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  • Fabrice Desmarescaux

The power of solitary retreats

Solitary retreats, a hallmark of many spiritual traditions, are no longer considered a primary personal development tool in today’s world. In management speak, the word retreat (literally “to pull back”) is synonymous with off-site meetings for budget discussions, team building, strategic plans, or performance reviews.

Today, a growing number of executives are rediscovering the immense benefits of taking time off in solitary retreat. Our role as professionals is to keep a clear mind, to identify patterns, to think ahead of the pack, and to nurture those around us. To do this, we not only need to declutter our brains but we also need to be emotionally balanced and energetically charged. After all, Henri David Thoreau and Joseph Campbell achieved their best thinking while on multi-year solitary retreats.


Yet, our attention is constantly solicited both in the office and at home. Our devices keep us connected and in high alert 24 hours a day. We commit every minute to our families, our bosses, our colleagues, and our communities. Whatever time is left is spent sleeping, eating, or traveling and commuting. Sadly, we often do not feel like we are entitled to meaningful personal time (and I don’t count crashing in front of the hotel room TV as meaningful).


Solitary retreats, no matter how short, give us much needed space to bring perspective to our lives, recalibrate, and see what really matters. We come out of a retreat with a clarified sense of purpose and renewed energy.


Every year, my friend Henri travels to a secluded hotel facing a surfing beach on the island of Lombok. There, alone for two or three days, he reflects on the year past and the one ahead. Subba observes a day of silence and meditation at home every Christmas when his family is away. Lynne checks herself into a mindfulness center in Thailand for a couple of weeks between work projects. Sean rents a cabin without electricity in the mountains of Spain for a week to advance his spiritual practice.


Here's a four guidelines that I have found useful over the years.


Block time in advance


Experiment with half a day (a weekend morning perhaps). You can always increase your retreat time as you get more comfortable with your thoughts. Tell everyone you are not reachable and mean it.


Find a peaceful venue


Find a quiet place in a park, on a beach, or even stay at home if everyone is away (the dog can stay). You can check into a boutique hotel near home, rent a cabin or camp by the lake… Quiet surroundings go a long way in opening our minds.


Define a theme


Believe it or not, time flies when we have the luxury of focusing on ourselves. I always chose a theme in advance and draw a schedule. My day starts a sunrise with a short ritual like clearing the space, lighting a candle, and stating intentions. I then include four meditation sessions separated with studying, writing, walking in nature, and resting. You may want to focus on prayer, journaling, reading inspiring books, or yoga.


Embrace silence


Our world is so noisy that we can’t hear ourselves think. Silence just means turning off all the communication devices. Whether you keep an internet connection to research some ideas or to listen to inspiring talks, is up to you, but be clear on its purpose.


I hope that these few lines will inspire you to give it a try. And if you already go on solitary retreats, I would love for you to share about your experience here.

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