The Need to Retreat

As I prepare to send an email to friends and family telling them I’m about to fall off the radar for a while, it seems like the perfect time to share some thoughts on why.

I recently ran away to Vermont for a few weeks.  In August I’ll return to Barcelona.  Last year I checked out of my everyday life for six full months.  

From the outside, it might seem decadent.  Travel is fun.  It’s exciting.  And, particularly when heading overseas, it’s a luxury.

On the other hand, it also typically entails a tremendous amount of planning, logistics, and expense.  Why would I want to go to all that trouble, when I’m trying to focus on completing a major project?

So that I can focus on completing that major project.

Whether we stay near or go far, sometimes getting away is about much more than diversion.  Sometimes it’s a necessity.

Sometimes we need to retreat.

A retreat isn’t a vacation.  Over and over last year I was told how lucky I was to spend six months in Europe.  And I was — and immensely grateful, too.  But I not only worked very hard to be able to do it, I worked very hard the entire time I was there.

Retreating is about doing the work.

Retreats are common in many, if not most, spiritual traditions.  Jesus, Muhammad, and the Buddha all retreated, as do many of their followers today.  For not altogether different reasons and in similar fashion, writers, artists, and yogis retreat as well.

Done with a clear purpose, periodically shutting out the world isn’t running away from it.  It’s setting the stage for a more lucid experience of it.

Creation requires incubation.  A caterpillar wraps itself in a cocoon to become a butterfly.  An idea takes form in the secret, hidden realm of the imagination.  The soul finds the inspiration and insight it needs to evolve in stillness and silence.

My own purpose is to finish writing a novel.  I need solitude, a quiet space, and freedom from my everyday responsibilities.  Depending on where I am in my process, I might need to stay up all night, spend days at a time without any social interaction, or even briefly abandon my project altogether to wander the streets or explore the countryside.  I might skip a few showers, live on chocolate, wine, and figs, or sit outside a café for an entire afternoon, doing nothing at all.  I need to temporarily but totally disassociate myself from the structure of my day-to-day life, including many of the things I most love about it and, even, the people who bring me the most joy.

Admittedly, I don’t have to go away to do that.  Retreats can take many forms.  Right now, in a horrible affront to this marvelous technological age, my cell is turned off.  In another unconscionable act of bravado, I didn’t take it with me when I went out earlier.  I’m logged out of email, Facebook, and Twitter.  I have deliberately not had any social commitments for the past 24 hours, and I don’t have any scheduled for the next 24.

Still, going away can make getting away that much easier.  I’m much harder to track down when I’m all alone on the other side of the globe.  Here at home, putting a bridge between me and the city can be almost as effective.

Hand-in-hand with the need to retreat is the need to return.  

The romantic notion of running off to a tropical island and never coming back is just that — a romantic notion.  When we retreat, the point is not merely to forget for a week or two, only to subsequently pick up where we left off.  The point is for the work to produce some sort of lasting results, to have something to bring back, something for the greater good.

Deeper understanding.  Renewed perspective.

A completed novel.