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The Reason Retreats Don’t Work

Why would a retreat leader, like myself, say retreats don’t work? I actually believe strongly that they can work. Still, more often than not, their magic wears off in just days. There’s a reason for that – and it doesn’t have to happen.

I just came back from the Fire Starter Retreat for Women Leaders. I have been asked endlessly for the past two weeks, “Well? How was it?” In truth, it is beyond my vocabulary to adequately describe what I was just a part of. The intention, energy, tears, inner struggle, aha moments, tenderness, vulnerability, anger and release that go with personal transformation defy description.

Therefore my response is, “Fire Starter was transformative. I was honored to witness these gorgeous women go through their own individual transformations, and I was transformed through that process. It was powerful.” That’s the reason we go on retreats, and it is the reason that the retreat industry is exploding.

Our Addiction to Retreats

Who doesn’t want a transformative experience?

…Especially if it promises to alter your success and sense of fulfillment?

We all do. It feels amazing.

You feel physically lighter. You are more focused. You have a plan and fresh insights. It is inspiring and motivating. Your energy is amplified, and you feel absolutely super-human – powerful enough to take on the world. The adrenaline is surging through your system like the most amazing technicolor drug. It is addictive.

Anyone who has ever attended a really rocking retreat, like Fire Starter, knows what I am talking about. The immediate response (which we heard from several attendees at Fire Starter) is, “When is the next one? I want to sign up, and I have several friends I want to come have this experience with me!”

Of course they do! We feel more connected to one another and our authentic selves when we allow the retreat to work on us the way it is meant to.

A (Retreat) House Divided

Typically, there are two types of retreats. There are spiritual, energy-work, healing retreats that are delicious moments of regeneration, re-centering and recovery from the stress and demands of the “real” world. They are rich with experience of ritual, reflection, and connection to the invisible realm of our beliefs, emotions and our personal meaning. We leave with insights and tools to help us maintain our center in an ongoing capacity.

Then there are business-centric workshops that help us clarify our purpose, mission, strategy, plan, and even dig into tactics. These workshops are rich with left-brained exercises. The benefit they provide is both time to reflect on our work without endless interruptions, and a community of similarly focused peers, to collaborate with on the really knotty challenges. We leave feeling empowered with new approaches we can implement, where we were unsure what to do before.

Both types of retreats are powerful. And I’ve noticed that individuals who prefer one over the other often have a disdain for the other type of retreat. Business retreat lovers deem the energy work retreats as too impractical. While energy retreat lovers feel the business retreats rob them of their joy.

The fascinating aspect of this dual-retreat dynamic is that it is a reflection of how we view ourselves, especially in business. Culturally, we still subscribe to the belief that business is all left-brained (which from a neuroscience, decision-making standpoint is 100% false.) We see the energy work of meditation, breath work, ritual, reflection, journaling, feng shui, yoga, and connecting to intuitive guidance as self-indulgent – or at least, feel we are being judged that way by others.

Tracey and I watched this dynamic unfold before our eyes at Fire Starter. We had consciously built the retreat to integrate the two approaches, because we share a conviction that the energy work is vital to building a thriving business, and the thriving business is a natural expression of effective energy work. Still, once we moved into the business component of the retreat, some of the participants lost their energetic connection to their own source of inspiration. It was tangible for us all.

I had a heightened awareness that the dualistic model is so powerfully ingrained in us, that, as a facilitator, I must move slower to support that shift. Its power is insidious – even more so than I initially thought. Still, these courageous individuals persevered, even in their obvious discomfort, and when the breakthrough happened for them, it was actually more pronounced than for the others who struggled less. These women are my sheroes.

The Promise, The Practice and the Problem of Retreats

Ultimately, retreats are a moment in time where we get to practice thinking and behaving differently, outside of our normal routine. The promise they deliver is that our lives, habits and beliefs will be forever changed as a result of the retreat. The problem is that no retreat can do that. The only way we shift our lives, habits and beliefs is by committing to make the change ourselves on a daily basis.

Change happens when, and only when, we are ready to change. No outside situation or influence can really change us. Change then, is a process. It is uncomfortable, awkward, two steps forward and one step back, most of the time. It can even be exhausting if part of us is still resisting it.

Therefore, while retreats can teach us new ways of being and thinking, they are not the magic bullet many of us wish they were. The magic is in the individual to take what the retreat provided, and to then go back to their habits, and routine – back into a world that believes energy work and business are separate ideas – and take a stand for practicing this new approach until it becomes their new normal.

Retreats don’t change us. We do.

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