Retreat and Return: The Value of Time-Out-of-Time and How To Invite More Of It Into Your Life
This past weekend, I took some much needed “time out of time” and attended a workshop at Esalen in Big Sur. For some, it’s a site of intellectual and spiritual pilgrimage that’s associated with the likes of Aldous Huxley and Joseph Campbell. For others, it’s that place Don Draper went to at the end of Mad Men.
Not everyone can or should visit this place — though it is exquisitely beautiful, and if Don Draper can find zen there, anyone can. But whether you ever set foot there or not, I wanted to bring back a piece of the serenity and experience to share with you, because its lessons on the value of retreat apply to everyone.
The dramatic ascent to this cliffside paradise rewards you with bazillion dollar views at every turn. When you do finally arrive, you’re miles from the nearest hint of civilization, left alone with nothing but nature, your own thoughts, and other like-minded seekers.
From the moment I entered the gate, I could feel myself in a state of unwinding. The frenetic energy of everyday life oozed off my body (along with all the residual EMFs). I wanted to take in all this place and time had to offer, while dropping all the heavy baggage of life that weighed me down. I was a spool of thread, eager to unravel. I could finally stretch out.
It’s hard not to feel wild and free and fully oxygenated in the presence of such natural grandeur and seclusion. For 48 hours, there was no driving, no cooking, no technology or media, no productivity. Just being. Thinking. Listening. Writing. Reading. Breathing. Oh, and hot springs. Beautiful, ocean-side hot springs. It’s like an adult sleepover camp. A little utopia of diverse, creative, expression-oriented, health-conscious folks, trying to better themselves and the world around them. It sounds quaint (and maybe to some, a little naive), but doesn’t it also sound wonderful? It is.
Regardless of the workshop one attends (and there are many), the most significant transformation for many who visit this California oasis or any site for retreat occurs as a result of a separation from technology. Esalen and the surrounding area is a dead zone. There is zero cell service. The main lodge offers wifi at certain times of the day, but I chose not to indulge and instead made it a two-day digital detox.
I write and speak extensively on our relationships with technology, so I make a concerted effort to turn my phone off at night, keep it on silent and out of sight when spending time with others, and to minimize my automatic notifications. And yet, the battle for peace in an age of technology still wages a war on my mind and body — and general sanity — on a daily basis. Anxiety, distraction, a lack of focus or an inability to go deep, as well as disconnection from one’s own thoughts and emotions are just a few of the side effects of this modern condition.
Having my tech toys taken away for even this brief period of time quenched my thirst in a way I didn’t fully appreciate the need for until I experienced it. Now I want oh-so-much-more of it.
These brief-yet-valuable escapes from everyday life and technology (and with it, distraction) are a path to inner stillness. Why do we need this retreat into stillness? Who better to turn to for that answer than Thoreau:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
It is in conscious retreat and our eventual return that we recover what we have lost through the unyielding experience of everyday life. This subtle stillness permits us to reorient our compass and return to a healthy set-point, better equipped for the vicissitudes of living — happier, clearer, and more whole.
My fellow participants spanned all walks of life, but one particularly inspiring member of my group was an older man who was there with his wife to celebrate his birthday. He’s been coming to Esalen since the 1980s, and the Saturday we spent together marked the start of his 85th year on this planet. During an exercise in which we worked to align our values and aspirations, he framed his perspective succinctly: “It’s this. It doesn’t get better than this.” The gratitude and contentment that comes with age immediately overwhelmed the group with emotion. He was the embodiment of #goals.
One of the moderators was half-Filipino, and he shared that in his culture, when one asks, “What do you do for a living?” the expression translates most directly as, “What is your search for life?” This, in many ways, is what this weekend and many of our moments of retreat are about. What are we searching for in this life? How is that search supported not only by our professional occupations, but in how we live? This is a bit different than finding your purpose, but the two are closely related.
To answer, we must first identify what makes us thrive.
For me, I thrive when…
- I read
- I reflect
- I listen
- I have time in nature
- I remove distractions
- I connect one-on-one with great people
- I forge my own path and refuse to conform
- I find humor in absurdity, disappointment, hardship, and the mundane
–> These things make me come alive and open the door to all that I search for in life.
In answering what it is we search for, we can take heart in knowing that our purpose is not just about what the world needs, but what makes us come alive. Our individual vitality is what the world needs more of, and if we can answer that question and fuel that fire, we give a gift not only to ourselves, but the entire world.
Sometimes those big existential questions feel too overwhelming and impossible to tackle — and so we charge on, buried in the latest news alert or snarky tweet. During moments of retreat, however, we are called to go big and go deep. One way to answer this call is to anchor ourselves in that moment with a simpler question: What do you hope to take from this time-out-of-time, and what do you hope to let go of and leave behind?
When posed with this question, the breadth of responses from my peers inspired me. I’m sure many of you can relate to their sentiments.
They hoped to leave behind:
a fear of being alone
concern about being successful
One man summarized it best: “I want to burn the dead wood in my life.” We all have dead wood — people, habits, hangups, wounds. Time to fire it up.
What they hoped to take with them was equally relatable:
balance and an escape from “competing energies”
time away from family and obligations (there were some new parents in the group, feeling slightly guilty but mostly exhilarated for taking this time away)
to answer the question, “What next?”
As for me? I came into the weekend hoping for some clarity in several aspects of life, as well as a reconnection with stillness. I hoped to reset my mind and body so that I could re-emerge refreshed, approaching challenges and opportunities old and new with a clean slate. I also wanted to leave behind unnecessary distraction and retain the ability to flip the switch and recapture the way I felt during the weekend once I returned. It is an attempt to live in “wu wei,” the Chinese concept that instructs us to live in effortless, unforced action; stillness in motion.
Did I succeed? Yes and maybe. “Doing the work” during these precious moments of retreat is only part of the equation. The other more difficult challenge lies in how you live it once you return.
Here is my pledge for integrating these lessons and retaining a feeling of embodied peace amidst the chaos of daily life. Perhaps some of them will prove useful to you:
RETREAT and RETURN:
I plan to make quarterly weekend retreats and go fully off-grid. 48 hours, four times a year.
During the other 357 days of the year, I’m ramping up my daily digital detox:
No phone in or near bed habitually
Use my smartphone as an old school wired telephone, plugged into the wall and out of reach, with only phone calls and text notifications turned on
Turn on airplane mode more often, including a full hour before going to sleep
RETRAIN and REWRITE:
It’s easy to become stuck in old ways of thinking and acting. I commit to 3 months of retraining my brain and body, in an effort to change how I perceive of myself, my health, and how I believe others perceive me. This includes daily meditations and affirmations, as well as more profound tools for mental and emotional transformation.
Even when we create space and rewire our brains, we can still self-sabotage with negativity bias. Rewriting our personal stories helps to curb reactivity by focusing our attention on the facts, not the fictions that undermine us. Reframing these narratives allows us to return to the blissed-out baseline we achieve during times of retreat, even when we return to “reality” and are triggered. As a result, we are rewarded with greater resilience, and ultimately, more happiness.
But even if we do all this, bad sh!t will happen. Even when we align and feel vibrant, we will still experience failure. So what then? Perhaps the greatest bit of wisdom I took from one of the weekend leaders is that failure is a feature of lived experiences, not a bug. Life is always comprised of peaks and valleys, even when we are at our best. In the words of Rubem Alvez, “The frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the actual.”
Even if you won’t be joining Don and me in the California cliffs anytime soon, my wish for you is to create your own habitual routine of retreat and return. If you think your life is just too busy, challenge yourself to defy that line of thinking and do it anyway, then observe its effects and soak in the afterglow. Let that residual vibration motivate you to make retreat and return part of your own life rhythm.
Often, your time of retreat may be self-guided, rather than within the confines of a formal workshop. So here are three short pieces that were shared with me this weekend and which may prompt some reflection during your next retreat, however brief:
What Is Hope?
She Let Go
Do you regularly retreat and return? What do you gain from it? If not, what keeps you from making it happen, and what might help you to work around those hurdles? Tell me in the comments!