Some of each evening’s rains drift upwards with the kiss of dawn, like a waking lover’s head lifting from a pillow to meet their mate’s lips. It begins by covering the canyon with a veil of dense fog and then tightening into bands, craning skywards to slowly reveal the bright green foliage and reddish gold rocks below. Rays of sun pour unevenly through the dips and gorges of mountain-shaped clouds, drawing the eye to first one carefully spotlit scene to the next. If there is a more spirit soothing, soul lifting vista anywhere, I have not yet drank from it with these canyon sated eyes.
The enchanting transitions of this morning will attend and sweeten all my day, enlightening and enticing. I feel soothed, as a Japanese garden or the sound of a running brook soothes, finding contentment in the arms of place the way a child finds refuge and seeks love in the encircling embrace of a parent’s hug. And at the same time, I feel an excitement to move forward, to explore, entrain, express, to create, beautify, remedy and change. I am at once awakened, energized, compelled by waves of urgency and import… and also stroked and feted, fed palpable reminders of my value, gifts and blessings, affirming my wholeness and contributing to my sense of satisfaction. As always, this is a place that both stirs and soothes, simultaneously causing us to not only gladden and heal, but also look at any unfulfulled dreams and face our suppressed fears.
It is that double-sided gift that our Retreat guests come here for, as much or more than our events, counsel and Anima teachings. And we continue to offer various forms of Wilderness Retreats here for just that reason, providing an opportunity for connecting to true self, the natural world, spirit and purpose for folks who might never come as students, seekers or questers. We welcome people to book either the Gifting or Gaia lodges, or to tent camp next to the singing Sweet Medicine River, with a hot dinner feast delivered by Loba, naturally on a sliding-scale donation basis. Counsel is offered but entirely optional, and there is no absolute requirement other than bringing open minds and sensitive, grateful hearts, coming to receive what this land of its own accord so willingly offers.
I recently shuttled a Retreat guest’s bags to her vehicle, parked a little under 2 miles from the Center. As I came abreast of her, I slowed to look in her eyes and feel who she was and what she might have received herself while here. In the brief seconds we had, I sensed that there were unanswered questions and remaining struggles and goals we might yet help with. But just as surely, I could see that a Retreat here – with her self, with her reawakening vision and realigning mission, and with this telling land – was full in and of itself. I resisted saying hardly anything, and her words to me confirmed. “I’ve gotten everything I came for,” she said as tears welled up in her eyes, “…and more.” One of the things I wanted to say but didn’t, was that it is exactly that depth of intending, noticing, feeling, embodying, caring and apparently utilizing that makes a Retreat guests time here a wonderful gift to us and this place as well.
As this woman so clearly understood, going to a wild and beautiful area on a nature “Retreat” has nothing to do with disengagement or escape, but rather is an opportunity to be restored to balance and inspired to act.
One can have a moving and healing Retreat experience other places than Anima Sanctuary or the Southwest that so many call enchanted. It may take an hour or two to get there, or it could require a day long plane ride. A car rental to explore the Olympic Peninsula with, a burro ride into the Sierras, a boat trip to a remote island, a rugged jeep ride, or a walk in that requires wading the same shallow river seven times. Inevitably it will be somewhere selected for its dramatic grip on the imagination and the senses, its powerful natural setting or longtime association with ceremony and magic. Crashing ocean waves. A secluded forest grove. The stunning view from a mountain top stupa. The embrace of a clearly magical river canyon. The cherished holy places of exotic traditions, or the colorful mesas where generation after generation of Mogollon Indians held their ceremonies and prayed. Upon arrival a gong might ring, and a set of bamboo gates swing open. Or perhaps it is only the touch of the river water on one’s bared feet, and the call of the eagle or raven that announce one has left behind the expected, the known, the busy and rote, and entered into enchanted place and time.
For thousands of years our kind has made conscious and deliberate sojourns, and for far more than rest, no matter how restful such experiences can be. The Buddhist goes on retreat to deepen his or her practice, in a special place conducive to such aims. The Franciscan Friar retreats to a wilderness abbey, to get further away from the distractions of the parish and power struggles of the church, and closer to the experience and reality of god. The shaman leaves the comforts of the village in order to contact the truths and forces that can help him in his work when he gets back. The tribal Medicine Woman, or the modern herbalist and healer, will take time out in the forest or desert where she can be herself healed, fed and affirmed… and in this way, be better able to heal and give to others. And likewise, businesswomen, community activists and urban merchants often realize that they can accomplish more of their goals in the long run, if they first take some time out of their busy schedules to give to themselves. More an more healers are defining health as wholeness and vitality, both of which are gifts we can give ourself through focused and nurturing Retreat.
Solitude is both a blessing and a challenge no matter where we experience it, and no where more than in a place of intensely realized power. It no longer surprises us to hear that most folks, even nature lovers and backpackers, have never spent more than a few waking hours by themselves, let alone far away from other people. Instructors from Outward Bound type programs tell us they are trained never to be out of shouting distance from their companions, and other people have described Vision Quest programs that involved groups sitting within sight of each other or constantly monitored by protective staff members. And yet, learning to be content in and even nurtured by solitude is a crucial part of any person’s healing and growth. It is only apart from the criticisms and pats on the back from others that we can sense who we are apart from the need to fit in or desire to please. We may claim the only reason we don’t like to be alone is that we enjoy being around people, but inevitably there is an element of not wanting to spend time with, face or have to fully learn to love and cohabit with all elements of our whole beings. It’s gift, then, is not only the added opportunities for increased focus and contemplation, the informative sights and sounds of a world without human chatter and distraction… but also the gift of finding or re-embracing our true selves, needs and callings.
A Retreat affords that gift of solitude, to the degree that we can disengage from our anxiety, attention deficit habits and constant and search for stimulation or reassurance. But it is not meant to be entirely easy, and certainly not so comforting that it insulates or pads our experience. While there may be cabins with comfortable beds and homemade feasts, those on Retreat not only deal with the relative solitude, functional primitivity, lack of phone and TV, but still have to go to the trouble of adjusting their work schedules, arranging for child care and transportation, and temporarily suspending the million and one things that they would normally be doing. Such intention, effort and follow-through makes the retreat all the more powerful, and its effects longer lasting.
Whatever the cost in getting there, or in projects delayed, we pay a much higher price when we neglect to treat, tend and recharge ourselves. Hypertension. Heart attacks. Premature aging. Disrupted sleep. Feelings of unease and dissatisfaction that lead to ambivalence or despair. It can help to take a single hour of the day, every day, and make it a set time for focused, ritual engagement, for turning off the mental loops and consciously reinhabiting our bodies, emotions, and spirit. For sensing ourselves in connection to all that is, and drawing vision and energy from the earth beneath our floors. The key is how deliberate we make that hour. How dedicated to the purpose of our personal, enlivened wholeness. And how focused on our enjoining, and hopefully bettering in some small way, the whole world that we are a part of.
Going on retreat was never meant to be a substitute for personal manifestation and action, but rather, a place and a way in which to be nurtured, instructed, energized and empowered. We still need to act on our priorities, after a retreat helps us sort out what really matters most in our lives. And it remains up to us, to utilize the energy and manifest the visions that retreats provide.
The advantage is that on a wilderness Retreat the native inspirited world offers up its insights, allowing one to tap with some inner root the accumulative planetary wisdom of 4.5 billion years of evolving consciousness and life. And it is also in retreat, that even those with the busiest minds can quiet the chatter long enough to hear their own inner pleadings and promptings, warnings and assurance, contented purring and sagely advice. We Retreat into nature not to distance ourselves from anything, so much is to edge ever closer to our own inner natures… our healing and hopes, our dreams and purpose.
-Jesse Wolf Hardin
To register for a Healing or Student’s, Writer’s or Artist’s, Solo or Couples Retreat at the Anima Sanctuary, click on and download the Retreat Registration Form: retreats-registration-form.doc
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(Canyon photos (c) 2008 J. Wolf Hardin)