The Necessity of Retreat

Nowadays, people who periodically withdraw from the bustle of daily life to go on retreat are automatically suspect. Aren't they simply running away from reality? Wouldn't their time be better spent trying to do something constructive about all the worldly woes that beset our harried species?

The answer that the retreatant is only obeying a deep-seated spiritual instinct is of little help because, in a materialistic society such as ours, the very existence of "spiritual" instincts appears to be an impossibility. Even those who acknowledge the legitimacy of such instincts often feel that they should be assimilated to some form of social or political activism rather than be allowed to lead us into an unnatural (perhaps even pathological) solitude. For, if contemplative practices stand condemned as "escapist" in our society, relentless activism is hailed as the panacea for all our ills.

The trouble is, activism (no matter how well-intentioned) which does not spring from wisdom is worse than' useless: it is positively destructive. This is amply demonstrated by the disastrous denouement of our own thoroughly activist age. Two centuries of "progress" have brought us not to gates of an earthly paradise, but to the twin precipices of nuclear holocaust and ecological suicide. Faced with such unprecedented crises what we need is not more action, but that saving spiritual wisdom which alone can restore us to harmony with our fellow beings and the universe at large.

But where is such wisdom to be found?

"True wisdom," the Eskimo shaman, Igjugarjuk, tells us, "is only to be found far away from people, out in the great solitude." [1] It is, of course, important to note that Igjugarjuk did not remain in solitude forever (else we would never have heard of him). He returned to share with his people the wisdom he had found. And indeed, this rhythm of withdrawal-and-return constitutes the archetypal pattern of all genuine spiritual life. What must be stressed in our own times, however, is the absolute necessity of a period of retreat if this kind of wisdom is to be attained. What was true of the first shamans who departed from their villages questing for visions in the vast primeval wilderness, was later repeated by the ancient rishis of India seeking Enlightenment in the forests; by the Buddha forsaking his princely palace for the solitude of the Bodhi tree; by Taoist sages retiring to their mountain hermitages; by Lady Tsogyel performing her tapas high in the Himalayas; by Moses on Mount Horeb; Jesus in the desert; Teresa in her convent; Mohammed. in his cave; Rabi'a in her hut—as well as by countless other mystics who abandoned their worldly life to discover the Source of Life Itself. . . and, yes, returned to tell about it.

Nor is there anything "unnatural" in this pattern of withdrawal-and-return. On the contrary, the mystic's path simply replicates the fundamental rhythm of the entire cosmos. From the creation and destruction of galaxies to sub-atomic particles popping in and out of existence; from the cycle of days and nights to the alternations of the seasons; from the phases of the moon to the ebb and flow of tides; from waking to sleeping, and birth to death—all phenomena manifest, then vanish into the unmanifest in an endless round of withdrawals and returns.

What is unnatural (even pathological), however, is our own unholy fear of this rhythm, our refusal to participate in the dance between light and dark, something and nothing. Believing ourselves to be isolated beings trapped in a world of terrifying flux, we cling to the visible, while shunning the invisible. We identify with growth but not decay; with thought but not silence; with emotion but not stillness; with self-will, but not self-sacrifice. And it is from this one-sided identification that all our worldly woes flow, because, in truth, this identity is false and the effort it produces, futile. No matter how unrelenting our activism, we cannot hold back the night, nor fix the moon in her fullness, nor freeze life at its flood. What's more, whenever we try to do so, we merely distort the tempo of the round, hastening that which we dread the most—the unmanifest conceived as the annihilation of some manifest 'self' in death.

The retreat provides a necessary antidote to this compulsive attachment to the manifest. It affords an opportunity for solitude, and solitude is the laboratory of the soul. Here, you can learn to cooperate with the rhythm of the cosmos and, so, unlock its secrets. By withdrawing from the world and its distractions, by stilling the body, detaching from thoughts, disidentifying with desires and fears, you can come to understand directly that you are not in essence any of these manifest phenomena; for when they vanish into the unmanifest, you are still there! Thus, what you feared so much to lose was never really yours in the first place.

Such insights tend to free one from the fear of the unmanifest which generates the obsessive selfishness that characterizes so much of ordinary life. Now, you are naturally less inclined to rearrange the furniture of creation merely to satisfy some ephemeral need. Instead, you begin to feel at home in the world wherever you find yourself, to appreciate the wonder of whatever arises (indeed, that anything at all should arise!) without the compulsion to recast it in the mold of your own self-centered fantasies. But there is more.

By weaving periods of retreat into the ongoing fabric of your life, you can penetrate yet deeper into the mysteries of the unmanifest—even to the point of an Absolute A wakening (or Gnosis) which transcends all dualities whatsoever, including that between the manifest and the unmanifest. ,For in the complete surrender of identification with any particular manifestation, you may Suddenly Realize that your withdrawal from the manifest has, in reality, also been a return to the unmanifest; and that your return to the manifest has, in reality, also been a withdrawal from the unmanifest. Thus, the apparent antithesis which arises between withdrawal-and-return is cancelled by a mirror rhythm of return-and-withdrawal so that all the illusory oppositions—life and death, self and world, I and other—to which either rhythm seen alone gives rise, are instantly nullified. In their stead is Revealed a Single Consciousness, engaged in a Single Activity which is this very Cosmos. Thus, you are not an isolated being trapped in this or any world: You are That Consciousness, and all worlds are arising within You!

This is the' 'true wisdom" of which Igjugarjuk spoke and to which the mystics of all traditions have testified—the wisdom found only in solitude. Action born of such a Wisdom can never be in conflict with the Cosmos for the simple reason that it is identical to it. To know this is to know that the breath on your pillow is indistinguishable from the wind on the mountain, the beating of your heart from the coursing of the seas, the substance of your thoughts from the rainbows of a summer day. All is a Single Circuit of Sacrifice from the manifest to the unmanifest—a Divine Love-offering of Consciousness, by Consciousness, to Consciousness.

More than this cannot be said. May you discover it for yourself.

- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Spring 1992. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.


1. Halifax, Joan. Shamanic Voices. Boston: E. P. Dutton, 1979, p. 69.