Why it takes courage to retreat

Who among us don’t feel a pull towards a peaceful weekend away, in a beautiful setting, with all the time in the world to do what we love doing? Women respond with so much heartfelt enthusiasm whenever I talk about our retreats. Yet, most of these women will never get so far as to book a retreat for themselves. If you feel hesitant, you are in good company. For many women, the barrier of resistance is surprisingly strong. As with most things in life that hold us back, the moment we can call it, it loses much of its power.

So let’s shine a light on this mysterious source of the resistance to retreats: It is fear. Normal, valid, universal fear. What can possibly be scary, you may ask yourself, about lying on your back and staring at cloud formations with birds chirping in the background? Oh, let me count the ways! 

On a retreat, you won’t be busy. And that is scary. Being busy has become a badge of honour in society. Our pride, our identity and our value are measured by how busy we are. Put three executives at the coffee station, and they’ll talk about how little time they have to do the many things expected from them. Put three women in a mid-morning pilates class, and they’ll share their frustrations about all the errands and responsibilities to fit into one day. Put three drivers at a petrol station, and they will complain about too many places to go in too little time. Never will someone say: ‘Oh, I’m actually not busy at all. I have more than enough time on my hands. Nobody really demands much from me. Aren’t I lucky!’ Uncool, right? If we are not busy, we are not useful. Not feeling useful scares us.

Women are wired to connect. We love, we care, we serve. What kind of mother leaves those around her for the weekend – not to volunteer for the church outreach, not to support a friend whose husband cheated on her – just to chill? Oh, the judgement. And I’m not even talking about the harsh inner critic. There are mothers, husbands, sisters and friends who really don’t think one should do that. ‘What do you mean, running on empty? Empty from what? You have a wonderful life.’ You know those. They’re real. Their judgement scares us.

Talking about mothers. There is the fear that we won’t be good mothers if we leave our children. They might not have their favourite foods, they might get sick, they might have a heart broken in mom’s absence. Bottom line: They need me.  Good mothers are present, everywhere, all the time. (An assumption worth challenging, of course, but this is not the place. Let’s just focus on the fear.) We are scared that we’re not good enough mothers if we go off to enjoy ourselves.

We have pets, we have children, we have house alarms. Someone needs to stand in for us when we take a few days out for a retreat. And this is the next common fear: Asking for help. People who experience this kind of fear most intensely, are usually those who are the most helpful to others. This might be uncomfortable to hear, but helping others make us feel strong. When you help others, you are in control. So when you ask for help, you can feel needy and weak. We are scared of feeling weak.

Not only do our loved ones need us, but we need them to need us. We fear that the family will cope amazingly well without us. Better, in fact. What if they hardly notice my absence? What if they have more fun without me than with me? What if there’s not one moment of longing for me? That will draw a line through who I am and what I live for. This fear is enough to keep some women home for life.

All of us are scared of the unknown. At retreats, there are strange people. They might have strange ideas. They might make me do strange things. It is always safer to not attend a retreat. Of course, safety is the most dangerous path to spirituality there is. It is a dead end, yet we are comfortable with what we know. We fear not being able to handle what we don’t know.

The last fear I’ll mention here is the one we’ll probably find hardest to recognise, and that is the fear of our own inner wisdom. We know ourselves well enough to be somewhat aware when we’re running away from pain. We know that there are truths inside of us which will be hard to face. We’re scared that, if we start listening to what needs attention within us, it will overwhelm us. It’s good to remember that our inner voice will never scream at us and force us in any direction we don’t choose to go. It is a loving whisper, seeking the best for us and our loved ones, and will at most only gently nudge if we allow ourselves to tune in.

Do you notice the thread running through these fears? Ultimately, it is the deep-seated fear of not being good enough, that holds us back most. I’m scared that if I don’t appear busy, I’m inadequate. If I appear selfish, I’m inadequate. If I’m not there all the time for my kids, I’m inadequate. If I ask for help, I’m inadequate. If my family realise they can cope without me, I’m inadequate. If I can’t handle my own emotions, I’m inadequate. Ouch. What a painful pattern. Now it is clear why it’s so hard to step into the unknown of a retreat. It takes a lot of courage.

I won’t attempt to ease the fears. Fear has a purpose; it protects us from harm. But for fear to remain healthy, we need to challenge it from time to time. Is this fear still serving me, or am I hiding from a monster that doesn’t exist? The longer we hide away, the deeper and more fixed our fears become, and the more challenging it is to tune into fear’s opposite: love. 

It is ultimately the question that James Hollis poses, which will give me the courage to face my fears:  “Does this path, this choice, make me larger or smaller?” The fear to hit that “Book” button is valid, universal, and very real. If you can let the fear stand aside while you make your booking, you’ll be taking the first courageous step in the direction of love. Love is the opposite of fear, and love always expands. When you care for and love yourself more, you have more capacity to care for and love those around you. If a retreat is what you want, then the choice to go will make you larger. Be a warrior, have courage, fight for love.

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