Every time I go on retreat, I am reminded of why I keep doing it 20 years on and how necessary it is for keeping balance in life.
It always feels like the highest form of sanity to rest and restore deeply at all levels – mentally, emotionally, and physically – and to give myself space to process and reflect, observe, and digest. Through teaching on retreats, I have witnessed mini miracles as people come to realisations about their lives, let go of things that have burdened them for years and walk through pain or discomfort to a completely different perspective.
In my younger years I observed traditional Buddhist retreats in Thai Theravāda monasteries, and these had in common with Lifeflow retreats and yoga retreats I have attended, an emphasis on solitude, minimal talking to open to inner experiences, and spending time in beautiful natural environments.
Recently I returned from a retreat at Lifeflow’s Kurlana Mallee Sanctuary which provides an unparalleled opportunity to connect with nature and its rhythms. After months of full-on busyness at work, it was sheer bliss to spend time outside connecting with nature: feeling my body’s interaction with bird calls, the breeze on my skin, changes in light, the gentle rustle of bark in the breeze, the sound of a beetle clambering up a screen door. For me there is no greater content than this experience of being an inseparable part of the environment.
With that said, in retreat as in everyday life, there are always ups and downs! Recently I gave a talk outlining the stages I often experience when caught in emotional conflict. This particular retreat was challenging to start with.
These are the habits of my mind when off-balance and I’m very familiar with them! I always find afternoons in retreat the hardest and have learned to get through them by making a cup of tea, reading something interesting, sitting outside, eating something sweet or often, all of the above. Once I accept the agitation and work with it, things change.
Retreat provides a safe space to allow every aspect of my being to come into awareness. In the busyness of everyday life and the many roles I play – employee, manager, friend, family member, daughter – parts of myself are edited and the full range of feeling is often not expressed. Guarding my heart is required at work for example, but in retreat I can open to a deeper connection with myself and others. I can call back any missing parts of myself and listen to their wisdom. I realise that any kind of difficult state or situation I may be experiencing is not the whole story – as the larger context reveals itself once more, I see a way forward.
At the recent Easter retreat at Kurlana I had a lovely reminder of one of the universal laws of life. Sitting in the open-air bush toilet, I had a perfect view of a flock of Mallee Ringneck Parrots Barnardius zonarius sitting in a tree next to me. It was early morning, and the light was exquisite – perfect for a photo I thought. I went to fetch my mobile phone but when I returned and tried to take a photo, the parrots flew off. I spent close to an hour trying to get a good photo, however, the final result was average at best.
Eventually I returned to sit outside the hut and became still, opening fully to the sounds around me. About 20 minutes later two of the flock flew over, with one parrot perching about a metre away and looking directly into my eyes with curiosity. It was impossible to reach my camera, the light wasn’t good and any attempt to take a photo would have killed the experience. Instead, I opened fully to the connection with these beautiful birds. Afterwards I had to laugh – it was such a perfect example of what happens in meditation, in retreat, and in life. When you let go, accept what is happening and return to balance, everything you need comes to you of its own accord.