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Retreating into the World: the Ultimate Spiritual Practice


Peace comes from within.
Do not seek it without.

— attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha

Shopping will not buy ultimate happiness, I get it. 

But if Shakyamuni Buddha himself stated that seeking without does not bring peace within, why is it that so many of us are so often called to retreats?

The daily grind of this constructed, modern existence of ours leaves many of us in a deficit in terms of emotional support and emotional health, and, oft times, spiritually depleted. Survival in this world is ascending a corporate ladder. It has become far more pressing than ascending a personal one as the final word is financial rather than spiritual. 

A retreat can therefore become a watering hole for those of us with a dire thirst in desperate need of quenching. For hungry seekers, a retreat also promises answers to existential questions. It has long been reiterated that attachment is an incarnated hurdle that we must navigate, and that liberation from worldly distractions is a necessity on the path of spiritual evolution. In this context, retreat becomes an obvious solution.  

Of course, for many practitioners a retreat is far less an escape from the daily grind, nor even seen as the sweet welcome balm of a frequent weekend reconnect. Often, a retreat is even more than a school of higher learning, or like that trip to India for a deeper understanding of a yoga practice. It is more a profound calling to spirit; to practice; to healing, even at the planetary level. 

Once we step beyond the pitfall of the wash-lather-repeat of practice and immerse deeper in the mindfulness and awareness of practice, entering the retreat space becomes a place of power, be it from the rerooting of an unspoiled wilderness to the communal retreat center. And like any place of worship—often due to the cumulative energies of countless practitioners—the space becomes imbued with an almost magical vibration, and time spent there permits that energy to communicate with every cell of our being and open every inner lotus a thousandfold.

But all the while, back in this frenetic modern world, our quiddity becomes masked by cultural conditioning. Our personal ethics are shelved as we buckle to the pressure of society, and being kind is squeezed out of the picture, justified by a plethora of reasons, each as ephemeral as the next yet as concretized in our mind as we need them to become to continue coping on a daily basis. This may manifest as anything from dietary choices and turning a blind eye to suffering, through to simply stepping on business toes or taking that work trip over playing with the kids at the weekend.

At what point is a retreat exactly that? Yet in many circles the idea of trading our everyday lives for a retreat, leaving loved ones, particularly young children, behind is seen as an acceptable, even celebrated course of action.

The concept of attachment cannot be cherry-picked for a subjective high ground or for personal satisfaction, but we experience attachment in this life for some very important reasons, not least the survival of our species. Our world is not the same as the world in which the teachings were first laid down, yet so often attachment has become a dirty term among many who cite non-attachment as a fundamental precept of spiritual practice. 

The risks of this touch upon spiritual bypassing,* but of greater concern is a hedonism and relinquishment of responsibility for others. A potentially disastrous legacy can be formed when individuals take leave and absent themselves from the very people who need them the most. While there is always a time and place for appropriate behavior and action, and remaining in an unhealthy environment often brings nothing but misery, washing our hands of the daily grime in favor of a personal journey walking in the clouds is not a life of service and love, however one may want to color it. When life gets mucky, we would do well to view it as feculent manure for growth.

I can recall many who have embarked upon a solo “guru” career, completely walking away from children they have brought into the world, leaving them to be raised by the other parent. Yet these same folks consider themselves on a higher spiritual ground. And celebrated are many, including mothers, who leave their young child to undertake a deep multi-year retreat.


Love cannot remain by itself—it has no meaning. Love has to be put into action, and that action is service. . . . If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. . . . What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family. — Mother Teresa.

Love is not to be gathered from multiple external sources, like harvesting Facebook “likes.” Giving love away is also something that has become convoluted through the promulgations of “crazy wisdom.” Love should be, first and foremost, given to all as though they were your sibling, your parent, your own child. A retreat from the world, during which you deprive passing that love on through your presence to your loved ones, deprives us all of the most exquisite lessons of all. Nothing spiritual can be gained without first addressing our emotional well-being. Being a beacon and offering emotionally healthy support to our children as they grow is a service of love that will ripple outward without end.

Parenting and caring is a spiritual practice if ever there was one. All too often, the message to those who knuckle down to doing the best they can 24/7 is that their path is not as newsworthy as those who linger in a mountain cave for five years. Why are the words of those who get their hands muddied in the muck of life and transcend with grace, bringing forth a healthy new generation who bring joy and wisdom to those they meet not lauded? Or those who bring relief to the hungry, to those in need, to those at the end of their lives, why are these people not as esteemed as those who allow others to get dirty? 

While the historically accepted path of Shakyamuni Buddha appears to have been one that stepped away from parental responsibility early in life, the truth is none of us know for sure. The cultural paradigms then were considerably different from our 21st century. Today, if you have the spiritual calling, stay in the present and be a lotus through the murky waters of life. So what if a relationship fails? They do all the time. It’s no reason to abandon loved ones and dependents for years of soul-searching solitude.

If staying is impossible, at least be as present and available as possible. A relinquishment of presence in preference to personal agenda, citing karmic paths and leaving to the hands of fate whether dependents do well in life and look favorably upon you one day, is too often the path of the hedonist. 

While this commentary may sound harsh, it should also be noted, of course, that all our paths require us to do things differently from others. But I am here to say that it is indeed possible to get your hands well and truly dirty and still walk in the clouds. In fact, it is a spiritual path far more fulfilling than anything else, and your loved ones also benefit many times over. Certainly it is harder than sitting on a cushion, but aren’t so many worthwhile things? And you can retain the integrity of knowing you did right by all who looked to you for support. Becoming a good person is the best practice of all.

The idea that your soul fulfillment is going to require that you leave the people you are under contract to walk this earth with . . . well, that’s enough of that! The task is to spiritually renovate. To become a spirit or soul with such stamina that you know how to walk in to your world, and empower it with a level of grace that absolutely renovates the very structure and backbone of the world you live in. — Caroline Myss.**

Spiritual Bypassing and the Dangers of Unresolved Emotional Wounds (Buddhistdoor Global)

** The Language of Archetypes. Discover the Forces that Shape Your Destiny, by Caroline Myss.

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