Retreat Fantasies

September 8, 2007 at 6:13 am 4 comments

I admit it, I’m chronically sleep-deprived and having a rough week. A combination of tantrum-prone, sleep-fighting, growth-spurting toddler; a pile of work and bigger pile of unanswered emails in my cluttered office; raging premenstrual/nursing hormones; back-to-work husband with late meetings; sore hip and low back from sleeping on aforementioned toddler’s floor; and shortage of close-by girlfriends to have tea with has put me in a bit of a foul mood. (But who’s complaining?!)

In my right mind, I am grateful and content and I know this is just a mood that will quickly pass. But, I succommed this week to my self-pitying mind, the one that fantasizes about getting away from it all for a couple days, having a life of leisure, or at least someone swooping in on a gold helicopter like a motherly Wonder Woman saying, “I’ll take care of all this, dear; you just go have a bubble bath and sleep twelve hours.”

Then I remembered an article I had read recently in the Fall catalog from Kripalu, the renowned health/spiritual/personal growth retreat in the Massachusetts Berkshires. In the article, “Can I Live a Fulfilled Life?”, Stephen Cope, Kripalu’s Senior Scholar-In-Residence for more than 15 years (and a psychotherapist and yogi) writes about the fallacy of retreat — or, more accurately, the truth behind the retreat fantasy.

Cope uses great literature, psychological studies and his personal experience of working with “seekers” to drive an important point home. Retreat, he explains, is meant to put us back into our lives with renewed perspective — but going back to our lives (not getting away from them) is still the real goal.

He quotes a brilliant poem by Mary Oliver, “A Dream of Trees,” which says, in part:

There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,

A quiet house, some green and modest acres,

A little way from every troubling town…

I would have time, I thought, and time to spare…

And then it came to me that so was death,

A little way from everywhere.

In the end, Oliver lets go of her dream of living quietly among the trees, choosing instead to live in her town and deal with the noisy complications of life. Cope explains that this is what most seekers he has worked with ultimately discover. Being in constant retreat, always at leisure, is not ultimately satisfying, nor growth-producing.

“Retreats don’t change our lives as much as they change where we stand in relationship to our lives — and our capacity to see the hidden possibilites there,” Cope writes. “It is our fantasies about what life should be that we need to leave behind.”

Cope cites studies that illustrate how people are happiest “when meeting a challenge — when bringing skillful, concentrated effort to some compelling activity for which we have a true passion.” (Case in point: I feel better already writing this!)

Too much leisure time tends to make people feel “considerably more sad, weak, dull, and dissatisfied,” these studies show. (It makes me think of the studies of retired people, which show that they get sick and die more quickly if they are not involved in productive activities they enjoy.)

Even the veritable god of retreat, Thoreau, returned to Concord from Walden Pond, realizing that his hometown “was already full of everything required to live fully and passionately,” Cope explains.

And, while even Cope himself sometimes wants to retreat from his retreat, he says, realizing that the point of getting away is to return, renewed, to our life’s work (wherever and whatever that may be) helps him keep perspective. And now, describing Cope’s insightful piece to you, I feel I have more perspective, too.

So, this weekend, I will take retreat in the form of a morning yoga class and a splurge acupuncture/massage hour for my bad hip/back (and maybe a little shut-eye on the table!). Then I will hopefully return, renewed, in a better mood, to my lively toddler, easygoing husband and interesting work. Would I trade my life for anyone else’s? No way. But, being human, sometimes I’ll still complain, cry and dream of doing nothing and eating bonbons all day.

I think it is not about not having retreat fantasies, but more about what Cope says, keeping perspective on these fantasies. And putting less energy into dreaming of a different life, and more energy into making sure our life and work are filled with challenges we are passionate about.

Then when we “get away,” in reality or daydreams, we know we are doing it with the goal of returning to the life we’ve created, and living it more fully.

Entry filed under: Spirituality.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. The Writer Mama  |  September 8, 2007 at 4:32 pm

    It’s funny you should mention retreats b/c I was feeling the same way you described this past couple weeks and having similar fantasies. Mostly I was missing a spa in Chicago I used to be able to walk to on a whim. It was called Thousand Waves spa ( and it’s a Japanese-style paradise, similar to the one in Santa Fe, Ten Thousand Waves spa.

    I believe that the spa in Chicago was created with the intention that it be an oasis for stressed out women and they offered a discount to women with cancer. I remember meeting my girlfriends there on my birthday (maybe it was my 30th). It was so cheap. Like eleven dollars to use the steam room, sauna and whirlpool. They gave you thick terry cloth bathrobes and slippers to wear and you could lie on lounge chairs and drink tea and read or take a nap.

    Damn. I miss that place. We need one in every town in the US. Don’t you think?

    Anyway, we don’t have one here. But I did, finally, go to the chiropractor and I feel so much better and in alignment.

    Happy back-to-school, my dear. I’m right here in the trenches with ya!

  • 2. The Writer Mama  |  September 13, 2007 at 8:09 pm

    Okay, this is SO spooky that I had to come back and post about it.

    After talking about Thousand Waves spa in Chicago on a whim in my comment, above, I received a call this week. Did I want to come to Chicago to be a speaker at my alma mater, Columbia College Chicago, for Creative Nonfiction Week.

    Um, Yes!

    And I just finished scheduling my appointment at Thousand Waves spa. I’ll go straight there after I get off the plane for a complete spa treatment. Then speak the next evening, after hanging out in my old ‘hood with my roomate from college!

    Cannot wait!

    Can you believe this coinky-dink?

    You’ve got some kind of magic blog, here, my dear.

    🙂 C

  • […] To find out more, read my two comments at Megan’s blog “Having Enough.” […]

  • 4. Mrs. Jones  |  September 14, 2007 at 4:09 am

    This is so timely for me. I just returned from New Mexico… a five day rest in the Land of Enchantment. Before coming back to reality, my husband and I had all but put the For Sale sign up on our lawn. Quietly, we have settled back into our daily routines and are surprisingly happy; rejuvenated from our time away. My impulsive nature is maturing and I see places like Santa Fe, Madrid, and Taos as places to visit for now and to maybe some day call home. It was a wonderful retreat… back to the stimulation and growth of a buzzing metropolis by the sea.


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