I recently went on a three day retreat. The retreat was silent, which basically means I didn’t talk for three days, but was also guided, with several group conferences which were run by a retreat director. Perhaps most liberating and challenging was the total detachment from my phone/computer/social media compulsions. I made a last call to my wife from the parking lot when I pulled up to the retreat center and then shut my phone off and walked in (five minutes later, as I instinctively grabbed my turned-off phone to check the time, I realized I would be struggling over the next three days to know what time it was). The retreat followed a common format offered by Jesuit retreat centers all over the world.
Three days later the retreat ended just a few hours before the Super Bowl started, but I would have happily given up the Super Bowl to extend the time. That morning, the idea of the Super Bowl, with it’s over-the-top hype, advertisers, and halftime Justin Timberlake concert, felt to me as so much fluff.
But the world beckons because life doesn’t happen in a retreat center, otherwise they wouldn’t be called “retreats” in the first place.
This reminds me, curiously, of something I experienced in the military and the challenges we face as we try to navigate he normal tensions that exist between the our “ideal” worlds and the messiness of our real worlds.
Most people will tell you that when they went into their initial training environment in the military (think “boot camp”), they were totally and completely immersed in the culture, values, expectations, sights, sounds and smells of their training experience. It is important to remember that the root word of culture is “cult”, which emanated from Latin and French words for “cultivation” or “worship”.
When you graduate from that training environment, you’re at your peak motivation. You leave for your first assignment convinced that the rest of your service branch spends their time yelling and crawling in the mud – just as you did during training. You are prepared. You can’t wait to change the world.
And then, in many cases, the unit you actually join feels less like the high-energy training environment of your recent past and more like (gasp!) a job. Your fellow service members don’t crawl through mud, don’t scream responses to questions, and might even engage in the sort of behavior – such as walking around with their hands in their uniform pockets – that would have gotten you dropped for pushups by the nearest drill sergeant a few weeks earlier.
Many of us have experienced this challenge of cultivating (there’s that root word again) an “ideal” existence during the imperfections and banality of daily existence. How can we find margins to reclaim at least some elements of this ideal focus, this sense of peace and mission?
In the past few years there has been an explosion in the number of books and other resources promoting “mindfulness”. Mindfulness can be expressed as meditation, prayer, or breathing exercises. The point is to find some quiet where you are and in the course of a normal day.
It doesn’t help to wait for some amazing vacation in the future (although those are good). Here’s what Marcus Aurelius had to say about people’s inclination to wait until vacation to renew themselves (from Meditations 4.3.1, written around 170 AD):
“People seek retreats for themselves in the country, by the sea, or in the mountains. You are very much in the habit of yearning for those same things. But this is entirely the trait of a base person, when you can, at any moment, find such as retreat in yourself. For nowhere can you find a more peaceful and less busy retreat than in your own soul – especially if on close inspection that is filled with ease, which I say is nothing more than being well-ordered. Treat yourself often to this retreat and be renewed.”
When I tell people about the retreat I went on, they tend to focus most on the fact that it was silent, which is understandable. But the “guided” part was equally or more valuable. Most of us lack the foundation and training to effectively use three days without conversation or external stimulus. I’m convinced that going to a cabin in the woods and sitting alone quietly for three days would be quite a bit more difficult, and less worthwhile, then what I did. The vast majority of us would certainly be climbing the walls and decidedly not at peace after just an hour or two alone (for perhaps the most prescient quote from the pre-mobile phone 17th century, check this out).
Even Marcus Aurelius would have applauded the occasional vacation or guided retreat. But his point holds for those who are trying to hold on to the motivation they experienced in some ideal training environment or contemplative retreat. We can’t cultivate a crop without tending to it regularly, and we can’t cultivate an inner peace without doing the same.