The world’s major religions teach retreat as a spiritual practice. All the great spiritual teachers spent time on retreat—Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, and many others. The Sufis’ main practice is to remain in the world, fulfilling all our duties and trying always to remember God and serve God’s creation. However, our worldly activities have to be balanced with some time away, some time in which we are not so much at the mercy of all the demands of the world.
Silence is a very important aspect of retreat. It is a wonderful practice. It may be a little difficult if you have never practiced silence before, but I strongly recommend it. I have found it to be incredibly refreshing to spend a day or more in silence. Only then do I realize how much energy I usually waste in unnecessary, trivial conversation.
I held my last retreat in a spiritual community in which all the community members were strongly committed to their spiritual path. When I kept silence and shared meals with them, I realized how much time and energy even these dedicated spiritual seekers wasted in inconsequential chatting.
Useless talk distracts us from awareness of the present and of God’s presence, but it generally takes the practice of silence to understand this. Silence alone can make a retreat spiritually fruitful.
The Founder of my Sufi Order taught that the essence of a retreat is to become outwardly silent, then to become still within and seek God’s presence in that inner stillness. We all need time to slow down, to get away from the busyness and distractions of our overstimulated lives. Then we can discover God’s presence within. That presence is always there, but we generally fail to experience it. God’s presence within us is like a whisper that is always speaking to us, but we so rarely hear it. In a noisy room we can’t hear a quiet, soft voice.
There is a beautiful line in the Qur’an that reads, “Wherever you turn, there is the Face of God.” This means if you slow down and pay deep attention, you can find God in everything—in the trees, the flowers, the sunset. As part of your retreat, take walks in nature. Or, if you are in the city, take a walk and focus your attention on the trees and plants around you. (I have found it far easier to sense God’s presence in nature than in human creations.)
We can find God within as well as without. God’s Face is not only without; it is within us as well. To find God within, we have to turn away from all the distractions of the outer world and turn within.
A retreat of two to four days is ideal. It takes at least a day to slow down and go within. By the end of the second day you are starting to get used to the slower, quieter rhythms of your retreat. In the third day you are firmly settled into the pace and flow of your retreat.
You can do a retreat at home but it is preferable to go somewhere else. (In most areas there are retreat centers available for individual retreats.) It is difficult to do a retreat at home because you are surrounded by so many stimuli that remind you of your busy everyday life. It is deeply refreshing to break away from all of that.
One of my spiritual teachers was fond of the following analogy. In the old movie theaters, the film projectors used a carbon arc to generate a powerful white light within. This light passed through a moving film strip and was then focused through a lens and projected onto the screen. All our attention is normally directed to the screen; we laugh and cry, and hold our breath in suspense as we are caught up in the images resulting from this outward flow of light.
A retreat serves to help us trace the light of consciousness back to its source. Day in and day out, all our energy goes out to the world, to all the things that occupy our attention. To find God, we need to slow down and turn within. We have to turn our awareness from the screen of life, and follow it back to its source, which is the pure light of God within us. This light is in every one of us. It is not a physical light; it is the most subtle form of energy in the universe. This light carries divine wisdom and understanding.
Our awareness flows outward so quickly and with so much force that we have to make a real effort to slow down and turn our attention within. If we are always occupied with what is happening on the screen, we will never know that the source of all our experience is actually within us. Which is why we all need to take a retreat regularly.