But it's not all as easy as it sounds. For one thing taking a break from news, social media, friends, telephone calls, e-mails, work means there's no escape from self. Normally we don't give much time or thought to what's going on inside us and if we're aware of it we sometimes run away from it through busyness or other distractions such as entertainment, retail therapy or whatever. But you can't do that on retreat. There's a whole world inside each of us - layers and layers of complexity and conditioning which unconsciously affects our actions and relationships. The silence and time for prayer during a retreat means some of this comes to the fore and you have to face up to yourself - sometimes the good bits but often the not so good. I have to recognise the ills of the world reside within me and given certain conditions I could be as evil as the next one. Even trying to live a good life I have to face up to my mixed motives for actions, my petty jealousies, my anger, my fears and all the gamut of human emotions that hinder me from being truly loving. At present many of us are appalled by scenes of refugees fleeing violence, war, hunger, destitution and the inhospitality of nations that are now building walls and fences to keep them out of their country. We know this is a human problem and belongs to each one of us but on retreat I have to face up to the fact that my inhospitality and selfishness in daily life contributes to this. I can put out negative energy which detracts from the goodness in the world but I can also put out positive and loving energy which takes the human race further on its journey towards wholeness and healing.
Sometimes people take up meditation, hoping that it will bring inner peace and contentment and are then disturbed when they become aware of inner conflicts. They then think they're doing something wrong. But actually they're doing something right because they're moving from a superficial level of living to a deeper level which when faced up to will eventually lead to inner freedom. Detractors of religion often accuse it of offering false comfort and hope, of giving easy answers but actually it's quite the opposite. Religion is about facing up to the evil in ourselves and in the world, struggling with it and working to overcome it. Tich Nhat Hanh talks of good and bad seeds residing within our subconscious and it's our task to recognise this and cultivate the good seeds of love, wisdom and compasssion.
This is what a retreat does and some form of it is to be found in many religions. In Buddhism the rain retreat was part of the way of life of the monastic community. In Hinduism opportunities for retreat are there for serious practitioners but classical Hinduism also recognises that there is a stage in life, when one retires, which can be given over to more prayer and reflection than possible during a working life. Christian monastics also have retreats as part of their way of life and Sufi orders make opportunities for times of seclusion and separation. In Judaism this time apart happens weekly when the Sabbath is given over to study and prayer and all daily work is set aside. This gives a good balance to a week that can easily become overbusy. Meditation too is a kind of retreat- a very short Sabbath rest - and one that can be taken daily. As I've said it's not always comfortable but it is a practice which can lead to knowledge of self and personal transformation. That's good for us but also good for the world that will be affected by our growing inner freedom.