The Benefits of Spiritual Retreats: How Reflection in Nature Helps the Inner Work
People have been going on spiritual retreats for thousands of years, in order to get more grounded in their inner work, or to create a strong force that will in the coming weeks or months make them remember of that which is spiritual. Many cultures from around the world have done that, and are still doing that for the exact same reasons – to strengthen the connection with divinity inside of them, as well as outside of them. Often time they would go on a retreat that would be preceded by a long pilgrimage, by which they would help themselves even more to be in tune with that which is Real; they knew that their destination (which often time was some sort of a spiritual sanctuary) is a place created for that purpose, and that their intention of making such journey in the first place is of a spiritual kind.
Today people from all walks of life continue with such journeys into nature, perhaps not in the same format and with the same intensity, but definitely so to experience calmness, clarity of mind, and to reconnect with their true self. That last reason is probably not consciously acknowledged by most people, though it seems that this need is so much ingrained in humanity that it resembles a deeper type of instinct, looking for its fulfilment.
Spiritual retreats in general can be very beneficial for our inner work, and many people with spiritual aspirations are attending them. There are many different forms in which such retreats could be organized; probably the most popular is a week-long retreat in a place in nature, attended by dozens (or even hundreds) of people at the same time. Many spiritual organizations are organizing such week-long retreats once or twice per year. This type of larger gatherings can be useful and strengthening; often time they entail an intense focus on practices, achieving certain spiritual goals, and also sharing with each other insights, understandings, as well as learning new things (if the retreat also includes talks). After a retreat of this type, one can often time feel motivated and inspired, feeling the need to improve their inner work and to bring the new insights and understanding into their own life’s circumstances.
However, this is not the only form of a spiritual retreat. It would be a pity if we would limit ourselves to going on a retreat only once or twice a year, and only within that format that includes many people, when there are other ways in which spiritual retreats could be approached. For example, the simplest and easiest way would be to go on a weekend retreat, or a one day retreat, or even just half a day – the time doesn’t really matter that much; what matters the most here is intention. If the latter is set for you to dedicate a certain amount of time for spiritual growth only, then a lot can be achieved even by spending a few hours in nature.
On these shorter retreats you could go alone or with someone else who also shares interest in spiritual development, whether that be your partner, a friend or a family member. It doesn’t really matter whom you take with you, as long as they too are there with the same purpose as you, which is related to spiritual growth. It is very important that the purpose is aligned between all participants, because otherwise there could be distractions and the retreat would lose its force, or may even turn into something else completely, such as into a picnic in nature.
The intentions set on regular retreats could be something that you personally feel you need, whether that be reconnecting with your true self, or reflecting on some aspects of your subconscious mind that are causing you problem, or feeling yourself connected to nature, or perhaps trying to deepen the relationship that you have with your inner Being – the possibilities are endless! Especially so when you are in nature, things can come up that you might not have even considered reflecting on before. You can also, of course, try to learn how to go deeper into meditation, or some other sit-down practice that you want to develop. Or you can just go there with intention to reconnect, and see what comes up.
The place itself needs to be an appropriate one. In his book The Serene Reflection, Rafael Vargas mentions a story from the life of saint Francis of Assisi; how he would go on a retreat with his friend somewhere in nature where they would no longer hear any sound of civilization. Once they reached that far, one of them would stay at that place, and another would go as far as they couldn’t hear each other anymore when shouting. Then they would stay there and do each his own reflections.
I think this is a really good point, that the place should be sufficiently isolated so that you cannot hear any sound of civilization. It seems that the further in nature we go, the better are possibilities to not be distracted by the external, and therefore the deeper we can go inwards. Indeed, it can make a lot of difference if the sounds of civilizations reach us, or if all we can hear are peaceful sounds of nature. In any case, it is necessary to find a place that is beautiful and inspiring, but we should also take heed to safety.
It is also a great point from the above mentioned book, about the necessity to separate (if you go with someone else), because it is in solitude that we can go much deeper within ourselves. Whether we are alone for one hour, two hours, or more, we can use that time in a great way by trying to be in a state of self-remembrance, conscious of the present moment and ourselves within it. In that moment, the peacefulness outside of us can influence us to experience calmness within us. In that moment of solitude, deep in nature, we can invoke the presence of our inner Being, and we can start conversing with him/her, asking them to get what we can from this effort that we are doing. Once this connection with them is established, we may find ourselves in blissful inner states, feeling ourselves surrendered to the Being and allowing ourselves to be guided by them.
A lot can happen within the hours of solitude in nature, and even more so if we spend longer time in that place, if all the while we maintain the intention of being on a spiritual retreat. That’s why it is important to go without expectations, but simply being open to the new. When we sit like that somewhere in nature, with a clear mind and heart, in the present moment, then we attune ourselves to nature, or rather to that which is Real inside nature, and consequently that which is Real inside of us will also be present. This wonderful divine presence can then give us that which our soul is seeking, without us necessarily knowing what that is.
That’s why it is important to stay open for the new, for whatever may come during your retreat, regardless if the latter lasts for weeks, days, or just a few hours. Using our time for the spiritual progress in such a way, it is almost certain that we will receive something of great value, which will help us in our inner work.
HDP, June 2020.