Why We All Need Breathing Space

This is an excerpt from Kirsteen MacLeod's new book, In Praise of Retreat: Finding Sanctuary in the Modern World

I’m sitting on the old footbridge that leads to my cabin in the woods. Beaver Creek passes silently below. Ducks fly overhead. Ferns, cardinal flowers and moss grow amid grey rocks at the water’s edge. Spiders wander over my notebooks, which are spread out on the bridge’s rough planks, pages held open by stones.

This is the place that inspired In Praise of Retreat. By the creek and in the forest, I discovered a rich inner dimension I didn’t know existed. Far from my city life and work-obsessed routines, I began to see what gives my life meaning. I recognized the value of protecting a divine spark, though I’m not religious, and of amplifying the extraordinary—nature, spirit, art, creative thinking—in impoverished times. A retreat means removing yourself from society, to a quiet place where moments are strung like pearls, and after long days apart spent in inspiring surroundings, you return home refreshed and with a new sense of what you want to do with your life.

Far from my city life and work-obsessed routines, I began to see what gives my life meaning.

In the fraught modern era, you’d think our timeless human desire to retreat would feel more urgent than ever. Yet taking a step back has become an act of 21st-century rebellion when disengaging, even briefly, is seen by many as self-indulgent, unproductive and anti-social. But to retreat is as basic a human need as being with others. To withdraw from the everyday is about making breathing space for what illuminates a life.

For millennia, people have retreated from human concerns as a corrective, spiritual and otherwise. This is a universal impulse, evident in all times, in all cultures. Throughout history, opinion has swung between two poles on the question of how to find fulfillment in life—in solitude, or in society? In the sixth century BC, when early philosophies for a good life dawned in China, Confucius said the key was to meet one’s social obligations. Lao-Tzu said the key was to avoid them—though his teachings show that he cared deeply for fellow humans, and for the natural world.

Throughout history, opinion has swung between two poles on the question of how to find fulfillment in life—in solitude, or in society?

Lao-Tzu left few traces, and even his name is uncertain; likely translations include “the Old Master” or “the Old Boy.” He fled corrupt court life, legend has it, through the western mountain passes of China, disguised as a farmer and riding a water buffalo, or a blue ox, or a black ox, depending on the source. The sage was supposedly recognized by a border guard and asked to share his wisdom before he departed. Lao-Tzu dictated the Tao Te Ching and then disappeared, likely to become a hermit. The Book of the Way, as it’s known in English, imparts its lucid counsel about living a self-directed life and has inspired kindred spirits ever since, including the “Sage of Concord,” Henry David Thoreau.

In the 21st century, when we over-venerate the active and the social, I find myself in deep sympathy with the Taoist philosophers of antiquity, who viewed the universe as a flux of paradoxical opposites. Early terms they used to describe this were “the firm” and “the yielding”—later referred to as yang and yin. Visually, this indivisible unity is represented by a circle, half light and half dark, each containing a dot of the other shade. The idea is that energies are in interchange, universal energies from which everything emerges, and their dynamic balance brings cosmic harmony.

Contrary to Western dualism these opposites are not at war but hold equal importance, permeate one another, and create a whole. The world of being “arises out of their change and interplay,” explains Richard Wilhelm, who translated the I Ching, or Book of Changes, into German in 1924, thus opening up the spiritual heritage of China to the West. The I Ching is the common source for both Taoist and Confucian philosophy and was first published in English in 1950.

Westerners may consider such concepts esoteric or mystifying, but they are common in the East. And common sense, I believe. It seems logical that we need action and engagement, yang energy, and also the complementary yin, which is solitary, reflective and receptive. This does not mean passive, as it’s often misinterpreted in the West. Wei wu wei, or “effortless effort,” describes yin’s power, observable in the action of a river on rock. To quote the Tao Te Ching, written between 300 and 600 BC: “Nothing in the world/is as soft and yielding as water./Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,/nothing can surpass it.”

Similarly, to retreat is about widening our perspective, about the pursuit of the whole, developing yin attributes rather than rejecting them. In a historical time when solitude and silence are conflated with boredom, and no one wants to be seen as a weird “loner,” retreat has become a countercultural notion. I admit to being irritable about this. I believe independent people like solitude, and retreating is healthy for everyone at particular times of life, for particular reasons. A retreat is different from a holiday: it’s a temporary, voluntary withdrawal from everyday life for a purpose—for personal, social, environmental, spiritual, artistic or even professional reasons. It’s about deep engagement and, often, dissidence.

Granted, not everyone wants to flee permanently through the Han-Ku Pass as Lao-Tzu did, or has the means to do so, including me. That’s why over the past 20-plus years I became a serial retreater, creating islands of space and time, a week here, a month there, to answer a faint call, barely heard above the din of the everyday: “There must be something more—where can I find it?” One good retreat led to another, and slowly, my life transformed.

Retreat is an adventure, and it involves uncertainty. Whether we go to the quiet woods to rest or make art, walk a pilgrim path or sit in silent meditation, we’re in some way seeking a new way to be. We’re creating space for change.

I’m not dismissing ordinary, active, social life and its routines: that’s how we keep the lights on, the dog fed and the world turning. No one needs reminding of the value of the everyday, or of relationships and work. But I believe we have mistaken this half of reality for the whole. As modern times sweep away the extraordinary, the transcendent and our attention, retreat offers a way to reclaim what’s being lost. Like many people, I don’t want to be blown about by the wind, always in company. I have other priorities, which is where retreat comes in.

Retreat is an adventure, and it involves uncertainty. Whether we go to the quiet woods to rest or make art, walk a pilgrim path or sit in silent meditation, we’re in some way seeking a new way to be. We’re creating space for change.

I have often wondered why I am so interested in retreat and its yin companions, solitude and silence. This book is my chance to consider the question, for myself and everyone else who wants to inhabit a slower, quieter, more thoughtful world than the 21st century usually offers. Drawing on my own experiences, and the wisdom of hermits, monks, pilgrims, naturalists, writers and artists, solitary thinkers and other independent spirits, living and dead, I will explore the art of retreat and how it can reconnect us to our essence—and why this is a matter of urgency for personal and planetary health in modern times.

Here, beside the creek in the forest, it’s time to concentrate my thoughts and write down what I’ve discovered. I’ll begin with the story of my retreat to Beaver Creek, where this journey began . . .

An excerpt from In Praise of Retreat, by Kirsteen MacLeod. 2020 ECW Press. Appears with permission of the publisher.

*****

Learn more about In Praise of Retreat:

For readers of Walden, Wild, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, A Book of Silence, A Gift from the Sea and other celebrations of the inner adventure.

An utterly engaging dive into our modern ways of retreat — where we go, why we’re drawn, and how it’s urgent

From pilgrim paths to forest cabins, and from rented hermitages to arts temples and quiet havens for yoga and meditation, In Praise of Retreat explores the pleasures and powers of this ancient practice for modern people. Kirsteen MacLeod draws on the history of retreat and personal experiences to reveal the many ways readers can step back from society to reconnect with their deepest selves — and to their loftiest aspirations in life.

In the 21st century, disengaging, even briefly, is seen by many as self-indulgent, unproductive, and antisocial. Yet to retreat is as basic a human need as being social, and everyone can benefit, whether it’s for a weekend, a month, or a lifetime. Retreat is an uncertain adventure with as many peaks and valleys as any mountain expedition, except we head inward, to recharge and find fresh energy and brave new ideas to bring back into our everyday lives.

May 13, 2021
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