Taking a retreat at home

Retreats are a recommended part of spiritual practice for many people, but can be off putting or impractical – they cost a chunk of money, they involve travelling to somewhere a way out of town, they are an unfamiliar environment, they need you to have some time off work.

But I very much understand why they are desirable – if you want to make some good spiritual progress it is really helpful to be able to 'put down' day-to-day life for a while, to get away from ones normal worries and concerns, and to break with normal daily habits. It's hard to focus on insight and meditation when you've got 'stuff to do' at home. The more stuff you do the more important that stuff feels, and the further away from your practice you get.

However, if you're not in a position where you can just head off to retreat centre for a week, I think it's worth considering that you can still get a good deal of the benefit from a retreat at home.  All it takes is a little planning and bit of self discipline.

I've done this a few times now – set aside a day to be a 'retreat at home.' I simply impose on myself a set of rules that I'll live by for one single day. My rules are usually pretty simple:

  • No computer, no phone, no radio, no TV, no background music
  • No working on 'mundane tasks' (i.e. no tidying up, paying bills, etc.)
  • No unnecessary interact with other people

I know other people use slightly more strict rules – a restricted diet is quite common – periods of fasting, or only eating vegetarian food, cutting out refined sugar, no caffeine, only very simple, foods for the day… Or they run the day by a strict timetable of activities. But for me the above is strict enough to get the effect I'm looking for.

As someone who generally can't watch a TV program without occasionally checking the internet on my phone, and who can, on occasion, spend hours pinging from one activity to another without ever settling on a true conscious thought, the change of experience brought about by these rules is quite striking. I can't just 'do' things, I have to pause and think 'what do I want to do now?' Typically on such a day I'll start with a period of meditation, and have several meditation sessions spaced through the day. I'll often take time out for magickal work and I'll choose a book to read which fits with my current mood and interest. I may take a walk, but I focus on walking more slowly, experiencing what's around me and within me, rather than thinking about where I'm going and how to get there quicker.

Above all else, a day like this gives me time to think. Initially a lot of those thoughts won't be all that deep, powerful or important – they'll be the continuation of things from the previous day like what I watched on TV, or what I have to get done in a the next week. But pleasantly enough with time one tends to run out of these mundane thoughts (if one isn't doing activities that replenish them). I will spend more time thinking about magick, about my practice, about my experiences of life at the moment. With time I find my thought processes slowing and a sense of space opening up in my mind, a sense of ease coming across me. Often this will be quite joyful – I'll have a sense of confident ease, feel good in my own skin.

However, getting to this state isn't always a comfortable process.  I often find myself feeling a little nervous when I have one of these retreat days coming up. Taking away all of the distractions means getting closer to my thoughts – all of them. Even the uncomfortable ones. If I've been feeling guilty about something, or been feeling that I've neglected some part of my life, or feeing bad about something I've been doing or haven't been doing… I'll have time with those thoughts. The lack of distraction creates a space for thoughts to emerge, and be dealt with. But that, of course, is part of the benefit of such a day – stuff gets dealt with. You can't distract yourself from it any more, you have to think it through, have to come to some conclusion, have to make some decisions.  Thus a day like this can often re-invigorate me.

It would, perhaps, be a better thing if I lived like this more on a day-to-day basis. If less of my time was spent in distraction and more in contemplation. But I live in London, and at a time when there is a constant flow of activity, information and things to be experienced. I don't think it's entirely a bad thing that the pace of life is high.  However, I do think balance is needed – particularly if one is trying to live a spiritual life, and trying to push forward on a spiritual path.

Simply, a days retreat can make a big difference. It can break habits, and stop activities that habitually waste time. It can improve the depth, length and quality of meditation practice. It can produce shifts in thinking and decisions that bring about change. It can bring with it a deep seated calm, a quietness in the mind that can stay in place for days (longer if it is nurtured by further meditation and contemplation). It can remind you what's really important.

I still hope to go on retreat properly one day, to go and work on meditation and insight for a week or more away from all of my normal activities. But in the meantime occasional home day-retreats are a really valuable tool in personal practice. I highly recommend them.

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