This is the fourth post in my blog series about recharging and resetting your life, what I call retreating.
Last week’s post opened with a scene where I crouched on a blustery, English country hillside in the rain. In my lap I cradled a deer’s head while she lay on the ground, pregnant with a difficult birth. The veterinarian finally arrived, but the baby was stillborn. Although a sad way to end the day, it was part of life on this privately owned red deer park.
I was taking a much-needed break from my wildlife biology studies at college, and this volunteer retreat was just what I needed to reset and recharge. It also fulfilled a life-long dream to live in Great Britain. How did I make this retreat happen? Read on.
During much of my twenties and thirties, I eked by on a small income yet still managed to do occasional retreats of all types and duration. I did it by creatively financing these breaks to make them affordable. Although, there are plenty of retreat options all over the world that don’t cost much at all—some are even free—the following ideas might increase your opportunities.
Budget for retreating
I use an app to manage our family finances. The app developers’ motto is You can have anything you want, you just can’t have everything you want. In other words, spending is about priorities, which you control for the most part. So, add a retreat bucket to your budget. It might mean foregoing your daily Starbucks or saying no to a new pair of shoes, but the spending choice is yours.
Ask about grants and concessions
Many retreat places offer concessions for those with limited funds, although they may not advertise it. In particular, religion-affiliated places are more likely to. Some even charge only a nominal fee, or might ask for a “suggested donation.” If the expense is still too much, ask the retreat if they know of any groups that offer grants to prospective retreaters. Or the place itself may offer grants. You might have to prove need, both financial and personal. The key is to ask. If you can afford the cost, don’t abuse the concessions offer just to score a deal. You’ll be taking away from others who could benefit.
A note about religion-affiliated places: You don’t have to be a member—or a believer—of that religion (unless the retreat requires it). For example, you can spend time at a monastery, no questions asked, as long as you respect your hosts and the house rules.
Ask the retreat whether you can help cook meals, clean rooms, or do office work or other tasks in exchange for free or reduced retreat time in equal measure to your service. You might spend one full day working and another full day retreating, or some similar arrangement. Working while on retreat may seem counter-intuitive, but the act of service has personal rewards. For some retreats, especially religion-affiliated ones, pitching in is part of the deal and what makes the retreat affordable.
You can also pay to volunteer for a cause, although some of these options are expensive. Instead, offer one of your talents the retreat might need in exchange for room—and board, if you can get that too. In this scenario, your work is the retreat. Remember, retreating doesn’t necessarily mean doing nothing or sitting quietly the whole time. Retreating is about intentionally resetting and recharging your life, whatever that means for you. Retreating can include offering service, learning new skills, or experiencing something different, all which involve active engagement.
I once wrangled a free place to stay and partial board to volunteer at a wildlife film festival in Jackson, Wyoming. I wrote to the festival directors, highlighting my five years’ experience volunteering for a similar festival in my hometown. In exchange for being a gopher, I got to attend many of the events, including some star-studded parties. This retreat fulfilled two intentions: getting a badly needed break from my daily grind and seeing whether I would enjoy working in the wildlife film industry. It was far from quiet reflection, but it was a retreat!
This brings us to marketing yourself.
Market your talents
This is precisely how I and my friend Kelly got to spend three months at that red deer park in England. I wanted to go back the following summer, but didn’t have money for the airfare. When I mentioned this to another friend, he pulled out his checkbook on the spot. I didn’t even ask; he just offered and he allowed me to pay him back over time, interest free. This is just one example of how my change in attitude from “I don’t have the money” to “How can I make this happen?” paid off. Two 3-month retreats in England (in 1986) cost me around $1,800—total; $1,500 was airfare.
Kelly, also a fellow wildlife student, had the idea to write letters to a dozen conservation-oriented groups in Great Britain. She got the contacts from another student who had gathered them during a recent trip. In letters and our resumes, we outlined our talents and studies, offering to help manage the deer in exchange for room and board. We sifted through our 70% response rate and selected the best offer. Not only did we each have our own room in a beautiful house in the English countryside, we had a blast and made lifetime friends with the people we met.
Many years later I used the same tactic (only via email) to retreat in Scotland. The experience changed my life.
To market yourself to a particular place:
- Search the internet for something that interests you (e.g., offering medical care in Bali; teaching French in Alaska; learning organic farming).
- Create a list of potential contacts.
- Create a resume or a list of talents you’d like to offer in exchange for what you want (usually room and board).
- In a covering note to them, describe your interest and how they would benefit from your fabulous talents. If your goal is to get experience you don’t have, demonstrate your enthusiasm to learn and offer to help in other areas as well, such as assisting in the office.
- Follow up in a couple of weeks if you don’t get a reply. You may get a counter offer. Don’t be afraid to negotiate.
Although there’s no guarantee you’ll score (all kinds of factors play into this strategy), it’s worked for me in spades. It just takes persistence. Tell others about your plan—they might have a lead for you. Do your research, rinse and repeat.
Retreat at home
Another way to make retreating affordable is to create your own, either at home at a local space. In next week’s post, I’ll provide some ideas for home-based retreating.
Read my memoir about a two-year retreat I took in Scotland.