The word retreat conjures two things for me. 

  1. People on a battlefield frantically running backwards whilst under fire from enemy lines to find a place of safety.
  1. A place of solitude in which I can pause and rest, and renew away from the hectic busyness of life.

I wonder what retreating means to you? Does it feel a little like something other people do? People who have more time and resources?  Do you feel as it would be a huge headache to make all the arrangements necessary for you to get away and take the time for yourself? 

Or maybe you would rather go of on a mini-break or holiday instead of attending some kind of spiritual retreat, the idea of vegan food, yoga and meditation might just seem like hard work. 

I can see why that would be the view for some people, what is the point of retreating?  Why on earth would I attend a retreat when I could be living in up on a city break or sunning myself on a beach holiday? All valid points.  Until we understand what it is exactly that retreating means.

Personally I retreat every day.  As many times as I can. As a sensitive person I find being around people can be really hard work.  I find noise, and busyness in general extremely draining.  Life seems to run at 100 miles an hour, everyone clearly  going way over the speed limit and in a constant state of needing to be somewhere other than where they are. 

This at times takes a huge toll on my nervous system and I can find myself emotionally overwhelmed.  And also somewhat bereft, from the lack of genuine connection that I get to experience with people who may be with me in person but mentally are already half way to their next destination.

If I am not careful the mindless existence most of us are part of to some degree or another, catches up on me and I get really tired, grumpy and low.  I may even find myself getting caught on the energetic coat tails of the whirlwind we live amongst and start speeding up myself. 

That looks a bit like, over-scheduling, over stimulating myself with media and Netflix, not listening to hear, listening to end the conversation and get away.  Being inpatient with myself and others, forgetting to eat, so then snacking, failing to take care of myself, becoming judgemental. 

I have strayed from the path of mindful living many times, in fact I have wandered so far off the path have found myself alone in a desert of desolation on more than one occasion. Those times where tough, finding myself so alone, dis-connected, fearful and living unconsciously really took its toll on me.  It wasn’t an easy thing to crawl back from, finding the path back, to my refuge within was always a challenge, one that taught me invaluable lessons one of which was huge empathy for my fellow travellers, but left me depleted and exhausted. 

It’s a habit isn’t it? Running fast in life, trying to get somewhere, that special magical somewhere that will makes us feel full up, happy, safe, content, important, lovable, connected.  And it’s always just over the next hill, the next project, relationship, hobby, diet. Slowing down and being right in the middle of it all, all the chaos so counter intuitive. 

“Why would I stop when I am just getting there, one more mile, one more client, one more course, one more feather in the cap and I will be safe as houses. No one will be able to touch me.” If you stop, then you might fall behind, everyone else busy running on ahead, busy racing towards whatever their dream is.  They aren’t going to wait for us. The ultimate FOMO, the FOMO of life. 

For me I had to retreat in the end, if I didn’t I would have died.  The first time I retreated probably was in a way that wasn’t what you would consider a retreat, there where no yoga classes, no kind wise teachers, no vegetarian food and massages on offer.  It was more of a retreat from my life, which at that time had become unmanageable, I had to just stop and rest, and all I could do was that, rest, because my nervous system was so burnt out the very idea of doing anything, washing, eating, watching tv, going for walk was like being asked to manage a marathon.  So instead I stopped and retreated from the incredible overwhelm that I had created around me, and I rested. For about 3 months, I napped a lot, ate small simple meals, sat in my garden, and spoke to someone else who knew what had happened to me as it had happened to them.  And slowly I healed, slowly I saw some of the patterns of behaviour that had caused my burn out. And I promised myself after my three month sabbatical that I would never let that happen to me again, I would instead create moments every day where I would take a mini retreat to check in with myself, ease myself into a rest state and see what I needed. 

Did I have my blinkers on? Was their cotton wool in my ears? Was my life overloaded with tasks? Or was I ambling along at ease, staying present, taking in the view, being kind to myself and others?  What was my relationship to my body like? Was I over doing it? Did I feel well? Was I tired, or achey? What was happening in my personal life? 

Once I got into the habit of taking those mini retreats, or mindful moments, I began to notice pretty damn quick if things were out of balance and I was ramping up my adrenaline.   Then I had a choice, shut down my inner wisdom and peddle hard or, soften up, retreat and take care of myself. 

Mostly I do the later. Of course occasionally I get it wrong, and then I suffer, but at least I notice what is happening, and know I have choices.  And I am kind to myself now, in my language, my inner voice, in my actions, in my activities in the people I surround myself with. I make a choice to be loving to myself, after all if I won’t, now one else will do it for me. 

I created a beautiful scaffolding of loving kindness around myself.  This looks like, meditations morning and evening. Regular yoga practise, daily walks, mindful tea breaks, daydreaming time, stroking my mad dog Norman the angry Scottie, reading beautiful poetry, taking trips to places that inspire and nurture me, galleries, parks, the sea. 

All of these things give me pause in my day, I don’t always do them all, but I do some of them at least 6 times a day, sometimes for a minute, sometimes for an hour, but 6 times a day, and this is important, I consciously choose to stop what I am doing and mindfully pay attention to what comes next, be that a poem, my breath, Norman, the water on my skin in a hot bath, the sound of water lapping on the shore.  

These mini retreat moments act as a touch stone to the now, bringing me to a place of kindness and self respect within.  I love myself enough to give myself those moments.  And I have never regretted it once. I have regretted not doing it. But never making the time, I decided long ago I was worth that. 

Taking longer to stretch those moment out into an hour, or half or full day, a weekend or an even longer retreat is truly a powerful practise.  To give yourself the time to be present and really notice how you are feeling, observe your habitual behaviour patterns, the state of your mind, the pace you are living at, your inner dialogue.  That is a gift that will serve you throughout your whole life.  After all the most important relationship we ever have and the one we ignore the most usually is the one we have with ourselves. 

When we take our students into retreat whether that be for a half day in the studio or longer as we did in the simple but nurturing Othona retreat in Bradwell On Sea, here we open up a space for self inquiry, kindness, and compassion.  

No pressure is applied there is just an invitation to stop, and be, to notice and bring kindness to what we are noticing.  And when we do that we find ourselves able to understand and then perhaps unravel some of the patterns we have created in our lives. 

Othona offered Daniel and I along with the retreat attendees two blissful days to experience just that.  A refuge from the world that is rushing, a place to stop and listen, and to lean into the practises of mindfulness that opened up a window into the hearts and minds of us all. 

We hung up our white flag and surrendered to the now, in the now with a gentle touch and honesty that we all needed to stop and acknowledge that It had been a hell of year hadn’t it, 2020/21.  We needed to be kind to ourselves, and pause.  Soothe our nervous systems and surrender to the moment. 

It was a beautiful retreat, full of wonder, insights, laughter and a few tears.  Daniel and I as always felt humbled by the trust the students placed in us and the practise.  And the where not disappointed.  

As our students left everyone looked fresher, healthier, more peaceful and empowered. 

I hope they are all taking mini retreats daily, and am certain they will return once again to experience the magic that comes with surrender and compassion. 

To learn more about our Cultivating Self Compassion – Yoga & Mindfulness Retreat at Othona in Essex, UK, visit the retreats section on our website.

Dawn Lister