Not so long ago, I was fortunate enough to sail to perhaps the original, and certainly the most famous ancient healing retreat—the Temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus. The famed non-venomous sacred snakes of the temple that were believed to provide some of the healing power remain on the staff of the symbol of our modern medicine—and remind us that the source of healing remains somewhat magical.
And the practice of getting there reminds us that the journey to our retreat can be just as important as what happens when we arrive. For example, at Epidaurus, the retreat goers had to walk from the beach to the sanctuary and undergo a purification ceremony before entering.
In modern times, one good example of that level of preparation is my neighbors, a husband and wife team, who for many years, embarked on various routes of the Camino de Santiago. Each year began with physical training and extensive planning of the new route in Spain, and actually began with a 15-mile walk from their house to the airport.
How can you transform your travels into the Asclepian walk from the sea? What else can you shed before you leave?
Before You Go
Know where you’re going. Most of us don’t get beyond thinking about the weather at our destination—and what to pack. But begin your journey by reading up on where you’re going to be. A little knowledge of the geology, topography, plant life, and cultural history will literally launch you into your retreat well before you arrive.
As you’re exploring the place in your mind (and perhaps online), explore your own reasons for going and begin to write down a mission statement that describes why you’re going to this place and what you hope to get from it.
Choosing a Place
One simple fact about having way too many choices is that it becomes harder to feel satisfied that you’ve made the right choice. Why here and not there? Why that kind of simplicity—or that kind of extravagance? Why that teacher, and why any teacher at all? These are very big decisions for spending your very limited time and resources.
The point is not to become miserable or overwhelmed by too many choices. And so, one solution is to become quiet and just let images play through your head—are there other people there? Are you making your own food? Are you following a curriculum? Are you on a defined path? Are you sitting still?
At some point, hopefully, you’ll reach an image that allows your body and mind to sink in and let go. The goal is picturing yourself, wherever it may be, with a quiet smile of satisfaction.
Financing Your Journey
The most relaxing retreat is where you’re not worried about money. Ideally, one that is essentially paid for in advance, rather than hanging over you. If finances are a serious limit to your ideal retreat, the goal is to use your financial planning as part of your journey. What might you give up right now as a step toward freeing yourself for the coming journey? Your excess TV subscriptions, for example, and any other charges that seem to grow on credit card statements? Your telephone plan or daily matcha latte? You may find that cutting off those infinite distractions will buy you a plane ticket.
As you do this, keep in mind a simple irony: Some of the most expensive retreats are essentially charging for no wifi access, no phone, no TV—and no sugar!
This is important, and not for the reasons you may think. Do you really need to bring your laptop? Do you need a cell phone? If you do, can you leave it with the front desk? Consider the ways that you can actually disconnect during your retreat. Then ask yourself, what is the lifeline you need to make sure your mind can be at ease while you’re away. What is the message on your email and cell phone, that protects your retreat? Who is the person you can rely on to make sure that you can be reached in an absolute emergency? That brings us to the most important piece of emergency gear—your journal. Make sure to pack one.
The simplest packing for a retreat is a monk’s robe and a toothbrush—and that’s it. Beyond that extreme simplicity, the goal of packing is to be reasonably comfortable and to remove extraneous choices that will cause stress. If you drive, the problem is you can bring anything—and bury yourself in stuff and choices. So, no matter how you’re getting there, or what class you’re traveling, imagine you’re limited to just a carry-on.
What goes into your carry-on is dependent on where you’re going. Think layers, comfortable shoes, and make sure to call ahead to see which of your essentials are already provided. Wherever you go, bring a small gift. By the end of your retreat, you’ll know who to give it to.
How can you transform your travels into the Asclepian walk from the sea? What else can you shed before you leave? The old travel saying is “bring half the clothes and twice the money”—but can you cut all of that in half? Or do you need to double the money for possible experiences?
Could you walk to the airport, take public transport, or enlist a friend—something that gets you out of your typical drive to the airport? Could you carpool, if driving? Or ride a bike? Let your mind explore all of the options. Why? Because we all know that from vaccination cards, COVID tests, airport screening lines, screaming passengers, flight cancellations, and random acts of unkindness—travel today is often no fun at all. Accept all that, and it will actually feel better.
As you approach your own destination, you want to prepare your mind and body for what lies ahead. Whatever your experience getting there, you’re stepping into a new place.
Unpack completely. Make yourself at home. Remind yourself why you came. Then let go of that expectation and figure out where you are right now, and what you want to do. It’s your retreat. The present moment of your retreat is the time to do whatever you choose.
Mary Bemis is Founder & Editorial Director of InsidersGuidetoSpas.com. She is a pioneering spa journalist, most recently honored as one of the "Top 30 Influential Voices Transforming Wellness." She is an inaugural recipient of Folio's Top Women in Media Award, and was honored by ISPA with its distinguished ISPA Dedicated Contributor Award. In 1997, she launched American Spa magazine, and in 2007, Mary co-founded Organic Spa magazine. A pioneer in the sustainable spa and beauty worlds, Mary is co-curator of Cosmoprof North America's Discover Green Pavilion. She is a Global Wellness Day Advisor, and a co-founder of the Washington Spa Alliance.
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