I try to schedule 3 retreats a year. These are a time when my intention is to slow down and be present. I sometimes have a goal, often something creative, but the intention is the foundation.
There are all types of retreat possible, but at the heart of any ‘spiritual’ retreat is “a period or place of seclusion for the purposes of prayer and meditation” (Oxford Dictionary). It is possible to do guided retreats with others or choose solitude. Many retreat centres welcome all faiths and beliefs, whether you consider yourself a participant in that belief system or just want to be somewhere peaceful and safe.
I choose to follow a solitude retreat at Llannwerchwen Retreat Centre. This centre is situated in the hills north of Brecon, Wales and is run by a Catholic order. Whilst they do offer support and guidance they also welcome everybody to use the space and accommodation for solitude retreats. I only ever see the people running the centre at the beginning and end of the retreat.
I have visited many times over the last ten years. I have witnessed the bare bones of winter and sneezed through the vibrancy of spring. I have been sunburnt in high summer and most recently experienced the onset of autumn. Each visit brings a different experience. Some of those experiences are coloured by the accommodation allocated, its view and feel. Others are influenced by what is on my mind when I arrive, but always they are shaped by the choices I make whilst I am there.
So I thought I would share a few ideas that I believe help support the possibility of a beneficial (solitude) retreat. This knowledge has been gained the hard way! For every tip below I have done the opposite. I don’t claim that the list is perfect, every experience will still be different, but these tips support the potential for an enriching experience.
15 Tips for a beneficial (solitude) retreat
- Set an intention. This is best kept simple. For example, to slow down or to be completely quiet. It is not a goal – something you have to achieve – this is to be a way of being whilst you are on retreat.
- Turn your smartphone to airplane mode. Set the ‘vacation responses’ on your email and text and still be able to access those talks by wise guides that you have pre-saved. It will remain a temptation to switch back on, but all aspects of a retreat require discipline, this is just one other. The hardcore alternative is to leave your phone in the car or at home!
- Be self sufficient. Bring with you all the food, drink, toiletries, reading material, arts equipment and other props that you require. But be lean with your choices, always ask yourself, ‘Do I really need this?’
- Don’t drive anywhere. Leave your car in the car park
- Exercise. Walk in nature, slowly paying attention to the sensations you experience. Do gentle yoga.
- Meditate. Commit to a regular meditation practice (maybe morning and night) and integrate other mindful practices: walking, washing up, art, photography. Centre upon the development of concentration.
- Get creative. Take the materials for a creative outlet. The quieter and more rested you get the more likely your creativity will be sparked. Try painting, drawing, colouring, sketching, writing or photography. The quieter and less stimulated you want to be the less of these things you will take.
- Eat well. Cook wholesome fresh food with quality ingredients. Use the preparation, cooking and eating as a mindful practice.
- Contemplate. Sit in nature or in your accommodation in complete silence doing nothing, maybe enjoying a hot mug of your favourite beverage.
- Limit sound. Choose whether your retreat will be in complete silence or if you will be supported by dharma talks or similar. Try not talk to yourself (out loud or in your head). This is particularly difficult initially.
- Take with you…. A flask, water bottle, pens, paper, colours, camera, inspirational reading, appropriate seasonal footwear. The quieter and less stimulated you want to be the less of these things you will take.
- Pay attention to how you are each day. Be aware of your sensations, your thoughts and your feelings. These will guide wise choices.
- Read (if you have to) that which will support your intention. Not material that will agitate.
- Be gentle with yourself. Be compassionate for your experience. Everything is possible. It is all passing through.
- Ease in and out of the retreat. Think about how the phases before and after can support your experience.
Here are a few of my favourite photos from my recent retreat