We humans aren't machines, yet many of us live as if we are. So many people I talk to these days are consumed by busyness and time pressures. 'Keeping busy' seems to be the norm, as if busyness was something to aspire to. It often feels like the world is speeding up and that there aren't enough hours in the day.
Thomas Merton referred to this as a kind of modern violence on the soul. "To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence," he once wrote.
From the age of four, most of us are on a fast and furious production line of school, college, and work. Free time is often taken up with homework, housework, shopping, cleaning, and catching up with an ever-increasing amount of bills, phone calls, emails, and social media updates.
All of this can fog up your mind and leave you feeling fed up and exhausted, which in turn can affect relationships and bring on physical and mental illness. It's no wonder then that the World Health Organisation says that mental ill health is one of the greatest threats facing our world.
Exercise, friends, hobbies and holidays are all good ways to offset the pressures of modern life but sometimes, as I've found out, you have to just step away from it all and go a bit deeper. It's important to let your spirit catch up with you, especially when you're feeling the strain and know something needs to change.
Stepping off the treadmill isn't that easy. Money is often a concern, as are work, family and social commitments. However, the way I look at it, going on retreat is an investment.
It gives you a better chance of knowing yourself and knowing what direction to take in life. By putting yourself first you are better able to serve all your other responsibilities. It allows you to rest and renew and become clearer, more at ease, and more successful at whatever you put your mind to.
For some, beach or walking holidays do the trick, but a retreat isn't a retreat unless you have space for silence, solitude and tuning in. Most of us spend a lot of time on the external world but the internal world is just as important, if not more so. Feeding into this is fundamental to our well-being. It's hard to do this in our day-to-day lives and that's why retreats from a half-day to a month or a year can be necessary.
Generally, a busy mind will find every excuse not to go on retreat - the idea of quiet time alone horrifies it. The busy mind wants to keep thinking, doing, distracting, avoiding. Sometimes, that's because we have 'stuff' to deal with, things that need attention that might be painful and upsetting.
This stuff is there even if you have buried it. It will find you one way or another, so better to tackle it than have it eat away at you.
When deciding to go on retreat, consider bringing a journal to write in and maybe some books and music, but remember that smartphones and internet access are the enemy, offering you an instant gateway of distraction into the noisy world you are trying to get away from. If you're going on retreat, then be on retreat and try to leave the smartphone at home. If you need a phone, maybe just take an old Nokia-style one with you.
The options of where to go are endless. There are retreat centres all over the world that specialise in providing relaxing spaces for people to come and relax. Sometimes, retreat centres offer programmes that involve yoga, meditation, writing, walking and personal development workshops. More often than not, these retreats can be expensive, although they do offer the prospect of being life-changing, and you get to share the experience with others.
At the end of the day, all you need is somewhere warm, quiet, safe and relaxing. Choose somewhere surrounded by natural beauty with good walks. We're spoilt for choice in Ireland. Over the past 15 years, I've stayed at Glenstal Abbey in Limerick, Slí an Chroí in Wicklow and the Dzogchen Beara Buddhist centre in West Cork, among others.
I've gone camping, stayed in hostels and bed and breakfasts, and had day retreats that included solo hill walks.
Most of us could do with some form of retreat every few months or so, even if it's just for a day or a weekend. It's like soul food, precious time to step back from doing and catch up with yourself. Finding a way to do this can be difficult, but making the decision to proceed is a great gift you can give to yourself, and consequently those around you.
Going on retreat generally requires cash, but the biggest demand is courage, the courage to step back from the constant doing so you can step forward again with a spring in your step. (Find a list of retreat centres at www.my1000hours.com/retreat )
Ruairí McKiernan is a social campaigner, Fulbright scholar and member of the Council of State. You can also find a list of retreat centres on his blog at www.ruairimckiernan.com