Conscious retreat

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic I “enjoyed” rushing to provide support for those who needed it. I was uniquely poised to do this as a counselor with an online presence. Humans are uniquely poised to do this. Give us a good crisis and we know what to do… stop the bleeding, run for cover, carry someone to safety, feed them, sit with them. This is quite the opposite of a conscious retreat… it’s a full-on surge!

The surge is relatively easy, it’s autonomic. It’s in “no man’s land” between one place and another where we tend to get lost. The shock of the pandemic, the shut-down, the fear about contracting the virus, and the frustration that arose as the lives that we’d crafted were interrupted, canceled, rescheduled, and canceled again, had all of us standing on shaky ground, for a long time. It was too long to sustain a crisis response. We got tired… very tired. You might still be tired.

The good news: as uniquely poised as we are to respond to crisis, we are also pre-programmed for recovery. You’ve cut your finger, you know. You slept last night (even if it wasn’t “good” or “enough.”) You’ve gotten surly or more reserved with someone you love so that they would leave you alone. You’ve “zoned out” by watching TV, scrolling online, reading, listening to music, staring out the window… right?

These are all examples of how our nervous system works to restore its inherent balance. Yes, your nervous system, and you, are inherently balanced.

The nervous system is comprised of two compatible parts. They are commonly referred to as the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is the one that responds to crises. It leaps to attention when an opportunity (or threat) is perceived. It has the phenomenal ability to garner resources from every available source to have what it needs to engage as it does. That means that the cut on your finger might have to wait while you’re otherwise occupied.

The parasympathetic nervous system kicks in once the demand has been satisfied, the threat removed, or, the resources depleted. It is sometimes referred to by its “rest and digest” functioning. It takes care of the cut on your finger, the restocking of biochemical resources, and the synthesis of experience and impressions. Dreams, meditation, moods, breaks, weekends, retreats, vacations, meditative activities, manual therapies, and relaxation practices help orient us toward this powerful potential. Some of these are “subconscious” strategies, others can certainly be considered “conscious retreat.”

If you’ve ever tried to stand on one foot, or your head or your hands for that matter, you know that “balance” is a dynamic experience. We wobble a lot. So yes, while we are inherently balanced balance is dynamic. We wobble a lot. We move from crisis to recovery and from conscious to subconscious awareness throughout our experience.

Back to the pandemic… I was, as I said, uniquely poised. The pivot to online meetings and classes was relatively easy for me. I had, just the summer before, launched my first online course. I met with clients who lived remotely, and, had the space, software, skill, equipment, and wherewithal, to not only keep to my schedule but add additional opportunities for folks to get together.

It was quite wonderful actually. People from all over flocked to online yoga classes. It was inspiring and exciting to see so much potential realized so quickly. Groups of friends and family that had been out of touch were suddenly banding together, online, and flooding my inboxes. Living several time zones away from most of my family and lifelong friends meant that I sometimes woke up to dozens and dozens of notifications of messages that I had missed. Many, if not most, of these were reports of difficulty or distress. It was overwhelming. Wonderful and overwhelming… wobble.

And then my head started to spin… well, not really but I did start to feel a little more “buzzed” than usual. It was a little like having too much coffee or staying up too late… but it wasn’t just one day. It started to feel like there was a fan or static running in the background all the time. I realized that the immediate crisis needed to be over.

The subconscious knows. Its tactics aren’t so sophisticated but they are incredibly effective. The subconscious uses its influence over the body to bring us back to balance (even when the mind might rather reach out or keep going.) It was not only a “buzz” that I started to feel in my body but headaches started showing up and affecting my mood, energy, and willingness to engage. These are as sure signs of overuse of the thinking and communicating parts of the brain as inflammation and pain are in muscles.

Stop everything? Retreat to the wilderness for days upon days of silence as I have done in the past? Well… these conditions did not allow for that. My beloved Spirit Rock retreat center where I had been going for regular retreats was closed. It was not safe to travel or to gather like we had. These conditions needed a novel solution. Conscious retreat must still be possible.. but how?

When I realized what it was, it seemed so simple. I needed more time to digest. I needed to stop consuming at the rate that I had been. When I looked at when, where, and how I had been exposed, it was clear. The same technology that had made the crisis response so easy, was now making the recovery and relative stability more difficult.

Conscious retreat was the solution! I considered my roles and responsibilities and looked for a spot in the schedule that I could claim. I told my partner, siblings, closest friends, and assistant that I would not be available by phone, text, or email on Saturdays until further notice. I wasn’t actually looking to cut off communication with people, just give myself more time and space away from the habit of being online. People were welcome to stop by, we could make plans in advance, and, in case of “emergency” they could reach me through Scott.

Conscious retreat isn’t easy. It requires trust and tolerance. It builds trust and tolerance.

Any radical change in behavior like this requires structure and support. It’s “easy” for me to retreat when I go to Spirit Rock. It’s MUCH harder when I try to do it here. Here amid my habits is where my laundry and laptop bid for my attention. There, in the space that is designated for something different, something different is indeed experienced. What a relief!

Besides articulating my clear intent to others and giving myself a clear timeframe to work with, I also powered off and put away all of the devices in question on Friday night. The subconscious knows… not only how to use the body to bring us back to balance, but also, how to use the habits of the mind and movement to get us through the demands of the day. We will still default to what’s become familiar, it’s easier, even if it’s ultimately harmful. I needed it to be different, even a little bit more difficult for me to reach for my phone in a moment of lassitude to get a little shock of stimulation.

This practice of conscious retreat, be it for a whole day, a whole hour, or a whole month, is how we can save ourselves, our bodies, and our relationships, from being casualties of crisis. Not only do we find here the potential to heal but to avoid future suffering. Our experience can allow us, not to cower, dread, and avoid difficulties but to greet them with grace and grit. The trust and tolerance that conscious retreat builds is strong enough to support an infinite amount of potential. Until it is depleted… this is a practice that requires consistency.

Consistency and flexibility are the pillars of yoga. I flexed my conscious retreat practice to fit into the confines of those conditions. It has flexed again since those conditions have changed.

Continue to observe the movements of your body and mind with loving awareness and see more clearly where you might be able to bring conscious attention and poise. Go big, come on a retreat with us, or find a center or teacher that makes it easier to say “yes!” Go small, try a two or ten-minute meditation with your notifications turned off, or silenced, power off your devices if you need to… be flexible and consistent. You will find that balance feels more accessible when you do.

On behalf of all beings who benefit from your conscious presence, thank you for your practice.

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