Posted by: scintillatingspeck | November 30, 2011

A solitary retreat.

From midday Dec. 10 to midday Dec. 12, I will be going on a solitary retreat at Temenos in Shutesbury, Mass.  Lily will be visiting my parents in Boston during that time; Tom will be puttering around at home; and I will be in the woods, sleeping in a little cabin with a wood stove, and no electricity.

I’ve been wanting to retreat for a long time.  Years.  The fact that I can go on a retreat at all feels like a massive accomplishment.  There are no demands in my life, currently, that can’t be set aside for this weekend.  I can actually do this and show up for myself.

Simultaneously, I’m excited and have some trepidation.  My usual neuroses are rearing their heads:  will I be productive?  will I make the most of every minute?  will I fail at retreating?  There is so much I want to get out of this one little weekend.  I’m trying just to observe these fears and make friends with them, as Pema Chödrön suggests.  This train of thought has led me to recall a poem by Rumi, which is apt:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

The fear of being alone is palpable: in the woods, with no comforting Internet to numb myself with, to distract myself from my Stuff.  You know, my Issues.  These are funny words, eh?  Stuff.  Issues.  Baggage.  Tidy little euphemisms.  What is urging me on, at a soul level, is the insistent call to allow grieving, resolution, creativity, torment, and above all, an openness to receiving visions.  I can’t know what those visions are ahead of time.  It’s fruitless to over-plan this.  All I can do is set the stage, perhaps set some ritualistic parameters around the endeavor (which a kind friend has offered to help me with), and await what comes.  And stand at the door, laughing, inviting in the visitors, no matter how beautiful, terrifying, shameful.

I’ve bought a new, blank journal and three roller-ball pens.  These will accompany me, along with warm clothes, hiking boots, snow-shoes if there is snow, all the food I will need, a pillowcase and sleeping bag, some candles.  When I spoke on the phone with Kavita, one of the caretakers at Temenos, she said, “I have this feeling that I’m supposed to put you in the cabin called Knoll.  It’s the most remote cabin, and as a woman by yourself, maybe this would not be what you most want or need.  What do you think?”  She also told me that the cabin was built around a living tree.  I told her that it sounded just right.

I’m trying to resist the strong internal impulse to over-manage this, over-think this.  When I started writing this blog post, I thought maybe I could make some sort of list (another list!) of everything I want to accomplish with this retreat.  But I deeply want this retreat to not be about accomplishing.  I want to tell myself, sternly, kindly, “It will be enough if all you do is rest.  It will be enough if you walk in the woods and feel the breeze on your face.  It will be sufficient.  You are sufficient.”  How can I banish these habitual thoughts that I must achieve something?  There is no banishing.  There is only holding the door wide open.

I hope that I will have space and time in this setting to grieve the accumulated losses and sorrows of the past few years.  There is much that is still roiling away beneath my consciousness, an anguish that is hard to express.  I want the solitude and the woods to give me the safety to release that anguish.  I hope, also, that I will be able to feel literally grounded, rather than spend so much time in my head; I want to be aware of the earth beneath my feet.  Maybe if it’s not too cold I will try to walk around barefoot a bit.

I’m debating whether or not to bring any readings.  I don’t want to distract myself too much, but maybe there are specific readings that would help me with the retreat.  I don’t know what they are, yet.

Welcome to the guest cabin, visitors, guides from beyond.



  1. Wonderful thoughts!
    How true, what the poem says. How difficult. But we learn to do that, don’t we, working with people, working with them about their very survival? The little meanness-es and sorrows, they are nothing really, compared to what is at stake.
    Still, to grapple with them *alone*, to find that attainable self that will emerge stronger… It’s a tall order, but we can do it.
    Let us know how Knoll goes. I’ll book my own weekend, someday soon.

  2. FWIW, (not much) I’d vote for a minimum of reading–maybe a book of Rumi or Mary Oliver, or the Psalms or what have you, but limit its use. What’s in your head and heart is all you need.

  3. But ah, imagine the luxury of sitting around reading an excellent novel. No interruptions, no time constraints. Sounds like heaven to me!

  4. Wonderful and courageous Jen. I love this idea. You, the woods, the beautiful silence. You will enjoy, I’m sure. You will grow, it is certain. You will find what you are supposed to find. The universe has you in its hands. Go Jen!!!! (PS. Bring more pens AND a pencil!)

  5. This sounds like an important experience in the making. Just the other day, I was thinking of how, sometimes, what turns out to be an important experience is something people would choose to avoid if they knew ahead of time what was in store. 😉

    I was thinking, like Carolyn, that you ought to take your book of Rumi — but that’s it. You said you want to avoid distractions and things that numb you or take you away from some inner work you want to do. I would trust that and go with it.

    You know, most people never do a solitary retreat. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong way to do this — just what YOU want it to be. I like that you are focusing on “being enough” as you are.

    Can’t wait to hear how this goes…. I’m extremely interested to know what it turns out to feel like for you.

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