From pilgrim paths to forest cabins, and from rented hermitages to arts temples and quiet havens for yoga and meditation, In Praise of Retreat explores the pleasures and powers of this ancient practice for modern people, drawing on the history of retreat and personal experiences to reveal the many ways readers can step back from society to reconnect with their deepest selves — and to their loftiest aspirations in life.
Below is an excerpt from In Praise of Retreat: Finding Sanctuary in the Modern World by Kirsteen MacLeod.
That spring, my friend Wendy—a “naked yoga” teacher from New York who I met during my first yoga teacher training retreat in Bahamas—visited us at the cabin. As we got out of the truck, frightening clouds of mosquitoes descended. She gamely pulled on a bug jacket that zipped over her head, and then lit a cigarette.
“These things have a design flaw,” she noted, puffing through the mesh. That night by candlelight over dinner I held forth about how landscape and divinity are closely linked in India. She listened awhile and then said: “You’ve turned into a nature freak.” We laughed at the “life is a comedy” aspects of my tale: I was yet another of India’s disillusioned spiritual seekers, one who went on a yoga retreat five thousand miles away only to find peace at a small cabin two hours from home. Despite shady gurus and other lively disappointments, India was fascinating and provided new ideas about sacred topography and the forest.
In Vedic tradition, life is divided into stages. When your hair is grey, you have wrinkles and grandchildren, and your family and worldly duties are completed, you may enter what’s called the “forest dweller” phase. This is when a couple may go to the forest to become hermits, to live simply but not grimly (i.e., sex is allowed once a month), and have a spiritual life. While the hedonism quotient at the cabin wildly exceeds Vedic guidelines, the parallel seemed obvious: I came to the cabin when I was forty, and in this place, began to explore the natural concerns that arise at middle age and changed my trajectory. I moved to a smaller city, became a yoga teacher and focused on literary writing, work long deferred.
A forest hermitage dominates Kalidasa’s famous play, Shakuntala. The spirit of the forest retreat he describes as “sharanyam sarva bhutanam” (where all creatures find their protection of love).” I read these words while swinging in my hammock by the water and had to put the book down. An epiphany: at this retreat, a missing inner dimension had been restored. I was refreshed and now spilling over with my “protection of love.” Literally the next day everything changed. First we found out that our absent neighbour, “Alberta,” had given his property to his son. Inexplicably, Alberta’s old friend Doug suddenly became like a burr we couldn’t unstick. Nearly every time we visited that season, there he was: examining the bridge and talking about building a bigger one; making elaborate plans to improve the road, scoping out places he might park a caravan.
One dark night, the mystery of his constant presence was solved. It was 10:30 p.m. and we were nearly asleep. A blaring car horn shattered the quiet. We ran outside to find Doug standing on the far side of the bridge. First, he launched into a rambling tale about how he’d taken in a relative who’d suffered brain damage in a logging accident. Always a sucker for a colourful story, I said, “Uh huh,” at the appropriate moments. Then he got to the point: he had permission from Alberta’s son to log the few remaining trees. In exchange, Doug was to build him a road to the waterfront and clear a building site. The next morning, a Saturday, Doug was planning to bring heavy logging equipment over the stream—at 6 a.m. Marco and I looked at one another. We shared the right of way with the neighbouring property and Doug had permission, so there wasn’t much we could do. We’d always known that the right of way passed over the bridge or through the creek, a stone’s throw from where we swim, from the cabin’s front door. We shrugged, asked Doug to avoid early mornings and weekends in future, and told ourselves it was temporary.
Doug, who is a terrible listener, besieged us for months: at all hours, he was chain sawing, machines and tree torsos trundled in and out, and the new road—which snaked all over the property next door where Doug cut trees, versus taking a direct route that made sense—looked like a giant had come and uprooted everything. A few stumps were uncomfortably close to our property line. Doug met every protest at how inconsiderate he was being with an excuse. He was like an old fire horse, his blood up, crazy to snuff the trees. When I talked to Alberta’s son about it he seemed unconcerned, said he would likely sell the place instead of building there.
Walking in the field one day, I spotted Doug dozing in the cab of his truck. As usual, he’d tossed his candy wrappers out the window. He was diabetic and brought his treats here to savour far from his wife. I was furious with his littering. But I always softened. He loved this place, he was old and had a serious heart problem, and he likely did not have many seasons left. Temporary, I told myself. I kept walking along the loop trail, confused. How could this be? Just as I’d felt grateful and at one with everything, chainsaws appeared in the sacred grove? As I walked through the hardwood forest and to the creek, my mind turned over something I’d never quite been able to grasp: the Buddhist concept of attachment, and how it leads to suffering. With the cabin I’d always wondered, “How can we not be attached to what feeds us?” Now I was getting some insight.
Everything changes. In consolation, and to mark our ten-year anniversary at Beaver Creek, I resolved to write about our beloved cabin in the woods. I packed up all my notes and naturalist journals, ready to begin. We arrived to find a real estate sign nailed to our front gate: “70 acres, waterfront, right of way, call for details.” A huge arrow pointed down the logging road toward the cabin. Tracks from an ATV went around the gate, flattening the tall flowers and grass. I saw tire imprints in the muddy spots all the way in, and just past the cabin, a red marker tied to a tree, well within our boundaries. Strangers—and soon, neighbours—in this space. ATVs in the temple.
“The retreat story is taking a new direction,” I wrote in my journal in consternation. We had known that change was in the air. Doug had died a few weeks before of a heart attack. Also, Alberta’s son had mentioned he might sell the property—which we couldn’t afford to buy anyway. But we were still shocked. A droning sound approached and then the real estate agent and his clients rolled through the creek on their ATVs. I reasoned with myself, “Really, is it so hard to coexist? Maybe all will be well and the new people will be nice, even new friends.” Or they could be noisy hunters. Peace was suspended. I constantly thought I heard engines. Sometimes I really did, and ATVs or pickups would appear and drive through the creek. Feeling sick, frozen in my hammock, I hoped they’d get out quickly. We had passive aggressive exchanges with the real estate agents—two young guys with preppie haircuts.
“Hope you brought your bug jackets,” we’d say, happy when the deer flies were truly awful. They’d reply, “We know what to expect up here.” Or “Is this your only showing this weekend?” we’d ask, and they’d counter, “Are you here every weekend?” We sent the dog to bark at them, were happy when they arrived as Marco was looking his most eccentric, hair long and wild, wearing pink shorts and sharpening his axe. When the people left looking harried, we felt triumphant. It was an invasion of our privacy, our peace; but we knew we couldn’t win. New people arrived on ATVs. Marco spoke to them: three guys from “Camp 40.” Doug no longer held hunting rights on the logging company land we cross over to get to our place, and now these hunters were leasing it. The one who said he’s “the captain” told us we’d never see them, except maybe for two weeks in November during deer season.
Before long the real estate sign came down, and the new neighbours—two couples with many grown kids, extended family members, friends and dogs—introduced themselves. They were social, shared our feeling that this place was paradise. I struggled to be civil despite how obviously sweet they were. I recognized that they needed to get to their place somehow and couldn’t just walk over the bridge as we did. I recognized their right to be here and truly wanted them to enjoy the place. And I loathed their presence. Marco was gracious, while I hid and felt besieged whenever they cut their engines outside and a booming voice called, “Howdy, neighbours!” Or when they zoomed through the creek in the morning to get bacon, disturbing my swimming. One night, after they dropped by to say hello unexpectedly—ten of them and three dogs—I wept. Next, the logging company came to cut the trees. I avoided Beaver Creek all that fall. I had to regroup. The world had arrived.