Retreating or Reconnecting?
I have been going on creative retreats for around twenty years now. The first one I went on took place at Jordans Quaker Meeting House in Buckinghamshire. I still vividly remember the transformative power it had for me. Each of us were invited to create something in clay on the theme of birth and creation and then given the opportunity to share what had taken place for us in the process. What seemed such a simple exercise of making followed by a safe space to gain some insights from each other felt extraordinarily healing and restorative. I was so moved by the experience that soon I found myself drawn to lead retreats for others and I continue to develop and explore fresh ideas and activities for new retreats as I write.
I often ponder on that word retreat that many of us use as common currency. What does it mean? The dictionary definition is clear enough: ‘the act of withdrawing, as into safety or privacy, a place of refuge, or seclusion’. These words do not fit with my experience of retreats. Yes, at times I have withdrawn from the busy-ness and chaos of city living and after a good retreat I can return to my urban lifestyle with a renewed energy and clarity. However, retreats can enable me to take bold steps towards the person I really am and to venture further into those parts of myself I usually shut off or forget about. Going on retreat can help me to live richer and deeper rather than hideaway or hibernate. Being creative can bring us quite precious insights and these discoveries can be even more technicolour and life-changing when we are creative with others and in relationship with a community partly because our voice is being heard and our visions are being witnessed.
There is an old story of two travellers on a long sea voyage heading to Japan. As the ship is getting closer to the islands of Japan one man who has made this trip many times explains to his companion that soon it will be possible to see the majestic peak of Mount Fuji. Over the next few days his companion ventures out onto the wave splashed deck again and again to look out to sea and becomes more and more frustrated that he cannot see the great mountain. After days of concentrated watching and searching his companion is just about to give up and he turns to the seasoned traveller saying ‘I have been looking out for Mount Fuji for days now and still nothing – the visibility is good and so surely by now it should be in full view’. His friend places an arm around his shoulders and simply replies ‘Look higher, look higher’ and raises his other arm high up in the sky to point to the peak. Sure enough the watcher focuses his eyes higher, much higher, and sees the magnificent sight of Mount Fuji in all its glory towering above the clouds. The spectacle had been there to see for days and days but he hadn’t allowed himself to look high enough.
Retreats can enable us to look higher, to gain fresh perspectives on our everyday lives and even see patterns or treasures that have been right in front of our noses all along.
We are all human beings and yet in the West all the stuff we surround ourselves with and all the striving some of us feel we have to do to succeed (and be loved) can make it more difficult to actually be. Being isn’t the same as existing. We sometimes need to be proactive to be. Going on a retreat can have the power to disarm ourselves from our everyday default position – all that fretting and trying too hard and hunting and gathering that can end up taking us far away from the person we truly are.
I chose the name ‘Be Here Create’ precisely because I wanted to build safe, enriching spaces for people to just be and reconnect with themselves through gentle and challenging creative activities, fellowship and free time. I have learned that when I allow myself to be rather than stay on the endless conveyor belt of do, do, do, do more…. I am more likely to be in contact with all of my selves – my parched self, my joyful self, the regions of my life that hurt, my compassionate self, my frightened self and the passionate man in me. I love going on retreats though I think they are fertile pastures for striving forwards into the fullness of living and reconnecting with ourselves, our clans and friends and this mysterious world we inhabit.
While on the retreat I co-led with Angela Schütz at Claridge House over last new year I thankfully found some time for being. A magnificent redwood tree in the grounds had a huge magnetism for me and I found myself making connections as I touched its time scoured bark. The following poem emerged for me. Here it is.
You soar upwards,
a multi-limbed warrior,
nature’s skyscraper skewering the sky.
My eyes revisit boyhood journeys up your wooden staircase.
Your fibrous chest is puffed out,
announcing your majesty in this wood.
My fingertips flinch from your wounds,
your armour torn by time’s relentless seasons.
These dark, ancient cuts and holes leak soul tears,
your secret history melted down into the sap of the underworld.
I am a tourist, unnoticed by your eternal stride.
You use your isolation in this glade as pure magnificence,
yet my isolation haunts me.
I want to run for cover, for companions,
for the artificial light of my cosy city life.
Mighty redwood teach me to be,
allow my hurting to keep me alive,
stop me from dressing up my solitude in anti-aging cream.
Root me wholeheartedly in my aloneness.