey: Eagle Books.
Lacey, R. (2003) The Street Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Zondervan.
Nouwen, Henri. (2013) Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life. Great Britain: SPCK.