Heal & Harm | The ethics of retreat, part 1

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.

Are you romanticizing the not-home? What stops you from retreating at-home, or at least in your city or neighbourhood? What might it mean to retreat in daily life?

A lot of people find my stance on retreats to be a bit intense. I’ve heard, “You’re such a hater!” and, “Let people enjoy things!” I’m all for enjoyment, of course, but I’m also one for critical thought and theory, for stepping carefully and considering the ethical implications of all that we do. Of course it’s impossible to fully and exhaustively consider everything ever, but I do think it is so important to sit still, speculate, and pause.

In spiritual communities that tend to be more earth-based, there is often talk of retreat, going into ‘nature’. A lot of different spiritual modalities discuss and suggest this, of course, but here I’m going to stick to what I know, which is contemporary iterations of Western magic and neopaganism. The word ‘pagan’ has become a bit out of vogue, with people tending towards ‘earth-based’ or simply ‘witchy’. Regardless of whatever type of contemporary western magic you practice, it has been touched by lineages of Wicca and conversations that arose in accordance with it (and also, of course, reaction against it).

As readers of Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon will know, contemporary Western witchy practice is linked to the development of a neopagan ethic, which is largely rooted in the bourgeois pushback to the rise of industrial production and the growth of cities in the 1800s. People with money and leisure time retreated out ‘to nature’, to get away from ‘it all’. This movement is based on conceptualizations of place that are dependent on purity: ‘nature’ as a pure space, pristine, untouched – which has direct ethical implications for those of us who live in settler societies, whose seizure of land has been and remains dependent on notions of Indigenous land as empty.

This may seem like a lot of heavy shit to bring up; I mean, come on, aren’t we just talkin’ about going somewhere to take a break for a while? Who doesn’t need a break! Why do we have to talk about colonialism, empire, and imperialism? Come on! Enjoy things! Have a beer! Or, uh, some kombucha! Om! Namaste!

Okay, so let’s rewind.

I do live in a big city, and I love it. Toronto is the largest city in Canada and the fourth largest in North America. When I moved here from Colorado, it shocked me that seemingly everyone had a family cottage or home on one of the great lakes that they could go hang out at during the summer or on weekends. In the states, what I was used to was that only rich people had any second homes.

This took some adjusting, and to be honest, I still find the Canadian attitude towards ‘cottaging’ as normative to be a little odd. One amazing thing about Toronto is that the city is pretty decently integrated with the natural environment – we have a waterfront, some beaches, an island, a ton of big parks. I know that this ain’t enough for some folks, so we go elsewhere: to the cottage, on retreat, wherever, anywhere else but here.

What does the notion of ‘retreat’ mean to you?

It may be useful to reflect on what this word means to you. Is it a departure or a break? If so, from what? To get away from what, to move towards what? Crucially, where are you going, and what is your relationship to that place? Who will be taking care of you when you are there? Is this a place you feel committed to get to know and build relationship with, or is this a place you see and approach with a more extractive mindset – as simply a place to relax, a place without specificity that could really be a stand-in for any place that is not-home?

Are you romanticizing the not-home? What stops you from retreating at-home, or at least in your city or neighbourhood? What might it mean to retreat in daily life? Have you pre-emptively cut off home from the category of places in which it is possible to retreat? How might you rearrange your home/daily/etc situation to enable and encourage moments of daily retreat and connection?

I feel like when people say they want to go on retreat, what they really mean is that they want to feel connected, they want to feel less alone. There is in some sense an irony then that we often retreat from the city into the country or the rural, often alone. But, what we usually move towards is connection not necessarily with other people but with the earth itself, with the land, with the planet and plants and breeze and water and twigs cracking under our feet as we walk, with the squirrels watching us as we travail a well-trod forest path. A connection to traditions of movement. Others trod this path before me, others will tread it again after I am gone. For many, it is somehow more easy to feel this way in a forest.

I get it. A lot of us have busy lives, full of work commitments and obligations to family and friends. We’re overbooked, overtired, and often underpaid, with sleepy and sick bodies. So taking a break from this can be perceived as a way to refresh, replenish – and it often can be.

It may seem like I’m smack talking ‘retreat’. I’m not! I’m a fuckin’ Sagittarius, after all! But while my passport has lots of fun stamps in it with many more to come, I am also a member of the stay home club. I’m all for travel and movement and new experiences. I love it. But, and – it is so crucial to spend time in reflection, in examination of our impulse to move or lie still, to come or go. Sometimes the unhealthy, unquestioned impulse is to stay home, to be immobile, to steep in stagnation. But, and – sometimes, the unhealthy impulse is to retreat.

I will be sharing some more ideas about retreat in two weeks on the full moon, but until then, I would like to leave you with a few questions to ask yourself about your relationship to retreat – maybe some you’ve been on in the past, and maybe some on which you are about to embark.

I invite you to consider (really and truly):

  • Is the retreat far away or nearby? Why?
  • What are your motivations for going on retreat and/or for retreating?
  • What is the relationship between your retreat and the desire to escape? Is it merely escapism?
  • Is the retreat a placeholder for making other changes in your life?
  • Are you avoiding the importance of being able to connect to spirituality from exactly where you are?
  • What do you hope to gain from the retreat?
  • What do you hope to release, if anything?
  • What is your relationship to the place you are going?
  • Do you know much about the place you are going?
  • Do you know much about the people there, if there are any?
  • Do you know the history of the place?
  • Will you continue to visit that place and build relationship to it?
  • How will you give gratitude to the place for holding you, for making space for you, for sharing its lessons with you?
  • How will you practice an attention to what is enough?
  • How will you notice when you have reached the extent of your welcome, and/or what you can take?
  • If you are collecting souvenirs or magical supplies such as water or plants, do you have offerings to give in return and in gratitude?
  • How will you get to know the spirits of this place?
  • How will you commit to treading carefully and with care on this new-to-you ground?

We don’t belong everywhere, and it’s important to remember this. Part of a decolonial process – for me – is moving away from an entitlement to being places, and walking softly on the spaces which do hold me.

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  1. Angharad says:

    Poignant & necessary questions. I actually clicked on this article just now because I’m wrestling with the need to retreat from some social & community commitments – my own demons: saying “no” is part of what I understand as retreat in my own life. But I grew up in a place to which people “retreated” and often found myself listening, bemused, to the noises of the primal scream therapy which was held in the grounds of the old farm next door, in the middle of acres of unspoilt countryside which was nevertheless home to a community of people.

    …comment self-edited to remove a long rambling Marxist rant about the exploitation of labour! But a life which doesn’t need escaping from has always been my goal. Not that I’m quite there, yet…

    • OMG next time don’t self-edit the Marxist rants out!! I wanna read those!!!

      SO interesting re: growing up where some people retreat to – lot of learnings can come from that I think. The primal scream therapy thing sounds intense af!!

      I think also it’s important to interrogate our notions of “unspoilt” and what that means… unspoilt to/ for/ by who(m)? What are the boundaries of that spoil(age), what does it mean (again for whom) to be spoiled? What is the threshold and who decides?

  2. Artemisia says:

    I relate to this so much as a chronically ill witch. Also very worthwhile to consider what it is were escaping… we forget that the land, even in urban settings, is living. Maybe there are so many things here to haunt us and remind us of the violence inherent in the building and maintaining of these cities under capitalism. We have sacred work to do right here, we have lessons to learn and conversations to have with the land that still sits under the concrete.

    • TOTALLY re: what we are escaping. I’m chronically ill too (in a few diff ways) so this bodily shit is always a consideration for me.

      I also am a bit hesitant to embrace the notion that capitalism is the only violence – I know that’s not necessarily what you’re saying here, but I think the urban/rural divide can often be held up by a dichotomous way of thinking as city = capitalism = violence = bad, and rural = nature = good = moral, which is not a dichotomy I personally am interested in supporting or reifying, because I don’t believe in that dichotomy in the first place (and this is the soil in which my philosophy grows, lol). Violence also occurs “in nature” – albeit differently. So when thinking about violence, I try not to collapse this and make violence into a monolith – it has different articulations, different manifestations; violence is not always ‘bad’ though capitalism is, of course, an entity unto itself!

  3. Alis says:

    Welcome! I look forward to reading the second half of this.

    I live in Portland, Oregon, and nature/trees/parkland/wild spaces are deeply worked into the city and its boundaries, with efforts made every year to bring even more of nature and trees and parks into being. It’s a beautiful thing, to be able to drive twenty minutes in any direction and enter a park or a trailhead, as if you’ve stepped through the Narnian wardrobe into a different place.

    It’s a similar situation here, where people routinely take off for the mountain (Mt Hood) or the ocean (Oregon coastline), only 90 minutes drivetime away. But they tend to be daytrips, not retreats, apart from summer or winter holidays. It’s a privilege to have such present and immediate access to uncurated forests and parklands. It is, for me, a balance between walking with nature, and returning home. I can’t rightly call it a “retreat”, though, because it is so prevalent throughout the city.

    • Holy late reply on my part!! 🙂

      I’ve never been to Portland, but I’ve always wanted to go! So cool that the city is incorporating organic natural environment into itself; I can relate to this being from Toronto, where the city slogan is “a city within a park.” It takes a bit longer to get somewhere truly rural from the downtown, but there are parks EVERYWHERE and access to more rural feeling spots within a stone’s throw from downtown. It’s such a sweet mix of skyscraper and grassy park. In Oregon are these spaces mostly accessible via car/driving, or is there a lot of public transit access?

      To respond to your last sentence – perhaps it is simply a different way of being at home. 🙂

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