People have retreated to healing sanctuaries of one kind or another for centuries, but the interest in them is greater than ever today. "There's been a hunger for this since 9/11," says Brian Spielmann of Shambhala Mountain Center in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. "I sense in people a deep need to find something with meaning and connection."
Retreats can take many forms. Some simply offer a break. Others aim to teach or deepen particular skills or life practices such as yoga, meditation, massage, whole–foods cooking, or creative art. And some are geared toward helping participants find transformation, detoxification, or spiritual enlightenment. "Of course, anyone can go on a retreat," says Annie Benefield–Lawrence, founder and owner of Retreat and Heal, a personal growth sanctuary in Sedona, Ariz. "But the people who call us are usually in some type of transition—either with their work or because they've lost someone to death or divorce or a breakup, and they're having a hard time dealing with it. A retreat is a safe place to start healing."
It was for Roberta Stewart, now 39, who first sought solace at Retreat and Heal in March 2006, seven months after her husband, a member of the Nevada National Guard, was killed in Afghanistan. She was stressed, angry, and depressed. "I had tried Wellbutrin, Xanax, Valium, Ambien, but nothing worked. They were just numbing me." For four weeks she gave herself over to Benefield–Lawrence, an ordained minister and holistic health practitioner and her husband, Jerry Lawrence, a shamanic healer. They offered a range of therapies from Reiki and crystal massages to a sacred medicine wheel ceremony and a tour of the local vortexes that have made Sedona a New Age mecca. "As they cleansed my chakras, I felt more connected to my faith and my husband's spirit," says Stewart, who has gone back for two more retreats.
As Spielmann says, "whether you're coming to a retreat for a cancer program or to learn how to meditate, you go home changed."
A weeklong silent meditation retreat at Shambhala was life changing for Martina Patterson, a 43–year–old manager of an international travel business in Boulder, Colo. "People think with meditation you just sit and do nothing and think of daisies in a field or something. It is so not that. It's really a practice of how to work with your mind and do it in a way that is beneficial." Since taking up meditation, Patterson says, "I'm more aware of what's real and what isn't. I'm not as reactionary. I don't get so caught up in things."
Ted Weinstein, a 45–year–old San Francisco literary agent, has quietly rung in the last two new years at silent Vipassana meditation retreats in California. "For 10 days they essentially create a Buddhist monastery," he says. Weinstein began practicing Vipassana meditation—Vipassana means "to see things as they really are"—a couple of years ago, after exploring various forms of Buddhist meditation. With each retreat he's been able to deepen his practice.
Last December, Weinstein carpooled to the retreat center, a former Boy Scout camp in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, with three other people from the Bay Area. They chatted amiably in the car, but the next morning they all took a vow of silence and didn't exchange words again until the last day. "It's about isolation and no interaction," Weinstein says. "You really keep your eyes down."
Weinstein says the lack of social contact helps each person stay focused on his or her individual journey. "We are all easily swayed by other people's comments and thoughts and reactions. The goal here is about having your own experience and learning. It's too easy to get distracted if the guy next to you is saying, 'This is bunk' or 'I've seen enlightenment.' Either way, you can't help but compare yourself to that person. The goal in all monastic communities is internal focus on your own learning uninfluenced by anyone else's experience."
While participants don't speak in the Vipassana meditation retreats, which take place at centers around the world, Weinstein says he appreciates that other people are around. Even without words, participants are able to create a sense of fellowship. "You get to see an intentional community run on values we don't see much in contemporary society. It's good to have people around to encourage you."