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Before I started each year of volunteering, I attended an orientation retreat to prepare myself for community, social justice, simplicity, and spirituality. This was my first time attending a re-entry retreat, specifically for people who have gone abroad and have to deal with reverse culture shock. The activities were geared towards helping us heal the hurts of the past, celebrate the joys, and move forward with purpose.
If I have learned anything during my time as a volunteer, it is that life is best lived open-heartedly. I always try to let go of any preconceived notions I have of any situation and any person I meet. So I made my way to San Antonio ready to receive whatever the ten days had in store.
What Is a Retreat?
For me, retreats have always been an opportunity to step back, evaluate life, and take a breather. I’ve been on retreats where we are given tons of space to talk to each other. I’ve also been on silent retreats where we are asked to unplug from all forms of chatter. Regardless, retreats offer activities to help you balance the emotional, physical, mental, and social aspects of yourself.
One of my favorite retreat activities is hiking by myself or with a group. I always feel reset by getting my blood flowing, breathing fresh air, and letting go of those routine thought processes. That is one of the most beneficial things about retreats: they are active breaks from the daily routine, a break—unlike a vacation—that allows you to make space for new energy, new creativity, new insight. If it’s not possible to commit to a full guided retreat (typically two to seven nights), we may try to find ways to step back from our daily lives in smaller ways. However, in this time of constant social media and technological connection, we can all benefit from time away. Here is what I learned from stepping away from the everyday and a list of things to keep in mind once you commit to a retreat.
“Pausing and paying attention to where we have been helps us to learn more about ourselves and life by connecting our past to the present moment, by seeing how the past fits or doesn’t fit, with what we believe and how we live. Hanging onto the past is not healthy. Never looking back to the past is equally unhealthy. We need to look back in order to learn from where we have been to carry these insights into the present, to learn from them. When we do so we can walk into the future with greater wisdom.” – Joyce Rupp
My Time in San Antonio
I knew to expect ample time for self-reflection and group discussions in San Antonio, but little did I know that the retreat would include a hot tub, margaritas, and Mardi Gras celebrations. In my opinion, it’s not a proper retreat without good food (and snacks) and laughs.
The women I met on the ten day re-entry retreat were some of the most open-minded people I have ever met. And how could they not be? They had lived in Haiti, Ghana, Guatemala, Chile, Sierra Leone for five, ten, fifteen, twenty-five years. They had survived wars, plane crashes, bus accidents, malaria, cancer, not to mention all the emotional ups and downs that being immersed in new places and cultures involves.
I was so grateful to be accepted by this group of women, the youngest of whom was thirty years older than me. They respected me for my own experiences and what I could bring to the table. Mainly, we talked. We told our stories. The stories that we couldn’t tell anywhere else. The stories we were so proud of but kept quiet because we didn’t want to seem self-important. We listened to each other. We acknowledged all our different feelings and released them. We grappled with the confusing threads we just couldn’t reconcile. We honored people we owed our lives to. We allowed ourselves the grace to just be.
A Lesson in Forgiveness
I was particularly struck by the reflections of a woman who realized that she needed to forgive some people in her life. She had buried the feelings of disappointment and frustration and anger for eleven years, because it was easier to work with these people if she wasn’t harboring negative energy towards them. But even though they were no longer in her life, she realized she was still holding on to the bitterness. It was time to dig those feelings out and throw them away. I was inspired by her to reflect on my own relationships. I realized that I too needed to forgive someone in order to release the negative energy that I couldn’t seem to control.
I set some time aside to journal specifically on this relationship. I found that I had wanted to just push away the feelings of betrayal and loss of trust I felt with this person. I wanted to pretend to be bigger than those wounds and act as if everything was forgotten. But, of course, I couldn’t forget. So, I decided that from the retreat forward, any time I had ill will or resentful thoughts about this person, I would acknowledge my sadness and then let go.
I knew I would have to do this over and over again before it would feel genuine. I also discovered that I needed to forgive myself: for feeling shame in my own actions, for doubting myself, for closing up my heart to life because I had become so vulnerable in this relationship. Over time, I have truly forgiven this person. Even though my heart didn’t seem to think it was possible, my head knew it was. I trusted that if I could surrender to all the feelings, both positive and negative, and commit to detaching myself from them, the healing process would naturally occur.
I left the retreat feeling lighter, relinquishing a weight I didn’t know I was carrying.
My Tips for Committing to your Retreat Experience
Most of the retreats I’ve done focused on caring for myself mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. But maybe next time, it will be a yoga retreat with more of a physical component, which I have always wanted to do. Regardless, I know that any retreat requires some key commitments from the retreat goer. Once you sign up for a retreat, keep the following in mind:
- Be open. You may be asked to do new things or things that put you out of your comfort zone. As long as you know you will be safe, be open to the experience!
- Be intentional about your time. If you need to journal during your free time, do that instead of hopping on your phone to check your emails. If you need to go for a run in the evening while everyone is having snacks , take thirty minutes to go. This is your time.
- Get enough sleep. This is a chance for you to catch up on those precious hours! You also want to have enough energy to participate fully.
- Ask questions and advocate for yourself. If you need something, ask for it. If you don’t understand a particular activity, ask about it.
- Pack light. Bring only what you need. A retreat is a break from your routine. Leave your baggage at home.
- Acknowledge the discomfort. Whether they are dredged up emotions, homesickness, or boredom, take it all as an opportunity to observe yourself and your reactions.
- Let go of expectations. Set goals if you want to work on something in particular or if you need to discipline yourself, but try to detach from how you think the retreat should flow. We almost always try to control everything. But some of life’s best surprises are completely random and entirely unexpected.
I remember being at a silent retreat once, during an intense chapter of life full of personal and family upheavals, expecting to be internal the whole time. I was looking forward to stewing in my pain and being miserable, because in my daily routine I had to go to work and pretend like everything was okay. But have you ever tried to eat a meal at a table full of friends and not say anything? I spent half the retreat choking back giggles because people make the most ridiculous faces when they are instructed not to talk.
I’m not encouraging you to ignore the rules on silent retreats, because I believe that silence is one of the best paths to the divine. However, on that particular retreat I realized that what I needed was stomach cramping belly laughs, not gut wrenching tears. Let go, and you may surprise yourself: periods of purposeful reflection tend to surprise you with answers you didn’t know you were looking for.
After two retreats, Lara Torii was ready to make the cross country move from L.A. to NYC. She has recently become gainfully employed but will continue to couch surf for a little while longer.