How to Take a Spiritual Retreat

The best preparation for going on retreat is to pack only the bare essentials, and leave behind anything that could be considered excessive to simple needs.

Be aware that the retreat really begins before you leave home, when your intention is made. Take note of any dreams or feelings of apprehension that might arise at this point.

I have run retreats in Wales for twenty years, for men and women, teenagers and for men alone. I always recommend that individuals leave behind as much as they can. The whole idea of a retreat is to temporarily step out of your everyday world, to stand apart in order to replenish your spirit and your humours.

This is not the same as going on holiday, where you might walk in nature, windsurf, or visit local attractions. Such activity can be as much a distraction as another landscape, another culture. A change is as good as a rest. Or is it?

What if we were to stop all together - do nothing - just be?

We all need dreamtime in order to balance the frenetic activity of our daily lives. If we were deprived of sleep, we could not dream, and our emotional lives would disintegrate and our ability to make decisions and act effectively would be severely impaired. Given the fragmented, confusing, complex nature of modern experience, a retreat is more relevant than ever in order to visit those parts of ourselves that busyness keeps at bay - and to orientate and motivate us in refocusing our lives.

To my mind a retreat is the chance to quieten the internal dialogue and judgements, and to stop looking for answers outside yourself. So the advice that follows is really in the light of a silent retreat.

Don't go exploring

If you feel like going for a walk, do so with great deliberation. Walk very slowly. It would be better however to remain undistracted. The exploring will happen within. If you just sit alone quietly and wait - and then wait some more - your mind will begin to slow down. Without any distraction, I believe it will take you about six hours to calm down, and for you to have thought all your expected everyday thoughts.

Concentrate on your inner landscape

It is only after this length of time that the retreat really begins, when you have the space to explore your inner landscape. This is when memories will come to you from afar off, when you will begin to retrieve some of your underlying thoughts and principles. Sit with them. Don't be impatient for results. It is unlikely to be a sudden Eureka experience.

It is however the opportunity of an enormous gift to yourself the chance of returning to your core beliefs, away from the compromise and the stress of daily life. If you feel at all spaced out, the best way of returning to the here and now is to do a check of your five senses. Breath slowly, then notice what you can hear, smell, see, and become aware of what you are touching, through the soles of your feet, or what you are sitting on. Try and become aware of what you can taste. Breathe slowly at all times. Treat yourself with great gentleness, for this is a rare treat, and it is just for you.

At some point, in your mind's eye, take a snapshot of yourself, so you can refer to this quiet mood long after you have returned back to your daily life. You might find this a restorative point of reference in retrospect.

Relish the space

I would recommend you do not read, this can take away your attention. Do not write every thought down. Relish the space, and the silence. You might however want to have a notepad at hand to record the occasional insight or decision. You may well find you dream richly at night, and you may want to write the memory of those dreams on paper for later reflection.

Only the very fortunate have this opportunity to relinquish their everyday preoccupations for a few days. It is a rare treat, but it is one of the best preventative medicines available.

Return slowly

Lastly, be aware not to hurtle back into the stress of daily life. Return slowly and with care. And do not give all your gold away by blabbering on to others about your experience. Keep some of it to yourself. After all, that's your gift.


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  • Hugh Dunford Wood

    Hugh Dunford Wood is an artist designer, classically trained at the Ruskin School of Fine Art, Oxford, in the early 1970s. He w…

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