Retreat is a time out from the daily demands of life and from our habits and patterns that keep us bound in our actions and thoughts. Without retreat, we often end up getting buried by the routine of life, making it difficult to feel our relationship with the Divine or with ourselves. Yet how many of us give ourselves this precious gift of an annual or semi-annual retreat
In retreat there is time for reflections on our values, our life and our relationship with the Divine, which helps to put things in perspective. Retreat helps us realign with our vision of who we are and what’s important to us. It supports us in living a life that is in harmony with our deepest values. Retreat helps us cut through the clutter of our mind and heart and return us to what is true for us. It restores or reinforces spiritual health.
Here are four big benefits of a spiritual retreat with some back up from science:
- Spiritual Boost
- Calm your mind
- Relax your body
- Clear your heart
1. Spiritual Boost
Retreat helps us to grow spiritually and reinforces our spiritual health. I always get a spiritual lift from my retreats. These boosts are essential for my spiritual growth and for keeping my daily practice alive and vibrant
Where else can we get focused time to simply put our attention on Spirit, on spiritual practice and on ourselves
There is a well-known saying in the world of neuropsychology that says, “the neurons that fire together, wire together.” This is the power of our attention and focus. Our attention is firing neurons.
When we put our attention over and over again on something, we are creating links in our brain and nervous system. This is how habits are formed and how habit can be broken. It is also why we get a real spiritual boost from concentrated time focused on the Divine. It is also why a daily spiritual practice is so important. It reinforces the neural-links.
We are literally wiring our brains for the Sacred. Then, when we go back to our daily routine, we have the benefit of that wiring to help carry us through.
2. Calms the Mind
Even though there are aspects to retreat that can be difficult for the busy mind, the overall outcome is that the mind becomes calmer and less busy. When the mind is calmer we feel more peace.
Sometimes on retreat, when we first start to slow down, ten thousand things come flying into our mind. These are things that we “could” or “should” be doing other than retreating. We don’t try to think of them. They just come rushing in. This is normal!
And no, you don’t have to jump up and take care of those ten thousand things. Chances are, they can wait. Typically, by the end of the retreat, what seemed urgent at first becomes nothing. Somehow, issues resolve or simply are no longer important.
Part of this is due to the productivity of downtime, or resting the brain. Although, when the brain is resting it is far from idle. There is a process in the brain that is well-studied called the default mode network (DMN). This mode is essential to mental processes, self-reflection, understanding human behavior and it instills an internal code of ethics. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California and her colleagues concluded this after they reviewed the research on DMN.
DMN also can stimulate new ideas and creativity. It’s the part of the brain that figures things out behind the scenes when we take time out from a hard problem or “sleep on it.” The DNM why insight or clarity often comes to a situation when we are not directly working on it.
The slowing down that retreat offers is critical for stimulating new ideas and creativity. An open relaxed mind is more receptive to inspiration and spontaneity. A busy, overwhelmed mind has a tendency for tunnel vision and can make us feel trapped or stressed.
3. Relaxes the Body
But that’s not all. When we give ourselves a break from, our work responsibilities, our relationship duties, our social media compulsions and other things that keep us in alert mode, our fight-flight-freeze (FFF) system starts to calm down.
The FFF system is like an internal alarm that keeps us on alert. At signs of stress, it pumps us full of adrenaline and stress hormones. This happens automatically.
When we stop having “emergencies” to deal with (did someone message me? Did I get any emails in the last 1/2 hour? Is there a deadline to meet?) our internal alarm stops going off and the chemicals in our bodies settle down. This restores balance to our brain and our body. It feels like peace or calm or more ease or spaciousness.
4. Clears the Heart
A natural outcome of a calm mind and relaxed body is an open heart. Simply allowing our heart to be open, allows our accumulated sorrows and pain to clear. The slowing down of retreat gives us the chance to feel our heart, just as it is. When our heart is met just as it is, the response is typically great relief. We sometimes don’t realize all that we are carrying. By recognizing what is in our heart, allowing it, and embracing it tenderly, our burdens are transformed. Retreat allows for this embrace and a freeing of the heart.
It also strengthens the peace and calm neural connections. Peace and calm allow our bodies to go through the essential process of restoration. When our peace and calm neural connections are made strong by regular experiences of peace and calm, then it becomes easier the next time to access that experience again.
Which comes first, the calm mind, the relaxed body or the clear heart? There is no particular order. Each are interrelated and everyone is different. Someone may have a heart opening experience on retreat, which affects the mind and body. Another may have a deep relaxation of the body, which opens the heart and calms the mind. Someone else might get an insight that creates a deep relaxation and open heart.
Whatever way it happens, it is a gift. Retreat is a gift—one we often don’t feel like we have the time for. Or maybe we don’t think we deserve it, or that we can’t afford it, or it is not a good use of time. Yet, retreating is one of the most productive, life-enhancing things we can do with benefits that ripple through us and into our lives, our work and our relationships.
Lauren Darges is a retreat leader and spiritual/emotional counselor based in Sebastopol, CA. She will be co-leading the Mount Shasta Freedom Retreat and Mount Shasta Spiritual Adventure Retreat with Andrew Oser this Summer. To learn more about her work, see www.healingandtransformation.com.