I was a young man of 21 and had just survived Day 1 of a church-organized weekend silent retreat in rural Ontario. Yet I still recall the single thought that ricocheted through my mind that first day: "Wow, this silence is deafening!"
Opening up to feelings and thoughts
That reaction could be puzzling to those uninitiated in the world of retreats and spiritual getaways. But then again, the word "retreat" itself is misleading; for some it connotes escape or retreat from the real world -- which is true to a degree -- but the stillness, the serene settings and the silence that are hallmarks of most retreats can open the floodgates to all kinds of thoughts and feelings that aren't given much airtime in our lives. But rest assured, the inner clatter is eventually replaced by almost heavenly waves of calm and equanimity.
Different retreat types
My experience of retreats in the past 20 years has been varied. I've participated in Buddhist-inspired retreats, which tend to involve lots of meditation (sitting, walking, standing) and breathing exercises. I've found myself at weekend retreats hosted by Christian faiths, which combined prayer, discussion, mass and silence. I was fortunate enough to spend a week in the south of France at a monastery where I peeled potatoes, took meals with monks and attended 5 a.m. church services -- all without speaking one single world. (Trying to lip-synch "Where's the loo?" to a hooded monk first thing in the morning is a test of faith, indeed.)
Reasons for retreats
The reasons for seeking a retreat experience are as diverse as the types of retreats on offer. Some seek spiritual renewal; others are looking to heal physically and mentally. Many desire a retreat specific to their religious faith, and some are simply looking to escape for a few days into a life unfettered with the daily demands of work, home and family.
So how do you find a retreat centre that meets your needs? Here's some guidance to launch you on the road to spiritual rejuvenation.
What's out there?
To get a feel for the breadth of retreat centres across Canada, try the following websites:
• Retreats Online has a Canadian section that lists and describes retreat centres from Kootenay Bay, B.C., to Grand Falls, Nfld. They're listed by region and province, but also by subject. For instance, you may want a "nature-themed retreat," a "religious" retreat or a "health and wellness" sojourn.
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• Retreats International lists 340 retreat centres in Canada and the United States. Many of these are faith-based but nondenominational, such as the Seton Spirituality Centre, which overlooks Terence Bay in Nova Scotia. You could choose Seton's Busy Person's Retreat or even the longer Sabbath by the Sea.
• Find the Divine contains information on more than 1,000 retreat centres in the United States and about 150 in the Canadian directory. Find the Divine offers details on both religious retreats and spiritual retreats. For instance, you could choose Yasodhara Ashram Yoga Retreat and Study Centre in Kootenay Bay, B.C. It's set on 120 acres of woodland surrounded by mountains and lake water. Alternatively, you could escape to the Mount Carmel Spiritual Centre in Niagara Falls.
• NARDA is a North American network of ecumenical retreat centres for "people of faith committed to spirituality for global survival, education for global community, and action for global justice." A quick search will offer up such options as the Five Oaks, the United Church Education and Retreat Centre located in Paris, Ont. (It has great hiking trails!) Alternatively, if you're looking for a family-oriented retreat, consider Sorrento Centre in Sorrento, B.C., which bars television and loud music but features a wonderful labyrinth for those drawn to meditative walking and reflection.
Something for everyone
For those who eschew the silent or specific faith-based retreats, fear not. The proliferation of retreat centres in Canada has made it very easy to pick and choose.
• For instance, Toronto-based Aziza Healing Adventures specializes in creative self-discovery, "gentle eco journeys" to aid in personal growth. You can select art activities, Reiki or specific therapies in groups or on your own. And check out its "Home Alone" menu, which outlines ways you can experiment with Gestalt therapy principles in the privacy of your own home. It's a helpful primer for newbies to this type of therapy.
While many spiritual centres are operated by Christian-based religions, many are open to all. So don't be afraid to ask up front.
If you're looking to travel further afield, consider U.K.-based retreat centres, such as the United Nations-recognized Findhorn eco-retreat centre in Scotland, which has been accommodating international retreats for more than 30 years. You can even sign up for Experience Week, which invites you to share in the day-to-day workings of the centre (you may be asked to garden, look after animals or work in the kitchen) while spending much of the day meditating. Their main location is in northeast Scotland, about 30 km from Inverness, but Findhorn also operates a smaller retreat centre on the mystical island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland.
Doug O'Neill is Canadian Living's executive editor.
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