Retreating at Home

“I travel all the time for work. The last thing I want to do is schedule another trip for a retreat.” I’ve heard this comment frequently when talking to women about my work on a retreat book, and right now I can relate. Recently, in the space of four weeks, I traveled to two weddings and a funeral, then came home and scrambled to learn my part for a Gilbert and Sullivan production. Exhausted and grieving the loss of my husband’s father, I’m craving an undisturbed day of relaxation and healing with little planning and no travel. Just crawling into bed and hiding under the covers is tempting, but it doesn’t address my need to find a calm middle space among all the recent highs and lows–to get off the roller coaster and take a slow gondola ride safely above the chaos of the amusement park.

In her book Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There, Sylvia Boorstein advises those in this situation to arrange a weekend retreat at home. While getting completely away from all of the demands of home, work,  and family is ideal, when that’s not practical Boorstein suggests “ignoring familiar diversions, unplugging the phone, and posting a sign: ‘Three-Day Retreat in Progress.'” Frankly, I’m not comfortable with locking myself away in a room for three days, knowing my husband and daughter are outside the door wondering whether to call in a psychiatrist. Perhaps if I occasionally do one-day retreats this way we can all work up to a whole weekend.

For me, the best room for this is my home office. It’s the only room in the house that is all mine. Clearly I will need to do some preparation to eliminate the usual distractions and prepare  a relaxing atmosphere. The computer will be turned off, of course, but it needs to be out of sight as well. So do the piles of books, the music I need to practice, and the photos I took a year ago that are sitting on top of an empty album.  I definitely don’t need to look at the hand weights I never use, which are sitting on a shelf loudly accusing me of laziness. I’ll put a room screen in front of that corner of the room.

The fake flowers should be replaced by living green plants which have all their dead leaves and wilted flowers removed.  If I’m turning off the computer, I’ll need another source of music.  An mp3 player or  portable CD player attached to my computer speakers will do the trick, and I won’t be tempted by email or Facebook.  The bright overhead light isn’t conducive to quiet meditation; I’ll close the blinds and bring in candles or night lights.

I’ll plan ahead to meet my physical needs as simply as possible. The bathroom is just across the hall; I’ll  clean the clutter and keep it soothing with low lights and relaxing scents. Ideally a bedroom with an ajoining bath would protect my solitude better, but I don’t think Tibetan monks have those facilities either. I can prepare food in advance and keep it in a cooler or thermos, or if the noise doesn’t bother me I’ll borrow my daughter’s mini-fridge. For once I’ll give my body the optimal diet of whole grains, fresh organic fruits and vegetables, and lean sources of protein such as beans, tofu, fish, and lowfat dairy. I’ll also use an electric tea kettle and basket of assorted teas.  One bar of dark chocolate will be my reward at the end of the day.

The room has a bed and plenty of pillows. I’ve found that a bean-bag chair supports my knees and lower back during cross-legged sitting meditation; I can wiggle around in it until I’ve found the right position. A solid, strait-backed chair is not only useful for sitting meditation, but it makes a great prop for certain yoga postures.  I’ll bring in a mat as well.

Boorstein cautions that having an agenda for a retreat “adds unnecessary and unrealistic complexity to what should be simple.” She says to “think of mindfulness as hanging out, happily.”  Her simple program for a day alternates sitting and walking meditations of about an hour each, interspersed with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late tea. After dinner she suggests a meditative dharma talk.  I like to include periods of yoga, musical improvisation, and inspirational reading.  Since I live next to a park, I may do some of my walking meditation outside.  I’ll keep a notebook handy in case I want to jot down any profound inspirations, but I’ll refrain from writing extensively.

Remember, there is no right or wrong way to take a retreat. Keep it simple, let your heart lead you. If nothing else, breathe and send lovingkindess to yourself and to those you care about. Remember to smile once in awhile. Enjoy giving yourself the gift of time.

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