A Practical Guide to Finding Your Inner Voice: How to Take a Solo Retreat

I sort of stumbled into my first retreat. I was in Peru. A buddy and I wanted to try ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic potion of Amazonian plants brewed by shamans. We signed up for a 3-day ayahuasca retreat at a center in the hills outside Cusco.

The week before, we were required to go on a strict diet of pretty much everything I liked: no meat, no caffeine, no alcohol or sex. The day before we had to do a volcanic mineral water cleanse. This involved drinking around 15 consecutive liters of putrid tasting water in a ramshackle Cusco office, repeatedly running up and down several flights of creaky stairs (we were told this would encourage the fluids to pass through our bodies but I have my doubts) and reporting on the state of my evacuations to a Peruvian who wanted to know each time if “it went out as clear as it went in.”

We hadn’t read the details of the retreat beyond the word “ayahuasca.” When we arrived we were shocked to be told that beginning now, we were to be completely silent for the next three days. We weren’t even allowed even to read. This “noble silence,” as it was called, had terrified me more than the idea of drinking a powerful psychedelic jungle cocktail in complete darkness.

We also learned that the last meal of the day was breakfast. What? I’d never fasted a day in my life! After a handful of ceremonies and meetings with shamans we finally drank the bitter ayahuasca brew over the course of two late nights in what was rather strangely dubbed the “sun room.”

The retreat was powerful. In a mere weekend, the seeds of a radically new life were planted—the one I am only just beginning to live now. Ever since, I’ve found it hard to talk about what happened that weekend for fear of eye-rolls and glazed looks of incredulity. Hey, if it hadn’t happen to me, I wouldn’t believe it either.

With the hindsight of 3 years, I can see more clearly now how radically that retreat shifted the direction of my life. Ayahuasca played a front and center role in that transformation of course, but I had suspected then—and know now—that the retreat process had also been a key factor in producing such a profound experience.

Since then I’ve gone on nearly 20 retreats. The flavor and purpose of each has varied—I’ve participated in psychedelic retreats, business retreats and meditation retreats (including 3-day zen sesshins and incredibly strict, 10-day Vipassana courses). I’ve co-led retreats for entrepreneurs and organized my own solo retreats.

Retreats work. They’ve helped me to reflect and gain perspective, contemplate difficult decisions and situations, build intimate relationships, find direction and reconnect with myself and my values. They are potent tools for self-inquiry and self-understanding. Taking time out from my life has had the paradoxical effect of giving me more time. Here’s some of the benefits I’ve experienced as a result of the retreats I’ve taken:

Excuse me if this reads like the back cover of a self help book or the sales page of some guru’s new online course.

Sun sets behind a Himalayan peak
The sun setting behind a Himalayan peak in Nepal (Annapurna II or IV I can’t remember…)

I believe retreats work because we are the ones doing the work. The beauty of the solo retreat is that all it requires is you, your sincere effort and your time. It’s available to you now. Free of charge.

I took my first solo retreat shortly after returning from Peru during a period of intense change and uncertainty in my life. I felt overwhelmed, directionless and disconnected. I had no idea what I was doing. I craved to be alone but was scared what might happen, what I might find, when I was. I finally went out of desperation. I needed to escape from my life. I needed to breathe.

Retreats are now an integral part of my life. As I’ve participated in more and different types I’ve begun to notice a general formula that makes them effective. What follows is a practical guide for taking your own solo retreat based on everything I’ve learned.

A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO ORGANIZING YOUR SOLO RETREAT

The adage that he who doesn’t know history is doomed to repeat it doesn’t go far enough. History always repeats itself until we honestly and searchingly know ourselves.
-Krista Tippet, Becoming Wise

This guide is for anyone who yearns to get in touch with their inner voice but might not know how—which was me three years ago.

I go on solo retreats to consider important decisions, to reflect on my life (it’s really useful if you do an annual review), or when I need to reconnect with myself.

Everything I recommend below is from my own experience. Much of it comes from what I’ve learned directly from others who have been organizing retreats far longer than I have. I’m still learning. Use it as a springboard for your own inner exploration. Some of what I recommend may look extreme, especially if you are new to this sort of thing. What’s most important is that you go. If you aren’t ready for something I’ve suggested, skip it and come back to it later.

OK, first a few ground rules:

1) Set your intention. A retreat is not a planning session or a vacation. It’s a rare chance to be alone with yourself. Make the intention of your retreat to look inside and see what’s already there. All you need to do is pay attention. That’s it.

2) It’s work. Often hard work. Only you can do this work. If you are sincere in your efforts you will be rewarded. I promise.

3) There are three major phases of a retreat:

1. Transitioning into the retreat
2. Being on retreat
3. Transitioning out of the retreat

Plan time for all of them. Give yourself at least two nights and one full day on retreat and a half day each for leaving the world and re-entering it again. So if you only have a weekend, try to leave for your retreat in the afternoon, stay Saturday and leave Sunday afternoon. Give yourself as much time on the transition days as you can—it takes time for our minds to leave and re-enter the world. This is a good time frame to start with, especially if you are new to retreats and being alone, but it is the bare minimum. I’d recommend planning for two or three full days. This gives you more time to break through resistance and let go of whatever baggage you might bring with you on retreat. It’d be a shame to have to leave just when your labor began producing fruit. As a general rule, the more uninterrupted time you have on retreat, the deeper you will be able to go.

4) You have three allies on your journey:

Awareness – You are on retreat to become aware of what’s true for you. The retreat process helps you become more aware. Trust the process.

Equanimity – As things come up your only job is to remain open to what you notice. To see the truth as it is—not how you want it to be. To observe what arises without judgement. Awareness grows with equanimity.

Strong Determination – Once you’ve decided to do a solo retreat, commit to it wholeheartedly. There may be times when you want to quit. Make a promise to yourself to stick it through. Give the process a fair trial before you evaluate it.

You may find it helpful to print and display these three allies during your retreat as a reminder.

5) Have no expectations. It’s common to go into retreat with a particular situation or question in mind. If you do, just be with the question or situation and watch whatever arises—don’t expect answers. Having expectations can sabotage your retreat when you near the end and panic because you haven’t found The Answer. This can also happen if you expect to feel a certain way during or after retreat.

A part of a solo retreat is about learning to surrender—to it’s restrictions, to our thoughts and feelings, to change, to the process. Go in without expectations of what will come out of it. Focus on staying true to the process, on developing your awareness and equanimity, and give the rest a chance to take care of itself. Deep shifts can and do happen but often not in the way we think they will. If you try to control your experience, you risk missing much of the potential benefit.

It may take time for the seeds you sow on retreat to germinate. The effect of even the smallest change we make in our lives compounds over time and can lead to massive results. Have patience and faith in the process.

6) Most importantly…your time is precious. Make good use of it. We go on retreat to make the most out of our life. Reflect on your experience. Keep what works, throw out what doesn’t. Like anything there’s a learning curve. Retreats offered by experienced organizations are often distilled through repetition and the results of many participants and can help you learn faster. Keep developing your process so that you get the most out of your time.

Buddha statue under construction.
Buddha under construction in Muktinath, Nepal.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SPACE

A quick story about space. For the longest time my queen bed, with its Posturepedic double pillow top mattress, two inch-thick cloud of memory foam and silky satin sheets, was my favorite place in my apartment, if not the world. I slept like a baby in it.

Then I took a new position at a startup. We had no offices and I often worked from my bed at home. No more morning commute! For a while I reveled in it. But it became increasingly hard to “turn off” after I was done working. My work seemed to follow me everywhere.

My commute had been an important ritual that cued my mind that it was time to disengage from work. Leaving the office, a place dedicated for work, signaled to myself that I was finished for the day. The drive home was a buffer zone that gave my mind time to disengage. My bedroom had been a strict no-work zone, which ensured that I left my work at the office.

When the physical boundaries eroded so did the mental boundaries. Dishes in the sink, my roommate, the bay outside all vied for my attention along with my work. When I finished for the day and closed my laptop, my work, along with it’s deadlines and anxieties, often stayed.

I began working at coffee shops to establish a dedicated work space again. It helped, but it wasn’t always convenient and I still worked out of my apartment much of the time.

Work and life blurred into each other. I struggled to focus as deeply on either and both began to suffer. Worse still, I had lost my inner sanctuary: work began to feel more and more claustrophobic, my bed less safe. Despite my queen bed, with the Posturepedic double pillow top mattress, two inch-thick cloud of memory foam and its silky satin sheets, I began losing sleep. I’d wake up in the early morning with severe anxiety and not be able to fall back asleep. Fatigue and anxiety began wearing me down. It eventually led me to take my first solo retreat—I had nowhere else to go.

For important work, we need a dedicated place where we can focus without distraction. A place where the boundaries will be sacrosanct: the phone won’t ring, our roommate won’t come home and there is no tv in the next room.

Spaces influence us as much as we influence them. Creating a dedicated space for retreat facilitates the work that is to be done there. It shields us from the urgent-but-not-important. Within the safety of its walls we can lower our own walls, open up, and explore.

We need two types of space for a solo retreat to succeed: physical space and mental space.

CREATING PHYSICAL SPACE

When you give yourself to places they give you yourself back. The more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back. While new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities.
-Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

When choosing a place for your solo retreat consider the following:

Pick a place sufficiently far from where you work and live. It’s OK if it takes a few hours to get there, in fact this is ideal. Making the journey there will emphasize the importance of your mission and cue your body and mind that you are leaving normal life for a while.

Make it a place you only go on retreat. Avoid the family vacation home or your favorite campsite or anywhere else which you visit for reasons other than developing self-awareness. This will help you to disengage from the outside world. As you return there on future retreats you may find it becomes easier to switch into retreat mode.

Make sure you will not be disturbed. The goal on a solo retreat is to be with yourself. You don’t have to be in complete solitude but it’s important it’s a quiet place where you are free to be alone.

Be unreachable. Let someone you trust know where you’ll be as a safety precaution but don’t make yourself available outside of a true emergency. Make sure anyone who can contact you in such cases understands this. The power of a solo retreat lies in uninterrupted time with ourselves outside of the confines of everyday life.

Have strict boundaries. Your retreat is an important meeting. Don’t shortchange yourself.

Pick somewhere as close to nature as possible. The mountains, forest, ocean and desert are all great places for a retreat.

My favorite options for finding a space are AirBnB and public campsites. If you rent a place for your trip and the owners will be there let them know your intentions and be sure you won’t be disturbed. If you are camping avoid sites likely to be loud or overcrowded. Keep in mind that your aim in picking a space is to simulate complete solitude as best you can.

CREATING MENTAL SPACE

Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life you will be totally hosed.   -David Foster Wallace

Removing ourselves from the world is not enough. We must also remove our mind from its usual haunts. We do this by living simply and austerely while on retreat. Boredom is not your enemy. Comfort and distraction are.

No electronics. No TV, tablets, music players, computers, phones or other forms of entertainment. If you bring a phone for emergency purposes turn it off and stow it out of sight. If you absolutely must remain reachable in case of emergency decide beforehand when and how often is necessary to check your phone and don’t deviate from that schedule. Make sure all other notifications are off.

No alcohol or drugs. None. You cannot perform sincere introspection while intoxicated. Don’t waste your time. While psychedelic retreats can be valuable, they shouldn’t be done without supervision and aren’t appropriate as self-organized solo retreats.

No junk food. Garbage in = garbage out. Keep your diet simple and healthy and avoid rich or fancy meals. Eat until you are 3/4 full, not completely full. Plan your meals beforehand and bring your food with you. Food should sustain your efforts, not detract or distract from them. Reduce salt and sugar intake as much as possible. Stick to whole foods which make eating and digesting easy. Limit or abstain entirely from dairy and meat which require more energy to digest. If you already have experience with fasting, you may choose to fast during your retreat.

No unnecessary words. This one is important. Keep silence as much as possible. As best as you can, avoid situations that require you to interact with others. Think of your mind as a pond with the bottom layer of silt stirred up. Interactions with others can continue to stir up the mind. The stillness that retreat provides gives the sediment a chance to settle, giving us clarity to see what’s below the surface.

Listening is about being quiet, not just being present.
-Krista Tippet, Becoming Wise

Still mountain lake.
High Tatras, Slovakia

Don’t harm or kill. Part of respecting our own life is respecting the life of all beings.

No music. Music suggests moods and emotions. Our aim is to be aware of what arises naturally within ourselves, whatever that may be. We are not here to augment it.

No masturbation. Refrain from all sexual activity during your retreat as well as for three days leading up to it. It’s OK if you feel impulses arise during your retreat, but don’t act on them.

No caffeine. If you can’t live without it, limit yourself to tea, but go easy on it—green or herbal tea is best. Caffeine modifies our mood and makes it harder to experience our true feelings. If you drink strong coffee or a lot of caffeinated drinks on a daily basis wean yourself off or cut them out entirely the week before so you don’t experience negative withdrawal symptoms while on retreat.

No books OR bring just one. The risk with books is that the thoughts of others can distract us from ourselves. Books also tend to energize the mind which can keep our introspection on the surface level of thoughts. If you choose to bring a book be very intentional about it. It should prompt your own inquiry—not replace it (the majority of “self-help” books DO NOT meet this requirement). The book shouldn’t be intended to entertain whether that be spiritually, emotionally or intellectually. It must be focused on exploring truth. If you bring a book set a strict limit on when and for how long you will allow yourself to read each day. Make sure you keep large, uninterrupted blocks of non-reading time. Here’s a few books that make the cut:

Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (free download)
Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer
The Essential Rumi by Jalaluddin Rumi and translated by Coleman Barks
The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

BEING ON RETREAT

So what do you actually do on retreat? Your only job is to be with whatever comes up without reacting to it. Just observe.

Boudanath Stupa, Kathmandu

Do anything that helps you to be with, and tune into, yourself. Be careful though that you don’t fill your day up with things to do and that your activities do not become your main focus. They are merely mediums. Keep plenty of unstructured time. If you do physical activity keep it light. Take care of yourself but don’t pamper yourself. Here’s some things you might try:

  • Sit quietly and observe the world.
  • Contemplate. If you have a question on your mind try revisiting it in the morning, afternoon and evening each day. Don’t try to force an answer. Just be with the question for a while and then move on. Observe the thoughts and feelings that arise as impartially as you can. You may find it helpful to write them down. Here’s a few questions I’ve used as a jumping off point on past retreats:

Am I happy with the way I’m living now? 1
Do I feel healthy?
Does my work excite me?
What scares me?
What unique gifts do I have to give others?
Am I neglecting any important areas in my life?
Does anything need to change?
What would I do if I had an endless supply of money?
Imagine I am lying on my deathbed after a long life. My life carried on in the direction it’s currently going. What do I regret?

  • Meditate or focus on your breathing.
  • Write in a journal. If you don’t know what to write try stream of conscious journaling. To do this, grab a pen and paper and write whatever comes to mind for 10 minutes without stopping, filtering or editing.
  • Draw or paint.
  • Take a walk or go for a short run.
  • Do yoga.
  • Lie in a hammock. Climb a rock. Roll around in the grass.
  • Watch the sun rise and set.
  • Take a hot bath. Take a cold shower.
  • Create a vision board. Here’s how.
  • Cook.
RETURNING TO THE WORLD

What is true and positive is too real and too living to be described, and to try to describe it is like putting red paint on a red rose…the truth is revealed by removing things that stand in its light, an art not unlike sculpture, in which the artist creates, not by building, but by hacking away.
-Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity

Give yourself plenty of time to reenter the world gently and reflect on your experience over the coming days, weeks and months. On retreat we work to discover who we are, to listen to our truth. After retreat our work is to live more fully from our truth. This is living with integrity.

We all want to find purpose in our work and happiness in our life. The modern world is incentivized to sell us on the idea of addition: that we aren’t enough, that something is missing and it can be found outside ourselves. It’s quite literally its job. If we just read that new book, take those online courses and buy these super supplements…

But when does it become enough? When has it ever been enough?

Solo retreats suggest another approach: a negative path. Despite the name, its premise is actually rather optimistic. It costs nothing. It requires nobody else. It assumes you are already enough. That the answers are inside you.

Isn’t that a path at least worth exploring?

Most people won’t go on a solo retreat. It requires “too much” effort.

I believe it takes a hell of a lot more effort to live a life that’s not my own.

Hanging out in the Himalayas.

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  1. An exercise you can do at home before your retreat: every morning after you wake up (and before your coffee) consider the day ahead and ask yourself this question: Is this what I want to be doing today? yes/no. Do it for 30 days and record your answer in a journal and review during your retreat.

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Hello. I’m Alasdair.

Hello. I’m Alasdair.

I believe that being aware of who I am and mindful of who I am becoming is the best investment I can make in my life —and that when we focus our efforts within, the rewards naturally flow outward to those we love and through the communities we belong to.