If you studied in a Catholic school, you’re likely to have attended spiritual retreats at least once a year.
And several years ago, retreats became popular for adults as well, through the Cursillo movement, cursillo meaning a short course. Although I never attended a cursillo, I can hear their song, “De Colores,” now playing in my head, a tune that radio stations would keep featuring.
The retreats were associated with personal conversions, the participants agreeing that after three days of seclusion, they would come out determined to abandon “sinful” habits and walk the straight path of holiness.
Alas, those feelings usually faded after a few days, and the more cynical would scoff at retreats as functioning more like social to-be-seen events, pakitang-tao in Filipino.
Which I think is a shame, because retreats can be useful in both the spiritual and secular contexts. The world’s major faiths all have retreats, taking different forms but sharing common characteristics: a prolonged withdrawal from the world in a secluded site, marked by silence and deep reflection or meditation, with someone or several people leading the sessions with prayers and short lectures.
There are also secular retreats, which seem to be gaining popularity, usually sponsored by corporations for their staff and management.
Spiritual or not, retreats are important, not to rest the mind but to exercise its less used functions and, in the process, to bring clarity, new insights and more. Those feel-good and want-to-do-good feelings after a spiritual retreat are not accidental, as I’ll explain below.
When we study and work, we tend to use the left brain more. We rationalize and use linear logic, which is what I’m doing right now as I write my column. Notice how, as we think hard and for long periods, we reach saturation point. Writer’s block is an example, which tends to happen at the worst times, when a deadline is coming up.
When that happens, a quick do-it-yourself retreat comes as first aid. What you do is replicate the spiritual retreats we’re familiar with: Seek a quiet place and do a sensory shutdown; close your eyes and focus on your breathing, which then tones down the other senses.
Your right brain, more intuitive, takes over, allowing you to “flow” pleasantly, losing sense of time and place. A neuroanatomist, Jill Bolte Taylor, has a best-selling book (and a Ted Talk) several years back called “A Stroke of Insight.” It describes how, when she had a stroke at home that damaged her left, rational brain, she found herself “enjoying” her stroke because the right brain had taken over. She had to keep reminding herself that she needed to call for help, which still required the left brain.
Fortunately, retreats can do what the stroke did for Taylor, and don’t think it’s all floating and flowing as if you were on marijuana. Retreats are more substantial, uncluttering your brain and allowing you amazing new insights.
This is not to devalue more organized and guided retreats.
St. Ignatius of Loyola is credited with having introduced these systematic retreats for Catholics with his spiritual exercises, and today’s retreats are carefully planned with objectives that are thought through — yes, left-brained — on how to become good, or better.
Once you start the retreat, it becomes a personal journey where you turn on a different sensory complex. I was with the Benedictine Sisters last week to discuss intercultural living, and I referred them back to St. Benedict’s admonition on the need to listen to people as part of humility. One of the sisters pointed out that St. Benedict indeed emphasized listening, and to do this with the ear of the heart. (Do you see the ear in the word heart?)
I was thrilled, and shared an Indonesian (and Malaysian) word to go with the ear of the heart: mata hati, the eye of the heart. The two metaphors fit right into the idea of retreating to use the right brain. Zen retreats are in fact called sesshin, Japanese words that mean to connect the heart and the mind. (For those who know Chinese, the words are jie xin.)
Most Filipinos will not be doing retreats this week. But even if you’re using the week as a holiday, remember to carve out some quiet time for the metaphorical heart of the Benedictines and Zen practitioners. You’ll be surprised at what you might “see” and “hear,” and how you might want to repeat these mini-retreats even after you get back to school, or to work.
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