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Why I go on an annual retreat

On my annual retreat

I’m just back from my annual retreat. It’s not a holiday, nor is it like the ‘retreats’ from schooldays, it’s timeout in conducive surroundings to ‘retreat’ into myself (plus it’s a real ‘treat.’) The last week in July I returned to beautiful Glenstal Abbey in Co. Limerick for a few days of rest, recharging and reading. I installed myself in a wonderfully named ‘Godpod,’ or, in the spirit of Henry David Thoreau, I settled into my ‘cabin in the woods.’

My cabin in the woods

My ‘Godpod’ my cabin in the woods in Glenstal Abbey

The most frequent question I get asked when I return is ‘and what did you do?’ Whilst I usually say something like, read, rest, walk, meditate, the real answer is not about ‘doing’ it’s about being. I simply be.

Like most people, I’ve many demands on my time and attention. My ‘to list’ is lengthy and revolving. As I’m driving down the M7, my intention is to be open. The first day is always challenging because I feel guilty about not doing. My active mind craves structure. I want to read a certain number of books, I want to write profound thoughts, I want to revisit my goals, I want at least five ‘aha moments’ and so on. But this striving diminishes as I curl up in the comfy armchair and gaze across the expansive view.

Despite all the interactions I have with people and the buzz I get from the synergy of working with groups, I’ve always been someone who recharges and refuels in their own company (an introvert in the truest sense of the word.) I relish the splendid isolation. It is the greatest gift I give myself each year. It’s the Olympic standard of self-care. I value myself enough to nourish my soul for one week out of fifty-two. No one to cook for, no clients to respond to, no demands on my time.

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I’ve always been fascinated by the question – who are you when there is no one else around? To answer it you have to have no one else around. It also sits neatly with a favourite quote by Blaise Pascal – ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ I’m proud that I can sit quietly alone in a room.

So what’s it like? Do you not get bored? It’s not too religious, is it?

Glenstal Abbey is run by the Benedictine Monks. There are several liturgies throughout the day. Morning and Evening Prayers, Midday Mass and Vespers. The only one I make a point of attending is Vespers at 6pm. Chanted in Latin, it’s an hypnotic aural meditation.

The Lake at Glenstal Abbey

The beautiful lake in Glenstal Abbey

When the weather is fine (it was quite wet this year) I love to wander the gardens. The lake in Glenstal is particularly beautiful, as is the tiered wall-garden and the meditation garden. Dotted with benches there’s no better place to sit, read, scribble in a journal, or simply be.

I read a lot when I’m on retreat, appropriate spiritual and personal development books that expand my awareness and prompt me to reflect and delve deep. (It goes without saying that there’s no TV, no web, no work emails, no social media.) This year I was savouring Richard Rohr’s latest book ‘The Divine Dance.’ A powerful book all about the Trinity. On my spiritual quest, Richard Rohr’s writing has been a real signpost, a marker pointing me towards a deeper and richer understanding of God, the world and my place in it. I’ll always have a Paul Ferrini book with me (this year it was ‘The Silence of the Heart Volume 2’) and I also reread an old Wayne Dyer favourite ‘Being in Balance.’

I self-cater in my cabin in the woods. There’s a microwave, fridge and two-ring hob (ironically similar to the temporary kitchen we’ve had at home as we are in the midst of renovations.) I go vegetarian for the week, with plenty of salads and fruit. I leave the wine at home and always feel cleaner and leaner for it. I will luxuriate in bed with a mug of tea (I don’t even pack the alarm clock) and eat what I want when I want it. I’m not usually one for taking a nap during the day, but I felt like it twice this year so I did. It was bliss.

Some people say to me, they’d be scared to be by themselves (the Abbey complex is about a mile away.) It’s not an issue for me. In fact, one of the highlights this year was howling wind and heavy rain on the second night, a rooftop lullaby. I was almost tempted to light the wood burner just for effect.

Meditation garden in Glenstal Abbey

A favourite meditation spot

Over the last few years my personal development work has evolved into spiritual development. I agree with Oprah who says you cannot have true fulfilment without a spiritual dimension to your life. Spirituality and connection with Source, God, the Universe, Divine Spirit (the Force!) however you name It, can only be found in the present, when the monkey mind is quiet.

I try to sit in silence every day for 10 minutes (on retreat I give myself the luxury of at least an hour.) Some might call it meditation, I prefer the terms ‘turning in’ or ‘tuning in.’ There are days when this ‘meditation’ is really crossed-legged thinking, but there are others, when the replays of the past and worries of the future are dropped and I sink into the present. In this space, I’m open to being and receiving.

On this retreat and in a state of gratitude, peace and openness I had several insights, shards of clarity. As Caroline Myss might say ‘moments of grace.’ There were also countless instances when words I read seemed scripted just for me, and when ideas tumbled from my head to my heart, the spirit in me recognised the Truth in them.

Richard Rohr in this book The Divine Dance says that ‘the greatest dis-ease facing humanity right now is our profound and painful sense of disconnection.’ All the world’s problems – political corruption, ecological devastation, war and discrimination stem from a disconnection from God, from ourselves, from each other and from our world. I completely agree. In the words of Mother Teresa, ‘if everyone swept their own doorstep the whole world would be clean.’ By going on retreat, I’m doing my bit, I’m giving my doorstep a good clean. Driving back up the M7, my head is a little emptier and my heart a little fuller. I’ve already booked my week for 2018.