2141 Meditation on Renewing Your Soul


Five things have included in them onesixtieth part of something else. They are fire, honey, Shabbat, sleep, and dreams. Fire has onesixtieth of hell; honey has onesixtieth of Manna; Shabbat has onesixtieth of heaven; sleep has onesixtieth of death; and dreams have onesixtieth of prophecy.  Babylonian Talmud: Berachot 57b

A day of spiritual retreat is a powerful vehicle for renewing the soul. However, when we find a way to take a day to ourselves, we often do not know what to do with the free time.

The purpose of a spiritual retreat is to do things that are different, to engage in experiences that will change our perspective of life and our role in it. Initially, these practices are not the kind of things we would normally choose to do during our free time. Some require strong concentration, some are repetitive, some necessitate great patience. On the other hand, many spiritual practices are intriguing, stimulating, provocative, and transformative. Although the introduction to spiritual practice is often an unusual experience, many of us discover that something within us opens, we gain new access to an inner voice, and we find ourselves looking forward to repeating and reinforcing the experience.

If you have never taken a day off for spiritual practice, you have a treat in store. Set up a gentle schedule for yourself. Be careful not to make the schedule too rigorous for your first day of retreat experience. Give yourself plenty of time to rest during the day. Start only with practices that are most meaningful for you, the ones that seem to work the best to capture your attention and quiet your mind. Set up a couple of different sample days to consider and then begin to make your plans for a day off. You will decide on which schedule to follow just before you begin the actual day of your retreat. 


How do we find time to take a day off for a retreat? This is a question most people ask themselves. Our busy lives often impose tight scheduling. We allow ourselves a certain amount of time to get from one place to another, and often become extremely agitated if a traffic jam ruins the schedule. We have a fixed amount of time for work or projects, and frequently run overtime. We are constantly responsible to assure time for our most intimate relationships with family members. We even find ourselves cutting into our basic time requirements for life essentials such as eating and sleeping. At certain periods, the demands of time seem to carry us surfing on a giant wave, desperately trying to keep our balance. Thus, given the level of our daily activity; who has time for spiritual retreat?

On the other hand, when we have minor illness, we may have to stop everything for a few days, stay in bed, and nurse ourselves back to health. Remarkably, the world goes on without us. We may be missed, but the family gets fed, the important daily activities are put on hold, and life continues. So the issue is not as much about time as it is about how we prioritize our lives.

When we are caught in the hectic flow of daily life, our sense of priority is often confused. Things become clearer when we face a crisis. When, God forbid, someone in the family has a serious accident or faces a lifethreatening illness, we suddenly gain clarity about our priorities. When a person is given only months to live, he or she instantly realizes that, in the end, time is the most valuable commodity we have.

Planning Time off

Stop for a moment and reflect on your life up to now. It is sometimes useful in this reflection to imagine that you have just come from the doctor's office, and she has told you (may this never happen!) that you have only a few months to live. Please think about how you have lived your life until now and how you would change it if you could.

Perhaps everything has been perfect for you and you would not change a thing. You have lived a blessed life. Most people discover in this type of reflection, however, that they would focus more on quality time if they had it do over. Quality time includes opportunities for better connections in relationships and more quiet, unengaged personal time for reflection and contemplation.

Obviously, we can do nothing about the past. The question is: Do you want to bring more quality time into the future? Would you like to take a few days every so often and just be with yourself? How would you like to take off one day each week and do nothing but read, meditate, and do spiritual practices?

The idea of setting aside one day a week is mindboggling for many of us, but it is important to note that hundreds of thousands of traditional Jews do in fact celebrate Shabbat every week without fail. A large percentage of these practitioners are engaged in highly active livesrunning successful businesses, often involved in professional occupations-and yet they would never entertain the thought of working on Shabbat. It is simply a matter of priorities.

Thus, taking off a day or two for personal spiritual practice is not really as difficult as it sounds. The real challenge is what we choose to do with the time. There is an essential difference between taking a vacation and using precious free time for spiritual renewal. In my book A HEART OF STILLNESS, I describe the four fundamental elements that differentiate simple relaxation from spiritual practice: (1) purification, which involves separating from the mundane world; (2) concentration, which helps to focus and clarify the mind; (3) effort, which is the outward expression of willpower; and (4) mastery, which is the discipline needed to succeed.

Because your retreat needs to be designed for spiritual renewal rather than relaxation, there are a number of points to consider. In essence, you will need to provide a sanctuary for yourself that will not be violated except in an emergency.


Many people are able to retreat in their own homes. Obviously, this is easier if we live alone or with only one other adult in the household. When other people are involved, someone interested in taking a retreat at home must be able to designate a "sacred space" that can be closed off from the rest of the household. If it is not possible to set aside a dedicated sanctuary in your home, then you will need to find another place where you will be safe and secure for the period of your retreat.

A sacred space need not be very large; an eightbyten room or cabin is more than enough. It needs to be just large enough for a comfortable sitting arrangement, and big enough for a bed, even if it is merely a foam mat on the floor that can be kept rolled in a corner. In rustic conditions, the sanctuary may have only a hot plate for cooking and a small larder for food items.

If you stay in your own home, the accommodations are most likely luxurious compared with a tiny cabin in the woods. But one of the characteristics of a retreat is that we try to change our normal living arrangements. Thus, even in your home, you may wish to change your bed and bedding, the type of food you eat, or your bathing in order to gain a new perspective on habitual behavior patterns.

The most important aspect of the retreat location, however, is that we assure the opportunity of giving our undivided attention to the exercises we wish to undertake. This means that it should be without a telephone, television, radio, or other potentially invasive appliances (fax machine, computer, beeper, and so on).

We may need to put a sign on the door cautioning uninvited visitors not to disturb the people inside-just as we do when there is a newborn baby in the house. Telephones need to be adjusted so that they do not ring and answering machines turned down so that we do not hear the voices. Preferably, all these events take place in another part of the house so that we do not have to be wondering about every call that comes through.

Yet, with all this, it is important to prepare for any emergencies that may arise. When on retreat, we are often concerned about family and friends. It is useful, therefore, for retreats that last three days or longer, to arrange for someone to check the mail and the answering machine on occasion. In this way, the retreatant will be assured that should an emergency arise, he or she will be quickly notified.

If you are going to a secluded location for your retreat, it is a good idea to let someone know where you are planning to go, how long you will be there, and the best way to contact you if the need arises. This not only relieves any concerns about emergencies but also provides a security measure in case you get lost in the woods or for some other reason are unable to return

home at the appointed time. if that happens, your "retreat guardian" should take steps to verify that you are not in trouble.

All these measures are designed to relieve the retreatant of potential concerns. When we are not following our normal daily routine, we tend to worry, become afraid, and obsess about anything. The more preventative steps we can take while preparing for our retreat, the more opportunity we will have to devote ourselves entirely to the retreat practice.

Family and Friends

Many people take family retreats together. But if you are planning to do a solo retreat, it is most important to work in advance with family and friends. Although most people love the idea of taking time off for themselves, they tend to worry about others who do the same thing. Thus, family and friends need to be informed of your intentions well in advance.

This is particularly significant, of course, for people living in the same household. A retreatant needs an implicit or explicit "contract" to gain the cooperation of household members during the retreat. This agreement should contain elements that clarify what kind of personal contact is acceptable (minimal or none at all is recommended), how the kitchen will be managed (total independence is desirable), and use of potentially disturbing electronics such as the television (try to assure as much silence as possible). In essence, the rest of the household will be participating in the retreat on one level or another. (Indeed, many retreatants soon discover that they are not the only ones benefiting from their retreat!)

When friends are informed in advance, telephone calls and casual visits are minimized. It is hoped  that friends will be curious and supportive; this will encourage the retreatant and help to build confidence. The primary purpose of preparing family and friends is, once again, to minimize the potential for disruption of the retreat and to ease one's mind. 

It is important to note here that traditional Jewish families celebrate Shabbat as a communal experience. Everyone in the household participates, building a supportive environment, and this is enormously beneficial for setting the tone of the day. This is why there is a separate section of this book on family retreats. When possible, I highly recommend family cooperation in this process. 

However, as many people begin spiritual practice independently, this book also designed for individuals embarking on their own. Either way, whether on Shabbat or other days, whether in a group situation, a family, or alone, the celebration of the spirit is an important part of nurturing our souls. While we invest an enormous amount of time in meeting our food needs for the body, we must pay increasing attention in these busy times to feeding the soul.

Food for the Body

Most people do not realize how much food related time is spent in daily life. We read about food, think about it, talk about it, dream about it. We spend time getting to the market, shopping, reading the labels, traveling to different stores for various items, preparing, cooking, setting the table, eating, and cleaning up after ourselves. In between, we are often drinking tea or coffee, snacking, and of course thinking about that great restaurant we just visited or intend to visit in the near future.

It is probably conservative to estimate that at least onethird of our waking hours are in some way related to food. When we can minimize the role of food, an enormous amount of free time becomes available to nurture the soul. Thus, an important aspect of preparing for a retreat is arranging for simple, quick, easytodigest meals.

Preparation is the key. My own method is to cook a large vegetable stew or soup that can be heated in minutes, and to make a large mixed salad, which will stay fresh for days when kept in an airtight plastic bag. Breakfast cereal, hot or cold, is easy to prepare and can be eaten anytime during the day. A supply of dried fruits and nuts is always a treat. Advance preparation minimizes the time we spend on food-everything is ready almost instantly, the meals are nutritious, and cleanup is simple.

If there are other people in the retreat area, try to minimize or eliminate trips to the kitchen in order to avoid contact. Every contact is a distraction, and often these distractions can hamper one's concentration or even spoil a retreat. The less we encounter other people while doing our inner work, the better. Often, to eliminate casual encounters, it is best to keep a food supply in the place where you are doing your meditation exercises.

If you wish to celebrate Shabbat in the traditional manner, you should be prepared not to cook at any time from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday. In most traditional households, an electric urn is used to keep water hot all day for the preparation of coffee, tea, or instant soup. In addition, an electric hot plate is on all day to keep food warm. Sometimes an electric cooking pot is used to keep a ready supply of hot soup or stew. Sometimes a gas stove or oven turned low is left on all day. Of course, one can eat cold, precooked food at any time.

The basic principles from a traditional perspective is that one should not turn electricity on or off during Shabbat, a fire should not be ignited or extinguished, and food should not be transformed through the cooking process. There are many ways to explain the Shabbat laws, and the truth is that most Jews do not observe these strict laws. Purely from the perspective of spiritual renewal, however, anything we can do to minimize our mundane activities is beneficial-and most of the Shabbat laws do in fact inhibit our regular weekday routine.

Whereas observant Jews eliminate cooking on Shabbat, traditionally the Shabbat meals are festive and filled with special taste treats. Thus, this is the time to splurge, to include your favorite foods and sweets, to fully enjoy the pleasure of eating. Indeed, many Jews love food; the archetypal Jewish mother is always associated with chicken soup and gefilte fish and other goodies that were invariably served on Shabbat or the holy days. Except for Yom Kippur and Tisha b'Av, which are days of fasting, all the special days of the year are marked by festive meals. One might even say that Jewish social life is inextricably connected with the dinner table.

In preparing your food, move deliberately. Enjoy the feel, look, and smell of the food. Handle it with love. Imagine how you would be relating to this food if you were just coming out of a wasteland where there was nothing to eat. In other words, experience the food in a special way, with caring, respect, and deep appreciation. The point is that although eating food serves a primary purpose, the preparation itself can be a marvelous spiritual practice that will enhance your state of mind and greatly benefit the overall retreat experience.

Willpower and Determination

The secret ingredient for success in all retreats-and in all of life for that matter-is preparing ourselves to see the task through. A halfhearted approach will not yield the strength of conviction we need to bring our unruly minds under control. We must always remember that while the mind is a wonderful organ, allowing us to do things unequaled in the rest of nature, we must not permit our minds to dominate us. The most insidious idol worship of all is the belief that the mind is supreme.

Many people misinterpret Descartes's famous dictum: "I think, therefore I am." In his philosophy, the sense of our existence, our knowing that we are something or somebody, is dependent upon our minds. But it is mistaken to believe that existence itself is contingent upon our minds. A tree does not have cognitive abilities, but it is still a tree. We would not be the same without our ability to think, but our existence is not conditional upon this ability.

One of the main tasks of spiritual inquiry--and one of the primary benefits of meditation, is to appreciate fully, to the extent possible, the what, who, and why of our existence. We are much bigger than our minds-we have mysterious qualities, energies, and unknown forces operating within each of us. Our yearning to discover the truth of our existence, the very motivation that has you reading these words at this moment, is centered in an unknown spark that transcends the mind. Thus, it is only when we grasp the inner workings of our minds that we can achieve a deeper wisdom.

One of the most important tools for understanding the mind is gained through deepening insight into our power of will. The will is a much more elementary human attribute than the mind. Although the mind may be running rampant, we can will ourselves to sit still. Although the mind may demand incessantly that we do something, we can will ourselves to do nothing. The mind is a powerful engine, but the will sits in the driver's seat.

Many people do not realize that the will is ultimately in control. The will is often hidden in the shadows: we act on impulse or find ourselves propelled by emotions. Perhaps the most common mind state is one that "wants" something, either to avoid discomfort or to accommodate every desire that arises. But of course we cannot satisfy all our desires, nor can we avoid discomfort in life.

As long as we believe that we are our minds, we are continually dissatisfied, constantly "wanting" something. Once we appreciate the deeper level of the will, that it can check and neutralize desire, we enter into a new relationship with our thought processes and we gain the potential to become truly liberated.

We all exercise our wills in the flow of life, but the process of meditation and inner work is a unique challenge for developing the power of will. We are not attempting to accomplish a task or achieve a goal; rather, we are focused on understanding our own makeup, what makes us tick. Thus, everything in meditative practice becomes grist for the mill.

In the meditation process, when we like something, we notice that we like it. When we want to avoid doing something, we notice how this desire for avoidance affects us. But rather than acting on our thoughts or feelings, we simply notice. This noticing without acting is dependent upon the will, and the more we are able to constrain our actions, the more we develop our power of will.

For our retreat to be successful, we need in the beginning to have the determination to see it through, to do the exercises and follow the instructions. Many times throughout the retreat we will find that we want to do something else. Invariably, it will be something that would take us back to our normal pattern-read a book or magazine, watch television, raid the refrigerator, sleep away the afternoon. This is something to notice, but staying with the task at hand we build the power of will.

The more we appreciate that our wills really can be in control, the quieter our minds become. And this is what the retreat is about. The quieter the mind, the more deeply we are able to see into things. From this, we realize that we are in a much different world. It is a world of natural harmony, profound wisdom, and sensual delight. It is here, right now, if only we break through the veils of our own minds. Learn about and befriend the will. It is our greatest asset in spiritual inquiry the bedrock upon which true awareness can be cultivated.