4 Steps to Creating a Transformative Retreat Experience

"I wish I could show you the astonishing light of your own being." – Hafiz

Whenever I hold one of my retreats, I ask the attendees in advance to contemplate what they can do to ensure they get the most out of their retreat.

I know everyone will have a great experience—they almost always do. But is there a way to take it beyond great? Is there a way to use a retreat experience as a platform to truly transform one’s life?

I believe the answer is yes, it's possible. As both a retreater and a retreat facilitator, I have gleaned valuable insights into how we can set up the conditions to create a transformative experience for ourselves.

First, as a retreater, my deepest inner experiences have occurred when I completely remove myself from my daily routines, relationships, reactions and habits. We can set up the idea of “retreating” for ourselves for a week, weekend, day, afternoon or even an hour. What’s most important is that we leave behind daily life as we know it and focus solely on taking care of ourselves during this time.

Next, as a retreat facilitator, I have had the honor of observing retreaters and hearing their stories about the impact a retreat has had on their lives. This has further reinforced my conviction that, when a person embraces the ideal of truly disengaging from daily obligations, routines, old thought patterns and the like, they make it possible to experience important, heartfelt transformation.

I would like to suggest that on your next retreat you try out the four steps described below:

1. Step AWAY  —  2. Step BACK  —  3. Step INSIDE  —  4. Step FORWARD

It just may turn a great experience into a transformative (and unforgettable) one.

1. Step AWAY

This is the most important step to creating a transformative experience, so I will expand upon this step more so than the others. This is the foundation of it all.

To step away means to disengage from your everyday life and leave your daily routines and distractions behind. This step is critically important, in fact essential, to establishing an environment in which transformation can occur. The greater the degree to which you can accomplish this, the greater the probability that you will create a transformative retreat experience for yourself.

Stepping away involves much more than simply transporting yourself to a retreat center. To truly step away, you also need to “unplug” to the greatest extent possible and give yourself a reprieve from the daily bombardment of emails, texts, news flashes, tweets and posts. I realize that, in the age of the Internet and the ubiquitous mobile device, this isn’t easy. However, a retreat setting gives you a golden opportunity to do it, so do your best to take advantage of this opportunity.

Gift yourself silence and stillness. Try to give up web-browsing during the retreat. Put an auto-reply “out of the office” message on your email and voice mail. Let family, friends, and colleagues know that they may not get a response until you return. Try to minimize your involvement with matters back home.

Every attention-grabbing distraction shifts your energy and focus away from the stillness and reflective nature of the retreat experience. It’s like getting abruptly yanked out of a dream, being snapped back to reality. You then need to work to reestablish the retreat setting for yourself each time.

You may be thinking, “I just can’t turn off my daily life, not even for a few days. My kids need me; my work can’t wait; and my wife/husband will be upset with me.” I would counter by saying that the more you can use this time for you—and only you—the more everyone in your life will benefit. The post-retreat riches that you and those around you realize will more than make up for any temporary inconvenience or delays experienced during your time away. If you give yourself a fair opportunity to care for yourself during your retreat, you will return to your family, friends and colleagues stronger, more grounded, and better equipped to serve.

Another important part of stepping away is setting an intention and embracing it. Before your retreat begins, set an intention to invite transformation in. For example: During this retreat, I will take care of myself, focus on my needs, and set up the conditions to allow true transformation to manifest.

2. Step BACK

Stepping back involves observing and reflecting upon your life. Once you have arrived at your retreat, removed the distractions and achieved some semblance of stillness for yourself (see Step 1), you can then take a step back and reflect upon your life—the blessings and the challenges, the good times and bad. The things you are joyous about, and the things you would like to change. This identifies the “WHAT” of your retreat: What are the things in my life I am thankful for, the things I would like to shift, or the things I must let go of?”

Take time to reflect. One thing that really helps me is keeping a journal. I write down thoughts, dreams and insights. I also create poems and sometimes sketch images.

3. Step INSIDE

Once you have identified certain things in your life to focus your attention on (see Step 2), you can turn your focus inward, or step inside, and engage in contemplation and introspection. This is where you take an honest assessment of your life and uncover the “WHY” behind the things you have observed: Why is my life unfolding in this way? Why am I blessed? Why am I facing certain challenges? How have I contributed to each experience in my life?

As answers (and more questions) are revealed to you, record them in a journal throughout your retreat. Take time to contemplate your observations and revelations, and set a matrix for your future. As my Spiritual Teacher Sri Gary says, “See who you are becoming, not what you have left behind.”

As your retreat nears its end, take time to galvanize the insights you’ve gleaned about yourself and prepare to take them back with you into your daily life.


Now it's time to return to the “real world” with fresh perspective and renewed energy. It's time to step forward into your life with more authenticity and greater creativity, to better serve and care for yourself and those around you.

Going forward, you can invite transformation into your daily life by creating space for “mini-retreats” and calling upon these four steps:

Step AWAY — Step BACK — Step INSIDE — Step FORWARD

Try this on your next retreat---be it formal or informal, and be it for a week, weekend, day, afternoon or even just an hour---and see if you can shift your experience from one that is good or great to one that truly transforms your life.

Then step forward and set your world on fire!