My suitcase is full of food, books, my meditation cushion, a few clothes. I’m full of intent, anticipation, eagerness to return home. As the decade nears its end, for my journey inward, I’m travelling away — in the physical sense.
The wheels of the suitcase recently rolled across Bristol Airport post-Christmas visit. Now they transverse gravel, covered in dirt, a metaphor for the work awaiting my solo retreat in Babelsberg, Germany.
Their rhythmic hum is reminiscent of the sounds of aviation, low and thunderous. As I stop to check directions, the sounds stop too, and I’m confronted with silence. I’m five minutes from the modest hut where I’ll spend New Year’s alone.
I pause, breathe deeply, smile at the sky, purr at the silence. Gone is the percussion of sirens, shouts, smashes, the instruments of noise pollution of the busy city where I live. I’m sure my thoughts, without background noise, just got louder.
The silence is confrontational. Even playful.
Is it the silence, or what it represents? I take this moment to reflect. I’m with myself now. The sounds remaining are mostly internal, the inner-voice and echoes of moments lived. They can no longer be ignored or pushed back into the depths of the unconscious mind.
I decided to spend New Year on a solo retreat following months of challenge, cycles of despair, a sense of being lost and adrift from myself. The intention was to confront the shadow, to bring light to the depression, to seek its wisdom and provide space to understand.
I faced the abyss. What lies beyond was not what I was expecting.
An Inner-Exploration Through Skillful Solitude
For a few months, a familiar yearning craved my attention. Retreating into myself became a necessity. Without the desire for outward celebration, I wanted to signify 2020’s arrival with an act of self-love. To return home. To remember my own strength.
Over the years I’ve developed an approach to skillful solitude. On Christmas Eve, at the pub with the family, I spoke with my dad about the crucial difference between being alone, and being alone with intent. From someone who’s spent much time alone in states of high anxiety and low, low mood, I can vouch for the clear distinction between skilled and unskilled solitude.
During the day-to-day, it’s virtually impossible to reach a certain depth of thought or journey far enough into inner-exploration. Memories of my first Vipassana retreat, in April last year, were fresh in my mind. My practice had stalled. In truth, I created distance from myself. I lost enthusiasm for my spiritual practice, turning to it as a necessity, not a joy.
I wanted to sample the levels of insight available for those who choose to look. Depression has a funny way of making you look.
Setting Intention And Purpose For A Solo Retreat
In the weeks running up to my solo retreat, I meditated on its purpose. I set the clear intention for as little distraction as possible, with the focus on gaining clarity and providing adequate space for inspiration to arise. I prepared food and snacks beforehand. Throughout the three-night stay, I was self-sufficient.
In addition, my intention was to nourish the “four pillars” of insight, wisdom, and understanding: meditation, writing, nature, study. These are deeply spiritual pursuits in my world, they bring me joy of different kinds, and build a relationship with my own psyche.
Unlike Vipassana, where reading and writing isn’t allowed, I wanted to capture ideas as they arose. I took three books, I read one — Holotropic Breathwork. Its contents were a North Star, a map reminding me of the journey home, a calling card to my inner-nature, and a framework for understanding my experiences.
30 January, 2019. I arrive at 4pm. I message family and friends (a final goodbye and reminder I’m uncontactable for New Year), eat dinner, then ritualistically turn off my phone and place it well out of reach. I’m completely off-the-grid. Goodbye, phone. I’ll see you next year.
A second wave of silence; this time silence from hushed voices projected and digested through a device that mimics community and connection and a ceaseless sense of dull alertness. A sense a background static subsides.
Does my phone always pull me in this way, a world of potential missed calls, unread messages, all of seemingly utmost importance and urgency? I have to surrender and trust. There’s a sense of ease leaving this world behind.
The “hut” I’m staying in is the size of my bedroom, but tidy, wholesome, full of nice touches and good vibes. There’s no WiFi. Within moments I feel a deep sense of appreciation, a warm glow. I’m disconnected from the outside world, but connected to myself.
Part of me responds in delight, as if finally being seen.
Creating The Space Is All You Can Do
“Living in solitude now and then, repeating God’s name and singing His glories, and discriminating between the Real and the unreal — these are the means to employ to realise God.” — Sri Ramakrishna
The first evening, I eat beans on toast for dinner, then write intentions for the upcoming days. I use a mixture of practical journalling (such as brainstorming a new work schedule, setting intentions and goals for 2020), meditation (a minimum of 10 hours across the three days), and reconnection.
While I have active control over journalling, or sitting in meditation, reconnection is somewhat different. Here, the intention is purely to create the space for reconnection to occur, for the severed bond to fuse via its own innate healing mechanism. I create the space with the “four pillars”, and let go of any outcome.
When I booked my stay, I wasn’t in the best place. I was fully prepared for this retreat to be one of shadow work, challenging emotions, fear, isolation, looping thoughts. Perhaps this intention itself was a form of tonic, easing my spirit — what I experienced was the opposite of what I expected.
The Light Enters
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” — Rumi
I had spent these past few months wounded. The moment I felt seen by myself, the light entered, flooding my consciousness, permeating every atom, every cell. I was stunned by its sudden arrival, in awe of its presence.
What had been dull and lifeless and heavy and fearful was transformed, full of life, full of meaning, full of love. Everywhere I looked, every scent smelt, every sound heard, a part of myself returned, tiny fragments, gravitating home, radiating to heart and soul.
My body, too, sending its signals of appreciation, through chills of knowing and ripples of energetic hymns.
The hut is located on the cusp of Babelsberg Park, a stunning expanse, a feast for the senses, even in mid-winter. Each day I walk with the intention of being present, breathing it all in. Each turn, piercing light, speck of dust, an enchanted remembrance of Who I Am. I feel vibrantly alive.
Is it this simple, to feel this way? If I could bottle this and sell it to myself, wouldn’t I spend every last cent I had? To feel this whole?
The wholeness, too profound to be restrained by bodily boundaries, permeates all I perceive, enmeshed, a new-yet-intimately-known reality. The divine dance is everywhere, returning from the shadows, welcoming me home, from the sunshine, the clouds, the leaves, the wind, the crows — it pulsates in harmony with the beat in my chest.
Connecting to myself is connecting with it all, a universal web. Abundant, salty tears of appreciation signal remembrance, homecoming. I want to sing, and dance, and shout from the rooftops, as the haze of amnesia evaporates. This is where I belong, as I waltz through the Kingdom of Heaven, mentally high-fiving the world, the natural world that inherently knows, lives and breathes this simple truth.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. I find myself humbled, immensely humbled, for I feel I’ve sampled loss, I’ve sampled death, and now I am reborn, and all of this is a gift, a gift of insurmountable beauty. What is beauty, but a messaging system of the divine? What is beauty, but enticement to recollect the true nature of things?
Wounds are where the light enters and I feel it, I really feel it, brimming, brimming with light’s abundance somehow even brighter when the sun sets, and I meditate and feel the universe within, the cosmos behind closed eyes.
31 January, 2019. I’m in meditation. A crescendo of fireworks signifies the dawn of a new decade. I am far away from home, but I’m not alone. Finally, I’m with myself again. And in being with myself, I am with everyone and everything.
A Process Of Discovery
I will neither exaggerate or downplay my recent cycle of despair — it was a lot, and I felt so much pain. Yet this process of discovery revealed the nature of pain; it wants to be held, it wants to be loved. And when accepted and seen, true nature arises, and true nature is love.
It wasn’t all light, of course. But the space in which difficulties arose was so loving, so nurturing, there was no fear. I grieved yesterdays never to return and tomorrows that will never be, I surrendered to sadness not fully expressed, I felt the poetic suffering of humanity.
I saw visions of my Nan, I felt her presence. I grieved all those loved and lost, simultaneously bursting with gratitude for experiencing it all. The process of healing was beautiful; I was cracked open, and what remained was a heightened receptivity to the treasures of presence, an expanse of heart.
Rest easy in the knowledge that nothing in your inner-experience is there to hurt you. It is there to heal, to be acknowledged. You are safe. You are supported. The universe’s nature is the return to wholeness.
My solo retreat was spiritually rejuvenating. The clarity of mind and reflection left me with renewed vigour for the practicalities of the Earthly realm. A stunning reminder of the nature of being human. Balancing transcendental insights with to-do lists. Eternity balanced with life lived in the blink of an eye.
I encourage you, wholeheartedly, to embrace solitude, to find time for a solo retreat, to set the intention to have the courage to face the shadow and do the work. To get to know yourself, really, truly know yourself.
2 January, 2020. I travel back to Berlin. Spring has arrived early, in every step I take on the way home. I realise I was guided back towards myself. What made me do this? What deeper yearning knew exactly what I needed?
I was already home. Home was always with me. I found it in the bliss of solitude.
The Takeaway: How To Create Your Solo Retreat
To summarise, a reminder of the core elements of building your own solo retreat. I decided to mix the “pillars” but you may wish to emphasise one more than others; for example a retreat dedicated to meditation. Regardless, the following will help you plan your time away:
- Set intentions before. I contemplated my aim for the retreat, and spent the first evening journalling these intentions as they crystalised.
- Prepare. I pre-cooked meals and took food and snacks with me.
- Remove all distractions. I didn’t take a laptop, the place I stayed had no Wi-Fi, and I turned my phone off by 6pm the first evening.
- Have a clear plan for the retreat: I wanted to follow my heart and fill this time with purpose. For me, this was a set amount of time in meditation, one long walk in nature at the hours of sunlight (typically mid-morning), time to write, time to study.
- Be prepared to “work.” Skilled solitude is the intention to work on oneself; it isn’t just relaxation or switching off. I rarely rested but I was energised by the process. When evenings arrived, I eased into sleep with a sense of satisfaction.
- Have no expectations and be willing to “be” with whatever arises. Remember, everything is there for learning, guided by your inner-wisdom.
- The ego will resist delving into the unconscious. Self-discipline, in this respect, is a loving act.
- However, this isn’t boot camp! Find balance. Be kind to yourself.
Let me know below if you’ve created your own solo retreat, or you’re planning one in the future. I’d love to hear your challenges and experiences.