On Retreat

The car was vibrating gently underneath me, negotiating its way along the pockmarked dirt road and disturbing plumes of dust in its wake. The last two hours had seen me leave the cosy quarter-acre blocks of Melbourne’s suburbs behind me as I made my past Geelong and towards the Otway Ranges. On my journey, I’d negotiated dark thunderclouds and heavy rain, before dog-legging onto two-lane country roads bordered by deep green fields, peopled by the odd cow or sheep. I sped my way through tiny country towns like Moriac and Deans Marsh, wondering what life would be like in such small communities. Once I’d hit the dirt tracks, I knew my destination at the curiously-named Pennyroyal wasn’t far away: my car dipped down into valleys seemingly glowing from within – the dusk brought it a clear golden light that illuminated the rain-fresh bushland around me. I wound down the windows. The air was wet and sweet, the scent of eucalypts and clean dirt so good within my lungs. I’d arrived on retreat.

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Here’s the thing about being in business: in some ways, the process of being an entrepreneur opens up your world and your mind in ways you never imagined. You take more risks and make more decisions in a year than others may willingly make in a decade. It’s a powerful feeling. The process of being an entrepreneur takes not only grit, but a deep kind of energy and commitment to the life you’re building around yourself. So whilst it opens you up, the weight of this responsibility also prunes you back: you may no longer have energy or interest in activities that once fascinated you. Such energy and momentum goes into your adventurous project that other parts of your life can shrink. I used to see this as some kind of personal failing – that I wasn’t good enough or dedicated to keep all the plates spinning. My opinion on this has changed: I think there is a season for everything, and this particular chapter of my life is about the adventure of my self-determined life – my business, and my writing.

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During 2017, I’ve taken action to bring more travel and adventure into my life. My work is so all-encompassing that the concept of travel has become a tiring, stressful concept. It involves weeks of planning to execute. And then there’s the worry about what might happen when I’m away from my business (which I realise casts an unnecessarily long shadow). So whilst no big overseas trips are on my horizon, I have had multiple three-or-four night trips away within Victoria this year; to the Mornington Peninsula, to Queenscliff and most recently to the Otways. My latest adventure was a retreat, facilitated by my wonderful yoga studio. It involved four days away in beautiful eco-cottages in the heart of the Otways Ranges, bunking with strangers, going deep into yoga practice and being involved in group reflection sessions. I felt very brave going away on this retreat by myself. It was a wonderful experience – intimate, challenging and soul-nourishing simultaneously.

Here’s what I learned on retreat:

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Rise to Meet Yourself

One of the wonderful elements of the retreat was its isolation. This meant relatively limited access to the internet, which was exactly what I needed. This inability to monitor my business was enforced by location, giving me the permission I so needed to break connection with that aspect of my world. Happily, it also gave me the chance to observe how my team and clients responded to my brief absence – giving me additional perspective on how going away is achievable, and revealing various strengths and weaknesses.

Whilst on retreat, everything was taken care of for me – we had amazing vegetarian and vegan cooked breakfasts, lunches and dinners prepared by a talented duo of professional cooks. From delicious Red Curry to lentil Shepherd’s pies, cauliflower soups to indulgent chocolate brownies – there was nothing for me to prepare. I felt so nourished and cared for. Having the weight of domestic responsibility lifted gave me again more time to spend with myself. Real life doesn’t give you the clear space and distance necessary for meeting with yourself – the everyday is lost in routine. Being on retreat gives you the space to get to know yourself outside of your role as boss, wife, daughter, friend etc. This is actually a confronting process. I found myself at times feeling free as a bird and deeply content – totally in the moment. At other times I felt very claustrophobic and away from everything that makes me feel comfortable. Both are good in their own way.

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Emotions are Everywhere

Another thing I noticed is that emotions – and truth – were regularly close to the surface of the conversations I had (and observed). There were facilitated group reflection sessions which helped to bring some concerns to light – but it was the casual conversations while sunning ourselves on the deck, petting donkeys, climbing over logs, reading books or eating dinner that were so revelatory. Being in nature, being away from our comforts and being amongst people you didn’t necessarily know meant deeper and more searching conversations were had with relative ease. Many of the participants were a good decade or so older than I, and it was great to hear about their experiences in the next stage of life – negotiating work, families, partners, finances.

Each day, we also completed two sessions of yoga – much of which was about releasing and resting, tuning into our bodies and caring for ourselves. We did so in an airy hall with doors that opened onto a verdant, sweeping valley. At night, the hall was lit gently with rocksalt lamps and candles. With the rain pattering on the roof, performing yin yoga in the middle of the forest felt truly otherworldly. Naturally, hours spent in quiet reflection – challenging ourselves and nourishing ourselves with yoga, distance and good food – will bring what Rocky Balboa called ‘stuff in the basement’ out to be processed.

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Everyone Brings a Story

The retreat environment creates a kind of healthy ‘stream of consciousness’ amongst participants. It felt like everyone brought a totem of some concern with them, something they wanted to work on (subconsciously or literally). I variously had discussions about: gay marriage, Melbourne designer fashion, restaurant workplace culture, polyamory, oracle cards, vegetarianism to veganism, podcasts, body image, divorce, finance, tattoos, salads, becoming an actor, Hillary Clinton, Netflix and primary schools. It was incredibly educative and fascinating to be part of this temporary, true women’s circle – powerful and very nurturing.

Together, Alone

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I bunked with a stranger. Whilst this is something many of us do routinely when youth hostelling our way around Europe, it’s somewhat more unusual to do so in your mid-30s by choice. I was unsure how it would be to not have a private place of retreat, and to be in such close quarters with a stranger. Reader: it was fine. (Also, they gave us earplugs!) You can negotiate your private place emotionally within a shared space, with a bit of getting used to. Additionally – it’s amazing how much you can learn about someone from being close to them physically, without actually asking them that many questions about their lives. It kind of fit into the whole retreat idea, which I would summarise as together, alone.

I am very proud and glad that I committed to attending this spring retreat. A unique experience, this women’s circle gave me the space and energy I needed to enjoy the final months of the year. If you are given the chance to go on retreat – to have your needs met so all that is required of you is to be who you are – please do accept the challenge.

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