Since 1977, I have been sending out a newsletter called LEARNINGS. Here is how I began the first issue:
This newsletter—LEARNINGS—is my way of sharing with you what I am learning. Often I learn something with one client that would have been useful with another client the day before. In order to bridge that gap of time and also to bridge the gap of space that separates me from clients and other friends outside Cleveland, I will share my learnings with you regularly in this newsletter.
That statement feels amazingly accurate more than 35 years later. The only real change is that I moved from Cleveland to London and then on to the Crook of Devon in Scotland.
In the earlier newsletters, I shared one or two learnings each time. Then I read a wonderful book by Michael Phillips called The Seven Laws of Money. He describes the Taoist approach to creating Seven Laws about anything.
I like that approach except that instead of announcing Laws, I prefer to share Learnings. I’ve now discovered Seven Learnings about all sorts of things, including Journaling, Love, Retreat, and Diversity. The latest Learnings starts here; the rest are in the Learnings Archive.
LEARNING: I learn on retreat
In March 1971, my good friend Marianne Erdelyi looked at my exhausted face and suggested that I go “on retreat” for a few days. I only managed to get away for two days, but I learned that it is possible to retreat.
Now I go for five to seven days. Since 1971, I have gone on retreat each year, except for 1976 when I decided I was indispensable on a major contract. Two months later I was fired from the contract. Ever since then, I make sure that I go on retreat every year – and particularly when I feel too busy to go.
Retreat is a vital concept, both in the military sense and the spiritual sense. Thirty years ago, as a student of military history, I was likely to look on my hero’s retreat from the battlefield as a brilliant manoeuvre while seeing his opponent’s retreat as cowardly departure. Yet in both cases. that retreat enabled the one who retreated to advance again another day from a better position.
In the spiritual sense, I retreat from the world that is “too much with us” and focus instead on the world of nature, the inner world, and the world beyond.
Retreat is also vital in writing. I wrote the first draft of this newsletter in April 1988 and I created the first version of these seven learnings in 1995. That was the year I went on retreat with just one book: Michael Phillip’s Seven Laws Of Money. As I explained in last year’s issue of Learnings, I discovered my own Seven Learnings, using the Taoist approach that Phillips describes.
So here are my Seven Learnings on Retreat. I encourage you to go on your own retreat and discover your own Seven Learnings.
1. BE HERE
On retreat, BEING is much more important than DOING. As someone has said, we are human beings not human doings. This is a difficult learning for me. I still arrive on retreat thinking of things to DO. I begin slowing down by sleeping a lot and reading a book or two. Gradually I start looking out the window at the passing clouds or the rising moon. Much of the time I just sit and think. Or sit and not think.
This means human silence: no TV, no telephone, no radio, no music. I stay quiet so I can hear myself think. And I stay quiet so I can hear the world around me – a dozen sheep in the Highlands or a thousand crickets in Ohio. Sometimes a small stream is rushing over rocks or a breeze is nudging the trees.
I go on retreat alone and I look for a place – like the family farm in Ohio or a remote cottage in Wales – where other people are at some distance. I vividly remember my week as the only person on an island off the west coast of Scotland.
Precisely because I am alone I can commune more easily with nature. I can see and feel what is going on around me. I also commune with my own ideas and my own feelings.
This is most magical when I build a fire (a fireplace is one of my retreat requirements) and just sit with the fire. Colin Fletcher describes this process: “You let your mind slip away, free and unrestricted, roaming wide yet completely at rest, unconnected with your conscious self yet reporting back quite clearly at some low, quiet, strangely decisive level”. Fletcher says that in Swahili this is called “dreaming the fire”.
On retreat I learn how simply I can live. I eat more simply – even though it takes a bit more time without a microwave or a dishwasher. I look out the window, I go for a walk, I write a poem, I write in my journal, I dream the fire. And that is a full day. Thoreau “went to the woods to live deliberately” and I go on retreat to live deliberately and liberatedly – liberated from the pressures of my high-intensity life.
Complexity is a term that scientists use to describe the patterns that emerge in the world – patterns of population or clouds or learning. After more than 25 years, I trust the patterns that emerge on my retreat – and I accept the patterns as they develop. Although I usually stay silent on retreat, one time I found myself in a building with marvellous acoustics – so I spent an evening singing at full voice.
7. BE THERE
When the retreat is over, I go home. Not back to the real world, but back to the outer world that I live in when I am not on retreat. In the outer world, I interact with people, I learn from people, and I continue my mission of empowering people to do more of what they do best. Then I retreat again to focus on empowering myself.
I have now learned that in the outer world I can BE as well as do. Each morning – as I meditate, do my stretches, write a poem, and write in my journal – I am on retreat.
And each retreat prepares me for the next advance.