For the past three or four years, I have taken a few days out of my regular work schedule and usual weekend routines to set aside a short amount of time for personal retreat and reflection.
It is something I encourage everyone to do, and to build in to their lifestyle so that they can enjoy this specific set aside time at the very least once a year, and furthermore to take what they learn and incorporate it into their day to day lives somehow.
I don’t know what comes to mind for you when I mention the word ‘retreat’. Perhaps you think of robes, sandals, fasting, spiritual practices, tie dye shirts, frolicking in a field full of sunflowers, hiding out in a log cabin, being immersed in nature, traveling somewhere exotic and getting far, far, far away from it all and the ‘madding crowd’ around you.
Maybe you think of something organised by a group or retreat centre, with other people teaching and contributing, of workshops, group discussions, flip chart paper and permanent markers, or something that will take time, effort and money to organise, and something that is just too far from your reality to really have any of the above resources to indulge in. Maybe you think of spas and wellness centres and relaxation, or maybe you think of something entirely different.
Whatever comes to mind for you, in terms of thinking of a personal retreat, I’d like to demystify some of the fuss and fanfare that might go along with the notions that a personal retreat may be out of your reach. All of what I share is from personal experience and figuring out what works for me as I went along, so as unique as each of us are, we will find a way to personalise our own experience and meanings of retreat.
An important place to start if you are thinking about planning a personal retreat, before you even begin to touch upon any of the logistics such as location, duration or cost, is to think about why you are embarking upon the idea of a retreat in the first place.
When I first set about planning a personal retreat a few years ago, I began with brainstorming ideas, and visions and hopes of what I wanted to get out of the time and what it would involve, and what it meant to me. As I have grown more familiar with the process, and as I know myself and my dreams and values better, as well as my practical talents and limitations, this takes less time to navigate as I am more familiar with what is important to me and how to inhabit this kind of creative and reflective space.
I am the kind of person who needs a lot of time alone to think, ponder, reflect and be. Therefore, ‘retreat’ is kind of in my DNA, as it were. Even before thinking more specifically about retreat, I have always sought out set aside time throughout my life. For instance at times that took the form of going for drives to the beach when I was still living with my parents and had use of a car, putting my music on and finding a quiet spot away from people, watching the water, writing down my thoughts, praying, thinking. When I was studying in University, during lunchtime or between lectures I often wandered and pondered down by the riverside so that I could be alone to think about deeper things. Now that I have a place of my own, and live alone, retreat can in some ways be a lot easier, but in other ways it takes effort to be intentional about it and demark specific set aside time rather than merely letting my alone time melt into one unfocussed experience. Writing has always been an important part of self reflection and learning to understand the world, for me. So too have other creative means of expression, and perhaps you also gain insights through art, music, literature…..
I think certain personality types, like myself, actually crave retreat on a regular basis, and as much as we also need human connection and companionship, we have an innate way of creating those deep and solitary opportunities for ourselves, in a way in which we are left richer for it in our experience of ourselves in the world, in contrast to others who might find such pursuits and practices quite lonely and isolating. Yet, to some extent we all need that quiet, set apart ‘me time’ to reflect, recharge and redirect our lives.
So how do you find your ‘why’?
Like I said earlier, ‘brainstorming’ is a great place to start. It helps you actually discover more concretely what you have been mulling over in your own mind, and begin to translate those thoughts into something more tangible to pursue. When you express your thoughts whether verbally, through writing and / or pictorially, you have the chance to articulate what you need from a personal retreat and to begin to hone your focus.
For example, I might brainstorm ideas of what is important to me for a retreat, and come up with something along the lines of:
Relationship with God, prayer, rest, relaxation, writing novel, creative writing, nature walks, self reflection, peace, time out, calm, health, well being, quiet, reading, exploration, growth, spiritual discipline, photography, art, music, food, slow living, getting in touch with myself, finding purpose and direction, slower pace of life, meaningful living, attentiveness, awareness, living in step with God and nature, knowing God’s plan for my life, watching the clouds go by, being a child again, finding joy in simple things, trying something new, adventure, know myself better, self care, healing, overcoming personal pain, finding joy, ethical living, self development, exploring my gifts, giving back….
And the list could go on and on. The great thing about personal brainstorming is that there aren’t any limits, and it gives you a chance to just get your ideas out onto paper, and make more sense of them later, and even if at first things seem a bit jumbled, chaotic or unconnected, there will likely actually be a thread of connection running through your different ideas.
Once you have a better idea of ‘why’ this personal retreat and set aside time is important to you, you can begin to establish a plan and a focus. You might like to categorise your ideas, discard some, specify others, create a vision board, or begin to explore what other people have done in related areas to add to your personal inspiration.
Ok, so that’s the ‘why’ but what about the ‘how’? From purpose to vision.
Let’s say you have done some brainstorming, and find that although many of your ideas are deeply important to you, perhaps one or two resonate with you more than others at this particular time and season of your life.
For example, let’s say that what you really want is to simply slow down the pace of your life so that you can feel better, more connected, and be refreshed for when you have to ‘go back’ into your day to day life, which hopefully will actually be a moving forward purposefully by incorporating some of the lessons you learn while ‘on retreat’.
By focusing on this one aspect, you can begin to plan for a richer retreat experience, however short or long a time you may have for it. You can think more deeply about what slowing down means to you and explore these as you prepare for your retreat. (This can apply to any specific focus that you choose, whether it be for example: creative writing retreat, slow living retreat, self care retreat, artistic retreat, faith retreat, etc).
Exploration of your ideas about slowing down, prior to even embarking upon your retreat and while still in the planning and ‘ideas’ stages, might take the form of journaling your own thoughts, finding out what other people are doing, and taking inspiration from a variety of sources which may include talking to people, searching the internet, reading books (and blogs! 😉 ) and connecting with the pace of nature. This process can in itself be a lot of fun, and can get those ‘creative juices’ and inspiration flowing!
From this you might be able to more clearly establish a ‘vision’. That vision might take the form of what you’d like your life to look like, how it could better reflect your core values, how to be the person you’d like to be in your day to day settings, or how you would like to feel, or a combination of these and more.
Maybe your vision for exploring a slower pace of life will bring to the fore a couple of related aspects that you’d like to also be part of your focus.
Embracing a Theme
As well as having a focus and a vision, it can really help if you have an overall theme that all of your activities and reflections will centre around. Last year, I focused on the theme of my identity in Christ and as a daughter of God, and asked a close friend if she wanted to be part of it, and we together gained so much from it that I’m sure she as well as I continue to benefit from spiritually, creatively and practically day to day.
Bringing our attention back to the idea of exploring a slower pace of life, you might have a theme along the lines of “Finding ways to slow down and live more attentively in my day to day life”.
Once you have established the key focus of your retreat and the ideas you’d like to explore, the next stage is more practical in formulating a plan.
You will need to think of the following:
Dates / Time / Duration
Location or Locations
Setting Boundaries to Safeguard Your ‘Set Aside’ Time
As to duration, you can start small and build things up gradually. You might not be used to setting aside a lot of time to explore specific aspects of your life, and that’s completely fine, sometimes less is more.
Added to that, we all have a variety of commitments whether they be employment, family, helping others, home keeping or whatever they may be for you.
Choose a time frame and stick to it according to what will work for you.
You could have a two hour retreat, half a day retreat, a day retreat, a weekend retreat, a week long retreat, just work out what works for you.
Location – the fine art of the ‘Staycation’:
As to location, I’m a big fan of the ‘staycation’. I have written posts on my experiences of my staycations earlier in my blog and you can find these be searching my main page or looking through the tabs and sections at the top.
Staycation incorporates the ideas of staying at home and having a vacation at the same time. Once again, there is flexibility in how you approach this. Some people staycation by staying at home, and making their experience of home like a restful holiday. Others might take time to explore what’s on their doorstep for example by visiting museums, tourist attractions and cafes or natural beauty in the city or town where they live. Some may ‘staycation’ by booking into a hotel in their own city whether by themselves or for a family ‘holiday’ and enjoy the niceties of a hotel such as the food, spa and relaxation facilities, sports, massage, swimming, room service, etc without spending money and time to travel somewhere else, and perhaps also minimising or even eliminating some of the hassles involved in traveling on holiday.
For the purposes of a ‘staycation retreat’, I like to prepare my home and create an environment and atmosphere that is conducive to rest, relaxation, and creativity. It’s important to feel happy and comfortable in your environment so it feels special and a place you can relax, so maybe you’d like to set aside specific areas in your rooms for a specific retreat ‘activity’. You could have a ‘quiet reading corner’, a place for writing or journaling, a colouring or art table, and pampering corner, and so forth. Just make it as lovely as you need it to be. For some people this might feel like quite a ‘tall order’, so if you can’t prepare your home, maybe you could find one little space that you can prepare and use for quiet retreat and reflection. And if that is also too much of a stress, think of alternatives – if you want to treat yourself and have the means to, maybe you’d like a change of scene and to book a room or a hotel, a cabin or guesthouse somewhere for your retreat. But if not, there are plenty of things you can do on a budget or totally free such as going to a park, a beach or some other natural ‘beauty spot’ depending on the weather, spending time in a quiet coffee shop, a library, a bookshop, maybe even a friend’s house if that is mutually convenient if they are away for a short time, or a picnic spot somewhere. Find what works for you, but make sure that you do have somewhere that is comfortable, safe, practical, pleasant and quiet so that you can actually retreat, reflect and relax without too much distraction.
As cliched as it is, there is some beauty to the saying ‘the best things in life are free’. For a personal retreat, this can certainly be the case – I have had some wonderful times ‘staycationing’ at home, and using the opportunity to read, walk in the park or by the riverside, visit free museums, and spend time in prayer, writing, and doing a variety of creative things, all of which cost nothing.
However, depending on your own personal tastes and circumstances, it can be nice to treat yourself to something special, especially if this is in place of a holiday for example, rather than in addition to it.
Try to be aware of your budget from the start, and try your best to keep things in line with the purpose of your retreat. Even on staycations I might like to have some money set aside to spend on a takeaway, lunch in a coffee shop, a train trip somewhere near that is beautiful and quiet, or a yummy cake or some art supplies. Because I have the luxury of living on my own and really liking my place, I don’t have to worry about the cost of going somewhere, but maybe it is something you have to think about for example if you have a family and you need to go somewhere else to get some time to yourself, there could be scope for you to have a few relaxing days away by yourself. Sometimes this can be difficult, especially I think for mothers, but I personally feel that a good dose of ‘self care’ actually helps us to be better in our relationships with others, and is not always a selfish thing, whereas never giving ourselves time can leave us feeling depleted, stressed out, frustrated and unable to really be our best for those we love….just something worth thinking about if you feel a bit ‘guilty’ in giving yourself that much needed space and time.
The main point is that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to have a rich and satisfying retreat experience. It is afterall more to do with what’s going on inside of you than the external trappings that require a lot of money. But these thoughts may in themselves be part of your own journey of self discovery, so I’ll leave the rest with you…
Activities / Itinerary:
With what is quite possibly a rare, short amount of time, it is important that you make the absolute most of it and stay focused.
I personally find it helps prepare me inwardly by doing some nice things like creating an itinerary or a retreat pack and adding some creative touches.
It also helps me to appreciate and value the time that I have for this special and purposeful time that is not the usual daily routine.
Try to do all of your planning and preparation before your actual retreat time. You can do this gradually and over some time so as not to get stressed, but to instead enjoy the process and lead up and anticipation of your personal retreat.
You don’t want to be using precious minutes, let alone hours, of your retreat time with tidying up, trying to figure out what to do, or eradicating distractions. Do all that beforehand so that your mind is free to explore and savour this precious experience as fully as possible. In this respect, preparation is key, for example not only do you need to know that you will have a calm environment, but also it could help to do some meal prepping beforehand or know that you have set aside a budget for buying food or eating out so that that is all taken care of and doesn’t take away your attention or time.
Your itinerary will vary depending on the logistics of your retreat and whether you’ll be staying at home, traveling somewhere and for how long your ‘set aside time’ will be. Remember that if you are going elsewhere to have your preparations in place including in case of emergency so that you don’t find yourself in unprepared in a difficult situation. That’s why I personally like ‘staycations’ because there are certain things you just won’t have to worry about in comparison to if you are having to organise a lot of additional practical things.
Let’s turn back to the example of “Finding ways to slow down and live more attentively in my day to day life”.
Your itinerary, and bear in mind you can be flexible with the framework you use, might include time set aside for activities such as:
- Deep breathing and relaxation.
- Journaling session.
- Cloud watching.
- A mindful walk in nature paying attention to 5 senses.
- Slow and attentive eating (walking, listening to my environment, etc).
- Slow stretches and exercises.
- Gratitude thoughts.
- Creative time: crafts, writing, something that takes focus and attention.
- No technology time.
- Pampering and self care time.
- Food preparation.
- Prayer or meditation time.
- Nap time.
- Recreation, inspiration or cosy film time.
- Before bedtime reflective writing – thinking of lessons to take forward into day to day life.
Setting Boundaries to Safeguard Your ‘Set Aside’ Time
My last point is perhaps one of the most important things to factor in when preparing for a personal retreat. Distractions can come from many sources and can eat into our opportunity for an enriching and focused experience of retreat. Many of these come from ourselves, from allowing our attention to wander, from being insufficiently prepared, overly preoccupied or not honouring the time we have chosen to set aside and allowing other competing influences to creep in. Of course, there will be times in our lives when we are unable to take a lot of time away for ourselves, we may have to care for other people and perhaps the only time we can have is a few minutes at the end of the day….but even so, ringfence and honour that time.
Also, your personal retreat as personal as it is, may need to be something you share with other people in your life. Try to let friends and family know that for this particular weekend for example, or during those specific hours, you won’t be answering or making calls, texts, or visits. Managing expectations and boundaries through clear communication will help you to relax and make the most of your time without thinking about everything that might be going on around you. If people care about you and if it’s not an emergency, then they should understand. Simply turn the technology off for a while, if you’ll be off the radar for a few days let people know so that they will respect your space and won’t be unnecessarily worried about you, and make the most of it.
To conclude, it’s also a great idea to factor in some kind of ‘follow up’ for yourself by having time for reflection to ask yourself what you have learned from your time and how practically are you going to take forward the most important insights into your day to day life, to enhance your experience of life and also of those around you as you allow yourself to thrive.
Take care, and take time for yourself dear ones. xx