Retreat and Renewal

“If any individual lives too much in relations, so that he becomes a stranger to the resources of his own nature, he falls after a while into a distraction, or imbecility, from which he can only be cured by a time of isolation which gives the renovating fountains time to rise up.” — Margaret Fuller

In the past six years, I have begun to return to my original subject of individual transition, and as I have done so I have realized how much people need practical help clarifying their experience of transition and assistance finding their way through it. We lack the old rites of passage that told people from other cultures when a life-transition was at hand and supported them as they moved through it. It is unlikely that we’ll ever be able to recreate passage rituals in anything like their original form and effectiveness—things can’t just be exported from one culture to another, like consumer products. Fortunately, however, our own culture provides us with a practice that many people find very helpful. That is the practice of going off “on retreat.”

The idea of going away alone to think things through has deep roots within both the Judeo-Christian tradition and Islam; it is common in both Buddhism and Hinduism. It is, in fact, less the product of a religious tradition than of our common psychological heritage. It is something that people naturally do when they need a new perspective on their lives. In his useful book, Solitude: A Return to the Self, the psychiatrist Anthony Storr writes that

“The capacity to be alone is a valuable resource when changes of mental attitude are required. After major alterations in circumstances, fundamental reappraisal of the significance and meaning of existence may be needed. In a culture in which interpersonal relationships are generally considered to provide the answer to every form of distress, it is sometimes difficult to persuade well-meaning helpers that solitude can be as therapeutic and emotional support.”

Seeking solitude is what many people naturally do when changes have so stirred up their feelings and thinking that, like muddy water, they need time—quiet time, alone and in some neutral, natural setting—for things to “settle.”

– William Bridges

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