Rainer Maria Rilke
Last Spring I conducted my first retreat with my magnificent friend Jackie at a centre deeply nestled in nature. At the end, the group of participants and facilitators felt a tender kinship, made all the more lovely in that it was harnessed from a mere two days spent together. One of the more exuberant of our makeshift tribe during our final sharing circle that the retreat had changed their life. To be honest, he took me aback: it was a splendid weekend of yoga and sound healing with sumptuous, healing food, heart-inspiring company and exquisite connections with nature but I didn’t expect it to be so deeply influential.
Upon reflection, I contemplated the power retreats hold, which I’d clearly taken for granted. Retreats seemed like opportunistic sojourns away from the brazen beat of the city; wondrous escapes no less, but hardly the stuff of epiphany or paramount perspectives. But here was something much deeper to consider, something unexpectedly empowering, ennobling and rousing. As others shared sentiments around that closing circle, it was clear the change was not a singular experience of one: everyone had absorbed something potent and profound. As I looked about the room at these mostly new faces, all brightened and ruddy with rising heart, I experienced a wondrous aura of serenity and benevolence. I was overcome by a wash of immense joy that was too big for the yoga studio space in which we were held, cajoled to expand perhaps by the larger space of wilderness surrounding.
Many things came to me in reflection. An ardent student of the healing powers of nature, I realized that simply getting away from the city to be in nature was one of the most (if not the most) significant aspects of the retreat experience and one I’d ironically looked over. Cities have become crippling to the human soul; to that part of us that is indomitably sensitive, constantly purposeful toward sacred aim, and depositing our individuality in a greater whole where we blend into an ocean of power and beauty. This is felt by everyone struggling in the urban and there is frequent talk of how to transcend the difficulties of alienation, environmental disconnection and devastation, the vacuous and even depraved aims of consumer culture, and the draining stressors of pollution, noise and ceaseless busyness.
The whole notion of the city itself is being questioned in some community circles I’m privy to. The dilemmas orchestrated by the urban as emphatic nodes of capitalist-commercial culture are being put into an increasingly intense context in the face of the unimaginably horrendous state of human relationship to the natural ecosystems of the planet. Scientists, environmentalists, cultural leaders, etc. have unified in the dire warning for long now that our species is facing disastrous scenarios that could leave our survival hanging in the balance. Realists say we’re already in it. And for those who live in cities, especially mega ones, we’re not just in it, we’re in the eye of the storm. What is desperately needed is a repairing of our relationship to the natural world. This is one of the great powers of retreats.
“The case for awe is also a case for humility...To stand in naked awareness in the presence of the earth, in silent knowing—this is awesome. Intimacy with the planet keeps us wild, undomesticated, unwilling to submit to social conditioning.” John Lamb Lash
Last Summer I was blessed to take part in a traditional vision quest guided by esteemed Anishanabe elder, Dave Courchene Jr. Spending three days in seclusion in the Manitoba wilderness without food or water was incredibly challenging but left me with some of the most poignant experiences I’ve had in my entire life. What struck me was that repairing our relationship with nature is easier than I’d thought: we simply need to make the connection, meaning leaving the city and heading out into the wild.
On the vision quest I experienced an intimacy with nature that many never participate in. In fact, the whole notion of the vision quest is to open oneself to ‘Mother Earth’ who bestows powerful visions. Visions about who we are, what healing we may need, what our gifts are, how we can help the greater world and peoples around us, spiritual truths, etc. I was skeptical and yet it was undeniable: as time went on in the wilderness, there was a natural force that worked on me; that brought my mind into peace and vitality to my body; that suffused my day with abundant wisdoms and insights worth more than any spiritual course I could have taken. The pure air, the splendour of verdant beauty and soaring majesty of sky and its unparalleled nuances of light and colour, the enigmatically powerful aura of wild animals, the subtle melodies of birds, churning river and whimsical wind, etc. after eternal etc. I was brought into a profound balance and the most wonderful thing was I didn’t have to do anything. Them Taoists were onto more than something. And I did receive compelling visions, even though I sincerely doubted that would happen. It left me shaken to my core…
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity...” John Muir
What is needed is to fall in love with the Earth. This is not a casual sentiment. Any deeply bonded relationships in our lives, especially the ones we fight to maintain and sustain, are motivated by a deep feeling of love. This is the challenge when faced with the environmental movement as it stands in the political realm: watching Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is compelling to the intellect but it doesn’t provide an enduring felt response. At least it didn’t for myself and many others I spoke to. What is needed is not watching films or reading books but going out into the wild and having a full body and mind rapport with the ‘mysterious’ force of nature. In this way, we’re reclaiming our indigenous identity—reconnecting to the more traditional ways of our ancestry who all lived at one time or another in deep communion with nature.
“Our future depends much more upon a right relationship with Gaia than with the never-ending drama of human interest.” James Lovelock
It’s quite amazing what happens when one leaves the city and most trappings of civilization to bask in the simplicity of all that is and what we are. As I reflected on the experiences of our retreat following my vision quest, I realized this salving power of nature was working on us all over that weekend too. We all experienced a rebalancing, a reconsolidation and new inspirations that may have never been able to pierce our mumbling minds suffuse with the hubbub of the city’s noisy landscape and constant restlessness. On the retreat, we were allowed to listen, settle, and let the wisdom whispers of our heart foment in delicious abundance. Looking back, it was life changing for me as well. How could it not be? Each time spent in nature provides such a chance as we settle deeply into ourselves and allow harmony to overcome us. The ancients go on and on about this balancing power of the Earth. It’s high time we heeded to the wisdom of our ancestors.
“In particular, the acknowledgment that our planet is a living organism, Gaia, Mother Earth, strikes a responsive chord in millions of people; it reconnects us both with our personal, intuitive experience of nature and with the traditional understanding of nature as alive.”
Retreats are profoundly healing and essential. They allow us to get away from the ceaseless stress of the city and acknowledge that there’s a whole other world out there that has been violently fragmented from us. It’s this detrimental schism between city and nature that is wounding the world so terribly and it’s the utmost priority of us all to take responsibility, heroically, simply and emphatically, to heal this rift. Retreats act as counter nodes to the city’s grinding lifestyle of hyper-stimulation and perpetual motion: we do yoga to tease open the body, as we do in the city, but on retreat we have time to allow the openings of the body to integrate deeper, restoring our wholeness in a way that can’t be afforded in the city. The body doesn’t leave the stillness of savasana to be thrust, almost traumatically, back into the aggressive dissonance of traffic and tyranny of constant tasks. Instead, savasana continues in the constant serenity of breeze-fondled trees and pure air frolicking into our bodies, flooding us with vitality.
We eat delicious, healing foods and not in front of computer screens but in the company of our endearing brethren, returning to the tradition of convivial feasting. We take time to be in solitude with the Earth, who some call Mother, and allow ourselves the grace of not thinking so much, not doing anything at all even; true nourishment for spiritual growth. We mingle softly as friends, not fast in the rush of schedules and appointments. We make music to cleanse the soul and aim it to its rightful place in the sacred. We commune and find the web of life sturdy as can be, curing our loneliness in an instant smile and in the spiral dance of circles held to share whatever we no longer wish to bear, or to tease out the inevitable beauty stirring in all human depths. And we leave, not nearly as laden; light in being, like the wind and sunlight; more mutual, less divided.
We go back and tell others, who may not understand us in our entirety but will certainly, on that basic level where nature throbs in us all, know exactly what we’re so mirthful about. And for those we tell who have had similar experiences it’s like sharing a secret world; a paradise that was never lost and never will be. And we gasp in that realization, of the great deceptions and the instant turning over to truth by one weekend basking in Earth’s bosom. Finally, we can’t wait to return and strive to make certain our life is ever-working to make more bridges between city and land, between us and Earth. And indeed, the joy will linger for some time before waning and the wound will be much worse than before as we have been made deeper by its carving. Thusly, we will desire all the more stridently to rejuvenate its boon, realizing once and for all that our greatest joy was in Earth, always, from Her, from Her…
“If all the beasts were gone,
men would die
from a great loneliness of spirit,
for whatever happens to the beasts
also happens to the man.
All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the Earth
befalls the sons of the Earth.”
― Chief Seattle
Darren's next retreat will be in the heart of summer with yoga teacher extraordinaire and pioneer of Creative Flow Yoga, Megan Marie Gates...
Frolic in the Summer’s radiance with us for a wondrous weekend of yoga, sacred sounds, healing inspirations, creative endeavours, play, campfires, hiking, community warmth and abundant natural highs. Yoga classes will be accompanied by live healing music. There will also be chant circles, a sound healing workshop and other healing wisdom empowerments. Lots of creative fun. Darren and Megan will also treat attendees to a private sacred music concert on Saturday night. Most importantly, we'll bask in the healing and restorative power of nature, restoring us to our natural goodness :)
“Our vision for Harmony Dawn was two-fold. We wanted to create a subtle-energy environment (not only the space but also the food) to enhance healing, bonding, creativity and self-transformation. We also wanted guests to directly experience a vision of a cleaner, greener future - a sustainable energy environment which works in a conventional sense”.
~ Andy James & Nicola Lawrence James, Founders
The retreat will be held at Harmony Dawn Retreat Center. Just 90 minutes north-east of the city near Rice Lake. http://www.harmonydawnontarioretreat.com/.