My favorite hot spot I thought I’d never go to: The Hermitage

I’ve gone on retreat a number of times now, so far all domestic although I hope to visit Tibet or Nepal soon (and a hike of Machu Picchu coming up may almost count, depending on how meditative my hiking becomes), but for the longest time I’d thought that retreats were much less accessible than they actually are.

I thought that in order to go on a contemplative retreat you’d have to travel to Colorado for a week with a guide, and the whole thing seemed like such a big to-do that it was never the right time. Fitting a week of “doing nothing” into a busy startup founder schedule is unrealistic, I thought. And because of that, I didn’t experience the true depth of reflection and force of insight that are possible through retreat until early 2019, when a friend of mine introduced me to The Hermitage.

The Hermitage is a Christian-flavored retreat space in Three Rivers, Michigan. I am not a Christian, so when I first checked out the website I was a bit nervous that I would not be welcome, but my friend reassured me that it was a space that was welcoming to all, as long as you were looking to go inward. Besides, I am also not a vampire, so a couple crucifixes aren’t going to hurt me. The part of the experience that initially appealed to me, in addition to the inaccessible mystique that a “retreat” had developed in my head, was that The Hermitage was purpose built for short retreats, as short as a single day. I’m sure they do longer ones as well, but the opportunity to retreat for a whole day with only a single hour drive each way got me over the hump. I was finally able to justify the investment, and in hindsight it was ignorant to wait as long as I did. The opportunity cost of not doing the introspection was larger than I had thought.

It’s way out in the country, sufficiently away from everything such that even the travel there starts to put your mind in a different, more relaxed, posture. Theres a multi-purpose sign at the driveway that says “slow down.” The campus itself consists of two large buildings, one a sort of multi-functional gathering area complete with a chapel (which I couldn’t bring myself to spend time in initially) and a sitting room/library (which of course I loved), and the other a lodging with a kitchen in which they serve regular meals (although I’ve endeavored to fast each time I’ve gone) and a bunch of rooms for retreaters. You can rent the rooms out for the day, as I’ve done, or I’ve seen people staying there for the weekend or the week.

In addition to the two larger buildings, the real beauty of the Hermitage is the campus. A few acres of wooded trails extend from the main residences, interspersed with natural and cultivated landmarks like a lean-to at the top of a steep cliff overlooking a river, and an ankle-high spiral maze within which you can practice walking meditation. It’s beautiful everywhere you look, but in totally distinct ways. It’s breathtaking both in its scale and its complexity.

My favorite part of the campus is the cabins. Four, single-room buildings dot the deep woods, with names like “Thoreau,” “The Hut,” and similar. Each of these is slightly larger than the bed contained within, and also includes some sort of desk area, for reading/writing. The bathrooms are outhouses, which may be a turnoff for some but since I try to fast while there have only served as scenery adding to the comprehensive different-ness of the place. My habit now is to rent out one of these cabins for the day, and then split my time between sitting meditation within the cabin, walking meditation around the grounds, and a bit of journaling inside the lean-to (because of the view).

Since I was introduced to this space, I’ve brought a few friends with me as well; I’ve found that running a business tends to demand so much of a person that retreats can be quite appealing, although like me most think of them as something monk’s or artists do. Going deep internally with friends–we always end the day in the sitting room to discuss our experience–has added to the depth of some of my closest friendships.

There are no “rules” for retreat, per se, but people there generally try to observe silence. This is amazing, and not as difficult as people think it will be (the hardest part for someone as social as me is not saying hi if you happen to pass someone on a trail). But that’s not a rule, and you won’t be kicked out if you do talk. In an effort to get the most out of my time, I also make it a point to, and I can’t stress this enough, leave my cell phone in the car. To make this work I always let people know I’ll be inaccessible for 8 hours, and surprise surprise, the world doesn’t end while I’m away.

If you have interest in contemplative retreat, and you have not yet gone on one, I highly recommend finding a local spot like The Hermitage. A day is plenty of time, and can be a great introduction into the benefits of taking time to dig internally. It’ll take more than that one time to go beyond all the roles you play and find out who you truly are underneath all those mental constructs, but that process is a lot like the old adage about eating an elephant (as are so many things worth doing). And if you are in Michigan and would like to try out the Hermitage with me, I’d be happy to “host.”

How I learned to feel again

“But I want to be passionate,” my friend said. “I get the whole search for Enlightenment, but I don’t want to be disconnected from life and stop feeling.”

We were sitting in a coffee shop, at a corner table discussing my practice. I had described, to the best of my then current ability, both the work I’d done and the results it had produced. I said that meditation in my experience, when practiced for some time, produces, at least, two results.

First, it teaches you just how little you control. Stare at a wall and try to hold everything still; it doesn’t take long to see that there’s nothing you can really control, not your breath, your heartbeat, and definitely not your mind. If you don’t control your body or your mind, how on earth can you control producing XYZ result in your life?

And second, it creates a space between your Self and your thoughts. Between You and your emotions. With a quiet mind you get to actually see your thought patterns, and see the emotions running through you. And if you can see those things, then you by definition are not those things. You are the viewer, and therefore cannot also be the viewed. You are the awareness within which your thoughts and feelings arise.

It was the second realization that my friend took issue with.

“I don’t want to disconnect from my feelings,” he said. “I want to live, fully!”

It’s a logical concern, but only from the perspective of one who has not yet experienced those things. Once you do the work to create that space between your self and your thoughts/feelings, you realize that actually the opposite is true.

“I do too,” I said. “I didn’t feel, really feel, for about 15 years. I got so caught up in what I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to feel, that I suppressed all of it. But now, I’m crying on airplanes.”

I was referencing a time months ago when I connected so hard with the movie Rocketman that I had to compose myself in the airplane bathroom. But I could have just as easily been referencing today, as I write this on yet another airplane, days removed from Kobe’s death, all nine of those people, three kids, and still tearing up. I’ve never met Kobe, and part of me feels selfish crying over something that other people are so much more closely affected by than I am, but I feel everything, now. In a way I never did before.

“You’ve got it wrong,” I explained to my friend. “Once you realize your thoughts and emotions aren’t you, they are no longer a threat to your sense of yourself. You stop resisting them, and you feel way more.”