When I write about retreat, I don’t mean those seminars held by local urban churches and similar organizations, events that are anything but retreats. I’m not talking about preregistering sometimes months ahead to sit in some hall or auditorium for several hours listening to a how-to lecture by some crackpot, who does the same thing on a circuit tour, cookie-cutter, over and again. Buy the CD and you’ll be better off. Read the book if you’re into indoctrination rather than psychospiritual and physical healing. So-called urban churches of all denominations and religious communities, some in their death throes and struggling to generate funds, tout these self-help seminars and workshops as “retreats“; they’re not, and here’s why.
First some background…
I’m in a ministry, vocation, profession–call it what you like–that takes an enormous toll on one’s spiritual and emotional capital. I’m a thanatologist, a death and bereavement chaplain, a psychospiritual counselor.
In my, for lack of a better term let’s call it “profession”, I have to be a sounding board, an active and deep listener for the questions in the statements and the statements in the questions. I have to authentically and compassionately companion persons experiencing some of the worst moments in their lives, and I have to stay cool, calm, responsive, and compassionate. At times I have to be an advocate for an individual, a group, sometimes an entire community.
Self-care is one of the most neglected mandates in the helping professions
I am one of the greatest proponents and supporters of what we in the helping professions call “self-care.” But what is self-care? Self-care, simply put, is taking care of yourself so that you can care for others. And it’s one of the most neglected mandates in the helping professions such as clergy, funeral directors, doctors, nurses, managers, mothers, fathers, those experiencing recent loss or bereavement. That’s just a short list but I think I’ve made my point. Anyone, everyone who is in a situation that produces stress on a regular basis needs self-care on a regular basis. Even if you find yourself in the position of being a caregiver or a support resource — as would be the situation in bereavement — for a relatively brief time, you should seriously consider a program of self-care.
Self-care can take many forms. For example, one of my year-round self-care activities is fitness training. I work out at a local fitness center regularly. During the good weather months I love to work with my hands in dirt, getting close to the soil. I find cooking very creative and relaxing. Mental and intellectual self-care is reading what I like, not what I have to read to keep up-to-date in my field. All of these things and more can be called self-care but most people may be doing them with the opposite effect: causing themselves stress.
Even the atmosphere of the gym (Planet Fitness) is stressful.
Is this YOU at the gym?
For example, I go to the gym to relieve stress. I see many people there creating stress, even the atmosphere there is stressful. Here’s why: They rush in, change quickly, then rush out to get somewhere else. Stress. They bring their phones in with them and are constantly checking something or making or receiving a call. Stress. They are hurried and get irritated when they can’t access a machine or a piece of equipment when they want it. Stress. Even the atmosphere of the gym (Planet Fitness) is stressful. Canned music everywhere you go. Televisions blasting. People shouting trying to be heard above the televisions and their idiotic talking heads and the canned music. All that, dear readers, is NOT self-care; it’s self-abuse.
I make my gym workout a total experience; not just physical but a workout for the mind and spirit.
In contrast, my gym experience, and the experience I promote in those who seek my advice is like this: My gym time is my self-care time. I am not rushed (I refuse to be rushed). I leave my phone in my car and I don’t check it until I leave the gym. I’m not listening to wild crazy music; if I listen to anything at all while on the cardio machines it’s either a mantra or a lecture of some sort. I rarely socialize and if I do, I keep it short and sweet. I make my gym workout a total experience; not just physical but a workout for the mind and spirit.
It’s really comical when some of these so-called retreats are about prayer or meditation!
So, you can understand my objections to calling a one-day seminar or workshop a retreat. You rush in traffic to get there, you rush to find a parking spot. You get in line, get your name tag, and they hand you a plastic binder with everything you need to know. You rush to get the free muffin, bagel or cup of coffee, you gobble that down, then you rush to get prime seating, and you think you are ready to absorb the wisdom of some spiritual or religious pundit, and to appreciate being in the moment, mindful, spiritually renewed — Then it’s lunchtime and you get to sit socializing amid loud conversation and probably intrusive announcements and more elevator music. There’s no silent lunch, no quiet space for medication or reflection. It’s all industrial. They feed you but you’re not nourished in the end. In fact, it’s really comical when some of these so-called retreats are about prayer or meditation! NOT!
The wisdom of the East is contained in the saying:
Let no one neglect one’s own work to do that of another, however great the need. Clearly understanding one’s own welfare, one can concentrate doing good.
At New Skete, you’re on personal retreat. Everyone knows that. Everyone respects that.
I go on a regular 3-day, usually a Thursday evening to Sunday noontime, retreat on a monthly basis. I make my retreats at a monastery near Cambridge, New York, the Monastery of New Skete, which is situated on a mountain, surrounded by forest, peace, quiet, nature. The guesthouse, where I sometimes stay when not in the monastery proper, is luxuriously appointed: private suites with private bath, a sitting room, a bedroom, a patio that opens to a meadow or to the forest. A small guesthouse library stocked with religious, spiritual, and secular titles. A large open social space with comfortable chairs and a large wooden table for pizza together or for games. A kitchen with microwave, fridge, free tea and coffee, etc. You can attend morning services (matins) with the monks and beautiful voices, evening services (vespers) before dinner, for a real spiritual moment. In the morning, enjoy a breakfast of cereals, wonderful breads, pretty much anything you’d like. Main meal at noon is home cooked and plentiful; the evening meal is usually a surprise and abundant. You can walk, sit and read, listen to the birds and the breeze in the trees, pray or meditate, visit the training kennels or the puppy kennel on prior arrangement. Bennington is just 12 miles away and Cambridge is a sleepy little town with lots of attractions and a couple good restaurants and coffee houses is 10 minutes down the road, if you find peace and quiet oppressive and need some stress back into your life. With all that you can make an appointment for spiritual guidance from one of the monks, or you can simply sit back and chat with them; they’re genuinely interested in you. Genuinely.
At New Skete, you’re on personal retreat. Everyone knows that. Everyone respects that. Even so, you can make some wonderful personal contacts while there. But the overarching understanding is that you are there for spiritual renewal, on a real retreat, and the bonus is that you leave there not only spiritually renewed but also mentally refreshed and physically rested. That’s retreat, my friends.
A paraphrase of the Dhammapada, the sayings of the Buddha, might sound appropriate at this point:
As a bee gathers honey from the flower without injuring its color or fragrance, so too the wise seeker goes about his or her retreat.
If you don’t take care of your hands when you are doing heavy or hard work in the yard, you get blisters. If you do that kind of work regularly, your hands become rough, callused and insensitive. It’s only natural and it happens to protect your hands from real damage. If you’re smart you’ll take some measures to protect your hands like using gloves or applying a moisturizing cream. The same principle applies when you are exposed to hard mental or spiritual work like in the helping professions or just being a good parent. Your mind and your soul can get blistered (anger, rage, etc.), callused (insensitive, hardened), or even injured (burnout, depression, etc.) Like hard physical work, these mental and spiritual changes can occur gradually, over time, without you realizing it until, well, it’s too late. There’s a Buddhist saying that milk doesn’t sour over night (My translation: Avoid weeding your garden and see where it gets you). And, as the flood carries away the sleeping village; so too does unawareness seize and carry away the foolish.
Eight Ways a New Skete Retreat Can Heal You
In a recent issue of Organic Life, I was pleased to find confirmation and something like validation of my own teachings on what a retreat should be (I’m attaching a scan of the item below) and I’d like to summarize some of its points below:
- A lower heart rate: Nature sounds have been shown to lower the heart rate.
- Pump up your immune system: A forest walk can lower the heart rate and pump up natural killer cell activity (helpful immune cells).
- Greater compassion: Studies have shown that gazing at a forest or at treetops caused subjects to feel more compassion and generosity.
- More friends: Exposure to green space reduces a feeling of loneliness. Immersion in natural settings is linked to social bonding and stronger interpersonal ties.
- Increase your brainpower: Even small bursts of time in nature can boost attention spans and exercise levels, improve motor skills.
- A better state of mind: Solo time in nature is good for creativity and mental health. Studies report that after a walk in nature subjects had fewer repetitive, depressive thoughts and decreased morose thinking. The recommendation: if you need to solve a problem, take a walk in nature.
- Deeper and better sleep: Taking a break from toxic indoor air and desk jockeying can give you a cognitive boost; exposure to outdoor light can help to reset your diurnal rhythms, improving the quality of your sleep. Sunshine increases the body’s production of vitamin D, which has been shown to reduce the risk of certain cancers.
- The Bigger Perspective: Neuroscientist David Strayer has documented the “three-day effect”. Three days spent in a natural surroundings away from the daily grind helps you to tap into certain areas of the brain that can enhance your multi-tasking power. He recommends a three-day retreat in natural surroundings at least once a year. (See: National Geographic, This is Your Brain on Nature, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/01/call-to-wild/, last accessed on January 27, 2017)
To read the entire piece, please click here Eight Ways Nature can Heal You
You can walk, sit and read, listen to the birds and the breeze in the trees, pray or meditate, visit the training kennels or the puppy kennel on prior arrangement.
If I’ve managed to convince you that you owe yourself the experience of a real retreat, during which you can achieve those eight objectives, and thus experience real psychospiritual and physical benefits, I’m recommending that you contact
Brother Gregory Tobin, Guestmaster at the New Skete Monastery, (518) 677-3928/ firstname.lastname@example.org
Form more information and some stunning photography, visit the New Skete website
273 New Skete Lane
Cambridge, NY 12816
Sign up for the New Skete Newsletter
The New Skete Guesthouse
You can have your self-care retreat at New Skete, meals, accommodation, comfort and renewal for a fraction of the cost of a modest hotel room. (The suggested donation is $80/day. It’s a donation and, depending on your financial situation, whatever you can reasonably afford is acceptable. Your generosity is humbly appreciated.). The donation you make to the Monks of New Skete for your retreat includes your accommodation in the guesthouse, meals, and access to the beautiful amenities of the monastery properties such as meadows, forest, hiking trails, beautiful sacred spaces, meditation paths, and so much more! Your donation is also tax deductible
New Skete is just about 1 hour from Albany, New York, through beautiful countryside. Just the drive is worth the effort but the New Skete experience is otherworldly.
Editor’s Note: In 2016, the 50th anniversary of the New Skete Monastic Community, the community inaugurated the unique opportunity to become a Companion of New Skete:
The Unique Companions of New Skete Cross
In 2016 New Skete celebrated its 50th anniversary. The monks at New Skete believe and are committed to those values that are crucial to a living and vital spirituality and faith, and they welcome all seekers regardless of denomination or tradition, and are further dedicated to responding to the call to extend those values to those outside the monastic community, to those who especially share those ideals. Today’s world presents profound challenges for anyone seeking to journey along such a path; the support of a wider community is needed to help each of us stay faithful to our calling. If you share the vision of fellowship in spiritual community in the world, and the ideals of the Companions of New Skete speak to you, we encourage you to contact The Companions of New Skete, in care of the monastery. Be transcendent, become part of something bigger than yourself.
To learn more, please visit the special Companions of New Skete site.