The Nature Retreat
By Jesse Wolf Hardin



Going to a wild and beautiful place on a nature retreat has nothing to do with disengagement or escape. It Is an opportunity to be restored to balance, and inspired to act.

It may take an hour or two to get there, or it could require a day-long plane ride. A car rental, a burro ride into the Sierras, a boat trip to a remote island, a rugged jeep ride, or a walk-in that requires wading the same shallow river seven times. Inevitably it will be somewhere selected for its dramatic grip on the imagination and the senses, its powerful natural setting or longtime association with ceremony and magic.

Crashing ocean waves. A secluded forest grove. The stunning view from a mountain top stupa.  The embrace of an enchanted canyon. The cherished holy places of exotic traditions, or the colorful mesas where generation after generation of Mogollon Indians held their ceremonies and prayed. Upon arrival a gong might ring, and a set of bamboo gates swing open.

Or perhaps it is only the touch of the river water on one’s bared feet, and the call of the eagle or raven that announce one has left behind the expected, the known, the busy and rote, and entered into enchanted place and time.

A couple arrived here at this mountain sanctuary, just as I was writing this, and coming all the way from San Diego. As they described it, they started feeling a change before their trip. The canyon they were coming to seemed strangely familiar and stuck in their mind long before they wrote us.

Their normal impeccable sense of linear time dissolved on the trip, with a day seeming to fit into an hour, and an hour seemed ever so long. Every step from the parking area brought them more into their physical beings and caring hearts, self consciousness and body issues receded, and they started to relax in ways that allowed in the sweet sights, sounds and smells.

For thousands of years our kind has made conscious and deliberate sojourns, and for far more than rest, no matter how restful such experiences can be. The Buddhist goes on retreat to deepen his or her practice, in a special place conducive to such aims. The Franciscan Friar retreats to a wilderness abbey, to get further away from the distractions of the parish and power struggles of the church, and closer to the experience and reality of god.

The shaman leaves the comforts of the village in order to contact the truths and forces that can help him in his work when he gets back. The tribal Medicine Woman, or the modern herbalist and healer, will take time out in the forest or desert where she can herself be healed, fed and affirmed... and in this way, be better able to heal and give to others.

And likewise, businesswomen, community activists and urban merchants often realize they can accomplish more of their goals in the long run, if they first take some time out of their busy schedules to give to themselves.

It turns out the woman visiting is struggling against depression and burnout, after years as a grass roots conservation activist. It had been hard for her to always project a positive attitude, in the face of so many environmental setbacks on projects she had spent years on. This is her way of intimately touching in with the earth she has so selflessly served, and to receive its acknowledgment and gifts.

But there is nobody who can not benefit from a temporary halt in the usual flow of obligations and events, a weekend or even an entire month away from the day planner, the instant messenger, the nagging phone. Away from personal habit and rigid schedule, and into a dramatically different environment and pace. Away from the usual comforts that insulate us from ecstatic connection, from exciting adventure and the sometimes challenging elements, and in that way further into vibrant, spirit-filled, sensate experience.

A nature retreat brings one closer to the natural world that calms and heals, challenges and stirs, empowers and instructs... and thus closer to one’s own inner nature, their authentic feelings, needs, abilities, potentials, hopes and dreams.

Retreats need not be uncomfortable, but they are never about convenience... anymore than love is, or art, children, fun and play, or one’s valuable project or mission. The retreats we host at this mountain sanctuary are billed as primitive, which is certainly true compared to the neighborhood spa or resort. They are nonetheless far from uncomfortable, with visitors’ gear being four-wheeled in so that they can enjoy the short riverside walk.

Cabins feature a riverside view overlooking beaver dams and a cottonwood forest, a wood stove and antique gas range, solar-powered lights and a big comfortable bed. Hot homemade feasts treat the belly, while the volcanic cliffs and nearby ancient rock art lend a special feel.

But there is still the inconvenience of no television, thermostat or telephone. And those who come have gone to the trouble of adjusting their work schedules, arranging for child care and transportation, telling friends they will be unavailable, and temporarily suspending the million and one things that they would normally be doing. Such intention, effort and follow-through makes the retreat all the more powerful, and its effects longer lasting.

Whatever the cost in getting there, or in projects delayed, we pay a much higher price when we neglect to treat, tend and recharge ourselves. Hypertension. Heart attacks. Premature aging. Disrupted sleep. Feelings of unease and dissatisfaction that lead to ambivalence or despair. It can help to take a single hour every day, and make it a set time for focused, ritual engagement, for turning off the mental loops and consciously reinhabiting our bodies, emotions, and spirit.

For sensing ourselves in connection to all that is, and drawing vision and energy from the earth beneath our floors. The key is how deliberate we make that hour. How dedicated to the purpose of our personal, enlivened wholeness. And how focused on our enjoining, and hopefully bettering in some small way, the whole world of which we are a part.

Going on retreat was never meant to be a substitute for direct action, but rather, a place and a way in which to be nurtured, instructed, energized and empowered. We still need to act on our priorities, after a retreat helps us sort out what really matters most in our lives. And it remains up to us, to utilize the energy and manifest the visions that retreats provide.

We see in the balanced energies of the natural world, in wild ecosystems, models for reciprocity and balance. Models for community. Examples of authenticity, courage, empathy, compassion and right action. The power of not only cooperation, but the sometimes necessary resistance and defense.

Social activists can access a truth and strength away from their constituents, that they can take back to them. Conservationists and restorationists can learn from the land what it most requires, and in that way meet some of their own deepest and most ignored needs. The environmental advocates who came here will find not only the truth of what they seek to protect, but also tap an elemental reservoir that can inform their thinking and embolden their efforts.  

The advantage is that in retreat, the natural, inspirited world offers up its insights, allows us to tap with some inner root the accumulative planetary wisdom of 4.5 billion years of evolving consciousness and life. And it is also in retreat, that even those of us with the busiest minds can quiet the chatter long enough to hear our own inner pleadings,  promptings, warnings, assurance, contented purring and sagely advice.

Jesse Wolf Hardin is an acclaimed teacher of Earth-centered spirituality, living seven river crossings from a road in an ancient place of power. He is the author of five books including “Gaia Eros: Reconnecting To The Magic & Spirit of Nature” (New Page 2004), and performs on the GaiaTribe CD “The Enchantment” available at: . He and his partners teach Gaian Spirituality at their riverside sanctuary, hosting students and guests for studies, counsel, retreats, quests, resident internships and the Wild Women’s Gathering in June: The Animá Retreat Center and women’s sanctuary (formerly The Earthen Spirituality Project), Box 820, Reserve, NM 87830. Visit

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