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Serenity Now

Spiritual Retreats

When it’s time to step away from the distractions of everyday life and get back in touch with your inner self, you don’t have to go far to go deep.

Spiritual Retreats

— Blend Images/Getty Images

At The Crossings, Wilson attended a three-day workshop on "The Shadow Process" held by bestselling author and integrative coach Debbie Ford. The Shadow Process is designed to help participants let go of corrosive emotions and make peace with their pasts, and Wilson spent his weekend participating in group exercises designed to build trust in himself and others. For example, says Wilson, "we told one another the worst things about ourselves and the best things, so we could get used to accepting the feelings that went with each type of disclosure."

The point, he says, was to recognize his own emotions fully enough to mentally steer them in a more positive direction. "How you feel is all about how you think," says Wilson, who reports the retreat helped him to acknowledge the self-defeating thoughts and habits that brought him to his present circumstances.

Wilson accepts that the task of transforming his life will occupy him for years to come. "I know exactly who's responsible for the mess I'm in and who has to clean it up, but it's been hard to summon the imagination to make the necessary changes," he says. "I'm hoping that I'll turn out to be a late bloomer."

In Search of Mindfulness... Meditation-based Retreats

An ancient Eastern practice to calm and focus the mind, meditation exerts a strong appeal to overstressed Western lives and is incorporated into nearly every retreat, religious or otherwise. There are, however, retreats devoted specifically to meditation, like those offered by the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in rural Barre, Massachusetts, where for the last two years New Yorker John Corwin, 58, has spent a summer week. "Managing our easily distracted minds is far more difficult than it sounds," says Corwin, describing the meditation process and its difficulty. "At first I could barely meditate for five minutes. Now I can do as much as 30 minutes at a time."

So why do it? Calming and focusing the mind allows him to more fully experience the individual moments in his life, Corwin believes, "rather than thinking about a time when things were or will be different than they are now." As a result of his practice, he says, he's more satisfied with the present, less consumed with the future or past.

It doesn't hurt that the IMS is situated in a beautiful 160-acre wooded compound. Program participants stay in appropriately modest quarters, just two dormitories attached to a main building and meditation center. The bedrooms are small, and bathrooms are shared. The food is ovo-lacto vegetarian (eggs and dairy allowed) and simple. Breakfast and lunch are the main meals, with a small snack for dinner. Retreat participants help prepare all the food as a form of community work.

Retreats at IMS are conducted in near-total silence, with the only interruptions being 45 minutes of daily instruction in a range of meditation techniques or optional help sessions in which you can seek counseling about problems that arise during meditations. During the day everyone has a communal task, such as salad preparation for the large midday meal, which is also performed in silence.

Otherwise, the time at the IMS is filled with structured 45-minute meditations, both sitting and a walking variation in which participants walk in a straight line, focusing on the physical sensation of their footsteps. Whatever the meditation, the goal is always to train the mind to return to the focal point when it wanders.

Corwin credits the self-mastery gained during meditation with helping him to have the focus and confidence to start his own business and to lose the fear of not having a steady income. Formerly a high-pressure lawyer, he's now a self-employed consultant to nonprofit organizations. "Fear is mainly a physical sensation. It's not the same thing as danger. Sometimes it is just fear that stops you, not danger. Overcoming that feeling can help you trust yourself enough to move toward your goals," he says. "I'm happier now than I ever expected to be."

Lani Luciano has written for Barron's, Worth, Self, and many other publications. Additional reporting by Claire E. Fisher.

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