Each year, for several days, I withdraw from my familiar, comfortable world to gain a fresh perspective on life. I seek, as Einstein says, to “see the world anew” by testing myself with a combination of physical and mental challenges.
Our living arrangements contain a mesmerizing array of comforts and, being the pleasure-seeking creatures we are, eschewing luxury is low on our list of interests. Consequently, we develop a stale bundle of habits and reactions which turn our world into a grey, uninspiring fug.
My favourite antidote to this malaise is the retreat, where a radical scenery change recalibrates my perspective.
Retreats are an ancient and venerable way to refresh the mind, rest the body and create space for creativity and renewal. They bring insights into our direction, priorities and purpose and they can be life-changing.
Two famous retreats occurred thousands of years ago and they symbolize this capacity for rejuvenation and change. The Buddha and Jesus were two early masters of the retreat and both sought answers by leaving behind the safe and familiar. The Buddha is said to have been so fed up with his attempts to awaken spiritually by living in renunciation that he vowed to sit under a tree until he became enlightened. This relatively public retreat lasted forty-nine days during which, so the story goes, he was assailed by doubts and demons (and probably lots of mosquitoes) until he attained a clarity of vision so powerful it still resonates with us today.
Jesus also found clarity by retreating into a desert. Over forty days, he encountered serpents and visions and, like Buddha, he emerged with renewed strength and determination.
Of course, to our modern sensibilities these stories offer severe examples of retreats and their ability to transform. However, their outlandish and extraordinary nature is meant, I think, to point us to the very heart of what’s at stake. Indeed, I suspect if these stories were less colorful we wouldn’t pay attention and a key path to spiritual development would be missed.
So, don’t wait for someone else to suggest a retreat or organize one for you. Our culture might encourage us to take holidays at exotic resorts where we spend lots of money acquiring trinkets and seeing the sights. However, it is indifferent, even hostile, to the notion of retreating for the purpose of “seeing the world anew”. Unless, of course, there’s money to be made.
In a world obsessed with productivity, economic growth and consumerism, taking yourself off to unfamiliar territory once or twice a year is one of the most radical and life-affirming things you can do.