Winter Retreat for the Uncommon Common (Wo)Man

by Samantha Bryan

Ah, winter in New England. The wheel has turned and apropos to the ruling sign of Capricorn we are becoming fully initiated into old man winter. Personally, I grew tired of this annual hazing years ago as a wee one growing up in rural Maine. When I was finally welcomed into the relative freedom of adulthood, I decided that January would no longer have such luck as to lock me in its frozen prison of seasonal depression and dreaded morning commutes ever again. Beginning in my early 20s, every January I would leave wherever I was living and head south for a month. The past two years I was fortunate enough to travel to Central America, where I split my time between spiritual pursuits and volunteering in community aid programs.

These adventures have opened my heart and mind, and pushed me further on my path than I ever could have imagined otherwise.

There is a theory held by some that we all ultimately get where we are supposed to go anyway, despite which route we take first. But I am still endlessly grateful for the catalyst effects of these travel experiences. The downside of these experiences, however, was that I maintained the idea that in order to achieve healing and some form of spiritual growth and enlightenment, I needed to put myself in a little bubble and cast away my primarily lived world. Whenever I would leave these retreats I had a full heart and healthy mind, but had no clue how to apply them to my reality when I returned home. I would become overwhelmed with confusion and disappointment, and would only find myself 10 paces back and wallowing in depression once again, thinking “everything was supposed to be perfect. What went wrong?”

I maintained the idea that in order to achieve healing and some form of spiritual growth and enlightenment, I needed to put myself in a little bubble…

This year I am simultaneously suffering and celebrating the consequences of certain important decisions I have made toward improving my life. This year I am unable to run away for January, for both financial and commitment reasons. After pushing through a brief spell of inner chaos and anxiety over this, I was left with a couple of options. I could either (a.) sit and cry about it more and throw myself into a dark abyss of crud and failure, snarling my way through the cold and living in the past, daydreaming about a time when I could get a freakin nap and enjoy a piece of land that the sun was so gracious enough not to abandon. Too embarrassed to even express that level of melodrama to my therapist, I opted for (b.) a positive action plan, utilizing the everyday tools, practices and knowledge I was already in possession of.

This made me reflect on my past retreats – what worked, what didn’t. For starters, I had to answer my recurring re-entry question of “what went wrong?” I realized that learning experiences are exactly that – a series of experiences that continually give you perspective on how, as an ever shifting and evolving being, you can achieve the inner and outer bliss and peace you seek (and deserve). There is no magical healing button. It takes maintenance, grounding and practical application in the realm you mainly co-exist within. While I was sniffing around in the right direction with my theories of denying and running away from my usual life in order to achieve healing, that wasn’t completely accurate. What I came around to feeling is that sometimes when we are feeling overwhelmed, it is important to take a step back and sit in order to recapture our breath, yet with the maintained understanding that at some point we will have to return home, and we just have to deal with that. Also, while we can’t just throw away our reality, while we’re taking that life time-out it is important to evaluate why we are so overwhelmed, or even in some degree of pain or discomfort. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Also, don’t keep reusing dirty water. Make responsible cuts to the things that no longer serve the highest good of yourself or loved ones.

So this year, I actually find myself excited to be in practical retreat. I am doing deep introspective work, which I can directly apply to the lived reality of my surroundings, obligations and relationships. In fact, in some ways I find my practice is deepening, as I have to work extra hard to not become derailed by every conflict and distraction. I am better learning the true meaning of shapeshifting. While it is challenging at times, I feel like my worlds are fusing together. It is as if everything is more vibrant and a little bit clearer. I’d like to share with you some practices and ideas I’ve developed or collected from other wise creatures in my life to help me enjoy my work-from-home, month-long retreat. I won’t elaborate much, as I hope that if any of these jive with you, you’ll take them into your own life and make them your own.

In no particular order, here is my loose list of cool guy commandments:

1. Where there is love, you are protected.

Okay, perhaps this is my #1 for a reason. Love takes many forms. It hurts, and it conquers all. It is kind and compassionate, honorable and wildly fierce. Don’t deplete your energy with constantly active anger, judgement and insecurity. When we have our armor up and look for places of hurt and injustice, we are inviting a fight and this poison spreads through our veins. A loving core will equip you with the ability to forgive, understand and seek beauty. It allows you to flow. Water may ripple if you punch it, but it won’t break. Punching robots sucks. It’s expensive to fix and electrical fires are awful. Does that make sense? Now, the rest of these are in no particular order:

2. The whole world is your temple.

Make sacred space any and everywhere. This is your home. Love yourself, and love it, as it is an extension of your inner reality, warts and all. Every single person in your life is a teacher and guide. Everywhere you step is one part of your divine path. They say, “the earth is our mother,” not “the places on the earth where they light candles and polish the floors and allow the gifted and worthy are our mother.” Approach everything you do with love, honor, intention and reverence. If you can do this in particularly challenging circumstances and environments, the rewards will be abounding.

3. Be present, be aware.

Just because you are stuck in your head does not mean that you were plucked off the streets and magically teleported to middle earth or the underworld to work through your stuff in undisturbed silence, excusing you from your responsibilities to humanity. We are all connected and everything we do sets off a domino effect of impacting someone and something else. Simultaneously, when we are in the intensity and vulnerability of introspective work we run the risk of letting important tasks and responsibilities fall away, landing us in trouble at work, slipping into financial trouble, ignoring the needs and sensitivity of our loved ones, etc. We also might turn off or turn down our intuition, leaving us open to potential predators. Be awake and plant your feet solidly in both words.

4. Be honest. Know yourself.

Express your truth. Don’t fear admitting fault and flaw; that’s a fantastic opportunity for growth. Don’t even engage in little white lies. Habitual white lies are only gateways to greater detachment from integrity. If you find yourself in a challenging situation and the blunt truth might cause an unnecessary amount of pain, then find a graceful way to reword, or stay quiet. Or, master the art of changing the subject. Note – don’t resort to changing the subject too often. You’ll trick yourself into believing you have attention deficit disorder. I know from experience. If you meet a Sag that is notably non-sequitur in conversation, there’s a good chance they’re avoiding saying what they’re really thinking. I’m also a Sag…

5. Rest and self-care.

Your body needs rest in order to properly function. Stop serving so many masters. Better prioritize to allow yourself sleep when you’re tired, that way when you do perform, you’ll be at your optimal level. Take an extra 5-10 minutes before your shower for abhyanga. This is an Ayurvedic self-massage using warm oils in order to soothe and balance. Look it up, it’s really cool! Go the extra mile for yourself. Eat that nice chocolate you’ve been saving, wear that fancy hairpiece out (just because!), turn off your phone and watch your favorite movie in your coziest pjs…or no clothes at all!

6. Eat good food! Drink lots of tea!

We’ve all heard the saying “you are what you eat.” On a chemical and energetic level this is true. Aside from the few basic nutrients our bodies are able to create themselves, our cells can only absorb the nutrients we give them. It won’t magically make vitamin C or iron from a french fry. Cold foods cool us, warm foods warm us, spicy foods help us digest and plants offer their wildly vast medicine. Learn your body and pay attention to your cravings. Particularly in the winter while we are enduring dryness and low temperatures, allow yourself plenty of warm, nutrient dense comfort foods.

7. Pray or meditate.

Whatever works for you. This is a pause in the action to reflect, relax, give thanks, send love and healing to others and/or the self, and realign with the universe. I have personally been enjoying the benefits of saying mantras every day. Because of the current life I’ve created for myself, I don’t often have the ability to be alone in a quiet, calm place for an adequate amount of time to relax and open up. Instead I’ve adapted to my reality by weaving my prayers and mantras into my actions. I’ll say them in the shower, I’ll say them while I’m walking or driving, I’ll say them while cooking and sometimes I try to say them when I lay down to sleep if I’m able to stay awake longer than 5 minutes. If you have time to obsess over whether or not your crush will call you today, you have time to pray. If you have time to sit around scrolling through facebook, you have time to meditate. Which brings me to my next point. Perhaps this should have been #1…

8. Get off Facebook.

I’m serious. I don’t really need to elaborate why. Stop comparing yourself to other people’s highlight reels, yes your ex is still dating that girl you can’t stand, yes your dinner you’re so proud of still rules even though the picture you posted only got 8 “likes.” If you can’t quit cold-turkey, then limit your use. Maybe don’t post status updates and only go on to check emails. Don’t feed your ego. Facebook is more often than not just a sick cycle of broken and needy feeding broken and needy. Maybe that’s harsh, but it’s a general – of course subjective – observation. As with anything, if you feel worse after doing something than before you started, you’re doing it wrong. Knock it off.

9. Move your body!

You don’t need a fancy gym membership, nor will you be denied a happy, healthy existence if you are not ultimate power yogi 3000. Go for a run, do 20 minutes of stretching every morning, walk rather than drive more, put on your favorite song and go nuts in the living room. Get your blood flowing and those endorphins pumping. It wakes up your nerves and allows your brain to function better. Also, moving helps to ground you by making you aware of your body and the floor (earth) beneath your feet.

10. Stop making excuses.

I have at LEAST one excuse for everything listed above. I battle those demons daily. But luckily we live in a place where we are granted significantly much more free will than the rest of the world. Do not take that for granted. It’s up to you to decide how your life should look. And not all advice for self-improvement is good advice or even the right advice for you personally. Again, know yourself. I will arrive at my destiny in my own unique way, in my own perfect time. Understand the difference between excuse and healthy intuition.

11. Don’t take yourself so seriously with all this.

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the pain of self work and the deep, dark mysteries of the universe. On some level, the angst that comes along with this can be addicting. I know, I’m a fringe goth kid. But nature is balance, and it’s important to acknowledge all aspects of the divine and experiences in life. Laughter is life. It is the sun of emotions. And without the heat, light and energy of the sun we would all die. That’s just science, don’t argue with me. Don’t become a spiritual lawyer. Toss some glitter in the air, smile and watch cat TV once in a while with your best friends.

Remember that a happier, healthier you creates a happier, healthier world. Remember that you are an intelligent, unique individual. You won’t be excommunicated from life if you wear stilettos instead of organic hemp flip flops, nor if you live off Broadway in Somerville instead of a cabin in Sedona. A dear friend of mine gets very distracted by drumming when she meditates and tries to journey, so she puts in earplugs and listens to the rhythm of her own own heartbeat to get into this altered state. Acknowledge your own primal side, and celebrate your own wisdom. I hope my tips and tricks help; best of luck with your pursuits!

Journal, Volume 2 Issue 2