This holiday season is like no other. If you’re more isolated than you wanted or planned to be at this point, or if you’re just too burnt out to even try to figure out how to get what you’re needing, why not go out on a limb and do something different: take a solo retreat.
If you’ve never done a solo retreat, the concept might need some explaining. It’s a little different than a solo vacation, and also different than a led retreat.
That is: it’s not a time to finally read all of the books you wanted, to play lots of games, to get long miles in the great outdoors, or to see all of the sites in a new beautiful place. Nor is it a hosted experience with a teacher who will guide you through deepening your meditation or yoga practice over some number of days.
It is something in between these. It also offers different rewards than either. Conveniently, it’s also the one option that is still COVID-possible for most of us even while locked down.
Solitude With a Little More Intention
In some ways, you could also think of a solo retreat as a way to bring more intention and nourishment to the difficult level of isolation many of us have found ourselves in, anyway. It could even be a way to help you finally rest, grieve, and transform some of what has been so hard about this year.
A solo retreat is the truest way I have ever found to help myself through real transformation: that is, it’s not just a “break” in order to return to wherever, whoever, or however I was, but a conscious step to look more closely at myself, my life, the world, and what I’ve experienced, and maybe touch something closer to wisdom and insight to guide wherever I’m going next — or, in some cases, just actually acknowledge where I really am.
Solo retreats can be confronting. There is no one to entertain you or distract you. If you find yourself annoyed, tired, frustrated, or happy on a solo retreat, you only have yourself to thank, and you know it.
I have become a fan of solo retreats because I’ve had an unusual set of experiences that have supported me to seek them out regularly.
Five years ago, I co-founded an alternative to divinity school called Alt*Div to support soulful community builders. Ironically, I was so burnt out from the experience of leading it that I needed to take my first “sabbatical” two years into it, which I marked by going a solo retreat in a snowy cabin. It was just four days, but that was just long enough to bring me face-to-face with all of the reasons I had gotten so far past the point of exhaustion, including a look at deeper root causes— like the impact of living in a culture of hyper-productivity and achievement, driven by definitions of success shaped by whiteness, capitalism, and my education. So, those four days quickly became the start of years of self and collective work, laying the foundation for starting to heal from all of these root factors of harm to myself and the world.
Since then, I have also spent most of the last two years organizing community between catholic women religious (“sisters”) and young movement organizers with Nuns & Nones. I have learned that many sisters actually have a written right in their community’s constitutions for each sister to take at least one solo retreat a year. Sisters understand the importance of solo retreats for keeping them grounded in their spirituality and their resilience for life in committed community.
All together, I’ve been lucky to have more support and resources than most folks who aren’t monks to take regular solo retreats. So, if you need something different this year, I wanted to share some tips and support for how you can create your own mini monastery, too, even in your own home.
Here is my personal list of secret ingredients for a nourishing solo retreat:
Sacred Space: Where to Go?
Perhaps, nowhere! Obviously, the first key ingredient to a solo retreat is a place where you can be alone, but there are also plenty of ways to transform your home into a sanctuary (here is one short guide). Whether traveling or not, the important thing is making the space itself sacred for the time you will be “in retreat.” Here are some of my criteria:
Beauty is great, but not important. I’ve had solo retreats in Brooklyn basement apartments, and in beautiful alpine huts. Aim for simplicity. Wherever I go, the goal is a small, simple space that can hold me in its coziness. I always love being in a place where there are a variety of pleasant walks nearby, but I generally steer away from really being on the move the whole time — like being in a van or on a long hike — or where I feel the pull to try to get out and see a bunch of stuff, both of which can become distractions themselves.
That said, I always love being in a place that require a little work: some wood to chop, a stove to keep burning, maybe even some plants or animals to feed and tend, without these things becoming the whole point unto themselves.
Most importantly: don’t do your retreat anywhere where you will be expected to socialize. This could be possible even if in your own home if others are there, too, as long as those around you can understand and honor your space during this time. On guided meditation retreats, this often includes an agreement not to make eye contact with others on retreat.
Need Help Finding Places?
- A Tip: First of all, don’t be bashful about asking for support from your family and friends. This year of all years, we all know we all need it. If you post an explicit request, you may be surprised who has something for you one or two degrees of separation away.
- An Offer: Even if that fails, reach out to me. I would like to help as many people as I can find spaces to retreat this season as I can, including in the network of spaces and communities I’ve gotten to know through Nuns & Nones. I can’t help everyone who reaches out, but will do everything in my power.
Sacred Time: How Long?
Aim for a minimum of three days. I would recommend five to ten days. Rationale: it usually takes me the first three days to realize how tired I am, sleep it off, and find some kind of real, relaxed energy again, and that’s usually just when the good stuff starts coming, so I want to have a few more days after that to enjoy what comes next.
Likewise, no matter what I do, I will probably spend the last day or two being sad about leaving and starting to think about all I have to do next. So the best scenario is long enough for some space between those first three and the last two days.
There are so many barriers to finding and getting this much time, I know, but at this point in 2020, this kind of retreat isn’t even preventative care, it’s acute care. Can you request something you’ve never requested from your boss, your partner, your extended family, etc. to help make this possible? This year of all years, the answer might just be, “that’s such a good idea. Actually, we should all do that! What do you need and how can I help?”
“One of the things I’ve learned is: don’t quit. Especially if you’re at or near home, you might get to day 3 or 4 and be like, okay, great, I’m all set! Got what I needed. Ready to pack up! I think the thing that amazes me is how much each day has it’s own gifts (and challenges) that you never would have expected or seen coming. You think you know what you’re in for, but then… whoa! So, staying with the intended timeline is important, rather than cutting it short.”
— Adam Horowitz, Nuns & Nones co-founder
Voluntary Simplicity: Keep Mundane Rituals Rigidly.
It may sound silly, but every time I have truly retreated, one of the most important things I have done has been to become almost overly fastidious about the mundane rhythms and routines of the day, making as much as I could about my living space and day as structured as possible.
Monks in monasteries keep what they call “the hours” — a strict schedule of prayers, eating, sleep, work, etc. If you’ve ever been on a meditation retreat or yoga intensive or any kind of strict training program, you might have also experienced this kind of disciplined structure of the day. You don’t have to do exactly that, but I still find some self-created discipline does give me a lot of breathing room on retreat. This is especially helpful for me when I am so burnt out that even deciding what to cook feels like a chore.
What might your “hours” be? As an example, my daily schedule and rules of the space on retreat might look something like this:
- Alarm goes off at 7am and the day starts with water and gentle movement my body feels called to, and/or to writing down dreams or messy morning thoughts.
- Meals are at 8am, 12pm, and 6pm. They are always served at the same spot with the same bowl and spoon, then immediately washed and returned to the same spot for the next meal. No dishes left in the sink.
- Every breakfast and every lunch are the same each day (say, oatmeal and miso soup with lots of vegetables). Dinner is also planned in advance and simple. All meals are easy-to-digest and low effort, like a simple lentil curry over rice. I sometimes even take pre-made camping meals with me, just to make meal preparation require as little effort as possible.
- I love to give different spaces within my retreat home distinct purposes and fun names. This table becomes the “art corner,” where I keep my art supplies. That couch in the sun is the “nap corner,” etc.
- An alarm bell goes off three times during the day to introduce a moment pause, and no matter what is going on at that point, I lay down, take three deep breaths, and have a good stretch.
- After I brush my teeth each night, nothing else happens except six restorative yoga postures, then turning off the lights and laying down.
- All lights out by 10pm. If I need a light after that for some reason, I have to light a candle.
All of this might not be your go-to way of being “on vacation,” which might usually mean freedom to enjoy an “anything goes” list of favorite indulgences. I’m not against having pleasurable things available on retreat (I do usually still have that glass of wine, my morning coffee, etc.), but I also bring mindfulness and moderation to these. For example, I might notice after two days that I really don’t like how I feel after coffee, and decide to trying napping instead.
However you do it, anything you can do to create voluntary simplicity can facilitate a deeper rest, ease, and renewal. When you free yourself from making decisions, you also liberate immense amounts of time and energy.
Set Boundaries. Ask for Support.
First, for your availability: tell your friends and family some of the boundaries you are setting for yourself (limited, but “if there’s an emergency…”).
Untethering yourself from relationships and commitments for a few days is one of the hardest parts. It’s so easy to leave the door open for just that one thing. My advice is: don’t! Leave a channel open for emergency messages to get through somehow, but don’t tell anyone you’ll be checking work or responsibility-related messages periodically just to see if you missed anything.
“So many people (and even I thought), ‘I can’t go, I might miss something really important,’ or ‘it would be selfish of me to do something like this and leave responsibilities with other people.’ Now that I think about it, I had kind of the worst case scenario happen… Grandpa died while I was on one of my solo retreats. That was an incredibly significant moment because it taught me that you’re not missing something, you’re participating in a different way then you planned, and the people that I left back home weren’t negatively affected.”
— Laura Webb, technologist, and my sister!
Second, ask for support in particular ways, possibly from the same or different folks, such as for them to be thinking about you and your intentions while you’re away, or to receive you on the other side to hear your stories and welcome you “back.”
“Having a designated supporter for a solo retreat — a trusted friend of like mind, a spiritual director, a counselor is a good idea if you can. This companion can hear your intention and purpose beforehand and debrief the experience afterwards. Should there be any challenges or spiritual emergencies the companion would be on hand to walk with you through it.”
— Sister Patsy Harney, Sister of Mercy, Burlingame, CA
(Yes, she said “spiritual emergencies.” It’s a real thing!)
That Includes Technology.
Third, set clear technology intentions and limitations. Will you use your devices at all, or only in a limited way?
For example, my rule on retreat is that my phone stays off and in a drawer next to a chair (never in my bed room). I turn it on once a day to check if I have gotten any emergency messages, then turn it back off. I bring a watch with an alarm clock so that I don’t need to look at my phone to tell the time.
I also love watching all of the things I intuitively reach to my phone for — like taking a picture — and the awareness and creativity that springs up in place of being able to immediately satisfy that desire — like, drawing a picture instead.
“It took you a lot to get to your retreat, so once you are there, give yourself the gift of being present for it.”
— Aden Van Noppen, Founder of Mobius, and my partner
Sleep. Sleep. Sleep.
One final arbitrary rule I’d like to recommend in particular: for the first three days at least, let yourself sleep whenever you are tired. You might sleep 14 hours throughout the day. No judgement. Give into it like a child.
I don’t think this requires explanation, just some wrestling with internal habits and monologues. Be your own parent.
Keep Your Practices Simple.
There are many contemplative practices that can be supportive of what happens within all of that time and space you have now created.
Some common practices for me are: meditation, qi gong, reflective journaling, intuitive art, and mindful walking. Having a focus on a few of these can be very helpful to make this time different than others, and to give space for surprising insights to emerge as well.
For you, immersive time in certain contemplative practices you love might even be the whole point of your retreat. That said, my advice is to keep it simple and stick to what you know. For me, a solo retreat isn’t time for me to try to learn and incorporate whole new practices that weren’t already part of my life in some way. This keeps in check my temptation to use this time to accomplish or achieve something.
So, don’t make this the retreat where you “finally learn to meditate” if that’s not an experience you’re returning to in some way. I suggest picking a few comfortable favorites that you know can bring you back from your less skillful habits of mind, distractions, or stories; if art or music or dance is your favorite way to calm your mind, make one of these your focus.
Keep in mind: “practices” can be profoundly simple. For example, I know that I can get stuck in lethargy, and also that moving, deep breathing, and drinking water almost always bring my energy back up. So once I wrote a sticky note on my mirror which said “B.M.W.” which stood for “Breathe. Move. Water.” Whenever I felt kind of yucky or my mind was going for loops, I tried one of those three things, and always felt instantly a little better. Now, these practices stick with me even in other, more stressful moments.
Three Rituals: Threshold, Close, and Integration.
When you begin your solo retreat, mark the time and space as sacred and different from the rest of your life. One of the best ways to do this is through creating clear rituals, or “thresholds” to cross.
For example, to create an opening ritual, maybe make an altar, or simply light a candle and sit in silence for ten minutes. Or go and sit by a stream, great tree, or under a sunset and let it be a moment of beginning. Let yourself be honest about your intention for this time and maybe speak it out loud to be witnessed by the land and space that is now part of your ritual, and part of your journey ahead.
For a closing, you might simply repeat your opening ritual. You might also give thanks to those who supported you, seen and unseen, near and far, during this time. You might write down things you want to take with you or remember. You might give offerings to the land that has held you. Then you can step back across the same “threshold” again to close the container you created, and to acknowledge your choice to re-enter back the life that you know, but differently.
Finally, when you return, I suggest planning a moment of integration. This might be a week later taking a moment to look back at what you wrote at your closing ritual. Or it might be telling the story to a friend and asking them to help you make meaning of the experience on a deeper level. It’s a moment of marking “I was there. That happened and was real, and so is this. How can I now hold both of these as true?” This is a moment of letting yourself and maybe someone else witness you as someone different, but back in familiar context and relationships again.
Some time in the middle or towards the end of your retreat, another, unplanned ritual might also happen, which I usually call the rupture because of how unexpected it is. You cannot plan this, but if it comes, all you have to do is let it happen. My only advice is to let go of time and plans, and trust your many thousands-of-years-deep memory to show you want to do. In other words: remain open to totally emergent rituals that you did not plan.
What happens in between all of that space, ritual, and practice is almost always prolonged moments of utter boredom. And that’s the best part, because of what always comes next: insight, creativity, and sometimes emergent ritual.
What comes next is poetry and art you didn’t know you had in you, that letter you didn’t know you needed to write to you father, a deep cry and some serious self reckoning, or maybe an hour transfixed in awe at the improbability of a hummingbird.
So, plan for boredom and welcome it like a friend when it comes.
"Maybe the biggest challenge for me has been allowing myself to simply BE as I am at this time of retreat, without judgment, expectation, too much self-consciousness, or a head full of “shoulds.” It’s probably taken me close to 30 or 40 years to gain even a little skill in that kind of be-ing." — Sister Janet Rozzano, Sister of Mercy, Burlingame
Besides, how many times have you gone on vacation with twenty books you wanted to read, and by the end barely cracked one of them? Why not try something else, and take almost nothing with you, and see what happens.
When I moved into Mercy Center two years ago for a six month residency with Nuns & Nones, one of our de facto “formation directors,” Mercy Center Director Suzanne Buckley, told us, “Pack like a monk. Don’t bring your whole library.”
Not bringing your whole library doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring anything. I usually like to bring a few “sacred texts” that I can “sip from rather than drink,” like my three favorite books of poetry.
Also, I do take little resources that might help prompt reflection and zooming out. I love these kinds of things so much that I actually made the Wayfinder Kit to gather a lot of my favorite one together. I use it in programs around the world, but I also made it because I needed it myself, so it always goes on retreat with me, too.
These kinds of resources can be helpful, but try not to make too much of a plan for “getting through them.” Instead, make a different plan: once on your retreat, make a commitment to yourself not to interrupt boredom too quickly. Say what you won’t do when you get bored. Don’t watch something. Don’t read something. If you can manage to hold yourself through reaching for all of your quick fixes, I promise you will be amazed at what happens next.
“There’s a little dance to strike between following intuition and following impulses. As boredom sets in, all kinds of impulses will arise to do other activities. Watch them close and try to discern: which are attempts to escape from an undesired feeling or bored moment — and which come from deeper intuition worth following? Follow those deeper intuitions!”
— Adam Horowitz
And the boredom always is so much more brief an experience than my anxious mind would ever expect, almost like of these other gifts were always waiting just on the other side of it, if I’d ever stop long enough to let them come out and play.
What’s Stopping You?
If your general orientation has already been to be drawn to guided retreats and experiences in the past, and you are really lamenting not being able to do something like that this season, I hope some of the above can help you over the hurdle of feeling like it’s possible to do something just as powerful for yourself this year.
On the other hand, if you read all of the above and think, “gee, if I could get five-ten days off, why would I not use that time to take a big backcountry hike, finally write that novel, etc.?”
Those are all fine things to do, and I’m not knocking them. However, I’ve come to learn how powerful the above form of consciously-chosen, intentionally-held solitude can be. And it’s almost always the best medicine for me when, if I’m honest, what I really need right now is not more input, more stimulus, more information, and more connection to others and to new things, but letting all that I have experienced finally settle, integrate, and have a chance to be metabolized.
If you are somewhat intrigued by the above, but not sure about it, my challenge to you is this: have you examined your relationship with productivity and with “getting the most out of life,” and the relationship between these impulses and the level of tiredness you now feel? How much is your sense of self worth tied with these? If so, why not try something different.
“I think two things I would want to encourage others with is (1) if you’re even considering it, then it would be worth it. You should do it. (2) Don’t expect it to feel like what it feels like when you’re around people. This is not quiet time. This is not designated time to DO something you haven’t made time to do with people. This is time to LISTEN to yourself. You don’t know what you’re going to hear. Try to set yourself up for success by being open to doing things differently than what you do when you’re around your people.”
— Laura Webb
A special thank you to my teachers: the Redwoods, the Sisters of Mercy, the Order of Interbeing, the Alt*Div community, the Nuns & Nones community, my parents and my sister, the Learning Babies, my partners and friends past and present, and patient time.
While you're here, check out the Wayfinder Kit, the physical toolkit that Sarah & I created to help us get the most out of our solo retreats.
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