|In these anxious, busy, chaotic times, I often yearn for a stay on Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain" (minus tuberculosis, of course): a clean and clear-aired sanitarium with meals and bedding provided, a library of great books, awe-inspiring scenery and the company of like-minded souls; a place where I might hear myself think, enlarge my perspective, and maybe even find some greater good. I'm not alone in this yearning.
Gail Battista, executive director of the Dominican retreat house in McLean, Va., says she has seen a marked increase in those seeking out individual retreats. "And it's not just Catholics," she said, "but people from all faiths and all walks of life, wanting to take a pause." There definitely is an increase in spirituality. "Everyone uses 9/11 as a benchmark, but I think it was happening before then."
While modern spas like Canyon Ranch or Rancho La Puerta aim to help the body and perhaps the soul, the idea of the purely spiritual retreat is almost as old as the Himalayas. Buddhist monks, Indian rishis, Christian and Greek Orthodox monastic orders all follow different paths, arguably up the same mountain, and one does not need to be Thomas Merton to benefit from time spent examining the self and the eternal. Among the bewilderment of possibilities are holistic healing centers, Zen retreats, yoga workshops, abbeys, monasteries and retreats of every religious denomination.
How to find a place that is personally suitable may be the biggest hurdle. If one belongs to a religion already, or practices yoga or Zen, or follows the teachings of a particular guru, then the decision of where to go may be fairly clear and the surroundings secondary in importance. But if the goal is just getting away from it all for a while, the range of choices can be confounding.
Although there are some urban getaways, retreats generally tend to be far out in the countryside, up a mountain, in the desert or on an island. Silence is important; some places require complete quiet from participants, while others are not so strict. Usually, though, cellphones, laptops, portable CD players and the like are discouraged. Anyone expecting room amenities like cable television and telephone is likely to be disappointed. Accommodations can run from spacious suites with bath and balcony to hermetic bunks in rustic cabins (where guests may need to bring bedding and flashlights) to tepees. Food tends to be vegetarian, especially at the yoga, dharma and Zen centers, but can be bountiful and meaty at some of the Christian retreats; often the ingredients are grown or raised organically on the grounds. Generally, smoking and alcohol are discouraged or forbidden.
And, although the centers can be found in some of the most pristinely beautiful parts of the country, the price tends to be low as vacations go, generally under $100 a night per person, often including meals. However, the staff members of these retreats say, those looking for a cheap place to stay without the bother of practicing whatever spiritual path is being followed, should seek another alternative.
According to their spiritual precepts, most retreats welcome everyone, regardless of ability to pay; either donations are asked or visitors can contribute by working in the kitchen or garden. The more popular places require reservations months in advance. Although those on retreats generally tend to be single adults, many spiritual centers welcome, or offer workshops for, couples, families, those in recovery, caregivers, racial and ethnic groups and gay or transgendered men and women.
The Web has resources for researching retreats. A two-year-old site, FindtheDivine.com, has a database of retreats arranged by region or state, along with a schedule of workshops, but the site lists only organizations that have registered by submitting their information, and a paid listing brings a better, more expanded placement. My favorite part was "Retreat Stories," in which various people described their experiences and recommended places they'd stayed. There were no critical reviews.
One site, www.retreatsintl.org, lists mostly Christian or Catholic retreat centers, including one I'd often wondered about, on Long Island's East End: the Siena Spirituality Center, also known as Villa Maria, a beautiful estate overlooking Mecox Bay in Water Mill. The offerings here are not numerous, though a tai chi retreat the weekend of June 27 to 29, at $285 a person, seemed a real bargain; the more serious might consider all or part of a three-month sabbatical at the center, from early September to early December.
Likewise, www.nardacenters.org, a site sponsored by the World Council of Churches, has listings of member retreats. I clicked to find out what was available in California, and only three options were listed, but of those, the Mount Calvary Retreat House, a Benedictine monastery looking over Santa Barbara, Calif., seemed most interesting, with a daily suggested donation of $70 covering room, linens and meals.
Of the several books on the subject, the "Sanctuaries" series by Jack and Marcia Kelly (Crown Publishers, 1996, $18) seems to focus most on spiritual retreats. The two have written several editions of "Sanctuaries" about specific regions of the country and one that covers the entire United States. Browsing the listings is akin to a series of minimeditations; each retreat is described as to setting, philosophy, what sort of rules or strictures apply, and what accommodation and meals are provided, along with prices, addresses and phone numbers. (A new edition with updated information is to be published next month, but, as with the 1996 edition, no Web addresses will be listed.) Among the listings are such notable retreats as the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, the Trappist monastery where Merton himself stayed for 27 years, beginning in 1941, and the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., a Buddhist center that teaches Vipassana, or insight meditation, in a form evolved from its Southeast Asian origins.
Other books were more concerned with the body-mind connection. "Healing Centers and Retreats," by Jenifer Miller (John Muir Publications, 1998, $16.95), lists a vast collection of spas, healing centers, macrobiotic camps and holistic health retreats. Fodor's "Healthy Escapes" (1998, $18.50) has an encyclopedic listing of spas, mineral springs and holistic healing centers, cross-referenced at the end, but again, the emphasis is on physical renewal.
For up-to-the-minute listings of workshops available to spiritual seekers, I found magazines to be among the best resources. Shambhala Sun, a bimonthly publication in Halifax, Nova Scotia, had lots of ads aimed especially at those practicing Buddhism. "Spirituality & Health," a bimonthly from New York City, ranged a bit further and had a useful calendar of workshops and retreats. Body & Soul (formerly New Age), a holistic lifestyle magazine, has a classified section. In addition to thought-provoking articles, all had an array of display ads from alternative learning institutions like the venerable Esalen Institute, which pioneered the "human potential" movement; Naropa University, which offers study-abroad programs; and the Omega Institute, which lists a who's who of teachers like Deepak Chopra, Jane Fonda and Caroline Myss, and beginning in September will offer classes in Austin, Tex., in addition to those on its original campus in Rhinebeck, N.Y. For those seeking a more customized experience, the smaller ads ranged from one for the Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a Zen monastery in a Catskills forest preserve to another for the Crossings Retreat in Sequim, Wash., described as a "spa for your soul."
Neil Gendel, director of the Healthy Children Organizing Project at Consumer Action, a nonprofit membership-based organization, has attended about five retreats, of varying lengths of time, at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, in Marin County, north of San Francisco. He considers himself an amateur at Zen meditation after 10 years of practice, and says about Spirit Rock, "the setting, the meals, that's not the deal." Time spent at the retreat is spent mostly in silence, he said, in "sitting meditation, walking meditation, eating meditation, work meditation, sleep meditation." Classes can be eclectic, he said, according to the teachers, which include well-known writers and practitioners like Jack Kornfield and Sylvia Boorstein as well as monks and teachers from Thailand and Nepal. Beyond the nightly lodging and meal fee, students pay the teachers according to what they want and are able to give.
Although Vipassana meditation is not exactly a self-improvement program, he said: "It's certainly made me much more self-aware: How I think, how I act, how I relate to other people. . . . It gives you a tool to deal with some of the issues all of us have, and at the same time provides support for living a happier life."
These are the places and publications mentioned in the article.
Siena Spirituality Center (Villa Maria), Water Mill, N.Y.; (631) 726-4740; www.sienawatermill.org.
Mount Calvary Retreat House, Santa Barbara, Calif.; (805) 962-9855, extension 10, www.mount-calvary.org.
Abbey of Gethsemani, New Haven, Ky.; (502) 549-3117; www.monks.org.
Insight Meditation Society, Barre, Mass.; (978) 355-4378; www.dharma.org.
Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Woodacre, Calif.; (415) 488-0164; www.spiritrock.org.
Esalen Institute, Big Sur, Calif; (831) 667-3005; www.esalen.org.
Naropa University, Boulder, Colo.; (303) 546-3594; www.naropa.edu.
Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, N.Y.; (800) 944-1001; www.eomega.org.
Dai Bosatsu Zendo, Livingston Manor, N.Y.; (845) 439-4566; www.zenstudies.org.
Crossings Retreat, Sequim, Wash.; (360) 582-1081; www.crossingsretreats.com.
Shambhala Sun, (902) 422-8404; subscriptions (877) 786-1950; www.shambhalasun.com.
Spirituality & Health, (212) 602-0705; subscriptions (800) 876-8202; www.spiritualityhealth.com.
Body & Soul, (617) 926-0200; subscriptions (815) 734-5808; www.bodyandsoulmag.com.
MARTHA STEVENSON OLSON is a freelance writer.