How to take a Solo Retreat

along the Nooksack

I’m here again, honoring the commitment I made to myself a year ago that I would take a quarterly solo retreat. This is a practice that was modeled to me growing up. My dad would take a day off work go to a monastery up in British Columbia. I remember him assembling his journal and prayer books and how “more himself” he seemed when he came home. I’ve been doing this for years, but very sporadically. This whole “once a quarter” business is a factor of several things—no babies, a flexible job, a husband whose firefighting schedule allows him to be home for a few days in a row, and finding the perfect set-up—a location that’s close to home but feels far away (read more about this place here).

Even so, there’s hesitation when I’m packing the car and leaving notes for the kids. I feel guilty that I won’t be home for a basketball or volleyball game. I rehearse the script about how many people don’t have this luxury or about how retreating from the world won’t save it. I’m nervous about leaving all my distractions behind. Those distractions are comforting, and mask an inner restlessness I'd prefer not to face. Every time, leaving is a counter-cultural act.

I do it to remember I have a soul instead of being clenched in what one poet calls “the fist of survival.” I do it to be bored, quiet, and alone. I do it to have a break from stimuli of all sorts—traffic, emails, texts, social media, doing favors for people, taking care of my family, letting the dog out, helping clients, making plans, comparing myself, or judging myself for not deep-cleaning the bathrooms or remembering to send canned goods for the food drive. All of that is SO LOUD sometimes!

Some of us are naturally more contemplative than others, so the struggle to leave is felt with varied intensity. If you’re an Enneagram TWO, leaving town will be Herculean and a sign of major growth. If you’re a FIVE, maybe you need to stay just for 2 nights instead of 10. (You’re welcome, Enneagram lovers. I’m sorry, everyone else.) Wherever you are in your personality or life stage, though, there’s hardly any practice I’d endorse more.

So if you’re open to the idea, if you sort of get the “why,” maybe the harder part is the “how.” What follows are a few highly subjective tips for the seeker in you who’s curious.

Find a place that’s inspiring and easy to get to. Before I had this rhythm, this was always a huge barrier. David Lynch talks about how artists need the “set-up” that will enable them to walk into their studio and get to work. That’s how I think of this. Maybe it’s a friend’s garden shed, a retreat center, a hotel, a tent. So many options depending on your aesthetic and budget.

Talk to a wise guide while you’re away. I see my spiritual director while I’m here, which is easy since she lives on and maintains this property. But maybe you can talk with a therapist or coach on the phone. It’s so transformative to have this kind of help and input in our lives, especially when silence has primed us for it. I bring in my journal, snippets of books, things I’m happy, sad, or confused about, and we make a tapestry of them together.

Bring a journal. I’m with Natalie Goldberg and Naomi Shahib-Nye and so many others on this one—no one ever felt worse about something by writing it down! Don’t worry about being profound or readable. Just start moving your hand across the page. Also, I usually bring an archived journal or two so I can get up on the balcony of my life and see what’s been brewing on the dance floor.

Assemble a collection of creative and meditative aids. It’s comical in my case. I haul so many things out here. I’ve got cookbooks, Enneagram, spirituality, and coloring books, poetry, novels, Tarot cards, stationary, watercolors. It’s always interesting to see what I feel like pulling out.

Bring simple, nourishing food. If you go to a retreat center with a dining hall, that can be very wonderful. I like to make my own food. For breakfast, I bring yogurt, fruit, bread and butter, eggs, coffee. For lunch and dinners, things to assemble rice bowls and salads—greens, cooked brown rice or quinoa, black beans, roasted yams, sharp cheddar, avocado, chiles. Cheese, crackers, pickles, and a chocolate bar for snacks.

Expect to be antsy. You may think of a million reasons to return to your life. You may look deep and be dismayed to find not much there. You may be forced to sit with sadness, uncertainty, boredom, or fear. Wonderful! If being on devices will be a temptation for you, don’t bring them. Embrace the emptiness, though you may hate every minute of it.

Stay at least two nights. I’ve learned over time that one night isn’t enough. Those first 12-18 hours are a detox, and the next day is where the good stuff happens. I’m finally settled into myself, ready to receive.

The late David Daniels, Enneagram teacher, said, “To make a difference in our world, for our planet, we need to begin by making a difference in ourselves. We so need to be able to do this simple work of getting honest, getting present, and becoming more responsibly conscious…our hope for the future depends on [this] ability.”

Thanks for reading, friends. Here’s to the evolution of consciousness!