I hope you are enjoying this beautiful time of year, whether it is summer or winter where you are. Here in Boston, the sun is shining on this Fourth of July and we are delighting in corn, tomatoes, and squash.
And I am getting ready to do my annual summer meditation retreat. (I usually go on retreat two to four weeks per year, in the summer.) This year, I’m going to do my retreat in a different way. Rather than going away, I am doing it at home.
This is the third time I’ve done a home retreat and I have found it to be unexpectedly awesome. Previous home retreats have been seven days long. This time I will be on retreat for two whole weeks. I am unbelievably excited.
The whole idea came about around 18 months ago, through desperation. I was longing for some time and space to practice and study and read and simply be with my thoughts. I was stretched and over stimulated and knew better than to ignore the warning signs of overwhelm: increased hissy fits, disheartenment, lots of time spent with the Housewives, and sitting about in a stupor. (Those last two are synonymous.)
It was time to withdraw.
It was time to look within without interruption.
It was time to cradle myself in a routine that I didn’t have to mandate.
It was time for retreat.
There were three things stopping me. First, I was also longing to write.. I was scared of going any longer without an intensive writing jag (which is the rhythm that suits me best—I’m a binge writer) and writing while on formal retreat is only possible if you awaken at some crazy hour, like 4am. But then you spend the whole day kind of sleepy and you end up cheating both your practice and your creative work.
How could I choose between spiritual practice and creative work? I couldn’t. I didn’t want to.
Second, I was SICK OF TRAVEL and the idea of leaving home was majorly anathema. I had been on the road a lot, coming home for a few nights at most before packing up to leave for another (delightful, wonderful) teaching gig in Mexico or Cleveland or NYC. Don’t get me wrong, I love to teach and I love to travel. But at a certain point, you just want to stay home and I was at that point. I couldn’t face packing another bag and leaving my husband, our cats, and our bed. Plus, I was feeling sluggish from lack of exercise and an iffy diet.
Third, my home and workspaces were a mess. It’s not that things were dirty or unkempt as much as they were disorganized and chaotic. I’m not particularly uptight about order, but when there are stacks of paper, unopened fedex envelopes marked “urgent, and a zillion files on my desktop that I have no memory of creating, I start to get anxious. Because I had been away so much, there was sense of confusion in the environment. This extended to the inner environment as well. How was I doing in building my business? What was my vision for my work? I had lost track of the big view and become immersed in the day to day. I was yearning to climb out of the swampy goo of email, social media, and website management that takes over my day more often than not.
So I had these components: the longing for a real retreat; the desire to write; the wish to stay home and get healthy; and the hunger to get back on top of my work rather than struggling under its weight. I wanted to do it all.
Wait. Why couldn’t I? Would it be possible to retreat at home? But how can you “retreat” without going anywhere? I mean, doesn’t retreat mean getting away from home and all daily concerns?
No, I found out. I does not. You can retreat without going anywhere.
The power of retreat comes from aloneness and an inviolate routine. Here is what I did.
I decided to do my retreat in my home office, including sleeping there. I chose to maintain so-called functional silence, which means you don’t talk except to say things like, “your hair is on fire,” or “there’s been a flood.” This meant I had to get my husband to agree to this, which, luckily, he did.
I did what I could to create a sense of separation from the rest of our home, which is not so easy because we live in a loft. There are no rooms per se, and no doors to close. I invested in a few tall shoji screens to block off my office from the rest of the space as well as to create a psychic divide. I dragged our air mattress in and situated it between a chair and the bookshelves. My shrine and meditation space are in my office, so all of my practice mojo was already there.
Then I set about to create a very rigorous schedule for myself and this is where things became very interesting. At first, my plan was to follow a schedule as if I was at a “real” retreat. I would begin and end practice periods, take meals, and sleep as if I was doing a retreat in Colorado or Vermont. But then it dawned on me that this was my retreat and mine alone. I could craft it as a withdrawal from my personal stresses into the particular space I wanted to create.
For me, most important was the practice and study of the dharma. That was my main priority. But if I also wanted to use my retreat time to write, why couldn’t I? If wanted to use it as a visioning quest for my creative work, why couldn’t I? If I wanted to rest and take care of my body, why couldn’t I? And further, if I longed to create order in my home and work space, what would prevent that from becoming a part of the retreat?
As soon as I thought this, something shifted. It realized that I wouldn’t be using retreat time to write and clean up, rather, writing and cleaning up would became part of the spiritual practice. Suddenly, my work felt different. The visioning work I wanted to do would be undertaken as a gesture of service rather than anxious grasping. Answering all of my emails would be an exercise in mindfulness-awareness rather than am anxiety-producing hassle.
The retreat became very, very personal. It was suffused with a kind of intimacy that I’d never before experienced.
Here is the schedule that I devised for myself:
6a – 730a Spiritual practice
730a – 8a Breakfast
8a -11a Writing session
11a – 2p Gym or yoga and lunch break
2p – 230p Short practice session
230p – 430p Business visioning, strategizing, clean-up
430 p – 5p Tea break
530p – 630p Short practice session
5p -7p Dharma study (read, contemplate, and so on)
8p – 930p More study
930p – 10p Closing practice
This schedule turned out to be both rigorous and absolutely, utterly joyful. After a few days, I realized that while I may have described what I was doing as “retreat,” actually I was spending my day doing exactly what I wanted. I was fulfilling my heart’s desire.
And where was my sweet husband in all of this? His presence (and his silence) played an unexpectedly powerful part in the experience. I felt so supported by him that my heart almost shattered with love. I found an unexpected intimacy through the shared silence. There is nothing more intimate than being together with someone in silence. Although I’m not sure why, it brings you closer than the deepest conversation. Finally, I felt that my retreat was being conducted in complete safety and was actually being protected by him. This one really took me by surprise. Retreats are almost always done in a foreign environment, whether it’s a cabin in the woods, a mission in the mountains, or a hotel room in Manhattan. To retreat in my own home brought a sense of tremendous ease. And I could not have done it without him. Every time I heard him upstairs making the bed or in the kitchen unpacking groceries, I felt even more gratitude. He was keeping watch on our home so that I could take a deep dive into my dreams. I can’t say that I ever loved him more than I did sleeping on that air mattress, not speaking, but feeling as close as I could to another being.
So, while nothing can take the place of an authentic retreat grounded in ancient wisdom and practices, I found special gifts in retreating from my life by doing exactly what I wanted rather than what I ought.
I recommend such a retreat wholeheartedly. I recognize that I am wildly fortunate to be able to do such a thing. I have an understanding husband. I am self-employed. I don’t have kids or roommates. Not everyone can do what I did, but perhaps you could take a weekend or a day. If you plan far enough in advance, maybe you could even do a week.
No matter how long or short, here are some suggestions for planning this special time where you get to spend time with yourself, doing what you long to do.
1. Work out an agreement with your partner, family, and/or roommates to respect your silence (barring fires or floods). Or, if this is not possible, keep your conversation to the mornings or evenings. Try to put some limitations on communication with others.
2. Unplug. You have got to unplug. This means setting up auto-responders in your email system and changing your voicemail message to indicate you won’t be returning calls for this period. Even if you plan to answer all of your emails as part of your retreat, get off the internet to do so. If you use a web-based email service, investigate a desktop client so that you can read and answer your emails without going online. When you are done, you can connect back up and send them all at once, but don’t look at anything new that comes in. Promise me.
3. Prepare your space. Make it clean and neat. Wall it off with a screen if you have to. Make sure everything is there that you need to do your spiritual practice, study what you’d like, and/or create what you want.
4. Decide on your retreat priorities. Don’t pile on too much.
5. This is the most important suggestion: Create a schedule and stick to it. You have to be ruthless about this. Schedule your entire day from morning to night. If you want unstructured free time, great. Make that part of your schedule. Believe me, if you make a schedule and then don’t honor it, the retreat magic will go away and settle somewhere else.
6. Grocery shop in advance. You don’t have to be neurotic about this, just get some basics. This is generally not a good time to try that new kale juice fast or go vegan. The retreat should be relaxing. If you are trying to change your diet in any radical way, that will be stressful. Stick with your normal diet and, if anything, just try to eat more lightly. It’s hard to practice or contemplate deeper truths when you feel heavy and sleepy. And of course, if you take medications, keep taking them while on retreat.
7. It is totally fine to leave your retreat space, especially if your retreat is longer than few days. You can take a walk, go to the grocery store or gym. Parties and lunch dates and so on are contraindicated. When or if you do leave, try to hold your mind in as quiet a space as possible. Don’t listen to the radio in the car. If someone tries to strike up a conversation, keep your responses brief. Don’t dilly-dally and get back to your retreat space as soon as you can.
Finally, let me assure you (if you need it) that you fully and completely deserve this time. Your brilliance is worthy of your attention. There are precious seeds within you that need watering and care. You have things to say or create that need to come into existence. Please know this. Please honor your genius. Please take the chance.