From the dawn of time human beings have engaged in a variety of religious disciplines—fasting, prayer, offering sacrifices, and performing holy rites and rituals. But the quintessential discipline of mystics has always been the retreat. This has been true ever since the very first mystics—the shamans of prehistory—forsook the comforts of their communities to venture out alone into the vast wildernesses, the rugged mountains, and the barren deserts. But why did they do this? Why did they subject themselves to such hardships and dangers? What were they seeking? Here is the answer Igjugarjuk, an Eskimo shaman, gave to the Norwegian explorer, Rasmussen:
True wisdom is only to be found far away from people, out in the great solitude, and it is not found in play but only through suffering. Solitude and suffering open the human mind, and therefore a shaman must seek his wisdom there. 
And, in one form or another, these words have been echoed by mystics of virtually all the Great Traditions. Listen, for example, to the Tibetan sage, Longchen-pa:
One should take the examples of holy persons and do practice... Steadfastly tolerate (harsh conditions) alone in remote mountain places. With determination get the real essence...To practice Dharma with efforts from the heart is essential. 
And the Christian mystic, George Fox:
I fasted much, and walked abroad in solitary places many days, and often took my Bible and went and sat in hollow trees and lonesome places till night came on; and frequently in the night walked mournfully about by myself, for I was a man of sorrows in the times of the first workings of the Lord in me. 
For, as the Sufi shaykh Ibn 'Arabi wrote:
Every seeker of the Lord must be alone within himself with his Lord in his inmost consciousness... Otherwise, he will never recognize Him. 
But if all mystics agree that "True Wisdom," Enlightenment, or Gnosis can only be found in "solitude and suffering," we can still ask why this should be so. In order to answer this question however, we must :first understand something of the structure of the cosmos from the mystics' perspective.
The simplest way to envision this structure is in the form of a mandala made up of two rings encircling a center, each representing a primary dimension or realm of being (see diagram).
Thus, the outermost ring represents the gross realm of ever-shifting sensory forms. The middle ring represents the subtle realm, composed of those trans-sensory archetypes (both logical and psychological) which govern the transformations of the sensory realm. The center represents the Formless Absolute, that unmanifest realm of Pure Spirit, God, Allah, Brahman, or Buddha-mind out of which the other realms arise. Finally, we can take the paper on which this mandala is printed to represent the Space of Consciousness, Itself, in which the whole mandala appears and which permeates all its realms.
But this mandala not only represents the structure of the cosmos apprehended as an object, it also and simultaneously represents the structure of the apprehending subject—i.e., our own True Self. For what Gnosis reveals is that these two, Cosmos and Self, are in fact identical. And yet, under the spell of ignorance this identity is just what we fail to Recognize. Instead, we falsely identify our 'self' with a finite pattern of forms—a body-mind—appearing like a tiny blip on a radar screen somewhere along the boundary between the gross and subtle realms.
Now, the immediate effect of this misidentification is to create a radically dualistic and deluded experience of ourselves and the world—an experience, moreover, in which the seeds of all our future sufferings are already sown. For one thing, believing ourselves to be bounded entities existing within the cosmos automatically entails a sense of separation and alienation from it. Alone are we born, alone we live, and alone we must die—or so it seems. Thus, loneliness is inherent in the very experience of being a separate and limited self.
What's more, because we have identified ourselves with the life of a particular body-mind, and because we know that all body-minds are subject to death and decay, we imagine that we, too, must be subject to death and decay. Consequently, from the beginning our whole attitude towards this life is colored by a profound ambivalence. On the one hand, it is the only life we know, so we desperately try to hold onto it; and yet, because this life is ultimately transitory, we are, at the same time, desperately afraid of it. In addition to our primordial sense of loneliness, then, we suffer from an existential anxiety which is also built into the very foundations of our delusion.
But that's not the end of it, for the desire to escape this original solitude and suffering now becomes the overriding motive which shapes and conditions how we lead the rest of our lives. In order to escape solitude, we compulsively cling to the company of other limited beings like ourselves. In order to maintain life, we grasp at wealth, power, and position. In order to forget death, we distract ourselves with an endless parade of worldly pleasures, amusements, and diversions. Thus, like some psycho-centrifugal force, the desire to escape solitude and suffering keeps us pinned to the periphery of the mandala, chasing after ephemeral forms which, precisely because they are ephemeral, can never bring us real relief.
This, then, is the situation in which ignorant beings find themselves and to which Igjugarjuk speaks when he insists that True Wisdom can only be attained in solitude and suffering. For, obviously, the first step in putting an end to this self-perpetuating dynamic is to stop running away. Instead of constantly chasing after sensory forms, we must practice detachment from them and the desires and fears which they arouse within us. Only when we have freed ourselves from our own attachments, desires, and fears, can we begin that inner journey, back through all the other realms of the mandala, to its formless center wherein the secret of our True Identity lies hidden.
But, in order to navigate this inward passage successfully, we must not only stop running away from solitude and suffering, we must actually turn around and take them in hand, for these are the Ariadne's threads by which we can retrace our fall from the center of being to its circumference. Through investigating the immediate causes of our loneliness and suffering, we can eventually find their root cause, which is nothing other than our ignorance of who we truly are. What going on retreat does, then, is to intensify this investigation and accelerate this journey in a way that no other spiritual discipline can.
But what about the practical aspects of retreat? What sort of preparations do we need to make, and what sort of practices should we employ? To begin with, we can think of retreat as involving two basic but complementary disciplines, one external, the other internal. Here is how Krishna describes them in the Hindu classic, the Bhagavadgita:
The man of discipline will train himself, continually in a secret place, alone, restraining himself and his thought completely, without having or wishing for any thing. 
As Krishna indicates, the external discipline is to physically isolate oneself as much as possible from all those exterior distractions that constantly command our attention—phones, bills, newspapers, television, and the demands of other people. Although it is feasible to make a retreat in your own home, this requires a good deal of self-mastery and is only recommended for advanced practitioners. For most seekers it is better to actually leave your house, family, and friends, and find some secluded place in which to conduct your retreat.
In our society, it is not too difficult to rent a room in an inexpensive motel somewhere out in the country. But even here, if you have not already gained some mastery over yourself, there is a danger you will while away your time in mundane activities like eating, napping, reading, going for walks in woods, or just plain daydreaming. If you are a beginner, the best thing to do is join an organized group which follows a strict retreat schedule at a facility with a support staff that can take care of your daily needs.
Having reduced exterior distractions to a minimum, you can then start to cultivate the internal discipline of retreat. This involves mentally isolating yourself from interior distraction, such as restlessness, boredom, and the perpetual fantasies that fill the mind. The most effective way to accomplish this is by engaging in extended periods of meditation. Virtually any kind of meditative practice that builds concentration will do—whether it be a practice of focusing on the breath, a mantra, or a visualized image. By concentrating single-pointedly on one object, you can train your attention to become stable and still, so that it no longer compulsively pursues the stream of images, feelings, and impulses that are continually arising and passing in consciousness.
Once your attention has been at least partially liberated from both exterior and interior distractions, it can then be put to use in a variety of ways, all of which are designed to chip away that basic ignorance that clouds our perception. For instance, you might make a retreat in order to meditate on a specific sacred text. Meditating on a sacred text is very different from reading it solely for theoretical comprehension or intellectual enhancement. Here is how Theophan the Recluse, a mystic of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, describes this kind of meditative reading:
You have a book? Then read it, reflect on what it says, and apply the words to yourself. To apply the content to oneself is the purpose and the fruit of reading. If you read without applying what is read to yourself, nothing good will come of it, and even harm may result. Theories will accumulate in the head, leading you to criticize others instead of improving your own life. 
Another powerful practice you can do on retreat is to spend time contemplating the impermanence of whatever phenomena you normally believe yourself to be. For most people this includes such things as bodily sensations, emotions, desires, thoughts, memories, etc. By closely observing how all these phenomena arise and pass away in each moment, you can gain direct insights into the fact that they cannot be you, the "observer," who does not arise and pass away with any of these phenomena. By persisting in this practice you will eventually come to an empirical understanding of what the Buddha meant when he said:
Whatever there be of bodily form, of feeling, perception, mental formations or [self-] consciousness, whether one's own or external, whether gross or subtle, lofty or low, far or near; one should understand according to reality and true wisdom:—This does not belong to me; this am I not. 
Having cultivated stability of attention, you can also make a retreat in order to seek guidance from subtle realm archetypes. In Native American traditions this kind of retreat is called a "vision quest." George Sword, a Lakota medicine man, explains how it is done in that tradition:
The usual way to seek a vision is to purify the body in an Initi [sweat] by pouring water on hot stones and then go naked, only wrapped in a robe, to the top of a hill, and stay there without speaking to anyone of mankind or eating, or drinking, and thinking continually about the vision he wishes . . . he should remain on the place he prepares until he receives either a vision or has a communication. 
Again, the crucial point is not to allow attention to be distracted by such things as hunger, thirst, or the longing for human companionship, but to concentrate completely and continually on receiving a vision. Although there is no guarantee that such a vision will come (since authentic visions are not subject to personal volition), the more the mind is released from the grip of worldly distractions the more it "opens" to other dimensions of the cosmic mandala. In doing so, it naturally becomes receptive to archetypal teachers and teachings.
Here, however, a word of caution is necessary. Novices should never undertake a vision quest except under the direction of a qualified human teacher. There are several reasons for this: First, it is often difficult to distinguish a true vision from wishful fantasies that only serve to fortify the ego. Second, not all subtle realm manifestations are benevolent. There is a danger of exposing yourself to wrathful deities and demonic influences which can cause great harm if you are not equipped to handle them. Third, the visions you receive may, like dreams, be highly symbolic, and so require an experienced teacher to help interpret them accurately. For all these reasons, Ibn 'Arabi, warned:
For God's sake, do not enter retreat until you know what your station is, and know your strength in respect to the power of imagination. For if your imagination rules you, then there is no road to retreat except by the hand of a shaykh who is discriminating and aware. If your imagination is under control, then enter the retreat without fear. 
But while the stability, insights, and guidance gained during the course of a retreat can help liberate your attention and wean you from attachments to gross realm phenomena, such experiences do not constitute the end of the path. As Igjugarjuk insisted, the ultimate goal is "True Wisdom," and to attain this you must, as we said, eventually transcend even the forms of the subtle realm and penetrate the very Heart of the Mandala. This is why Ibn 'Arabi also wrote about those who seek Allah, and Allah alone:
If everything in the universe should be spread before you, receive it graciously—but do not stop there. Persist in your quest, for He is testing you. If you stay with what is offered, He will escape you. But if you attain Him, nothing will escape you. 
But how exactly does one do this? What is the method or practice by which you can attain "Him" who is your True Self? Actually, there is no method or practice by which your True Self can be attained because, as the Hindu's say, YOU ARE ALREADY THAT! How, then, can you attain what you already are?
This is why the greatest method and the highest practice of retreat is, paradoxically, the abandonment of all methods and the surrendering of all practices. Here is how Lalleshwari describes it:
Even though you have knowledge become like a fool. Even though you have eyes, become blind. Even though you have ears, become deaf. Become completely inert, like a rock. 
In other words, at this stage it is no longer a question of doing, but of being. For, when all effort ceases, and when all attempts to escape solitude and suffering have been exhausted and come to an end, then attention naturally gravitates back to its Source in the Formless Absolute. And it is here, simply by abiding in the Stillness of the Absolute, that you may suddenly Recognize the Truth: You are not a particular body-mind, located within any realm of the cosmos, for in the Emptiness of the Absolute no such body-mind arises. Rather, you are that Infinite Consciousness in which the entire mandala, with all its realms, appears and disappears as seamlessly as a reflection flashing in a transparent pane of glass.
Recognizing this Truth is Gnosis—that "Wisdom" found only in "solitude and suffering." And yet, when Gnosis dawns, solitude and suffering themselves, evaporate like mists in the morning sun. For, since there is nothing outside of You, for whom could you be lonely? And since all forms are Your forms, what need is thereto cling to any particular one? And since there is no clinging to a particular form, how can the death of anyone form cause suffering?
Of course, you don't have to wait to go on a formal retreat for this Awakening to happen. In principle, it can occur at any time, in any place, and without the least preparation. This is possible because, in a certain sense, the potential for Gnosis is always present as the pure power of awareness, native to Consciousness, Itself. In practice, however, the vast majority of Gnostics that we know of attained their Gnosis during periods of solitude, and only after fully facing suffering. To give but one example, here is how another Eskimo shaman, Aua, described his Awakening:
Then I sought solitude, and here I soon became very melancholy. I would sometimes fall to weeping, and felt unhappy without knowing why. Then, for no reason, all would suddenly be changed, and I felt a great inexplicable joy, a joy so powerful that I could not restrain it, but had to break into song, a mighty song with only room for one word: joy, joy! And I had to use the full strength of my voice. And then in the midst of such a mysterious and overwhelming delight I became a shaman, not knowing myself how it came about. But I was a shaman. I could see and hear in a totally different way. I had gained my quamaneq, my enlightenment. 
So, if you are serious about seeking True Wisdom, do not neglect going on retreats. Enter them as often as possible and stay as long as you can, for there is no more powerful way to deepen your practice and hasten your progress through the stages of this path. May all of you find that song of joy Aua spoke of, and gain his quamaneq for yourselves. Ho!
- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Spring 1997. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.
1. Joan Halifax, Shamanic Voices, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) p. 69.
2. Longchen Rabjam, The Practice of Dzogchen, 2nd ed., trans. Tulku Thondup, ed. Harold Talbott (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1996) p.340.
3. Quaker Spirituality: Selected Writings, ed. Douglas V. Steere (New York: Paulist Press, 1984) p. 65.
4. WilliamC. Chittick, The SufiPath of Knowledge (Albany, N.Y.: State University of NewYork Press, 1989) pp.158-159.
5. The Bhagavadgita, trans. Kees W. Bolle (Berkely: University of California Press, 1979) p. 73.
6. Igumen Chariton of Valamok, The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology. trans. E. Kadloubovsky and E.M. Palmer, ed Timothy Ware (1985; reprint, London: Faber and Faber, 1966) p. 130.
7. A Buddhist Bible, ed. Dwight Goddard, (Boston: Beacon Press,1970)p.27.
8. Jarnes R. WaIker, Lakota Belief and Ritual, ed. Raymond J. DeMaillie and Elaine A. Jahner (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1991) pp. 58,86.
9. Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi, Journey to the Lord of Power: A Sufi Manual on Retreat, trans. Rabia Terri Harris (New York: Inner Traditions International, 1981) p. 30.
10. Ibid p.32.
11. Lalleshwari: Spiritual Poems by a Great Siddha Yogini, rendered by Swami Muktananda (South Fallsburg, NY: SYDA Foundation, 1981) p.73.
12. Shamanic Voices, p. 1l8.