Perhaps it’s become a truism that our world is shrinking. Increasingly tethered to devices, we find our plans and hopes shaped by social media. We’re rarely unseen or unreachable, and there is less opportunity to disengage and disconnect.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/5/2021 (421 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Perhaps it’s become a truism that our world is shrinking. Increasingly tethered to devices, we find our plans and hopes shaped by social media. We’re rarely unseen or unreachable, and there is less opportunity to disengage and disconnect.

Unsurprisingly, a countervailing set of movements, long-simmering in monastic communities, has gathered strength. It is to these forms of resistance that writer and yoga teacher Kirsteen MacLeod turns her attention. In Praise of Retreat interweaves historical and personal narratives in an attempt to re-imagine retreat and explain its necessity in the modern world.

As mindfulness has become entrenched as panacea to a variety of social ills, we may associate retreat with meditative immersion. MacLeod’s approach is broader: she examines pilgrimage, hermit enclosure, national parks, and artistic and yoga retreats.

What links each is an attempt, often secularized, to reclaim solitude and quiet in pursuit of a clarified internal experience.

Amongst detailed accounts of retreat from the lives of Emily Dickinson, Rachel Carson, Leonard Cohen and other lesser-known figures, MacLeod examines her own retreat experiences. These stories of Ontario’s Hastings Heritage Trail, of a near-disastrous yoga retreat and of a sumptuous creative writing emplacement add verve and personality.

The early days of extended meditation retreats often require time for acclimation; bodies become uncomfortable, and minds lack focus. Interestingly, MacLeod’s writing initially mirrors this early freneticism. The first section is jumpy and unable to find its pace before eventually smoothing into a comfortable canter.

Her treatment of historical figures is balanced and sensitive; whether discussing John Muir or Henry David Thoreau, MacLeod both highlights what is praiseworthy and notes what deserves critical re-examination.

While MacLeod’s personal experiences add colour and life, they aren’t without issue. It takes a fair bit of readerly generosity to ignore that her retreats often include scotch and internet access, symptoms of what she otherwise decries. Her critical lens is here too broad, there too narrow. Modern cultures, she says, do not value beauty or truth or even sanity.

At the same time, the thirst for retreat is both the province of the outsider, the iconoclast, but also somehow nearly universal. MacLeod is at pains, again and again, to point out that she is not religious. At the same time, she freely adopts religious language, without acknowledging the tension this creates.

That retreat isn’t only about removal — but also involves a focus on bringing new energy back to the workaday world — is a point well-made by MacLeod. If retreat strikes one as antisocial, we may come eventually to investigate our own lack of boundaries and privacy.

All the same, this really is a work of praise rather than an attempt to convert the uninitiated. The reader unfamiliar with an extended stepping away may question her own sense of obligation to always be reachable, to always follow a detailed checklist of tasks. As MacLeod memorably notes, there is value in being present rather than productive.

At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be enough here to inspire confidence to move beyond questioning and into integrating retreat into regular life practice.

MacLeod hints at benefits, but struggles to translate deeply personal insights gained from her experiences into familiar, accessible language. The dangers of retreat, which are not negligible, are implied, if too murkily.

For the experienced retreatant, perhaps this book serves as a call to memory. At its best, In Praise of Retreat poses interesting, challenging questions. The answers, unfortunately, do not always rise to the same level of acuity.

Jarett Myskiw is a teacher in Winnipeg.

If you value coverage of Manitoba’s arts scene, help us do more.
Your contribution of $10, $25 or more will allow the Free Press to deepen our reporting on theatre, dance, music and galleries while also ensuring the broadest possible audience can access our arts journalism.
BECOME AN ARTS JOURNALISM SUPPORTER Click here to learn more about the project.