Each of is like a light bulb. No, not one of those new-fangled compact florescents, but rather, one of the old style standard bulbs with the firmament and all. When we go out into the world and do good, through healing work, through engaging in people care, earth care, or fair share–the inner light of our souls, the inner light of our bulbs, burns brightly, illuminating all of those around us. As we work through our lives, read the news, hear of suffering and violence, experience tragedy, loss, suffering, and violence–our light bulbs get stuff sloshed on them. They grow dim, dirty from the world and its evils. As I wrote about two weeks ago–life seems to be getting harder, with more sharp edges, and so many of us are on edge throughout. Our light bulbs get mired in the everyday grime of living and being in the world. It is important, then, that we maintain the integrity of our light bulbs so that we can do the good work that we are called to do. This isn’t the first time I have shared this metaphor on this blog (and it was taught to me by the brilliant Jim McDonald), but it is one that I find so useful and important that I keep on returning to it.
And so, once in a while, we need something more drastic to give us a boost and allow our inner light to shine forth. And today, friends, I will be writing about a key practice that helps us do just that: the druid spiritual retreat. It is this kind of retreat, even for only a few days at a time, that can leave us refreshed, whole, and ready to go back into the world with our lights shining brightly.
This will be a two-part post series: the first part will introduce the retreat, explain how to set one up, and explain some decisions to make (to fast or not to fast, solitary or companions), options for how to hold the retreat, herbal allies for your retreat, and so on. The second post, next week’s post, will explore how to ease into the retreat, the work of the retreat, and easing back into everyday life–the ceremony continuing on well beyond the retreat itself.
Introducing the Druid’s Retreat
Into the forest…
One of the ways I think about the druid’s retreat is like this: your everyday life, you are hiking a path in a forest. There, you have a long way to go, you rest, you find mushrooms, you see what is before you on the path, you adapt, crawl over fallen trees, and more. What the retreat does is allow you to leave the forest of your everyday life and instead, sit on a mountain cliff, above that forest, looking down at all below. It allows you a different perspective, a broader view, where you can see the everyday patterns in a new light. It allows you to look at the interplay of the different trees, the meandering of the river, the mountains beyond the valley. When you return to that forest path, as you most certainly will do, you have more wisdom about it because you have seen it from a different perspective.
In the Tarot, the Hermit card teaches us much about the idea of a spiritual retreat. The hermit has gone off to seek solitude and illumination. He spends much time wandering the land, by himself, and coming to an understanding of life’s great mysteries. Of course, when he returns, he has much knowledge and illumination to share with others. The tarot is ultimately a deck of archetypes, and we see this same arch-typical story of hermitage, of solitude, of retreat encapsulated in mythology, stories, and religious lore from around the world–Jesus, Buddha, Thoroeau, even fictional characters like Obi Wan Kenobi–all retreated and had deep insight and wisdom to share. Another tarot card that is fitting is that of the hanged man–gaining a new perspective offers much in terms of insights, healing, tranquility, and more. It is when we are able to get this new perspective–from the mountain far away from the valley of our life below–that we gain insight into what to do next and the next part of our journey.
Retreats are serious business, for this reason. They can facilitate inner and outer transformations, allow us to have a new perspective on old problems, clear out old things that no longer serve us, jump-start a new set of spiritual or creative practices, help us clear out old patterns and establish new, more positive patterns, in our lives, among many other things. All of this is deep work, potent work, magical work, that we cannot take on lightly or without clear intent.
Breaking the Everyday Patterns
The principle of a retreat is simple: you get away from your everyday life (your home, your family, your work, your other demands) for a period of refreshment, rejuvenation, and seclusion (alone or with select others, see below). Where to take this retreat is a critical thing: I have learned that its near impossible to do this retreat in your everyday living space, because both things/stuff and patterns have a way of creeping in. Your stuff holds energy and puts particular kinds of demands upon you. For example, your computer is there, beckoning for you to turn it on, maybe browse Facebook or your favorite blogs. Your bathroom is there, in need of a good scrubbing. Your phone is there, everything else is there, your pets, family and/or kids. These things are necessary, perhaps, and part of your daily rhythms. But they work against us when we need to go on a retreat because they pull us back into the experiences of everyday living.
Likewise, the patterns of everyday living that we establish are critical for our overall “getting things done” and forward momentum, and our spaces are conducive to supporting and encouraging those patterns. Sometimes, we can get stuck in cyclical patterns, especially cyclical patterns associated with being in indoor spaces that harm us. Getting away from our patterns are also an important part.
Stephen Harrod Buhner writes beautifully on this topic as follows, “The daily cares that occupy so much of our time, the demands of work, of social conventions, of family, and of things that we feel we “have” to do often accumulate, filing up our time, taking our attention, becoming toxins to the soul. The incessant mutter of the television, the continual sounds of technological civilization, the chatter goes on continually in our heads–these things fill us up with distractions and take us away from who we are and who we knew we were to be when we began this journal through life. As our lives unfold, each of us is often channeled into paths that are not part of living a fulfilled life. Fasting and retreat in wilderness allows the inessentials of life to be stripped away, allows our souls to detoxify.” — The Transformational Power of Fasting: The Way to Spiritual, Physical, and Emotional Rejuvenation.
But there’s another aspect to this pattern breaking: by removing ourselves from the situation for a time, we break the everyday patterns that no longer serve us. The patterns that no longer serve us, that perhaps we want, and need to, be rid of for our own health, happiness, and fulfillment. Those are another aspect to the patterns we remove when we go on retreat.
Finding a Retreat Space
The space for your retreat is really critical to the overall success of the endeavor–and I consider it one of the more difficult pieces to determine. A good space facilitates a successful retreat; a poor space (where there are other people, noises, distractions) can really harm your overall retreat and goals and end in frustration. The important thing is that the healing retreat be secluded, preferably from other people, certainly from life’s demands. Preferably, it will have no Internet service, no cell service, and no television! The idea is to get away for a bit, have quiet, and be able to be fully present with nature.
Nature, too, is a critical component of the Druid’s healing retreat. You want to be somewhere where you can easily commune with nature without distractions. You need to be able to be in nature, and hear her messages. You want to be in nature that is whole, pure, and not damaged in some way (retreat is not typically a time for land healing work, but a time for inner healing work).
Here are a few models for the healing retreat:
- Go to a friend’s secluded cabin, yurt, etc. Ask friends if they have shares in hunting lodges or know of a place you can go for a few days.
- Backpack into a secluded spot and stay a few days; bring minimal supplies and tent
- Rent a rustic cabin in the woods somewhere far away from others (*rustic* cabins are hard to find; you may have to do some searching and use non-Internet sources. Most of the cabins I have been finding on the web are luxury / glamping cabins–not really necessary or needed for retreat).
- Go into the woods with minimal things (maybe like a tarp); vision quest style. I did this when I went on my vision quest a few years ago–a tarp, a sleeping bag, a jug of water, my flute and drum, and a journal were my companions. It was perfect.
- Plan a “walkabout” journey where you wander for a time on a trail (or do an all night walkabout). If you do this during a full moon, in a semi-open space, you may not even need a light.
- Get in a boat/canoe/kayak and do a river trail or go to a secluded lake; camp along the edge of the river and float for a day or two down the river.
Before the Retreat
Timing and planning. Take at least 24 uninterrupted hours for your retreat, although several day retreats are even better (I like to do a 3 or 7 day retreat)—and for those who are insanely busy, ask friends to help with watching children or pets, take a vacation or sick day from work, etc. The key here is to make space for your healing retreat. So you need to plan it in advance, line up your ducks in a row, and be prepared for the distance and space necessary for a healing retreat.
Food. If you are going to eat (see fasting, below) I would suggest cooking in advance for the retreat unless cooking is a healing and nurturing activity for you. Then you can focus your energies only on the retreat and not worry about feeding yourself during it. I will say that even if you plan on eating, I would keep the meals very light: fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds. Too much food, especially heavy meats, have a way of grounding you firmly in the physical realities–and the whole point of retreat is to gain physical, emotional, and spiritual distance from the everyday. So do plan your food carefully with this in mind.
Vision quest altar
Consider packing and bringing the following items with on your retreat:
- A journal for personal reflections and discovery. I believe this is the most important thing to bring on your retreat!
- Spiritual objects of significance to you
- A blanket or something to sit on (I have a nice sheepskin that I like to take into the woods; it was a gift from a good friend)
- Ritual items (candles, incense, whatever tools you will need)
- Musical instruments (a drum, if nothing else, is a great idea).
- Offerings for the land (my favorite offering blend that I make is a combination of tobacco that I grow myself (including leaf, stem and flower) + wild rose petals + lavender flowers. It smells great). Urine is also a great offering!
- Medicine making and harvest equipment (if you will be doing any wandering, foraging, etc. I always do this on my retreats)
- A forest hammock (this is an important part of my retreats–I have a great hammock with tree straps that will easily attach to any tree. It is good for resting, looking up at the stars at night, and simply “being” present (and keeping the ants and critters off of you).
- Things to keep you warm (hand warmers, etc) if the weather is cold.
- Extra shoes and layered clothing, especially if you are going to be outside.
- Bring really good water. I know this kind of sounds silly, but our bodies are made of water, and most of the water that is available is not good water–its stored in plastic, chemically tainted, shipped from who knows where, bottled and chemically ionized or whatever. I would suggest that you find some really good water (like spring water, locally sourced if possible) and bring that with you for drinking during your retreat. What you will find is that really good water does something to you–it makes you feel more alive, you feel extraordinarily refreshed after you drink it–it works on many levels.
Leave the following stuff behind:
- All electronic devices. Bring your phone in case of emergency, but turn it off and do not look at it or check it at all during your retreat. The world can survive without you for a few days, and you can survive without it (that’s one of the patterns that is useful to break!).
- Unnecessary stuff. Minimal packing is good for retreats–you don’t need fancy hair dryers or five pairs of sandals, or whatever. The more you bring, the more that stuff weighs you down. Think about needs over wants here. Its not that I’m saying to be uncomfortable, but I am saying that minimal packing is ok!
Herbal Allies for Your Retreat
If you are interested, certain herbal allies may aid and strengthen the work that you do on retreat. I have found that working with a series of plant allies can extend the work that I are doing on various levels. Here are a few of them:
- Hawthorn. Hawthorn is a plant that helps us clear our lightbulbs, to get the grime off, to return to our heart spaces and engage in our own deep healing work. It is particularly good for retreats. I usually take this as a tincture (berry, or berry/leaf/flower) and/or tea. You can even rub the tincture on your heart for added effect.
- Stinging Nettle. Stinging nettle is many things, but in this context, we are focusing particularly on its regenerative properties for the nervous system and adrenals. Part of what we do on healing retreat is physical regeneration work and nettle is quite good at this work. Cold nettle tea is also a good diuretic, which helps flush toxins from the body and does healing on the kidneys. Stinging nettle: I would not go on retreat without it!
- Wood Betony: Wood Betony is another plant that works on the central nervous system, and is a tonic nervine plant. Most of our nervines have very specific qualities, things that they do better than other nerviness. In the case of Wood Betony, it is good for those who live in their heads, who over intellectualize, over think, and suppress instinct. Culturally, we are all in this place–privileging our minds over our hearts, suppressing emotions and intuitions, and learning to work in more of a heart space. It is for this reason that I believe that this is always a good plant to take on retreat: combined with the others on this list, it will allow for powerful transformations!
Ghost pipe with a bumble bee teacher
- Mugwort. Mugwort has been known to many cultures and traditions as a dreaming herb. I have found that it certainly stimulates good dreams, but also good visions while we are in shifted spiritual states, trace states, in deep retreat/vision quest, and so on. Consider mugwort like a guide to your unconscious and sub-conscious–mugwort expertly leads the way on the path into the deep recesses of the soul. There, you can do the work you need. Mugwort tea is a bit bitter, but you can take it internally. You also get the exact same effects if you burn it (like a mugwort smudge or mugwort-infused incense).
- Indian Ghost Pipe. I have written about Indian Ghost pipe or Ghost flower before, and this is a *fantastic* plant ally for your retreat. The principle of Ghost Pipe is simple: it provides us distance and perspective, both physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. Ghost pipe helps us get into the retreat space and stay in that space, giving us the “up on the mountaintop” perspective we seek during retreat. Ghost pipe can be found and eaten, tinctured, or smoked in a herbal smoking blend. Beware, however-this is a delicate plant, a sacred one, and you need to cultivate a sacred relationship with it. Please take only what you need of this most sacred plant and treat it with the utmost respect.
Now, you can take these plants internally (as described above). You can simply make a tea beforehand and take it with you on the retreat, for example. But you can also just have them with you, maybe in a little medicine bag, or find them and sit near them. They will do their work on whatever system you need: spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Trust your intuition and work with them accordingly.
The alternative is to find the plant allies you need while you are out on retreat. Foraging and seeking the plants–the ones that you need will be there, waiting for you, when the time is right. If you know how to see them, if you have your mushroom eyes on, they will come to you.
Another option you can add in is the fast for your healing retreat. I have done fasting retreats (and recently completed a seven day fast about a month ago combined with 3 days of retreat). What I found was that fasting adds an additional dimension to the retreat, a very intense dimension, and one that must be prepared for. A lot of us have never fasted, and a lot of us have never gone into the woods alone. Combining these things all into one 3 or 7 day journey might be too much for a person the first time. So consider fasting as an option, but don’t feel you have to do it.
A beautiful, moss covered knoll visible from my vision quest spot
One of the things that happens when you fast is that you get really weak, so consider a “staying put” and “quiet” retreat if you are going to do a fasting retreat. E.g. if you lug 50 lbs of equipment into the woods and fast there for 7 days, you will still have to lug that equipment out–and that might not be possible for you after 7 days of fasting.
With these caveats, I have found fasting to be an incredible part of retreats, especially retreats where healing and/or releasing is a primary goal. I would highly recommend that before you take on such a fast, you read Stephen Harrod Buhner’s The Transformational Power of Fasting: The Way to Spiritual, Physical, and Emotional Rejuvenation. This book describes water and juice fasting, including short fasts and extended fasts. Buhner argues that you can detoxify spiritually through fasting and achieve higher levels of consciousness and awareness (which works partially because food grounds us; fasting puts us in a ceremonial space or deep intuitive space). He argues that because so many of our emotions are wrapped up in food, and because our bodies hold those emotions inside, fasting, and shedding some weight during fasting, can help us clear up emotional trauma. Finally, there are the physical benefits. Here’s one of the things he writes:
“When you are empty, you are ready to be filled. And you cannot be filled with what you want unless what has been in your way is allowed to pass out…the residual toxins, the side effects of shallow food, have to emerge from the deepest recesses of the self and exit. Some of these things as they pass out of you might be frightening, some difficult, many boring: some are surprisingly easy to let go of, and some are joyful. ..You are intentionally entering a new territory, intentionally deciding to suffer, not to eat. You are allowing yourself to empty so that something else, a better food, can fill you up.”
Now how he describes these transformations are, in themselves, a journey worth taking in book form! So read it, consider your options, and go from there.
Retreating with Others
I have done healing retreats with others and by myself, and there are benefits to both. Most of what I’ve described in this post assumes a solitary druid healing retreat. But I wanted to share another model: the retreat with companions. A dear friend of mine who is a Zen Buddhist often does these kinds of retreats–a group of people, together, support each other with mindfulness practice days. These retreats are often interspersed with group sharing, teaching, and a lot of quietude.
A healing retreat with others–the right others–can add much to your experience. But it is fundamentally a different experience than a solitary retreat, and you will likely do different kinds of work. With that said, there is room for others on this retreat if they are the right kind of others, those who will help heal and rejuvenate rather than drain us. If you are going to take a friend on a healing retreat, make sure you establish in advance what the retreat will be about (e.g. a full day of solitude with no taking; specific work to be done at the retreat). If you are going to plan this kind of retreat, here are a few suggestions:
- Have a structure planned out in advance. (E.g. daily retreat times, no talking, ritual planned at night + one shared meal).
- Have goals for the retreat and a goal-setting session early in the retreat. The goals may be inward focused (healing and guidance) or outward focused (healing of the land).
- Consider if one person will function as the “retreat” leader or if all will be equal participants. A retreat leader is a space holder–their function isn’t so much spiritual healing or journeying, but rather, focuses on facilitating the retreat energetically, physically, spiritually). A retreat leader may be needed if there are a lot of inexperienced/new people at the retreat. But if there are those that are experienced, one may not be needed and the group can function cohesively and all can get their own work done.
- Have a feast at the end of the retreat (perhaps combined with an eisteddfod!)
- Consider group journeys–physical and spiritual. Visiting healing springs, etc, are always a nice idea!
- Consider group healing work. This is where I would do my most serious land healing work with others–on a retreat weekend dedicated to that purpose!
The important thing is to establish and maintain structure prior to beginning the retreat–this will allow all participants to get the most out of the retreat.
Going deep into the woods, wilderness, away from it all has tremendous benefits. We are coming up on the Fall Equinox, which is a really good time to consider a retreat as we move into the dark half of the year. As I mentioned above, this is my first of two posts on druid retreats. I’ll be posing the second half next week. In the meantime, blessings upon your journey!