Interplay of light and darkness on the landscape of Western PA
Following the path of the sun and the moon we can learn much about the work of a druid retreat in our lives. The daylight is where we typically live–it is bright, it is loud, people are about, lots of activity is taking place. The daylight offers us a particular way of seeing the world, of interacting in it, and while everything is bright and illuminated, it is so bright that we see only what is there. We scurry about, we live our busy lives, the sun blazes down upon us.
Retreat allows us to transition out of that sunlight for a bit and have respite. As the retreat grows near, the sun begins to set, and things begin transitioning. You set your goals for the retreat; you pack your bags, and you do some initial spiritual work. Then, the retreat occurs: night is here,the incredible full moon and blanket of stars provide a different kind of vision and illumination. The sun may allow your physical body to cast a shadow, but the moon shows the shadow of your soul. You spend time in that darkness, exploring what you need to explore, letting go of what you need to let go of, scrubbing your lightbulb (discussed in part I of this article) clean so that shines upon the world clean. As you begin exiting the retreat, the sun’s energy begins to rise once again, and dawn approaches. The stars slowly fade (always there, but not always visible). You transition out of the retreat and returning once more to the sunlight once again to live your everyday life–rejuvenated, healed, and whole.
Last week, I introduced the idea of the Druid Retreat, discussing what it was, preparation for the retreat, decisions to make about the retreat, the possibility of fasting, what to take and what to leave behind, and herbal allies for your retreat. This second post talks about the retreat itself: what do do leading up to the retreat, what to do when you get there, and how to transition back into everyday living.
Dusk: Leading into your Retreat
As I’ve hopefully illustrated above, transitioning in and out of your retreat is just as important as the retreat itself–we must help our bodies, minds, and souls enter into the sacred space of retreat and then exit peacefully again. This requires some work on our parts, of course. Here are the things I do to transition into this retreat space.
Setting goals and intentions for the retreat. It is a wise idea to articulate some basic goals for your druid retreat prior to actually going to the retreat. They might be really broad (personal healing, spiritual rejuvenation, etc) or they might be quite specific (a new life path for myself; clarity on an important decision, etc). Before your retreat, spend some time in meditation and consider what you might need out of the retreat at this time. Write your goals down and have them accessible somewhere during your retreat.
When I am preparing for the retreat, I find that a series of meditations and nature walks will help reveal what is weighing on me or what needs I have concerning the retreat. Keep a pen and paper handy, craft your goals, and return to them at least once or twice in the days and weeks leading to the retreat to have a clear vision for your retreat.
At the same time, don’t let the goals limit the scope of your retreat. Understand that these are some starting places for you–but the spirits will likely have their own work they want you to do.
Preparing physically for the retreat. If you are going to be fasting, or even if you are taking my advice of “eating lighter” during the retreat, I find that being mindful of my eating for a few days prior to the retreat can set my body up for deep healing work. By this I mean I avoid meat, fried foods, heavy foods, too much dairy and the like, and stick to light, fresh foods for the three days prior to my retreat. I find that this makes my body feel less heavy and more ready for the deep cleansing work. Part of this is that the heavy, greasy foods ground us firmly in the daylight of our lives, and we don’t want that kind of grounding during retreat.
The forest is calling you deeper….
Slowing down. Imagine a train moving at 100 miles per hour suddenly having to stop on the tracks. That could cause a crash! Because our lives are so busy, sometimes, going into retreat is kind of like trying to stop that heavy train immediately. A safe way is to slow the train down, to break, to make sure it pulls into that station carefully and purposefully. Given this, I try hard to “slow down” a few days before my retreat. No frantic running around, making sure tasks get done with grace, and so on. This helps me ease into the transition of the slow time that is key and present as part of the retreat.
Dusk turns to Night: The Preliminaries
Finally! Your retreat has come and you are ready to begin the work of the retreat…if you only knew what that work was to be! I have a few things I like to do on retreats, and I’ll share them here to help provide structure for your own retreat.
Slowing Down. Let your train fully come to a stop at the station; let the sun fully set and the moon and stars to illuminate once more. Once you arrive at your retreat, I would suggest spending the first hour or so decompressing, unpacking, setting up, and so on. Take your time with this–there is no rush. There is nowhere else you need to be but here, present, in this moment. Pay attention to all of your senses (how often do we do this?) and simply enjoy the work of setting up camp, unpacking, whatever it is that you need to do first.
Deep Breathing. After you allow yourself to slow down, do a little bit of deep breathing and meditation. Let yourself settle in, let the slower rhythm weave into your bones. Let your body and mind know, gently, that you can slow down and relax. Sit by a tree and breathe deeply, simply being, for a time, letting the stuff in the outside world slowly fall away. Once you’ve done some of this initial work, it is time to begin the more serious spiritual work of the retreat.
Cleansing. I start my retreats with some kind of cleansing activity before opening up the space officially. There are so many ways you can cleanse, but for retreats, I like to do this in a few ways. A glass of fresh spring water (or nettle tea) with a pinch of salt combined with a jump into a mountain stream, a cool shower, or bathing in cool water with a pinch of salt and vinegar. I follow this usually with a full on smudge session. You may also find it appropriate to cleanse the retreat space itself (this is good if its a rental cabin or something that a lot of people are coming in and out of; totally unnecessary if you are camping in the woods). Once you have done whatever cleansing that you feel is necessary, you can go ahead and setup the sacred space and intentions for your retreat.
How to setup the sacred space for your retreat. Setting up the sacred space for healing as part of your retreat is also an important step. This might be something as simple as the following:
- Start by stating my intention for the retreat: personal healing, rejuvenation, etc.
- Call upon the four directions and four elements for their guidance
- Make an offering in gratitude to the land and spirits of the land for hosting
- Cast a circle around the space for the duration of the retreat
If you have a way of opening up a sacred space or grove, you can use that and keep it open for the duration of the retreat. For me, I will use the AODA’s solitary grove opening, with some additions at the end like setting my intentions for the retreat and making an offering to the spirits of the land. This opening ritual can be done, and the space open, for as long as the retreat goes on.
And that’s an important distinction: the retreat itself takes place in an open grove for the duration of the retreat. The entire retreat is a ceremony, a ritual, a spiritual act. Understanding this, and setting this up intentially, helps you do the work of your retreat.
Moon and Stars: The Work of Your Retreat
So at this point, all of the preliminaries are over with. Everything that you needed to do, you did do. This is usually when people start looking around and saying, “Ok, now what?” The work ahead is much less clear, and much more specific to each individual who is on the retreat. People who have been doing spiritual work: meditation, journeying, quiet jaunts in the forest, for a while likely don’t need me to tell them what to do at this point. The spirits will do that for you! But those of you who are new to this kind of work, still fresh upon the path, might find the following suggestions really helpful.
Vision Quest Shelter
No agenda. Its generally better if you go into a healing retreat without an agenda. You may find that you are lead to do different kinds of things, unplanned things, when you got there. Its better not to plan it out, but let things unfold as they unfold.
Intuition. The most important advice I can give for what to do when you get to this point is let your intuition guide you. You might get the idea of doing some things you would normally not do (screaming, dancing naked, cartwheels) or things that seem odd to you (placing stones in a ring around a tree). Don’t evaluate or judge what you feel led to do–just do it.
Spirit Communication. All of us have the capacity to hear messages from the land, from the spirits, from whatever conception of divinity you hold. Maybe these messages come in physical form–animals, branches banging on a tree, the babbling of the brook. Maybe this comes from prayer to the divine. Often, these messages also have inner components. I spoke about inner planes communication and messages with trees quite a bit in my Druid Tree working series, so I’ll refer you there for more details.
Being and Observing. One critical thing to do is to simply lay by the fire, or out in the snow, and simply be there, slow down, simply inhabit yourself and be present in the moment. We spend so much time darting from place to place, putting out fire after fire, that we don’t just get to sit. A retreat should include a lot of sitting and being. Ask questions, see how the land responds (and it will respond on its own time, which can be hours or days after a question is asked)! The value in sitting for a number of hours (especially around dusk or dawn) is that you will see the forest in ways you will never see it if you are wandering about. Sitting still means you will see animal movements; you will blend into your surroundings and become one with the forest. There are incredibly deep insights and values in this kind of quiet observation and communion.
Staying put or Wandering. There are different beliefs about whether you should stay put or you should wander about during a retreat–and to you I say, try a bit of both. When I went on my vision quest, it was very important that we setup our sacred space and then stayed put in about a 30 foot area of space. This allowed nature to send messages to us, to sit in stillness, focus, and quietude. And while I loved this, I also love the discovery of wandering through the forest (which will make noise, and not allow as many animals to visit and bring messages).
Looking for Signs and Symbols. Learn to read the messages that the land sends. A book called Animal Speak is a nice one to bring along, although I don’t usually take too much stock in what books say about animal messages. Usually, animals come for a specific reason and that reason might be very unique to you and your spiritual path. So if a deer comes, its likely coming to you for a specific reason that you will understand and/or need to interpret. Use your own intuition to interpret the signs you are given, and perhaps supplement with some resources. Pay attention to directions and time (e.g. a hawk flies in from the east at dawn is a different message than the hawk spiraling overhead in the early afternoon). You might also use divination systems here, but I find the retreat will usually provide the messages you need.
Signs and symbols in wildlife during the retreat
Pilgrimages. If you are in natural places, taking a journey to a particular special spot is also a great thing to include in a retreat. For me, these are often healing or mineral springs (of which we have many in this area). Perhaps you want to plan a hike and journey as part of your retreat (although I’d recommend foot journeys if at all possible–technology, like riding in a car, can disrupt the energy and flow of your retreat).
Inner Journeys. Inner journeying work is certainly another important part of spiritual retreats. Spending time in an inner sacred grove, or inner realms is an important part of the retreat.
To sleep or not to sleep. While I am on retreat, I prefer cat naps during the hot parts of the day (like afternoons, in line with most of the animals ) to full on sleeping at night; I try to stay up at least one full night out in the wilds, observing and being present. I find that this gives me perspective and new insights. If you are going to stay up all night, do it without a campfire or light–just let your eyes adjust to the darkness and be present in your surroundings.
The lifepath experience and answering hard questions. Sometimes, it is useful to review your path, in its entirety–how you’ve gotten here. Think about the different things you’ve experienced, the different decisions that you’ve made, your soul’s spiritual journey, the key aspects of your personality. You might also work through some questions, the kinds that we usually don’t get to spend enough time with:
- Am I happy with my path? If not, what could I change?
- What am I holding onto that I need to leave go of? Why am I not letting it go?
- What makes my soul sing? How often do I engage in those kinds of things?
- What do I think is ahead for me on the path?
- What is my life’s work? How do I know it?
- Who am I, as a person?
- What are the things that are the most important to me? Why?
Self-Expression. After some of your inner work is done, you might also find that retreats are an excellent space for engaging in some of the bardic arts: music, poetry, song, dance, visual arts. For me, I bring along my flute and typically my watercolors, and that way, if the opportunity presents itself, especially on later days of the retreat, I might create something beautiful. Often, when I’m on retreat I am given new songs for the flute and that’s pretty incredible as well!
Journaling and documenting your retreat. Some people don’t want to write during their retreats, but I have found that this really helps me “continue the ceremony” long after it ends in the physical world, and it allows me to return to the ceremony again and again and make sense of what I have experienced. If you want to do this, make sure you devote adequate time to during your retreat to journaling about your experiences as soon as you can after they happen–write while you are still in the alternative perspective of the retreat. What happens is that when we are in ritual space (and retreat is an extended ritual) we are in a particular frame of mind. As soon as we remove ourselves from that ritual space, we cease to be in that frame of mind, and things are quickly lost from our minds. Write everything you want to write before you close your ritual space and return to the mundane of everyday living.
Dawn: Closing the Retreat and Continuing the Ceremony
Just as you worked to ease into the Druid Retreat, you will also want to ease out of the retreat–daylight can be harsh if we are not careful.
Conclusions, Insights, and Next steps. As you are nearing the end of your retreat, take some time to write down the insights and conclusions you gained. Maybe that’s a set of spiritual practices, maybe that’s something you need to do for yourself, maybe its an actionable list of items. Or maybe it is none of these things, but a sense of tranquility and calm, of completeness. Whatever it is, you want to do your best to preserve that mindset–that state–those feelings and words. I usually give myself at least 2-3 hours for this kind of work. I am a visual artist and an avid writer, so I will usually do something visual to represent my retreat and also write extensively in my journal. These tactile experiences help start to bring me back into my normal rhythms.
Gratitude. Express gratitude to the land, the spirits, those that helped you on your retreat. Sometimes they may ask for something in return–do whatever it is they ask gladly. After all, they held the space for your healing. I also make it a point that once I’ve returned from my retreat, I write notes of gratitude and give them to anyone who helped make my retreat possible (kid/pet sitters, significant others, etc).
Closing the Retreat. Since you’ve just spent some serious time in a sacred space, you can close out the sacred space as befitting your tradition (I would use AODA’s solitary grove closing for this). A simple closing works like this:
- Announce your intentions to close the space
- Give thanks to the four directions/quarters
- Make an offering to the land/spirits/diety
- Take down the protective circle/sphere/etc.
Grounding Activities. At the end of the retreat, especially one with light-ish food choices or fasting, you will want to start bringing yourself back into the patterns of everyday typical living. I find that it is helpful to eat something a bit more hearty at this point to help me return. Maybe that’s some eggs and cheese, or a piece of turkey jerky–something that will help me ground.
Transitioning Back in. Be careful about how you transition back into your everyday living. I’ll share a story here to see why this is important. A number of years ago, I went with a friend of mine to a week-long earth-centered spirituality event. We had a long drive back to Michigan. I spent a lot of time both with others but also alone. It wasn’t a solitary retreat, like I’m talking about here, but it was certainly a different kind of energy and space. After we left, we stopped at a highway rest stop and went in for some food and a bathroom break. I entered the rest stop, and was greeted by a wall of plastic encrusted food, screaming children, several TV screens, a sad guy at the cash register, music blasting–it was all too much for me. Normally, I had no difficulty navigating such a space (I’d hardly be a functional human being in American society if I did) but after being away for 7 days, I was completely in shock. Panicked. I had to leave, and then I was greeted by more concrete. Finally, I found a little patch of grass and closed my eyes, laying on it. I felt better. I had never experienced such a shock, but it taught me something really powerful: the transition needs to be managed with care. Even if we are “used” to it, we need that transitory time.
A Transition day. If at all possible, given my discussion of transitioning above, I would suggest ONE EXTRA DAY, at home, or even 4 hours, at home, to transition back from your retreat. Ideally, you need time just to process once you’ve returned, and to reflect and integrate. I realize this is not possible often, but it is ideal!
A beautiful mushroom is a gift during retreat!
The Ceremony Continues
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about this kind of work comes from the Sweet Medicine Sundance tradition, and it is worth sharing here. Your ceremony continues well beyond the time that you were in the woods, in retreat. They believe that for another 7 days, the ceremony continues on. If you go home and begin talking about everything you experienced and learned, you can “talk the magic out of it.” And so, I would suggest that you keep quiet about the ceremony and the insights you learned. They are yours, and yours alone. After the seven day period is over, you might find it appropriate to share bits of the experience with others, but never share much. There are many things from my own retreats and vision quests that I have not, and will not, ever share–there is magic in silence, tremendous magic in silence (a great discussion on this topic can be found in John Michael Greer’s Inside a Magical Lodge book).
Retreats as a Regular Spiritual Practice
A full blown druid retreat might be harder to facilitate regularly, but I would say try to do one at least once a year if possible. Even if you can’t do a full blown druid retreat, I have found that there is great benefit in a mini-retreat: an 4 or 8 hour retreat, where the same things can happen, but in a condensed time frame. You aren’t going to get the deep insights you would get with a longer period of time, but even a short while away from things will do tremendous amounts of good in your life :).
I hope that this post series was inspirational for you and that you consider planning a druid retreat–even a short one. I also wanted to let all of you know that I’ll be doing some retreat work myself in the second half of August and will be spending a week in the Hudson Valley taking my Permaculture Teacher Training course. Given this, I will not be posting new posts for the next two or three weeks, but I will return after my PDC Teacher training with an extended series of posts on Permaculture for Druids and some other spiritual gardening topics :). Blessings!