IN THE midst of our confined period of lockdown, I wonder whether this is an excellent opportunity to turn it to our advantage?

Religious people have often taken pauses in their lives and entered a period of what is called a ‘retreat.’ It can seem an odd concept if you are not religious, yet today retreats are popular in all religions and from many secular approaches.

A retreat is not about abstinence, but rather a deeper engagement with life. The Latin word means ‘to pull back.’ This is something we are all encountering whether we like it or not. So rather than seeing lockdown as something to endure, perhaps we can use it to enhance the quality of our lives.

Before the virus hit our country, it was common to hear the fear that machines and computers were taking over our lives. Also, in the ‘multi-activeness’ of our lives, many felt that their lives were becoming machine-like. It now feels like the factory production of our lives has been suddenly shut down. We have all been forced to stop to some degree in various aspects of our lives. This has caused us to stop thinning our lives in multiple directions.

Some people hate lockdown with all its problems and stresses, others see it as an opportunity to have a vocation and binge on food and TV. However, we can make the most of the time to take stock and redirect our future. This is at the heart of a ‘retreat’ concept.

The endeavour of having a retreat is more than a religious concept. Most religions encourage a period of withdrawal, reflection, prayer, reconnecting and devotion. It has always been a common practice in Buddhism and is an important part of Sufism, the mystical part of Islam. The Christian concept was to be able to live one’s life closer to God’s will. It became more popular in the 17th century, not just for the priests but also for the laity. However, the idea goes back to the concept of Jesus withdrawing into the desert to pray, and much further back to the Genesis account of the concept off the Sabbath rest. This was not an appendage to the six periods of activity but seen as a climax of all previous creativity. Today you can go on a retreat from a variety of approaches apart from the religious, including yoga, artistic, nature loving and therapeutic retreats. In the Journal of Religion, Brain and Behaviour, researchers found that a retreat causes the brain neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin functions to improve the mood of an individual.

The core is the idea of going into a separate place to reflect and build an inner resource that includes coping with silence. My first encounter of this idea was when I went on a week’s silence in France at a place called Taize, a retreat centre set up for young people that still attracts thousands every year. The impact of that week still brings back fond memories. Since then I have regularly had retreats, some just a day long; as an opportunity to pause and take a fresh look at my life.

We may not be able to escape our homes, but we can still create the opportunity of pausing to reflect and reap many of the benefits that a retreat can bring. First, we can try and pause from our frenetic activity and try and create some space. This might need a radical approach of switching off our router for a day and fasting from IT. We will quickly see if we are addicted to our phones and laptops. This alone would make the exercise worthwhile. It will naturally cause a shift in perspective.

Here, our hobbies might become primary rather than a secondary, where we find the space to allow other aspects of our personality to be expressed.

Now this creates a vacuum that can feel scary. After all, when was the last time we created such a space? But what an opportunity to discover what really energies us, to ask what it is that we really want from life and what we want to put back into our world.

When we blindly do the same rote every day, there is little room for anything else.

Creating space allows us to reflect upon who we are not (human doers) rather than who we are (human beings), be it a mother, brother, carer or lover. Here, we are giving space to listen to ourselves, dropping our normal roles and asking who we want to be in the future. Getting out and engaging with nature can aid this reflection. This seems to be already occurring, as people tell me they are hearing birds singing more than normal. It’s certainly not the birds that are changing.

It’s interesting that when people go on retreats, they can find themselves becoming very sleepy or having vivid dreams or even feel as if they are coming down with a cold. This is similar to when we go on holiday after a busy period of work. This shows us our need to pause and re-connect with ourselves physically, mentally and spiritually.

Creating space can also panic us, as we find our fears beginning to surface. It is not unusual for emotions to be released that have been suppressed for months or years. In this space journaling can be helpful as we write down the new thoughts we are having. All of this space allows us to re-stablish a new routine, perhaps bringing a new appreciation of others. So often during and after retreats individuals find themselves being inspired to re-invent themselves, elevating their present circumstances to working towards a better future.

The religious are seeking that which is bigger than themselves, be it God or an increased spiritual reality.

However, for all who try a retreat experience, it usually leads to a deeper outward awareness that we can live better lives.

  • Dr Bill Merrington is a therapist and chartered psychologist working in the York district ( or contact