Creating a Successful Self-Retreat in the New Year: Notes from the Pecos
1/09/23. This weekend, I have been squirreled away at a Benedictine Monastery about 1.5 hours outside of town, in the beautiful Pecos mountains of New Mexico. It’s been a doozy of a December. This May, I’ll attend a beautiful songwriting retreat in Gotland, Sweden, but I badly needed a sense of peace, reprieve and a soft space to land before I started an intensive teaching semester, next week. What to do and where to go?
As I write, I am sitting on one end of a long glass corridor, surrounded by multi-colored geraniums, and sunlight is streaming in through the windows. Sunday mass just ended, and many local community members attended. They ended mass by singing “Angels We Have Heard on High '' in full voice, and the sound came streaming through the chapel door, to my perch in this hallway. I don’t have any cell reception, and the wifi is limited to one room. I’ve been reading Icelandic crime novels, practicing Norwegian on my language app, going for long walks along the Pecos river (where the photo of the wooden sculpture of the woman looking skyward was taken), and sun sitting. Lots and lots of sun sitting, like I am doing right now, and journaling. Oh, and working on my book. Intensively. It’s not perfect, and I wish it could be for an additional week—I am here for four days—but I am also content I got myself here (that is always the hardest part), and being here for a few days is so much better than not coming at all. To the amusement of the monks in my midst, I’m also humming again as I walk around, which to me is an indication that my muse is waking herself up, again, after being dormant since the summer.
So how might we do this for ourselves more often, and, if you’d like to explore going on a self-created retreat, what are the keystones to creating a successful self-retreat? I’ll speak, of course, from my own experience alone, but will offer some tenets that I think are fundamental to consider when deciding to create one’s own retreat, whether it’s for writing, artmaking, or simply creating space to pause, breathe deeply, and reflect.
Dates: Decide on a day or series of days, and put them in your calendar. Then, block off those days, and schedule everything else around it. Commit to it as you would any other work or personal function (see Julia Cameron’s discussion of “artist dates” for more on this in her book, The Artist’s Way).
Location, Food and Lodging: Decide where you’d like to go and where you’d like to sleep. This is, in a sense, the most important part, because what you decide may be the difference between doing it and not doing it.
Some things to consider:
Location, Location: What place or piece of land is calling you? Can you get yourself there relatively easily? if it’s too expensive or too far—an all-catered retreat in Tuscany, for example, it might take you ten years to save for it, and in the meantime you may not be making any art or allowing yourself time for retreat. So, in addition to your dream country or location, where might you go, closer to home? Or do you know someone with a flexible schedule who might be able to house-swap with you or let you house-sit their place while they are away?
I have now done lots of self-retreats—spaces where I let myself write, be, and process to my heart’s content—in lots of different settings. Some of them were for a day, others for a week. I’ve spent a week at a Buddhist monastery in the Jemez Mountains, at a cabin in Ponderosa where I wrote my third album, I’ve booked a hotel room for multiple nights in Hillsborough, North Carolina, I’ve done a week-long retreat from my adobe home in New Mexico with an online retreat provided by Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center in northern California. I’ll do one later this spring with two other songwriters, at another monastery closer to home but which is surrounded by mesas, sage and rabbitbrush. And I’ve done lots of structured group retreats, most of them focusing on songwriting, many of them also international. And of course, I lead lots of retreats, including in Sardinia, Italy, and on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. What the successful ones had in common, I think, was a) giving myself permission to enter fully into whatever world I was entering b) being in and surrounded by nature c) having the time and space to slow things down d) nourishing my body with good food e) connecting deeply back to myself through artmaking. All these elements, in turn, create the sense that you’ve really left and thus, when you return home, you feel you’ve had an actual break—you’ve traveled somewhere geographically, psychologically and spiritually—from your daily life.
Cost: what is your budget? Mine is usually about $50/night, which rules out lots
f places but opens up new possibilities, too. Who has modest rooms in
beautiful places close to nature? Oftentimes this will be retreat centers in some form or another. I recently discovered a beautiful one, right in the heart of Albuquerque’s south valley, run by the Norbertines. It’s exquisite, it’s peaceful and self-contained, and you feel like you are a million miles away from Albuquerque.
Food: I am a big foodie, so for me this is important. Do you want to
bring/prepare your own food? If so, you might want to find an airbnb or a place that includes a kitchen where you stay. Or do you prefer a place where food is also prepared and where you eat in community? At Bodhi Manda Zen Center in the Jemez, they prepare some of the freshest, most delicious vegetarian food I’ve ever eaten in my life. And the food became its own kind of nourishment and reprieve. By the end of the retreat, I was not only eating it, but learning how to prepare it in the kitchen, too, a practice Buddhists refer to as samu (作務, or physical work needed to maintain the monastery). Other times, I have stocked up on multiple prepared meals and salads from Trader Joe’s and brought them with me to warm up if there is a kitchen. Either way, treat yourself to delicious, nourishing and tasteful food. Your senses and your artist will thank you for it.
Personally, I love the luxury of having someone else prepare the food, so I can sniggle 30 more minutes in before a meal to practice a song, write a new lyric, or go for a short walk. This feels like such a luxury! Last night, Jeff the chef made a delicious carrot ginger soup. It was fragrant, warming, and something I wouldn’t think to make for myself (the monks’ main meal is lunch, and each evening a different soup is served; on Fridays they eat fish). And last night, the monks invited me and two other guests into their inner eating sanctum, the refectory, where the Father Abbot prepared the meal for all of us, from scratch. It was in a small wooden attic, and everyone was wearing their white robes, and country music (and later Irish music and then Gregorian chant) was playing in the background. It was surreal, delicious, and amazing.
If you have the luxury of doing so, I highly recommend finding a location where you will have no phone reception, OR turning your phone off/setting it to airplane mode for the duration of your stay. Doing this, even for one day, can be a mental health game changer! Otherwise, for me, the temptation is just too great to check that email I’ve been waiting on, to listen to another voicemail from work, and then, snap, my headspace has shifted, and I’m prevaricating about a professional decision, ruminating on an awkward conversation, and I’m no longer in the space to be present and be in this beautiful new place. Jealously guard not just your time, but your headspace and audio space.
Taking Care of your People and Stating Intention
Turning off your phone involves the important task of getting your people, whomever they may be, on board and in the loop and hopefully also supportive of your plans. This is, I think, one reason people avoid doing self-retreats. You have to make the decision to do it, and then follow through at all levels. At a bare minimum, I think, it means making your intention to go on retreat explicit and intentional: it means telling all parties, on a need-to-know basis, that you’ll be out of town, that your phone will be turned off, and, most importantly, that you will be on retreat. You may need/want to spell this out for folks, too—don’t assume prior knowledge. Then, be sure to let folks know when you will return to the land of the living so there is accountability on both sides. Doing this, while tedious in the moment, will allow you to relax that much more deeply on retreat, knowing you have done your due diligence to those for whom you feel responsible. In my case, I needed to a) speak to my partner and inform him of my desire to go on retreat b) get his support and understanding to hold down the fort at home during my absence c) arrange care for our elderly dog during the day d) inform other colleagues with whom I work most closely—co-authors, teaching collaborators—that I’ll be away and the dates I am coming back (this is my weakest link, due to some expertly honed avoidance strategies). Last, I provided an emergency phone number, the landline to the monastery, should he or someone really need to reach me for an emergency.
In my experience, we often use other people as our excuse not to do things for ourselves. As a teacher, I am especially guilty of this! But the honest truth is, when we are clear and up front about our needs and then spell out exactly what that looks like for others, most healthy humans in our lives are more than happy to support us in this. Remember that they will benefit, too, upon seeing your increased joy, energy and full attention in your personal and creative relationships with them, when you return.
Religion/Spiritual Practice: Does it Matter?
I have learned that, in many of these settings including here with the
Benedictines and at the Buddhist Center in the Jemez, my own belief system doesn’t really matter, and that all faith traditions are welcome. All faith traditions of which I am aware–and certainly the Abrahamic ones– have a version of contemplative practice, so faith communities recognize and respect someone looking to contemplate, sit still, and go deeper and want to hold the space for it. Accordingly, I am not obligated to attend religious service–Buddhist, Catholic or otherwise–and can simply do my thing/be in my own independent orbit, loosely connected but without the obligations of my daily life. This broader respect for contemplative practice, and for seekers/pilgrims, reminds me of when of John and I walking the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain, last summer, and each and every person from Spain whose path we crossed shouting to us with such energy and joy: “¡buen camino!” (happy trails/happy path!). It literally energized and lit our path, no matter how tired we were, each time it happened. Also, an amazing artist who I have met while on retreat here recommends the following book, which is about non-Catholics and artists (the author is a writer) going to Catholic spaces–cloisters, monasteries– to do self-retreats and the power and beauty that is found in sharing community with others. It is called The Cloister Walk, and is by Kathleen Norrish.
Today I drive back to Albuquerque. I will gently ease back in, back an apple-pear tart, reconnect with my partner and my dog, and join a dinner with new friends. Tomorrow, I’ll plunge back into things work related, ‘for reals.’ I will drive south to Albuquerque and out of these mountains, loaded with fresh soaps made by the monks, a beautiful new bookmark made by my new friend, and some rich new life stories to fuel my life and my art. I’m grateful to this monastery and this land, for welcoming me so completely.
Ready? I hope you leave this post feeling energized and inspired to create your own self-retreat!
And, if you made it to the end of this post, what kind of retreats (formal or informal) have you created for yourself in your life, and what made them successful? Do you have additional tips and pointers for others wishing to do the same thing? And do you have any upcoming retreats planned? I welcome your comments, thoughts and musings.