For three years Ishwara, my partner, and I lived in the Colombian rainforest. We decided to create a retreat center called Casa Ananda in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta. It was a magical place; the nature was abundant, and the diversity constantly amazed us. A stream flowed in front of our home, and ancient trees served as a biological corridor for howler monkeys, toucans and exotic birds. The nature was peaceful and at the same time you could perceive its power. It was here that we received individuals, couples and groups who would come on a retreat from one night to one month, to accompany them on a journey to their inner reality.
A time in a spiritual retreat is a heightened, intensified experience of the inner life. The aim of this pause being to create an intimacy with ourselves. In Zen Buddhism, the word sesshin is used both to define a type of meditation and a retreat with several “sittings”, and it literally means “touching the heart-mind”. It is an invitation to create a time to return to our essence, in an act of self-love.
Sometimes we feel the necessity to take a break from the activity of our lives and return to our center. A retreat is a respite and at the same time it is the creation of a propitious environment. With the right preparation we can carry it out in our own home, but if we have the possibility of taking a trip to nature this can deepen our experience. The important thing in any case is to make the place of our retreat a “sanctuary”; where time expands to renovate ourselves.
This will be the platform to experience peace, long-term vision and fullfilment.
In relation with the duration, half a day or a one day retreat will allow us to perceive how our rhythms diminish and we can become acutely aware of the importance of taking care of ourselves. As we advance, perhaps we will feel curious about taking various days and or a week, to deepen our spiritual practices. We will feel calmness, perceiving the subtle ripples in the lake of our consciousness, and give birth to reflections about our lives. And so it will be possible that in this journey we can understand the importance of eventually planning an even longer duration. This will be the platform to experience peace, long-term vision and fullfilment. In each of these cases, we will return to life revitalized, with a greater capacity to give and serve. The more time we dedicate to our retreat, the greater the benefit.
Whether we have the opportunity to make a retreat in our home or away in nature, with regard to the preparation, we should try to arrange some external factors: preparing our home, storing food and organizing our agenda. Besides this, we can communicate with our loved ones that we will be taking a time for a retreat. These arrangements will permit our minds to be free to concentrate on the process and by doing so, we give ourselves permission to disconnect and detach from our habitual obligations and activities. Once we have organized the external factors it is important to make sure that our intentions are directed to deepen a meditative state of Being.
Next, I share three essential moments of the retreat, so that this experience guides us towards a sacred intimacy: the preservation, the transformation and the creation.
The first moment that I suggest in any retreat seeks a preservation, through meditation and slowness. When we feel calmness, we can recover from the noise and fatigue that we have accumulated in our lives. For this reason, we will begin our day with a meditation, to quieten our internal rhythms. One of the objectives of this first practice is to be attentive to our thoughts and emotions.
After this moment of stillness, we can create a time for gentle movements of yoga, tai chi or another physical activity, that relaxes us and soothes our body. A fundamental attitude of preservation is to welcome the act of Being. This could mean, for example, looking up at the sky through the window, listening to serene music with our eyes closed or reflecting on a short text that inspires us. With this state we seek to incorporate slowness in all our movements, for example: walking, preparing food or moving our hands. We aspire here to unify our minds with our actions; thus we will be practicing meditation in action.
The second moment will be the transformation, with its keys of emptiness and letting go. In an integral retreat we can incorporate movement, carefully maintaining our meditative state. We can utilize conscious breathing, gentle dancing or taking a contemplative walk. So through the movement, we can let go and loosen the fibers of our being. The objective of this liberation will be to empty ourselves and open to the experience of the eternal present.
From the movement we will go back to a meditation, where we will deepen the state of emptiness. Little by little, we will identify a feeling, a thought or a circumstance that we would like to transform. We will invite peace about this aspect, neutralizing our emotions and observing from a distance, with a more impersonal gaze. From this place in our consciousness, we will make the decision to take small steps to transcend this current circumstance.
In our lives we are filled with the necessary and it is difficult to create the extraordinary.
The third moment of the retreat will be the creation, where we will employ the vision and gratitude. After the resting, the meditation, letting go and the decision to transform one aspect of ourselves, we can make way for an inner exploration to create a vision. We can write, verbalize and or imagine what we would like to create in our lives.. This can be the opportunity to clarify intentions, decisions and reflect on what brings us meaning. In our lives we are filled with the necessary and it is difficult to create the extraordinary. The retreat and our rendezvous with the state of Being allows the flow of creative rivers up towards the surface.
To conclude this valuable gift that we have presented to ourselves, we will make a final meditation. Here we can elevate our mind and heart to give thanks for our decision to take this time, perceive the moments of stillness and experience clarity. We can become aware of a satisfaction of returning to active life, with the determination to encourage a little more consciousness in our being.
A retreat is a journey, a way for us to explore our inner processes, to nourish ourselves and for self-transcendence. The moments of preservation, transformation and creation form part of a cycle that manifests in distinct scenarios of our life. To live these stages in a place of reclusion will make us more receptive, attentive and flexible to act with more wisdom. Once we have experienced the richness of a retreat, we can understand why diverse traditions have considered it to be primordial and why it is indispensable.