Just before 6 AM, ten retreaters began trickling into the meditation room. It was still dark and cold outside, and the room was chilly. Silently, they each gathered a blanket and meditation stool and formed a circle on the Persian carpet in the center of the room. When everyone was ready, blankets wrapped around them for warmth, the course facilitator began the silent meditation with a few words of prayer. About halfway through the hour-long practice one of the meditators fell off his stool, face down on the carpet in front of him!
Spiritual, religious, or personal growth?
People do retreats for all kinds of reasons, but the main focus is to reset and recharge their lives in some way. You may assume retreating involves something religious. That’s true in so far as taking time for self-care feeds the soul. However, there are all kinds of ways to retreat, as I’ve posted about. I try to avoid the word “religious” because it can trigger negative feelings in those who might otherwise be perfectly willing to participate in a spiritually focused or personal growth retreat.
While many spiritual retreats cater to specific religions, others consider themselves non-denominational but with a focus on spiritual growth. For the latter, it doesn’t matter which religious path you follow, the focus is having a deeper relationship with the Divine, God, The Great Spirit, Source, or however you choose to refer to that higher universal power.
Often, but not always, retreating for spiritual reasons involves going to a place of quiet contemplation. There are plenty to choose from around the world, each with different programs, guidelines, and religious and secular flavors. Some offer structured programming centered on spiritual pursuits. Others allow you to spend your time as you choose. You can meditate, study, write, walk, or simply just be. Typically, experienced staff support your needs while you go on your inner journey.
A spiritual retreat might suit if you want to delve deeper into a particular religious or personal practice, such as studying a religious text more thoroughly, or learning centering prayer or mindfulness. You could also retreat in quiet contemplation with the goal of finding an answer to a difficult decision you’re faced with. Dealing with partnership issues, a health-related situation, or other major life event often forces us to look inward for answers, and spiritual retreats are good places to get the support you need.
Going on a pilgrimage is another way to retreat spiritually or for personal growth. A pilgrimage can be active, for example walking a designated route to a sacred place over the course of several days or months. A pilgrimage can also be less active, for example visiting significant places in the life of a saint (of any religion) or places dedicated to historical figures or associated with births, deaths, or miracles performed by important religious figures (e.g., Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha). By “less active” I mean they don’t involve trekking, but pilgrimages—by definition—do involve travel, the activity level of which varies widely.
Personal growth retreats can be spiritual or secular, but usually focus on self-examination with a specific goal, for example confidence building or emotional healing. Also, there are many retreats offered by for-profit businesses who promise results that will “change your life” or other hyperbolic claims. Although some may be perfectly legitimate—and could even change your life—others may be more concerned about making a buck by upselling their materials to you than they are with your actual personal growth. Do your research before you sign up.
A final note on retreat options: There are no strict boundaries delineating the different types of retreating I’ve been posting about over the past several months (spiritual, travel, or volunteer). A spiritual retreat can also be a travel retreat or involve volunteering for a cause. Or it can be all three, like the two-year retreat I took in Scotland.
So what happened to the meditator that fell face-first on the floor? He had fallen asleep. The residential retreat course he was taking involved six months of rigorous meditation, work, and spiritual study, beginning with the 6 AM meditation and ending the day at 10 PM with another meditation. Every minute of the day for those retreaters was scheduled. After three months, the strict commitment had finally caught up to this particular young man. He was fine—the fall woke him up—and everyone giggled about it. But the point is that retreats can sometimes be challenging.
In previous posts I discussed how to prepare physically and emotionally for retreating. Spiritual or personal-growth retreats come with an extra layer of preparation because they can be physically demanding (think pilgrimages) or emotionally exhausting, especially if they activate emotional responses that are deeply moving in positive or negative ways.
Whichever form of retreating you choose, know what you’re getting into and prepare for the potential physical and emotional demands. Read the retreat website, call or write to ask questions about what to expect, and read reviews if you find them.