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Should I go on a retreat, and how do I choose one?

San Marco monastery in Florence

A friend emailed me asking about retreats, whether they’re useful, and how one goes about picking one.

It’s an interesting question, and a good one for Lent. Sixty years ago, before the spiritual revolution of the 1960s, you’d be hard-pressed to find any retreats in the West, unless you were Catholic. The Reformation attacked the whole idea of sitting in silent contemplation of God, you should be out there doing stuff (or if not, reading the Bible). The closest British Protestant culture got to retreats, before recently, was the health holiday – the spa or mountain sanatorium, or the hiking / bicycling holiday. 

Then came the Sixties, that ‘spiritual supernova’ of ‘galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane’, as philosopher Charles Taylor put it. Suddenly, retreats and transformational workshops were back with a bang, in large part thanks to the influence of a place called Esalen, on the coast of Monterey, where hip Californians would go for massage, hot-tubs, Gestalt workshops and the occasional orgy.

Today, there are a bewildering array of retreats on offer in the spiritual supermarket, as wellness tourism and spiritual tourism become bigger and more profitable trends. Wealthy Westerners don’t just want to sun-bathe and down Sangrias anymore. They want some yoga, massage, meditation and gong baths thrown in. They want some fine-tuning of their soul, then the Pina Coladas.

Would you like to see our menu? You could go on a yoga retreat, a surf-and-yoga retreat, a pet retreat, an ayurvedic retreat, a meditation retreat (Buddhist / Christian / Law of Attraction), a Ramadan retreat, a pilgrimage, a transformational workshop, a tantra or conscious sexuality retreat, a men’s retreat, women’s retreat, LGBTQ retreat, couples retreat, family retreat, a writers’ retreat, an entrepreneurs’ retreat, a plant medicine or chocolate healing retreat, a vision quest, a wild retreat…Or, like Dominos pizza, you can combine any of the above. LGBTQ surf n’ yoga retreat? You got it!

The sheer variety of retreats may put you off. It may feel a little bullshit, this combination of tourist consumerism and spirituality, particularly considering the ludicrous price-tag of some of these spiritual retreats.  $8,000 for a week’s ayurvedic retreat in India? $11,000 for a 10-day ‘entrepreneur’s retreat’ on ayahuasca? $5000 for a ‘digital detox’ week in the Algarve? Mate for £20 I’ll smash your phone and give you a Vicks inhaler, how about that.

Plenty of recent films and TV shows have had a laugh at this mash-up of the spiritual and the consumerist, from Fleabag doing a runner from her luxury silent retreat, to Don Draper coming up with the Pepsi slogan at Esalen in the final scene of Mad Men.

But this cocktail of the sacred and profane is not necessarily new: in the middle ages, monasteries were incredibly plush – exquisite gardens, gorgeous libraries, elegant chapels, and kitchens described as ‘the most distinguished temple of gluttony in all of Europe’. They made a fortune welcoming wealthy aristocrats for pampering weekends of spiritual guidance, to squeeze out the big donations. 

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to wind down on a pampered retreat. If you want to go to eat some delicious healthy food, drink a bit, swim, hang out with some cool new people, and also do a bit of yoga or surfing, why the hell not! 

Can retreats be useful if you’re trying to develop spiritually? Can they help if your ultimate goal is moksha, liberation from the ego? Yes, definitely so. Most religious traditions emphasize the importance of occasional retreats. They can help to:

  • settle the mind from its furious planning and ruminating
  • resist some of our usual habits of distraction, like booze, the internet, TV, chitter-chatter. This resistance of usual habits sharpens our awareness, wakes us up, and can help us develop our powers of focus, insight and self-control. 
  • turn our attention to our inner world and begin to get to know the mind better – not just the surface rolling news, but also the deeper levels of awareness.
  • learn to make friends with ourselves, to accept aspects of the psyche we usually run away from
  • discover inner resources of peace, courage, acceptance, kindness and insight, and take these resources back into our usual life
  • meet friends and guides on the spiritual path

Retreats can be challenging. We may go with the spiritual tourist mindset and be in for a rude awakening. I remember one lady at a Vipassana retreat complaining to the teacher: ‘I thought this was meant to be relaxing!’ And another guy, at an ayahuasca retreat in the jungle, who told us at the start that he didn’t really have any problems and was just there to optimize himself. Ayahuasca gave him a kicking, and he bailed out of the third ceremony, declaring he just wanted to ‘chillax with a movie’.

A retreat can feel like a little death, coming down from the usual buzz of coffee-sugar-internet-gossip-ego-planning, and just sitting there…The ego may scream for distractions, for the first day or two. Don’t just sit there, do something! But then things do settle down. And we discover a mind beyond the usual ego-chatter.

That’s the whole point – we’re not who we think we are. We think we’re our ego, and the whole game of life is to bolster the ego and gratify it, with achievements and compliments and security and so forth. Build a really good sand castle, and get everyone else on the beach to admire it. Everything in our culture supports us in this view. But there is a Great Mind around the little castle, which is free from fear and suffering, and we can sometimes discover it, get to know it bit by bit, make friends with it, and rest in in its luminosity. 

The modern ego is like 24-hour rolling news. So absorbing, so distracting! Constant headlines of triumph and catastrophe, And we’re always in the news! Like Trump, we’re fascinated by anything in which our name appears.

You see that? That’s you.

But you can look deeper than the endless clickbait headlines and ask….what is the screen on which this news is appearing? What is the TV channel? What is the light that makes the screen light up? Can you not chase the headlines but rest in the light? 

OK, how to choose a retreat. The main thing is to get over your awkwardness and embarrassment at taking your spiritual development seriously, and putting a bit of time and work into it. Don’t be embarrassed, it’s totally normal and healthy. It’s weird not to think about it or do anything about it. Think of it like a spiritual pension – you’re going to die soon, and the occasional retreat is putting a little effort into preparing for that transition. 

As with finding a therapist, you may not find the perfect retreat first time. You may do a runner a few times. I first went on retreat to a Russian monastery in my late 20s. It was such a beautiful, mysterious place, but I only lasted one night. I couldn’t handle the long, standing, Orthodox services, or the abbot’s incessant efforts to convert me (luckily I couldn’t understand a word he said). Some years later, I went to a Benedictine monastery, where there was no real programme, just regular services in Latin. I was bored and depressed. Finally, in 2016, I found Buddhist retreats which had more of a directed programme of meditation, which is what I was looking for. Very, very slow progress, but that’s OK. 

If you’re a beginner, like me, directed programmes of meditation can be really useful. If you’re not religious, perhaps try a Buddhist retreat – you could start off by finding a local Buddhist organization which offers drop-in weekday sessions, then try a weekend retreat, and then try a week-long retreat. Or you could go kamikaze and try a 10-day Vipassana retreat, which is a great crash-course, but remember, it’s not a sprint. The aim is gradual progress over the years.

If sitting meditation is not your thing, you could try a pilgrimage, or a yoga retreat, or even a week’s surfing or cycling. Or you could go on a transformational workshop, like the Path with Heart, or the Way of Nature, or a plant medicine retreat. These are much more social, and might be useful if your issues are around intimacy and interpersonal relations. But do your research first, they can be quite full-on. As I said, retreats can bring you face-to-face with your deeper issues, and for me, that sometimes involves my issues with other people, my feeling of being judged and my tendency to judge others in return. All that sh*t can come up. It’s good sh*t. It’s the manure in which your soul can grow.

Anything can be a retreat, if you bring the right intention to it. This day at the office can be a retreat, if you do it with the intention to focus, practice, and serve all beings. Washing the dishes can be a retreat. The commute home can be a retreat. A Sunday where you choose to go offline can be a retreat. The retreat is merely an artificial bracket we use to set aside a time as sacred, to sharpen our intention and help us focus on higher goals rather than the day-to-day headlines. And the true goal is to have no distinction between your level of awareness on retreat, and your level of awareness in ordinary life.

Don’t be embarrassed. Take your spiritual development seriously…while retaining the ability to laugh at yourself and the general ridiculousness of life in general, and the spiritual supermarket in particular. Accept the imperfection of all spiritual communities, there’s always a bit of bullshit, which you can use as an excuse not to work. It’s not ultimately their job to do the work for you – you’re in charge, you need to do the work. Accept whatever arises in your mind…but don’t get hung up on spiritual highs, don’t chase the fireworks. Remember, it’s just a holiday unless you bring what you learn back home and practice it there too. I’ll end with this great quote from Yuval Noah Harari.

Spiritual materialism

Hello. Well, this is awkward. I stopped writing this newsletter two months ago, just before travelling to the Amazon jungle for an ayahuasca ceremony. The good news, back then, was that I’d been handed a philosophy column for the New Statesman magazine – the culmination of a dream I’d had for over a decade. I first pitched a philosophy column to the editor of the Times, back in 2007. Now, finally, out of nowhere, the dream had fallen into my lap. So I bowed a gracious goodbye to my newsletter subscribers, and headed off to Peru.

I emerged from the jungle, still extremely high, and checked my emails. It was amazing how few emails of any interest I’d received while I was away. You expect the world to be as altered as you are, and to be waiting for you to climb onboard like a dragon kneeling before Daenyrys. Instead, the internet was filled with strange news – a hurricane was about to hit the UK, Theresa May had lost her voice during the Tory conference, a fish had jumped down a man’s throat. No emails about exciting new opportunities. And no emails from the editor of the New Statesman. An ominous silence, of the sort freelance journalists know only too well.

Over the next few weeks, it gradually and painfully emerged that the column was not going to happen…Either the editor had changed his mind, or there was some internal obstacle, or I’d done something wrong. I don’t know. He emailed to say he was ‘still interested’ in the idea (which, to be clear, was his idea) and hoped to find a space for it next year.

I felt pretty sad about it, but still hope it might happen. Meanwhile, there were other freelance opportunities to pursue. The New Yorker responded positively to a pitch – another long-term dream of mine. But that also faded away. The Spectator liked an idea which I pitched last Friday, and asked me to write it for this Monday. I spent the weekend writing the piece, sent it off on Monday and….ominous silence. I haven’t heard back since.

This is the freelance life. I’d forgotten how irritating it is to deal with all-powerful commissioning editors, who you want to tell to f*ck off for their cavalier treatment of you, but can’t, because there are about five intelligent magazines in the UK, so you need to keep them sweet. But at least, in this day and age, you can still blog without needing anyone else’s approval. So I’ve decided to start up my newsletter once more. I can’t do it once a week, but will try to do it once a month. Thank you to those who support the costs of the newsletter on Patreon.

This issue I want to talk about spiritual materialism, a phrase coined by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a mad Tibetan monk who came over to the West in the 1970s, and inspired some of the greatest western Buddhist teachers, like Pema Chodron and Tara Brach. By ‘spiritual materialism’ I think he means the way we westerners smuggle our worldly ambitions into our spiritual quest.

Whenever I’ve had dramatic spiritual awakenings, I’ve expected it to convert rapidly into some sort of worldly success. I’ve expected it to shake up my external life and lead to sudden, radical improvements – I would suddenly meet the love of my life, for example, or be offered a new job, or a book deal, or something.

When I did the Alpha course, and had a heart awakening, I expected it to transform my external life for the better. I was told by the Alpha vicar, Nicky Gumbel: ‘Jesus has amazing plans for you’, and I thought, ‘Excellent! Bring it on, Jesus’. It didn’t quite happen like that.

When we begin to pursue the spiritual life, we want all the good things of a conventional life – a rich love life, a successful career, a happy family, a lovely home, a sexy body, delicious cocktails, wonderful holidays, fabulous dinner parties, and so on. We want all of that, plus soulfulness.  Like Rod Tidwell says in Jerry Maguire, we want the kwan: ‘it means love, respect, community… and the dollars too. The package. The kwan.’

You see this a lot in soulful hipsters in London or New York in their 30s and 40s. We pride ourselves on our spirituality and on being counter-cultural, but in some ways we’re just as hung up on conventional success as everyone else – we want the prestige, the prominence, the great love-life, the sexy body, the beautiful home, the glamorous holidays, the Instagram life. Like Bwyneth Paltrow, we want the gratification of our ego desires and soulfulness – what could be more gratifying than that!

A friend posted something recently on Facebook, an advert for a meditation and yoga retreat at a place called Tres Posh in Ibiza. It says: ‘We’re back at the tres posh, swanky pants yoga villa for five glorious days of Ibiza sun and shine in September. The days will begin with meditation, yoga and nidra folllowed by a magnificent brunch made by Pete’s fair hands. There will be massage, therapies, lounging by the dreamy pool, walking, resting, reading and snoozing before thai massage or a yoga practice in the evenings and an outrageously delicious dinner.’ They are cheap compared to some of the yoga retreats out there. 

A western goddess of wealth and worldly power

I am not being scornful here. I have exactly the same aspirations. I want conventional success and comfort, plus soul. Which is why it hurt when I emerged from an ayahuasca retreat, wondering what wonderful gifts the universe had waiting for me, and I unwrapped the first package to discover – dada! your dream-job of having a column has just vanished!

I had it easy, in fact. One member of our group had to go home early, after the first two ceremonies, when his sister suddenly fell ill and was rushed to hospital. He’d travelled 48 hours to get to the retreat. Now he had to go and be in that family crisis, on an ayahuasca comedown.

The fact is, the rules of the spirit world are not the same as the rules of this world. We think they are, and we want to win at both. But they’re not the same at all. What looks like abject failure in this world might actually be incredible success in the spirit-world. And what looks like total victory in this world might actually be utter failure in the spirit-world.

We want to maintain our status as all-powerful superhero westerners who control our lives and get what we want. But that’s not surrender.

The wind bloweth where it listeth. The medicine does exactly what it wants to do. You have to trust it. It’s not predictable, and it won’t necessarily make it easy on you. But you have to trust that in every experience, however unpleasant (and losing a magazine column is not particularly unpleasant in the grand scheme of things), there is wisdom to be found in it.

We can’t necessarily tell what is good for us and what is bad for us. And perhaps we need to go beyond these instant judgements of good and bad.

One person in our random collection of ayahuasca-pilgrims, Vadim, was there partly because of a bereavement. He had a powerful awakening during the first ceremony. And he’s kept on awakening in the weeks since. Last week, he sent out emails every day to our group, with a YouTube video of him talking over some amazing graphics. He sent out nine of these videos, each around ten minutes long, in a series called Awakening. I’d wake up in the morning to find a new video from him in my inbox, and I’d watch it over breakfast, and listen to his voice.

In the third video, he says:

We constantly are judging, labelling things as good or bad, from the point of view of our personality.  In the present dream generated by our subjective consciousness, we have a tendency not to remember that everything that surrounds us physically, despite being amazingly designed, organically is made up of temporary forms. All and any of those forms at some point will change into a different form. The form will die, and be reborn, and possibly reborn into another form that may be very alien to us when we meet again, if ever. Why, one will ask. Because that is what life is made of. Life is made of constant change….How not to judge the moment of the event? Life-experiences are not given to us by the universe to make us endlessly suffer, nor to make us endlessly happy…Experiences are given to us simply to observe them. Observe the feeling, and that’s it. We should be ready to treat events that change our life-circumstances simply as epic moments of experience.

From the point of view of this world, what happened to Vadim was ‘the worst thing that can happen to someone’. That’s what we say, isn’t it? And yet even bereavement, even the loss of a child, can be a catalyst for a powerful spiritual awakening. Sharon Salzberg talks of her most important teacher (55 minutes in to the interview): ‘She’d had tremendous suffering in her life. She came to practice after losing two children and her husband, and was so struck with grief she couldn’t get out of bed. The doctor said ‘you’re going to die of a broken heart unless you learn how to meditate’. So she got up out of bed and went to learn. When she emerged, she was so compassionate and so loving. She’d found a way to translate that terrible pain into compassion.’

One of the most useful things I heard to prepare me for psychedelics was from Rick Doblin, the head of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). He said: ‘A difficult trip is not a bad trip.’ This is certainly true on ayahuasca – the first ceremonies I had were lovely, fun, confidence-boosting. But they were just preparatory. The third and fourth ceremonies were much harder, darker, scarier. But that’s where all the healing happened – when I got the opportunity to face difficult emotions and experiences, and to react with more courage, wisdom and love than I have in the past. Difficult does not mean bad.

I can’t expect, therefore, any spiritual awakening (however small) to translate naturally into worldly success. It doesn’t work like that. The spirit-world has different rules to this world. It’s not like western yoga – you do this many sessions, you’ll definitely get a sexy bum, and probably a better sex life. 

We confuse the two worlds. We think there is a correlation between how prominent a person is in this world, and how wise and gifted they are in the spirit-world. The Pope must be the most spiritually advanced person, right? Osho must be the most spiritually gifted person – look at his spiritual empire! Sadhguru must be the incarnation of Shiva – look how many Facebook followers he has!

We mistake prominence for spiritual power. But they’re not the same. I’ve met a handful of people in my life who struck me as people of genuine spiritual power. And they were pretty much all obscure and uncelebrated. The shamans I met in the jungle, for example, have never written any books, they don’t have Facebook pages or ITunes podcasts. No one knows their names. I barely know their names. But they have huge amounts of spiritual power.

Maybe this is all an elaborate rationalization of my disappointment at not getting my magazine column. It does piss me off, and it’s OK that it pisses me off. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: when we embark on the spiritual life we think it will be more or less like the worldly life, just with a bit more soul. We’re like Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin when they’ve just left the Shire, thinking they’re on a fun little adventure. They have no idea what they’re getting in to, or what it will cost them…not less than everything.

The unpredictability of the spiritual life can scare us. We don’t want to lose what we have in this world – the success, the comfort, the status, the security. We may read articles about the risks of meditation, the dangers of psychedelics, the damage from gurus or religious communities, and think, screw that, I’ll just stay in the worldly life. But is it any safer here? Are we on solid ground? We’re still going to suffer and die, over and over and over. Why not gather up our courage, and get going?