This is the eighth post in my blog series about recharging and resetting your life, what I call retreating.
I had suffered from deep depression before, but that was back home—an ocean and a continent away. It wasn’t unusual for people to suffer emotional turmoil at this retreat, especially when dozens of us strangers had come together to live cheek by jowl for six months to deeply explore our spiritual nature. In hindsight, the internal garbage rising in me was a sign of healing. Part of what helped me walk through it was the thought that this experience of living in Scotland was supposed to be the opportunity of a lifetime. I hadn’t come 4,300 miles to be miserable! I forced myself out of bed and began the slow journey to a better me.
What retreats don’t tell you
A hallmark of retreat websites are serene photos of nature and lovely indoor spaces coupled with descriptions of how their program will transform you into peaceful wholeness. Not that this is BS, but sometimes the road of your inner journey is paved with jagged rocks and thorns, maybe even some snake pits, that lead to high cliffs where your forced to jump or turn around and endure the rocks, thorns, and snake pits again. Retreat websites don’t tell you that because it would be a poor marketing strategy. Instead, they focus on what they hope the result of your experience will be. But I can’t write about how fantastic retreating is, and encourage you to regularly do so, without also being honest: sometimes retreating can suck.
Retreating removes you from your normal routine and environment. That is the point. Being away from everyday distractions forces you to focus on yourself, to listen to what’s going on inside and learn from it. The problem is, we can become agitated, annoyed, or emotionally fragile while retreating. Not always, but it does happen and depends on many factors. You can also experience pure joy while retreating. Great! But if your intention involves personal growth, at some point you’ll have to walk the thorny, rocky, snake-pitty road to the cliff edge and jump. Sometimes that happens at the retreat and sometimes after you get home. Personal hazards and cliff heights will differ among people, but unless you are an avatar, you will have them.
The good news is if you’re willing to do the walk—and the work—you’ll achieve benefits you never knew existed.
Focus on you
Retreats should come with a warning label: Individual experiences may vary. If Rahim makes meditating seem easy (news flash: it’s not), and Kathy seems to be in a perpetual state of bliss, and you’re frustrated because you can’t quiet your mind during meditation or feel the emotional high of others, you might be asking What’s wrong with me? Nothing, unless you consider being human your problem. You don’t know what’s going on inside the heads of others. They might appear to be swimming along, but they could be internally drowning in difficulty. So don’t get your knickers in a knot about what others are experiencing. Focus on yourself and don’t judge what arises—for yourself or others. Just observe what is happening with you, take some notes, and process as needed.
One of the hardest things about personal growth is that it forces us to face our “ugly,” which our ego finds intolerable. The ego’s job is to protect us, which is fine. But it isn’t very good at boundaries. It thinks everything and everyone is out to get us or make us look bad. Ego lives in the realm of comparison. It—falsely—thinks we’re worthy only if we’re “perfect” or at least as good as the “best” person, if not better. While retreating, some of your less flattering characteristics could come to your attention. Tell your ego to chillax while you get down to the business of observing what comes up. You’re no less worthy or a failure or a bad person because you have some “uglies.” Now, what are you going to do about it?
Hang in there
If you experience intense emotional issues while retreating, and you feel comfortable sharing, speak with the facilitator. Typically (but unfortunately not always), facilitators are trained at handling such situations. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing, or the facilitator is unable to offer comfort, journal about it. In fact, journaling is amazingly cathartic regardless whether you share with others. Connecting and sharing with a fellow retreater can also be comforting.
In lending an ear or shoulder to many co-retreaters over the years, I’ve found that listening without judgement and without offering advice or how to “fix” something is all they need in that moment. If you notice a fellow retreater struggling, and you feel comfortable, reach out. You never know, you might make a friend for life. Strong bonds are often formed when two people share a similar experience.
Be open to transformation
Wherever two or more are gathered, there’s bound to be drama. Retreating, which often can lay bare emotional issues, increases the possibility. You could encounter personality conflicts and form close friendships; discover unwanted familial habits and your better angels; have a romantic fling or find the love of your life; drown in upset and uncover the beautiful soul that you are. Any or all of these can be yours from retreating! Or not. You get out of it what you put in, so if you go with an open mind and a willingness to be moved in some way, your experience can only be better.
Remember, retreating has purpose. When we take breaks from our lives to recharge and reset, we can expect small changes or big changes, incremental ones or massive ones, immediately or over time. So although individual experiences will vary, for best results, let whatever happens happen. Avoid judgment. Accept with grace. Learn who you really are (hint: it starts with “L” and ends with “o” “v” “e”), and be grateful that you took the time for self-care.
So what happened to me on that retreat in Scotland? I suffered the lowest of lows and the highest of highs during what turned out to be a two-year stay. It was one of the hardest things I suffered through in many ways and the best thing that happened to me. It changed the entire course of my life for the good. You can read all about it in my memoir.
For links to retreats and other resources, visit my Resources page.