Reading time: c. 15 minutes

Taking the time to check where you are and get your bearings allows you to see any areas where you are perhaps heading in a wrong direction.

I call this “The power of pulling over”

Imagine you are driving from London to Glasgow. You set off in the right direction and have your trusted sat-nav set with your destination. But it’s easy to take a wrong turn or discover there are roadworks that take you down a diversion that then takes you off track. This is especially true if you mute the sat-nav or turn the radio up so loud that you can’t hear it.

The only way you’ll find out you’ve gone wrong is when you arrive in say Edinburgh instead of Glasgow.

But if you’d pulled over along the way, there is a strong chance you either wouldn’t take a wrong turn or if you did, you’d course-correct in time and actually end up where you wanted to go. Why? Having the space to get your bearings and reflect on where you are, increases the chances of you going in the right direction and decreases the likelihood of issues occurring.

This is where “the power of pulling over” can really help. In the Mindful Monday Check-ins that we did on Insight Timer we were practising this for half an hour a week for the week ahead. A retreat takes this check-in practice to the next level, allowing more time to get greater visibility of the bigger picture.

Who benefits from a retreat?

In short the answer is you, me, everyone. Most of us — particularly parents and carers — are struggling with overwhelm right now. Research from Oxford University shows that parental stress and depression were elevated during the first lockdown (when most children were home-schooled). You can read more about why it’s healthy to be at Amber right now on the “how we’re all doing dashboard” in our last blog here.

But I’m doing fine, do I need one?

Even for those of us who feel robust and well in terms of our physical, mental and social health, it’s important to not take our strength for granted and make sure we’re taking good care of ourselves.  If we don’t make sure we’ve got enough oxygen, so to speak, to function well, we’re not able to support those around us.  

Self care = caring for others was the title of our blog back in October.  Put the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting others. This analogy is taken from the experience we have when we get on a plane and it’s as powerful as it is blunt.  If you think this an exaggeration or not relevant to you, watch this 10 minute video and think again.

Why you should put your oxygen mask on first…

Knowing this I decided to take stock and check in with my physical, mental and social health.  The best way to do this was to take time to check in with myself and slow down so that I could pay closer attention and get curious. I decided to do a retreat. 

This blog post is inspired by my own recent experience of a ‘homemade’ six-day retreat. In true Helpful Clinic fashion, the retreat focussed on the 3 dimensions of health: biological, psychological and social. By reducing my social stimulation and activity levels, I was able to pay more attention to my physical, mental and social health.

What is a retreat is all about?

In a nutshell, a retreat is essentially time away from your everyday life to allow you to take stock and get your bearings. It may be that you need to create a space away from people and tasks for respite or it may be that you want to move towards something e.g. more balance or contentment. It’s about checking in with where you are at and whether that is actually where you want to be.

Whatever the reason, a retreat provides you with the opportunity to take time out, check in with yourself and your physical, mental and social health.  You might even discover something never knew about yourself.  For most, the expected outcome is that you come out of the retreat feeling refreshed, relaxed and reinvigorated.  Many people report, including myself, that you’ll have more understanding of yourself and more kindness towards yourself. This in turn helps us have more understanding and kindness towards others.  

Historically people would go somewhere for a retreat. More often then not this could be a spiritual setting (various faiths and religions have a version of this) or more of a wellness / spa setting. Covid restrictions in the UK mean that going somewhere for a retreat is not an option at the moment.  This meant getting innovative and creating my own homemade version. 

Although I’ve done a fair few retreats, I’ve never done one at home, solely by my own lonesome before. I wasn’t sure it was going to work so I decided to treat this as an experiment that I could stop at any time. Those of you who’ve worked with me will know that I’m a big fan of experiments and getting practical.

My second favourite question (after ‘is it helpful?’) is why bother. My why bother for doing this experiment was to reduce the input from my everyday life to be able to pay attention to all three dimensions of my health. When I do, my quality of life stays more consistent and good, I’m not going off track and when I do, I can get back on track more quickly and easily. When I’m sturdy and strong enough, I be there for others both in my personal life and patients and clients that I support.

How to create your own wellness retreat

Knowing why I was doing this gave me the direction for what I wanted to include and exclude for the period of the retreat. With my why bother in mind, I allocated time in advance for preparation to ensure it would be as beneficial as possible. My focus was on gathering things/content/material that would serve to nourish my physical, mental and social needs.

I arranged for colleagues to pick up tasks in my absence and shared with patients and clients that I’d be unavailable during this time. I negotiated with my nearest and dearest to ensure that together we were supporting their needs as much as mine. I dug out my landline phone number in case of emergencies. The landline phone itself is normally stored in a cupboard turned off so I had to actually figure how to turn the ringer on. Apart from those few people who have that number, I was incommunicado, with my mobile phone in airplane mode for the duration.

Finding Joe – the movie about The Hero’s Journey and Joseph Campbell who cracked the code

I went shopping ahead of my retreat to ensure I had plenty of healthy and nutritious foods to keep me going, as well as the odd treat for some added pleasure. I also spent time gathering the texts I wanted to read which comprised mainly buddhist and philosophical texts as well as a stash of medieval fiction for more carbohydrate reading (the texts being more like protein reading). Nothing like a bit of sword fighting and chivalry to entertain the imagination, well at least for me. It was important to me to also have material I wanted to watch, being a bit of a film buff, so I included nourishing films and documentaries. Finding Joe is one of the movies in my First Aid Kit for Feelings so was of course included.

A time for checking in with yourself

A retreat is an opportunity to stop and look around. By creating the conditions where the noise of the everyday is reduced, we can listen in to our own experience and hear what’s actually going on.

Checking in with our bodies helps to spot issues before they become severe. Is your digestion struggling? How are your energy levels? Are you being active enough? Or maybe too much? Are there any aches and pains that need checkin out. Is your food colourful enough? Are you drinking enough water? How’s your sleep?

It’s also helpful to check in with your thoughts and emotions. Are you getting enough joy in your day or week? What’s your anxiety focusing on? What kind of thought patterns are you running? Snowballing? Inner Critic? What behaviours are you doing? Is it helpful?

Finally, pulling over in the form of a retreat enables you to look at your social commitments to see if they are truly beneficial to you. Who are you spending time with? Are those the people or groups that nourish you and you want to be hanging out with? Are they what you need them to be and are you doing yourself (and them) justice by committing your time to them? Looking after your social health in this way is important. Are you tripping over out-of-date beliefs that you should or shouldn’t be engaged in certain relationships or activities? Is it helpful?

How to have your own retreat

Now before I outline the details of my own recent retreat, it is worth noting that this wasn’t my first retreat. Why is this important? Because it means I had experience to draw on to ensure my six-day retreat was as successful and beneficial as possible.  I’ve built up ‘retreat-stamina’ so to speak.

If you’re new to doing retreats, it’s helpful to start small and then build up. Just like you’d build up physical stamina in the gym by starting small, so you need to build up your stamina for a retreat. Like with the gym you can then enjoy the strength you develop along the way. You can reap benefits by starting with even just a few hours.

One deliberate consideration I made was with timing. I started my retreat on Monday morning and finished it on Saturday lunchtime. This provided me with the weekend prior, which acted as a landing strip for me to slow down and lead into the retreat and then most of Saturday and Sunday as a runway to take off again into my everyday life at the end. More on this and social atrophy later.

The most important thing is to allocate the time, space & focus and resources to ensure your retreat is a success. That means removing distractions, clutter and tasks like laundry, as well as having what you need, like reading/watching material, food, etc., prepared beforehand so your retreat is uninterrupted.

Prior to Covid, I would have had my six-day retreat somewhere away from my house; a place where structure and space was provided. But obviously that’s not possible or practical at the moment, so a home retreat it was. Treating this as an ISOP experiment (read more about ISOPs or issue-opportunities here) and with the experiment now successfully concluded, I now know that this way of doing a retreat works.

However, having a home retreat did present me with two challenges: how to be at home without getting distracted (Netflix, doing DIY, etc.) and how to keep a sense of structure with nobody else providing accountability.

Retreat rhythm and structure

My morning coffee ceremony really helps my mindfulness

To give you some food for thought to help you structure your own retreat, here’s an outline of a typical day on my own retreat:

  • Started and finished my days with a short private meditation practice
  • Joined various meditation groups each morning and evening (only possible now because of zoom!)
  • Morning:
    • Vigorous physical activities, like walking with Denny and karate practise.
    • My coffee ceremony (grind the beans, make in my super duper coffee maker, savour drinking from a beautiful cup & saucer).
    • ‘Carbohydrate content’, for me that is reading medieval fiction
    • Mindful activity and meal preparation (more on this shortly).
  • Afternoon:
    • Mindful reading of texts; writing notes and taking time to reflect on what I was reading and learning
    • Meditation
    • Mindful watching – stuff like documentaries and films that were thought provoking; writing notes and taking time to reflect on what I was reading and learning
    • Playtime with Denny before my mindful dinner preparation and eating.
  • On the final day, Saturday, I reflected on the week. What was easy? What was hard? Did I feel nourished? What insights had I gained? Anything I now knew about myself that I didn’t before? What are the actions I need to take forward to support my physical, mental and social health. Am I going where I want to be going? Are my days what I want them to be? What actions do I need to take forward? What do I value and appreciate about my life?

What’s a mindful activity?

So what do I mean when I say mindful activity and meal preparation?

Well, for example, I’ve got a beautiful Georgian bureau. I took my time giving it a really good polish. While I was doing that I also connected with all the people who had a hand in helping said bureau come into my hands. So all the people who had sat at it over the years, the craftspeople who made it, the folks who felled the wood for its construction and even the two guys who delivered it to me from the antique shop. This gave me a deep sense of interconnectedness with other people across space and time (great for mindfulness).

In addition, I made sure I connected with the sensory elements while I was polishing my bureau: the smell of the polish, the feeling of the cloth in my hand and the breath in my body, the movement of my muscles and my posture as I polished. This further heightened my mindfulness.

The Georgian bureau in the Helpful office at the Future Business Centre in Cambridge, UK

For my mindful lunch and dinner preparation, I took extra time peeling the carrots, chopping the broccoli and again thought about all the people who had a hand in getting them to me. I thought about the sun, the rain and the soil that had all contributed to the vegetable I was chopping. My thoughts and feelings also considered the knife and the chopping board I was using and all the people who had a hand in making and the conditions needed to bringing them into being. All this supported even further interconnectedness.

Chopping vegetables slowly and thoughtfully is a helpful mindfulness practice

Finally, I ate my meals in a mindful way. I was aware of my posture when sitting down to eat. I made sure both of my feet were flat on the floor before I started. I then took time to enjoy every bite, putting my cutlery down in between bites to allow me to really savour the flavour. I chewed more slowly and more thoroughly than usual to give my digestive system less to do. I also made that the meals I was eating especially flavourful so as to nourish my tastebuds, as well as refill my energy tank.

Social atrophy and re-entering everyday life

Just like it takes time to slow down, it takes time to speed up again and re-enter the world of your everyday. Your energy and speed isn’t like an on/off switch but rather like the engine in a car where it takes time to go up and down the gears.

Now my retreat lasted six days and my re-entry period was about the same. The rule of thumb here is that it takes a similar amount of time. Our minds and bodies need time to adjust and step up all the processing of activities and social stimulation. During my re-entry period tasks that I would normally be able to do with ease took longer and I was more likely to be clumsy and it took time to bring my thinking up to speed so to speak.

For example, on the Monday after my retreat, I had a karate lesson with my sensei. Moves that I could normally complete reasonably well were clunky and cumbersome. This was because I was now doing it with the social component of my sensei which was another dimension for my brain to process.

This is helpful to bear in mind whenever you are faced with coming out of any kind of social seclusion; the current Covid restrictions being a perfect example. So, when things start to open up again and we re-enter society with all its stimulations and increased activity levels, remember you will need some time to adjust. I referred to this as Social Atrophy in a blog from last summer. If this is something you’d like to understand better here’s the link to that blog

Regardless of whether there’s a global pandemic or other serious events and circumstances, having a retreat can be helpful and constructive from time to time. A retreat creates the conditions for mindfulness and contemplation, which benefits your body, mind and social aspects like your relationships and activities. The power of pulling over helps you get to where you actually want to go.

Creating your own retreat

Could you do a similar retreat? What practical considerations would you need to make to ensure yours would be a success and beneficial? How could you negotiate it with your family, friends, work etc. What would your version of a retreat look like?

Maybe you’ve done retreats before. If you have, for sure there are some tips and tricks you’ve learnt to help you ensure the next one is even more beneficial.

Curious about mindfulness and meditation? A book called a Miracle of Mindfulness is a great place to start. It’s written by Thich Nhat Hanh, a zen master who founded Plum Village. This is a global community offering retreats and teachings on engaged Buddhism and the art of mindful living.

Whatever your experience, I’d love to hear from you! You can get in touch with me via email or connect with us on social media. The links are at the top of the page and below.


Connect with us on Facebook and InstagramSign up for our fortnightly newsletter to get helpful tips and tools straight to your inbox.

Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor