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The Shrink

If you’ve been feeling stressed, you may feel the need to get away from your daily routine and troubling issues. A holiday might be just the thing. Holidays themselves, though, can be stressful – and you can’t avoid taking yourself along. So, if your frame of mind is less than ideal, a holiday may not fix it.

Many of us choose to go on a retreat instead. Traditionally, this would be understood as a spiritual activity but nowadays this need not be the case: there are retreats of all stripes, to suit any taste.

I’ve just come back from a secular Buddhist one, which, although not entirely comfortable, was supremely productive.

Before booking a retreat, however, it’s worth giving some thought to what, exactly, you’re looking for. I have been struck in recent years by the growing overlap between the spiritual and the material, with relaxation and wellbeing becoming a kind of common currency. So many beauty salons now display images of the Buddha that it is almost a cliché. The expression “spa retreat” is commonplace.

This blurring of the boundaries can distort our intentions and expectations. So we might think of a retreat as a way to chill out, for instance. Or when we actually go on one, we might expect to achieve instant inner peace.

Rest and relaxation are good things. Sometimes they are genuinely what we need. And, of course, once we have opened up some space, it may well be that our heads clear and things fall into place without too much effort.

But I wonder whether a retreat is best thought of as a form of relaxation. We might find that it’s not easy at first. In the stillness, our “so-called demons actually become more active”, as a Benedictine monk once put it to me. Facing them is an essential part of the work on the self that spiritual traditions advocate. A retreat, then, is an opportunity to start to tame our demons. All those out of-sight impulses and tendencies – “the shadow”, in Jungian jargon – are bound to make their presence felt if we don’t learn how to handle them.

The Sage

When I find myself having to confront something I’d rather avoid, I often think of the rallying cry of Sir Robin in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Run away!” It may sound pathetic, but it’s more honest than euphemisms such as “regrouping” or “tactical retreat”.

Military retreats are not the only ones that can appear cowardly. Removing yourself from the stresses and strains of the modern world can also seem like a flight from reality, whether it’s a week or two at a spiritual boot camp or a permanent downsizing to rural Wales.

It’s true that some members of monastic communities, for example, simply couldn’t function beyond the cloister walls, and that others undertake more modest retreats as a form of defence against a world they struggle to cope with. However, it is not clear why we should think of their havens as being less real than the normality they flee. Human beings are no more designed for offices than they are for convents. Indeed, the tables can always be turned: the poor professional who dons a suit and chains herself to a desk can be accused of avoiding the discomfort of a more reflective life.

At its best, a retreat is not about turning your back on the world but confronting directly what is most real in it. If you stand back and take a good hard look at your life, you might find that when you step back into it again, you do so with greater clarity, avoiding pointless, trivial distractions and focusing on what you really value in it. Alternatively, you might well conclude that the so-called real world isn’t worth the candle and that you really would be better off living very differently.

If that requires a more radical retreat, so be it. Running away is sometimes exactly the right thing to do, and it can take courage to leave the familiar behind and go in search of something more uncertain, more unknown. Perhaps the taunt hurled at the ignoble knight Sir Robin – “He bravely ran away” – is not such an oxymoron after all.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrink&sage@shrink&sage.com

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