Heal & Harm | The ethics of retreat, part 2

Heal & Harm is a new no-bullshit column released every two weeks to honour the full and new moons, affirming the old as hell phrase “a witch who can’t harm can’t heal” and oscillating between summoning good vibes and releasing pain.

During the new moon we reflected a little bit about what it means to physically depart: to retreat more specifically (to a place) less broadly (philosophically, conceptually). Today, for the full moon, I’m thinking a lot about the search for authenticity and the perception of that search being predicated on movement. I’m thinking about access to leisure and how that access is influenced by access to capital, time off, and a non dis/abled body; access to an embodiment that allows us to feel safe and stable.

For me, I feel at home in the city partly because there are so many people around – volume feels like safety. And then there’s access: to my apartment, friends, hospitals. It feels like a risk to be somewhere all by myself. To some that may feel like solace but to me it feels scary, like someone could find me and hurt me and that would be the end of that (or me). What happens if my body gives out (as it often does)?

What about the value in facing these fears, these feelings of unsafety, this risk and susceptibility – a very real sense of vulnerability acquired over time due to experience? What about the relationship between risk and growth – and is that really what we’re searching for when we go ‘on retreat’?

Retreat can be physical, or it can be internal

There is always some interplay of both in all retreats, and often people will use a physical retreat as a means of instigating or accessing internal (be it mental, emotional, etc) change. Some retreats look more like shutting down, shutting off, going into oneself, being still and silent and alone – and that’s it. These are the type of retreats we can do a bit more often because all it takes is time to ourselves, all it takes is our own body, our own choice to not speak or think or connect with others. Turning our phone on silent, putting it in the other room. Disconnecting the internet. For an hour, a day.

Retreat has an interesting relationship to mental processes as well, both voluntary and involuntary. Sometimes we may be thrust into retreat when we don’t want to be, because that’s how our brain is wired, for whatever reason. We may have some control over this, or we may not. This kind of distinction is crucial because it influences our relationship to concepts of retreat, as well as our relationship to our own sense of autonomy and movement, and how that relates to having access to things like actively choosing when and where to retreat. For folks who do not have full control over when they mentally retreat, asserting agency over physical retreat (when that happens, in what circumstances, where, etc) can be ways to reclaim a sense of personal agency and efficacy.

I have CPTSD. One way that this sometimes makes itself known is that I dissociate. Sometimes I will be unable to speak or respond; I get very quiet and go into myself. Since I grew up with abuse, this kneejerk reaction that my brain learned was a mechanism to ensure my safety during those tough times. However, now, even in the absence of abuse, my brain and body can react that way to stimuli that remind me of abusive moments and feelings. Some of these triggers make ‘sense,’ some less so. In order to prepare people close to me for these moments, I tend to give fair warning long before anything might happen, and give folks suggestions on how to respond in a way that can deescalate the situation. This dissociation is a form of ‘retreat,’ a departure from the everyday.

No, it is not as enjoyable as a vacation to the Bahamas or a cute cabin in the woods after a year of being incredibly stressed out at work, but there is conceptual kinship here: the retreat occurs when a limit is reached or about to be reached. One is voluntary, one is not, one is fun and one is not; but both are responses to overload, a response to capacity being reached. Interestingly, an element of trauma therapy often involves exposure to the source of trauma, after a sense of safety has been built up.

Becoming strong and stable enough to withstand the trauma exposure often involves a retreat away from it, enough time to recover and regroup. The intentional retreat and re-exposure can lead to less dissociative moments in the long term.

An important aspect of this is that we do not live in a vacuum

It’s likely that our retreat(s) are impacting others around us, and impacting our relationships to them. It is true that we need to take care of ourselves: there’s a reason why airlines always insist we put our own safety mask on before assisting those around us. Are there ways we can make these retreats – our absences – a more ethical and considerate process that acknowledges the social ecologies in which we are embedded? Giving folks a heads up may be crucial.

Let us for a moment return to the spiritual retreat. I see ‘retreat’ pop up a lot in conjunction with the new age, which seeps into contemporary witchy movements and communities, particularly those in North America. Many of our witchy shops also double as new age shops, an overlap that seems to me much less common in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe. The new age is all about getting good feelings. This is often achieved through the spending of money and the acquisition of objects and experiences; collection and conquest. These acquisitions are often related to what we perceive as other. Otherness is mobilized as a stand-in for the authentic, the real.

I feel as though this movement towards the elsewhere is all actually about a search for reality.

There is often a self-professed purity here, a paring down – to retreat can mean to discard the more obvious trappings of capitalist living: time at work, dealing with bills, partners, parents, kids, obligations, making money, waking up, feeling stressed out, trying not to have a meltdown, rinse, repeat, etc. People retreat to ‘get away from it all’ and I think it is worth magnifying this ‘it’ – what exactly is being escaped?

What does it mean to connect with the authenticity inside ourselves, rather than search for it elsewhere? To acknowledge that we always already have the ‘it’ we wish to move towards inside of ourselves? Can searching elsewhere help us gain access to ourselves? What is this search for authenticity about, anyway, and why do we tend to assume it lives somewhere else, elusive?

When we retreat, what do we move toward, what are we moving away from? How does this relate to what is ingrained, and what is fresh? How does your retreating relate to cycles – both dysfunctional cycles and healthy cycles? Is going on retreat part of establishing a new cycle, or about further solidifying an old dysfunctional one?

One thing I see often is that folks will intend a retreat to function as a kickstart, a jumpstart to or of a new way of being, and then are surprised when indeed it does not, are surprised when it is difficult to maintain gains from the retreat in daily life. This contrast can exacerbate embarrassment, shame, disappointment. Bad feelings about the space between what was and what is; a briefly achieved fantasy of good feeling shatters and we are where we were. Always striving, failing, falling short. The cycle repeats.

Sometimes something can happen on retreat that we bring back with us. We might learn something new, try something new. We may come back home with medicines. When I say medicine I am thinking with many writers and thinkers indigenous to Turtle Island, where I live. Medicine in this sense is not just a concoction we imbibe like a pill; it is food for the soul, it is nourishing. It may be herbal, it may not be. It may be a realization, a wisdom, a mantra, a meditation, a shock to the system, a successful risk taken, a slow burn that we can’t quite put our finger on. But we may come back changed.

Sometimes this shaking up is exactly the medicine our system, our soul, our body, needs. Sometimes we don’t know that thing until it hits us, until it sweeps away, until it cleanses our system like a sudden cold shower, rinsing away what no longer serves us. Sometimes this happens at home. Sometimes it doesn’t. I respect the need, the feeling, the impetus, to try something new, something not-yet-tried (by us). To risk. But I find that people who move and travel to find themselves rarely do find themselves elsewhere. Wherever you go, there you are. What does/can it mean to face ourselves, as we are, right now, here?

Of course, sometimes we may need a change of scenery in support of our mental health, but if we only can maintain some semblance of mental health or connection to spirituality when we are ‘on retreat’, this can be a dangerous relegation of the spiritual to ‘the elsewhere’, authenticity and home to ‘the elsewhere’, something that is always out of reach, never home, never in our own body, never where we are. Always not here. The grass is greener.

When we travel – physically, mentally, emotionally – we encounter spirituality in different ways, in different forms and incarnations; the home that is our body already is always in a process of going through changes. With different stimulus, our shape changes; maybe the familiar body becomes unusual, looks different. To borrow a phrase from Sara Ahmed, we become a ‘(strange) stranger’ in our own flesh. To become strange to ourselves can become a moment of teaching, of learning; a moment of risk; to become closer to home through realizing our own otherness, we (be)come home.

How does all of this relate to the tarot? The tarot’s retreater is, of course, the Hermit. One thing I love about the Hermit card is that while it signifies solitude and retreat for the purpose of gaining new knowledge, the flame of enlightenment is really what sits inside of us – it is our own inner fire there all along, keeping us warm, leading us to be better versions of ourselves, if only we listen in and connect. Sometimes it is just shutting the doors to many other babblings to give us the time and space and resonance to hear ourselves once again.

A beauty of the Hermit is in its strong reminder that we often don’t need to go anywhere else to do this, to connect, to change, to transform. The lamp of change is already inside us, leading the way. We may just have to polish it a bit, to let the light shine through.

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  1. Amerasuu says:

    I adore this column I’m so glad you’ve joined us in our wonderful community I’m a chronically ill Witch and this is giving me lots to think about that

  2. Sara Diane says:

    thank you for this! as a chronically ill woman with PTSD + dissociative symptoms, the thoughts about control over and access to “retreat” were really resonant. I grew up rural but now live in a city – getting “back” to nature has always been my goal when I think of restorative retreat. but I’m really thinking about your points about being able to retreat wherever we are, and also the “manifest destiny” mentality of where we/I (white settler americans) go to “get away” from the busyness of the capitalist system that we created and imposed on so many. where is the line between (individual) homesickness and (systemic) colonialism when retreat looks rural?

    • Ah!! Thank you so much for this comment!!

      I grew up on a kinda rural/suburban divide and now live in a city so I resonate v much w your comment! So interesting (and important) how illness factors into all of this, both mental and physical and everything in between.

      I think your last sentence/question re: individual homesickness and systemic colonialism is really a crucial one, and it’s something I think about a lot, but I don’t think it’s something that is just about coloniality. If we look at the history of (neo)paganism and the origins of ‘retreat’ in that context, the story seems to largely be about class. It is difficult to remove coloniality out of anything, but especially in a UK context I think the nuances are quite important to attune our attention to. So excited to continue this convo – much going on! And the interplay between the individual story/resonance, and ancestral stories and habits around movement, land, and space (and class).

      Thank u for ur engagement!! xx

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