The Value of Retreat

June 24, 2013 Updated: June 22, 2013

Morita therapy, which was created in the early 20th century by the Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Morita, is often described as a therapy of action, as typified by its motto, “Accept your feelings.  Know your purpose. Do what needs to be done.”

But few realize that Morita actually began not with action but rather non-action and even retreat. As traditionally practiced in Japan, patients in Morita therapy are first assigned a period of isolated bed rest, during which time they’re forbidden from all activity. Only after enduring extended separation are patients permitted—often to great relief—to perform basic chores, garden, engage in arts and crafts and, finally, return to daily life.

As Morita therapy suggests, retreat isn’t just beneficial, but may actually be necessary to help us engage the world with greater awareness and intention.

Retreat can also help us let go of things, people, and behaviors that are harmful, but which we may have difficulty resisting when they’re close at hand. Retreat under these circumstances isn’t a sign of weakness but rather of strength, requiring willpower to remove ourselves from the objects we most desire.

In fact, for many people, retreat is actually more difficult than action. When we’re “doing something,” it’s easier to forget our troubles. When in retreat, we have no choice but to look ourselves straight in the eye. In retreat there is, ironically, no escape.

But if that’s the case, some may ask, why even go on retreat? If it’s just going to cause discomfort, who needs it?  

Well, for many New Yorkers, and urban dwellers generally, daily life is literally filled with action from the moment we sip our morning coffee until we turn off our BlackBerries at night. With few opportunities to retreat, relax, and literally “recreate” ourselves, more often than not our busy-ness can end up making us feel depleted rather than enlivened.   

While retreat can initially be uncomfortable, over time it can come to be something we not only look forward to but desperately crave.

The other option is to escape—not through true retreat—but rather inaction or, more accurately, watching the actions of others (for example, in movie and on television) while we ourselves remain passive.

This is one kind of escape, but it’s much different from true retreat. In true retreat, the only action that takes place is that which occurs in our own minds. For when we sit, as in meditation and Morita therapy, without distraction, simply being with the reality we construct in our minds, we come to understand ourselves in ways far deeper than any external force can capture.

There are many ways to find true retreat and none require expensive flights to the Caribbean or wracking up exorbitant credit card debt.

One of the easiest (perhaps) is committing to going a day (or night) without media:  no television, radio, cellphone, or even Internet. Yes, you may have trouble imagining cutting yourself off from these various devices, but see if you can get through the initial discomfort to the relief you’re likely to feel on the other side.

Another way is by attending a regular meditation each month (notice I said month not week) where you can experience a mini-version of what Morita provided for his patients:  time alone, away from the world, to sit, reflect, and simply be with your thoughts.

Dr. Wylie Goodman is a licensed, clinical psychologist who works with English speakers worldwide via Skype and in person in her office in New York City. Her practice, East-West Psychotherapy & Coaching, specializes in integrating Buddhist-based approaches to mental wellness with Western methodologies grounded in cognitive-behavioral and existential theories. www.east-westpsychotherapy.com

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