Here is a brief-but-complete walk through of my solo retreat experience at Jacoba Hermitage (on the grounds of Holy Spirit Retreat Center in Janesville, MN).
Thursday, March 18, 2010: Day 1 – Arrival and rest
I left the house just before 8 am, truly exhausted. Hazel had been panicky all day, and continued nearly all night long – literally. She was panting heavily, physically shaking, and trying desperately (unsuccessfully) to climb the bed to be close to me. Nothing I said or did consoled her (and believe me, I tried everything I knew); and I couldn’t really “block out” her noise or her emotions, so I had a night of choppy, poor quality sleep, and got maybe five (nonconsecutive) hours of sleep total. Maybe.
So I left the house at just before 8 am, and honestly didn’t know how I was going to stay conscious for the two-hour drive to the hermitage. Here too, I tried everything I knew (frequent stops [I stopped four times for a two-hour trip – ridiculous], cold air, caffeine, deep breathing, pinching myself), and barely made it without having to pull off to the side of the road and nap. But I did make it – and I’m very grateful for that.
I arrived at the residence of The Sisters of St. Francis, where one of the sisters got in my car to show me the way to Jacoba Hermitage, my home for the next three days. This hermitage was built in 2007, and is handicap accessible. As the sister opened the door, I eagerly peeked inside (one never knows what one will find in a donation-based retreat hermitage), and I was amazed. AMAZED. The hermitage was absolutely beautiful! Hardwood floors (okay, laminate, but still!); a fully-stocked kitchen (supply-wise; every hermit has to bring [and make] his/her own food); a HUGE bathroom (due to being handicap accessible); a full-size bed; two nice sitting chairs (one of which is a glider, which I thoroughly enjoy); a BIG window with a forest and lake view; a cute screened-in porch; lots of natural, bright, happy light; and best of all, it was WARM. Electric heat set at 70 degrees. Uh-MAY-zing. Aaaahhhhh….
This certainly beats the accommodations of the Vipassana meditation center, and is superior to the hermitage I stayed at in 2007 (The Dwelling In The Woods). And this hermitage is closer to me than The Dwelling (and certainly closer than the Vipassana center), and is cheaper (by quite a bit) than The Dwelling – wow. Wow!
I feel like this retreat experience is already off to an amazing start.
This first day of my retreat was largely a day of settling in, and of rest. I napped, I did a sitting meditation on letting go (of thoughts, worries, concerns, plans, etc.), I did an outdoor walking meditation on being present (the weather was gorgeous today – sunny and surprisingly warm, and the air smelled SO good), I read a few chapters of A Path With Heart (by Jack Kornfield), and I spent quite a bit of time simply sitting, watching the birds and the trees and the lake from the comfy glider chair, enjoying the rocking, and the delicious tea I was drinking, and the silence, and the rest. The physical rest, and the mental rest. I transitioned into the mindset of “retreat”.
Friday, March 19, 2010: Day 2 – Honesty and awareness, awareness and honesty
I woke up today to the natural darkness of early morning, and found it calm and soothing, I actually wrote some text on the different qualities of light in this one-room hermitage, but then discarded it – it felt self-indulgent, and I doubt many other people would really care about it. : ) I had some really good awarenesses today, actually; and am grateful that I am mature enough, and honest enough, and “desiring” enough to be able to see them as they are; and motivated enough to process them and use them as I go forward.
The activities of the day today (and I use the term “activity” loosely) included yoga and other forms of gentle stretching; self-reflection and introspection via meditation and writing; reading (more of A Path With Heart, as well as the book of John in the Bible [per the request of a friend]); eating; conscious breathing; a shower that apparently should have been much shorter than it was (the hot water heater for this hermitage must be absolutely tiny – after literally eight minutes my shower turned ice cold; yikes!); brief periods of being outdoors (today is much colder than yesterday, and is overcast as well, so it’s not overly conducive to spending lots of time outside); napping; and continued rest of body and mind. And through it all was my attempt to continue my cultivation of awareness.
Saturday, March 20, 2010: Day 3 – Learning, healing, accepting, and FUN!
While yesterday was overcast and introspective (in a healthy way), today is sunny, vibrant, and alive. The air is still cold and crisp, but nature doesn’t seem to mind – indeed, there is a plethora of bird activity today! Whenever I see birds I think of my mom-in-law; I think she would really enjoy and appreciate this setting.
Today’s activities were largely the same ones as yesterday, with one notable exception: In the late afternoon, I had processed the primary awarenesses and learnings I had experienced up to that point in the day, and was ready to end the silence and slowly begin the transition back into “mainstream” life. The hermitage has a CD player and a very small music collection; 14 of the discs are either classical compilations, or Catholic/Christian hymnal selections. (Which makes complete sense; this IS a Catholic retreat center, after all. I am a guest on their premises…) However, one disc stood out from the rest: Its cover featured a young, quite handsome, barefoot black man wearing a fedora, t-shirt, vest, and jeans, playing guitar. The only text on the cover was “Keb’ Mo’ Suitcase”. Intriguing… It looks like this is the disc for me! I popped the CD into the player, and was greeted with cool, smooth, real-yet-positive spirited blues; music that really feeds my soul. Immediately, I smiled. Seems that God knows how to reach me in this setting after all. Of course He does… This was a perfect segue in light of the awarenesses and learnings I had earlier in the day (of course it was) – and I’m grateful for it.
Sunday, March 21, 2010: Day 4 – Transition, and maintaining/sustaining…
This retreat experience is winding down; this morning I will pack the car, clean the hermitage, experience high velocity for the first time in several days (literally and figuratively), and head home.
Transitions are difficult for me (as I imagine they are for many people); I enjoy the predictability, comfort, perceived “safety” of routines, of thinking I know what will come next. But really, I know that I can never truly know what will come next; life can change in any instant – which is actually very comforting, much more so than a routine: If a situation is in some way disliked, just wait – it will change.
OR – in the midst of waiting for a change, I can practice accepting it as it is, exactly as it is. Acceptance doesn’t mean “liking” or even “tolerating” a situation that is truly harmful; it means working with reality to live skillfully (i.e., employing actions based in love and compassion, versus fear, anger, greed).
Yes, transitions are hard. Hard, but healthy. Hard, but worthwhile. As difficult as it was for me to transition into (and now out of) this retreat experience, it really was so good for me. These past days have been a period of restoration: of physical rest, of emotional healing, and of spiritual soothing. This experience was difficult at times (certainly this retreat was not a “vacation” in the everyday sense), but it was also very joyous at times; and it was always “worth” the effort and exertion. I imagine the same can be said of life: difficult at times, joyous at times, and always worth it.
But in fact, life doesn’t have to be difficult. Again, acceptance (radical acceptance) can be the answer to making my experience of life easy (if not always all-out “pleasurable”).
As my retreat friend Keb’ Mo’ said, “Life is beautiful, life is wondrous, every star above, shining just for us. Life is beautiful, on a stormy night, somewhere in the world, the sun is shining bright.”
Afterward: The note I left behind
At the hermitage there is a guest log, where people can leave a note about their experience of retreat, or a prayer, or a poem or drawing, or any documentation they want to leave behind for future hermitage dwellers to view. Here is the entry I wrote:
“The ground is brown; but this lets me appreciate the beauty of the blue in the sky. The trees are leaf-less, bare; but this lets me clearly see the little birds that flutter and scamper around and on them. The air is cold; but this lets my lungs enjoy the crispness and freshness embedded within the cooler temperature. The day is overcast; but this lets me easily focus on my reflections, my meditations, my intentions and motivations for retreat. So much of life, of enjoyment, of peace and tranquility and joy, is perspective. I’m deeply grateful that my path has brought me to this place, intellectually, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
Thank you to all who had a hand in my journey, and thank you to the sisters and staff who have provided this beautiful space of reflection, relaxation, and restoration. I will carry this experience with me, and may one day return.
May those who seek, find; and may all arrive to the place of seeking.”