a blog for 21st century Seekers
Silence. Solitude. Stillness.
To some, these elements sound like a dream come true; to others, a nightmare.
For the last four years, I've been treating myself to a solo silent retreat in a small hermitage cabin at a retreat center to take time for deep rest, rejuvenation, reflection, and meditation, and prayer. I've found this time to be essential to finding mental and emotional clarity and discernment amidst my otherwise noisy, fast paced, distracted life. While I have a rhythm of self care and spiritual practice at home, there is something so different about being away from my house, from people, and from technology. Going on retreats keeps me honest with myself and rekindles my relationship with my Higher Power.
I've had so many people ask me, "How do you do it? I would go crazy all alone by myself for that long! What do you do with all that time?" Well, nothing really. And, a lot. So for those of you who are considering a personal retreat, but have some anxieties around it, this list of tips and tricks is for you.
Tip #1: Practice
While everyone can benefit from solo retreats, they aren't for everyone, at least not right away. It's the kind of thing you should work your way up to. Just like other types of exercise, you need to start small and increase your reps. If you try to just jump in and bench press 300 pounds without any preparation, you're going to injure yourself. It's the same with just jumping into a 3 day retreat without already having a toolkit of spiritual practices under your belt. A good way to jumpstart your practice is to first participate in a facilitated retreat with a group of people. Even if it's a silent retreat, having other people around you doing the same things builds a feeling of support and community, and having a structured schedule that includes guided prayer/reflection/meditation activities is really helpful.
You can also work your way up to solo retreating by taking yourself out on "dates" to begin to practice enjoying your own company. This could look like going for a hike by yourself, taking yourself out to a movie or dinner, spending an afternoon at the local park or coffee shop, going ice skating, or any other thing you enjoy. The key is to stay off your phone. You wouldn't be on your phone the whole time with a date, so don't do it with yourself. Be present to yourself. The only guarantee in this life is that the person you're going to wake up with every morning for the rest of your life is you. So start befriending yourself--you're worth it!
Tip #2: Scheduling
Once you have decided you're ready to try a solo retreat, it's time to pick the time and place. I suggest reserving a "hermitage" cabin at a retreat center. These cabins are set up for solo retreaters and are designed in such a way that they promote stillness, silence, and solitude. The intentionality of the design and the seclusion of the cabin will help you settle into "retreat mode" quicker. For your first time, I suggest spending two nights away. I've found it is crucial to have one entire day away in order to really rest and slow the mind down. I've found that on the last morning, my mind is already thinking ahead to what I have to do when I get home and starts planning for the upcoming week. It's very difficult to be fully present unless you have a full day of freedom; a full day away from the check lists and responsibilities of everyday life.
Don't schedule to arrive home late at night and then have to go straight to work the next morning. It is nice to ease out of your retreat by giving yourself plenty of time when you get home to unpack, do laundry, go grocery shopping, etc so that your transition back to the daily grind isn't as shocking.
Tip #3: Packing
There can be a temptation to overpack, but the goal of retreat is simplicity. Bring the minimum amount of clothing needed, no make up, no jewelry- no one is watching you. Let the image-making rest.
Leave your novels (or other books with a story line) at home. Novels are a great escape, but the goal of retreat is to practice Presence, not distraction. There are some books that can help bring us into a stance of deep Contemplation, and these are great retreat companions-- scripture, poetry, or other spiritual writings can help our mind find a place of quiet and deeper understanding.
I also love to bring along some "spiritual toys" such as my finger labyrinth, a deck of wisdom/art/tarot cards to reflect on, a chime/singing bowl, mala meditation beads, some visual icons that hold special significance to me, a yoga mat, meditation cushion, journal, sketch pad and colored pencils.
Also bring along whatever items you need to get out into nature- hiking boots, sunscreen, hat, gloves, etc. The temperature was around 0 degrees on my last retreat, and there was a foot of freshly fallen snow. Since I was prepared with all my warmest winter gear, I was still able to spend an hour or more outside each day walking through the woods, making snow angels, and bird watching. Never underestimate the healing power of nature and exercise, even when it's freezing out!
Tip #4: Upon Arrival
Once you've checked into your cabin, take some time to set up your stuff, finding a proper place to keep each of your things. You'll want to keep your small space organized and neat throughout your stay, remembering that a cluttered space promotes a cluttered mind.
Reflect ahead of time what you're committing to as far as phone usage. I highly suggest turning your phone off and leaving it in your car so you aren't tempted to start checking your phone, sending unnecessary texts, or getting lost in the rabbit hole of the internet. If you're using your phone as a camera, set it on airplane mode so it's only functioning as a camera. If you absolutely need to be communicating with family each day, just check your phone at night right before going to bed. But if you can, tell your family/friends that you'll be unavailable until you return home. This removes the distraction of needing to be constantly available and distracted. In today's world, it is a radical and incredible challenge to disconnect from technology, but the stillness of mind that results from this move is so worth it. It creates space for insights to arise and allows the mind/heart to start connecting the "dots" of our life.
So you're here. Now what?? I've found that one of the best ways to ease into a weekend of silence and solitude is by pulling out my journal and doing a "mind dump." This is just a stream-of-consciousness free write, where I put down on paper all the things on my mind that I'm worried about. This helps me note that there is a lot of stress that is truly hard to set aside, but if I acknowledge it in this concrete way, it helps me feel secure that I can set these things aside and they'll still be waiting for me when I return home. But for the next 48 hours, there is nothing that needs to be done or accomplished. I can truly let them go, and Be Here Now. In this mind dump writing exercise, it's nice to also set some intentions for the retreat, and I like to address all of this as a letter to my Higher Power. In this way, I'm establishing the conversation and relationship with God, and is a wonderful reminder that I'm actually not alone on this retreat-- I'm supported and loved by this ultimate Friend. This makes the solitude feel like a refuge instead of a prison.
Tip #5: "Goals" of Presence and Letting Go
In our culture, there is such pressure to do, to perform, to accomplish. Retreat is a time to let all of that go and practice a stance of Being. To just be is a revolutionary act, and a difficult one. On retreat, we leave our check lists behind and attempt to tune into our intuition, and to follow this instead of following distraction. Even without technology, our minds find a way to distract, to spiral off into worries or fantasies about the future, or into replays or regrets from the past. Our practice is to notice this, and keep bringing the mind back to what is real right here and now. What are you seeing, touching, hearing? As you eat, what textures and tastes are present? Can I practice gratitude for all of these things in the moment as I experience them? Can I let go of my need to accomplish something with this time? Can I let go of my self image and personality and listen to the deeper, higher Self stirring within?
From an Enneagram perspective, each of the types has a particular way of staying attached to our False Self (our habits of personality). Author and teacher Christopher Heuertz says that each of the Enneagram "Centers" has a particular need for either Stillness, Solitude, or Silence. When Body Center types (8,9,1) are forced to slow down and be still, their anger is waiting for them right under the surface. These types are always on the go, and all the movement is a distraction from having to look at their anger. This is why retreat can be so uncomfortable if we haven't already practiced observing ourselves and detaching from our feelings and thoughts. But this is why the Stillness of retreat is also essential to seeing what is going on with us, facing it head on, and working through it. The only way out is through, as they say, and this takes courage and diligence. It is only in intentional Stillness that Body Center types will find the peaceful rest of Acceptance, and be able to connect with their innate goodness and innocence.
For types in the Heart Center (2,3,4) the key healing element of retreat is Solitude. Heart types are constantly creating their self image in relation to the feedback they get from other people. When these types of people find themselves alone, it can be difficult to know who they actually are, or to get in touch with their true feelings and desires. For Heart types, the underlying emotion waiting for them in solitude is shame, since they find their sense of worth through either helping others, impressing others, or distinguishing themselves as different from others. It is only in Solitude that these types can discover their True Selves, and find an inner validation and self approval, as well as the sustaining and unconditional love from the Source of Love.
Head Center types (5,6,7) are so constantly stimulated by the noise of mental chatter and incoming information, that the healing medicine they will find in retreat is Silence. Once the outside noise of internet searches, documentaries, podcasts, books and stimulating activities is shut down, Head types are confronted with their underlying feeling of fear and anxiety. But it is only in this Silence, free from grasping at solutions to an unanswerable puzzle, that Head types will discover that they are safe, already have enough and already are enough. They will find true freedom in the presence of a deep inner knowing.
As difficult emotions and thoughts arise during retreat, our goal is to remain present to them, to approach them with a sense of curiosity and compassion, to investigate, and finally, to let go. Activities that can help with this process are: meditation, focusing on breathing or body sensations, prayer, mantra, chanting/singing, journaling, writing letters to your Higher Power, drawing pictures, writing letters to your inner child, dancing, yoga, stretching, getting out into nature. Remember that no mind-state or emotion lasts forever, and this too shall pass.
Tip #6: Expect the Best and Remain Open
While I've tried to prepare you for the worst, you might be surprised to discover a lot of joy, relief, gratitude, insight, healing, and contentment waiting for you on retreat. The last retreat I went on, I added an extra day. The first whole day felt like a lot of "work." It was difficult, and there was a lot of emotional and intuitional content to sort through. Once I got through this, the next full day was a day of pure bliss. With nothing to do, nowhere to be, and no one watching, my inner child was free to roam, rest, and kick up a wild rumpus! I cheated on the Silence rule, and used my phone to play a downloaded dance playlist, and danced wildly for about 2 hours straight. I'm discovering that what I personally need for my healing is a relief from rules.
So go ahead, make your retreat your own. As far as my suggestions go, take what you like and leave the rest. If you bring your Higher Power into the process and remain willing and open to the possibilities, you are sure to be surprised in a beautiful way. I hope you can learn to savor the healing gifts of Stillness, Solitude, and Silence, in whatever way is meaningful and accessible to you. Happy retreating!!
For many of us, it can be difficult to find our Enneagram type accurately. Oftentimes, the biggest mistake is that people will look at the stereotypical behavior of each type and focus on that. For example, "I worry a lot so I must be a six." Or, "I have always been drawn to art, so I'm a four." "I go to a lot of protests, so I've narrowed it down to 8, 9, or 1!" "I love to read and am a deep thinker. I've gotta be a five!"
Unfortunately, it's not that simple. The Enneagram is unique in that, unlike other personality typing systems, it is based on motivations, not behaviors. Each type has a specific "Passion" (emotional pattern of suffering) and a specific "Virtue" (emotional gift), a predictable "Fixation" (mental trap of the ego), and a unique "Holy Idea" (the mind's beautiful consciousness when in a grounded and accepting state.) All of these are sooooooo helpful and fascinating, but the part of Enneagram teaching that I resonate with the most is the teaching on each type's "Lost Childhood Message."
Each of us as children, at some point, began to interpret a fundamental flaw about ourselves. The innocence is lost, fear sets in, and we begin basing all our choices around this delusional perception. It isn't necessarily our caregiver's fault, but we may react to their Shadow and interpret it in a certain way as a coping mechanism to feel safe and loved. The messages are called "lost" because we had them at some point. For example, an Enneagram One's lost childhood message is "You are good." When this message gets lost, it becomes the opposite belief that "I am bad/corrupt/evil." As a baby and young child, of course Ones were pure and good. But Ones as children typically feel criticized, not good enough, and punished for mistakes or for expressing emotion, so the ego develops a fixation between right/wrong, good/bad, because she is trying so hard to avoid mistakes and maintain control. Because she has lost touch with the inherent birthright of being good, in the back of her mind, she's always anxious about doing something wrong that would define her as corrupt, bad, or evil. For any Enneagram One to begin her path back toward wholeness and healing, she needs to reclaim the truth that "I am good."
Here is the list of Lost Childhood Messages. Every one of them is a message for all of us, but one of them in particular is at the core of our ego's motivations. This piece of the Enneagram can shine much needed light on our type and on the direction of our growth path.
1- "I am good." - - Interpreted as "I am evil/corrupt/bad. I need to stay on the straight and narrow to avoid
the slippery slope! My moral superiority proves my goodness."
2- "I am lovable" -- Interpreted as "I am only lovable when I'm helping others, when I'm needed. I've gotta
give more to prove my lovability!"
3- "I am capable" -- Interpreted as "I am only lovable and valuable when I'm accomplishing
great things! Proving my capabilities will bring me the love and attention I desire."
4- "I belong" - - Interpreted as "I don't belong. I am different from everyone else and no one understands
me. I will prove that I belong by making myself noticeably special to draw love toward me,
and by withdrawing into my inner world of feelings and fantasy."
5- "I am enough." -- Interpreted as "I am not enough to gain love and security on my own, so I'll spend my
energy gathering knowledge and ideas, and detaching from others and my feelings. This
proves my competence, my enough-ness."
6- "I am safe." - - Interpreted as "I am in danger. Life and people are unpredictable. My defense against
harm is doubting and questioning, even doubting my own instincts and inner guidance. By
preparing for the worst, I will prove that I'm protected."
7- "I am free." - - Interpreted as "I could be trapped! Best to avoid this by becoming self reliant and
focusing on all my positive options and creating pleasurable experiences! Keeping the
Fun-pedal to the metal proves that I am free!!"
8- "I can be vulnerable"- - "I mustn't show weakness, only Power! Emotions, tenderness, and quietness are
weakness and weakness gets you hurt. I'll make myself as big as possible to protect myself
(and others). My strength, productivity, energy, volume, and fast pace prove my Power."
9- "I matter." - - Interpreted as "My presence doesn't matter. My feelings and needs are unimportant, so I'll
keep a low profile and merge with others. I cannot affect change. Making others feel
comfortable and keeping the peace proves that I matter."
Each of these Lost Childhood messages is incredibly heartbreaking, and also incredibly ironic. How could Nines believe they don't matter? We all love them in their natural gifts of sweetness, inclusion, and peacekeeping, and when they are absent we miss them like crazy. How could Threes be worried about proving their capability, when none of the rest of us could ever keep up with their positive energy, confidence, and enthusiasm? Why would eights hide their tender side, when their big hearts are what make them so darn lovable? They don't need to prove they are powerful, because even when sitting in silence we would feel the strength emanating from an Eight!
We are all striving for something we believe is lost about ourselves, but it turns out we have just lost sight of it! It never went anywhere! It was there waiting for us all along, under layers of stories, delusions, fears, greed, and anger. If only we could see ourselves the way our true friends see us, the way our pets see us, the way The Divine sees us. We are seen as good, lovable, capable, belonging, enough, safe, free, with permission to be vulnerable, and that we matter, SO MUCH. Not only are we seen as each of these things, we are each of these things, because they are our birthright.
Now, repeating these messages to ourselves and keeping compassionate eyes on this birthright, we can use the other tools and insights of the Enneagram to carry us back "Home" to our True Selves.
If you know your Enneagram type, I'd love to hear from you, either in the comments below or through a private message, how your Lost Message shows up as a motivator in your life, in either its negative or positive form. What have you done that has been helpful in convincing yourself to reclaim this message?
I just made this painting for my nephew's 4th birthday, to be read to him each night before bed, in the hopes that the lies and delusions won't penetrate so deeply. He will, of course, still develop an Enneagram type (thankfully!) but perhaps this will serve to guide him back Home quicker than would otherwise be the case. Happy Birthday Ethan!!!
P.S. If you would like me to make one of these paintings for a child (or adult!!) that you love, let me know, and I'll pray for them the whole time I'm painting. Also, check out my new Custom Paintings page!
Happy Fall everyone! May this season bring you inspiration, guidance, and time for contemplation!
When people ask me what the Enneagram is, I am immediately elated and nervous to give an explanation, because it feels like introducing them to a best friend who has saved my life. Any “elevator speech” is incomplete, and even a dissertation would still miss the mark, because this dynamic spiritual tool interacts with each person in a unique and individual way. My story will not be the same as your story, but our common humanity of brokenness, possibility, and innate hidden wholeness guarantees that this tool has something life changing for everyone. Let me (begin) to explain, and tell a bit of how the Enneagram has made me a kinder, wiser, and healthier human.
First, an overview.
The Enneagram is an ancient personality typing system that is unique among its peers. While other systems put you in a box and leave you there, the Enneagram shows you all the parts of your “box” that you’ve been living in (even the parts that are subconscious and denied), and then gives you a path of transformation and healing to move outside of the box of your habitual thoughts, feelings, and actions. It can do this because the Enneagram looks at the motivations of each type, instead of the observable behaviors. It also shows us both our Light and Shadow sides, our “blessings and blights” as teacher Ian Cron likes to say. In its wisdom, the Enneagram shows us that “our personality type is not who we are, but instead what keeps us from being who we are.” (Quote from teacher Anne Muree). It points toward ego structure. However, it is a non-dualistic system (like any healthy spirituality), and includes this paradox: it also shows us exactly who we could be, and provides a path to our True Self/Essence (as opposed to our False Self/ego).
The Enneagram has nine personality types, which are actually habits and coping mechanisms built up over time in an attempt to feel safe, secure, loved, respected, in control, and happy. Each of these “programs for happiness” work for us for a time...until they don’t. They end up getting us into trouble, again, and again... and again. We get frustrated with ourselves, feeling defective, angry, ashamed, and afraid. (e.g. What is wrong with me that I just can’t seem to change?? I intend to stop reacting to people and situations in this way, but I just can’t stop myself!! I guess I’ll just have to suffer like this the rest of my life. Poor me, no one understands me!)
Here’s where the Enneagram steps in with the radical introduction to CHOICE. As the late and brilliant Enneagram master teacher Don Riso used to say, “It doesn’t have to be this way!” My own genius teacher Anne Muree says (and I paraphrase), “The Enneagram is about LOVE and CHOICE, and they are right around the corner from one another. First we choose to love ourselves. Then we love ourselves enough to make different choices. And through these healthier choices, our love for ourselves and others grows.”
I will give one example from my own life in how this process has unfolded for me.
I am a Type One on the Enneagram, which sometimes gets called the Perfectionist or the Reformer (both labels were easy for me to claim, even before I had much self awareness.). With a constant focus on what can be improved, Ones have a deep drive to make ourselves better, to improve and maximize others potential, and make the world a better place. Those are all great things, until we overdo them. As teacher Suzanne Stabile points out, “The best part of you is also the worst part of you.” And believe me, all my efforts to perfect myself, others, and the world led me into a place of dissatisfaction, frustration, and a near constant state of resentment toward others.
The funny thing about it, in hindsight, is that I never recognized myself as an angry person, even though I was walking around with irritation simmering right under the surface of my “good girl” facade at all times. Resentment was just the water I was swimming in. I’m sure others could see and feel it, and that’s why the people I loved avoided controversial topics with me, because I would always turn it into a black/white, right/wrong argument, and I had to be right. I always got the last word in order to fuel my sense of goodness and purity (a.k.a self righteousness). For example, when I couldn’t convince my father that his politics were wrong, I resorted to writing snarky counter-arguments in his political books while home on breaks from college. While that never changed him, it made me feel like I’d done my duty in setting the "truth" straight. I had still won. (But this was extremely damaging to our relationship, obviously).
Some of you may be wondering why I’m being so hard on myself. I’m not. It’s just the pure, unadulterated truth. After a lifetime of powerful denial, I’ve finally learned to trust that only the Truth will set me free. After years of working on this, I don’t feel much emotion in the re-telling of my version of insanity. If anything, it’s humorous to me. I’ve finally stopped trying to control things I cannot change. I’m also finding a sense of compassion for myself, for all the suffering I have created, for how difficult I’ve made my life out to be. That is completely new to me. My version of ego has always believed that self criticism and reprimand would be what would eventually whip me into spiritual shape, but thank goodness for the Enneagram, Love has now been given the decisive voice (on my good days!).
One more quick story.
I used to feel that anger was the only fuel that could keep me going. It was the motivation to make a difference in the world. This is the rhetoric in many activist circles, and even within many religions who speak of a righteous anger. While I would never say that this is completely untrue or that anger has no value, I know that anger was robbing me of sleep, shaming me into feeling like I could never measure up to its high bar, and causing pain and tension in my body, particularly in my jaw, neck, and shoulders.
I remember distinctly the first time I reacted to injustice with compassion instead of rage. I was traveling in the West Bank of Palestine, and parts of Israel, listening to people’s stories from both sides of the conflict. While I had very strong opinions about the devastation of genocide, military occupation, imprisonment of children, and the system of apartheid going on there, I suddenly knew with clarity that anger and hatred were not going to help. Only compassion for everyone involved (including the brainwashed oppressors!) was going to end this conflict. If I wanted the people there to love and understand each other, I couldn't ask of them something I was unwilling or unable to do myself. On that trip, I began to experiment with the possibility that Love was actually a powerful force for change, not a wimpy or fluffy emotion for pushovers.
When all is said and done, the Enneagram helps each of the nine types find their own much needed compassion for self and others. As a One, I happen to be in the “anger triad” along with Eights and Nines, and only compassion and kindness can counter this toxic reaction in our bodies. There are three types that find themselves in the “shame triad” and the last three types are found within the “fear triad.” For all of us, whether anger, fear, or shame is our go-to motivator, we can do better for ourselves and others. And compassion is the path for us all.
We are all doing the best we can with what we’ve been given, at all times. Only self acceptance, loving encouragement, and self awareness can move us toward greater freedom and toward our True Self.
If you have not looked into the Enneagram, but feel ready to face your "demons" and be given guidance to defeat them, I recommend reading the book “The Road Back to You” to help you discover your type. There are also trained Enneagram coaches (such as myself!) who can help you through this self discovery process, starting with a typing interview. For some people, finding your type can be difficult and may take some time. But it is worth it! Blessings on your Enneagram journey.
With deep compassion,
I'm a Spiritual Director, Enneagram Educator, and Liberationist-Buddhist-Universalist-Mystic-12 step-Queer-Christian. Playing with questions, answers, and surrender.