In the previous post on finding a topic, I mentioned the benefits of taking a personal retreat. As we approach the holidays that require we think on gratitude and giving, it is a good time for personal reflection and setting new goals. That can be hard to do – and really do well – without intention and structure. So today’s post reflects on the power of reflection. After the insanity that was the Fall 2014 semester, I wanted to take some time to really work on figuring out what was next. If you’re facing one big question in your life, no matter what that question might be, the personal retreat is one way to quiet your mind and productively search for answers.
I started by setting aside two days in January 2015 devoted to developing a new project, but I began the process weeks earlier by developing a specific set of questions. Rather than thinking historically, however, I was inclined to think a bit more personally. My top three were:
- How can I redefine my work life to realize my lifelong goals of writing and publishing?
- How can I be more present for my family?
- How can I use my passion for history to help others and my community?
These questions grew out of reading Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (Anchor, 2011), in December 2014. Armstrong focuses on interfaith dialogues, one’s search for meaning, and how we can use our gifts and faith (regardless of what it might be) to live a life of compassion. She defines a compassionate person as someone willing to “… endure with another person, to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel her pain as though it were our own, and enter generously into his point of view” (p. 9). Armstrong emphasized the importance of studying history as a way to find compassion for others and wrote:
“Educators should realize that they have a responsibility to make sure that our children are given accurate, balanced, and respectful information about other peoples. If this had been done more carefully in the past, perhaps we would not be having so many problems in the present.”
– Armstrong, p. 150.
In a previous post on selecting a topic, I emphasized marketability. But honestly, Armstrong articulated why I do history. If done correctly, history has the power to bring us together and help us overcome our differences. Her words helped me bring my goals together. This type of preparation is important, because while you want to go into a personal retreat open to new ideas, you don’t want to go in without achievable goals and questions to answer. For me, I’ve never been satisfied to just write any old thing. It has to be meaningful on multiple levels.
Structure is key to a successful personal retreat. For that I turned to Laurie Guest’s Wrapped in Stillness, a general, secular personal retreat guide that I cannot recommend more highly. Guest’s book is designed to guide you through just about any of life’s big decisions. She provides a general overview of how to conduct a retreat and provides simple but provocative exercises, from “Creating an Opposite Plan,” to “Creating a Life Filled with Hope,” to a “Personal Refurbishment Plan.” Above all, she uses humor and gentle encouragement to be kind to yourself and respect your personal goals, whatever they might be.
About a week before the retreat, I took 90 minutes to read through Guest’s book, carefully selected nine exercises, and made an agenda for the two days. And during those two days, from 9am-4pm, I shut off the computer, e-mail, cell phone, etc. I closed my office door and put “Meditation Radio” on Pandora. It was just me, Guest’s exercises, and a notebook. Afterwords, I took a moment to e-mail Laurie and tell her how much I enjoyed her book. Her quick response was as delightful and kind as one might expect, making me lover Wrapped in Stillness even more.
The process of retreating helped me gain new perspectives and gave me the courage to move ahead with American Athena, despite the fact that the subject area is somewhat removed from my area of expertise. This project is a risk, but it answers all of the questions I posed above. The personal retreat can also be an on going process. Once a month, I now choose a quiet evening to sit down and do or re-do an exercise from Wrapped in Stillness, just to make sure I’m still on track with my personal goals. Reflection take time but it is well worth the effort.