Why Retreats Are Important: What I learned from my First International Retreat
First off, the word “retreat” can be intimidating in itself. What is a retreat? What am I retreating from exactly? Apart from those somewhat open-ended questions, you have the cost aspect, as well as fear that comes from voluntarily leaving your comfort zone to be vulnerable with literal strangers. Many people let this anxiety in regards to the unknown stop them from even applying, let alone actually investing in a retreat. Are retreats worth the money? Is a retreat genuinely an investment in one’s self? LMDES has been hosting week-long retreats since 2017 where we invite a diverse group of women from all ages to a meticulously curated retreat. More than a retreat, it’s an experience. Aisha, a travel blogger at Urban Escapist, and self-proclaimed introvert, set her worries aside and took a chance on a retreat, but not just any retreat: she opted for a retreat across the ocean in Javea, Spain with Las Morenas de España. Here is what she gained from the experience. This is what Aisha learned from her first international retreat, and why she believes that retreats are important.
I stood on a white pebble beach staring at a pink, blue, and purple sky as the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea. Every detail of the scene put me at a loss for words: the pastel colors reflecting on the water, the soft contrast with the white of the waterfront restaurant behind me, the relaxed lapping of waves, and the shared sense of peace between strangers watching the same sky. I’d seen beautiful sunsets before, but this was different. It wasn’t just about the natural beauty. I was looking at this sunset through eyes that saw a new vision for a life in which this level of pure joy wasn’t so unfamiliar.
I found myself in the Spanish coastal town of Javea for the first ever Las Morenas de Espana retreat. On my first day, I arrived at the Mediterranean-style villa with a red tiled roof and bright yellow stucco exterior. Passing the orange trees as the taxi drove through the entrance gate, I was greeted by women who welcomed me by name like we were old friends. Over five days, our group of 13 women participated in visioning sessions, a Spanish cooking class, wine tasting, and more. Those experiences were memorable, but the profound effect of spending this time with like-minded Black women caught me by surprise. I gained so much from the retreat and in the process of reflecting on it, realized there were three lessons I came away with that were reinforced during challenging life events that followed my return home.
After this Retreat I Learned to Prioritize Freedom
On that Javea beach, I realized it’s time to regain some control. Working for myself and having the freedom to move around the world isn’t easy, but it is possible--just as possible as arriving in a new country and leaving with a sisterhood of women whose journeys are now intertwined with mine.
Just three months after I returned from Spain, I lost my job as a grant writer for a nonprofit consulting firm. I thought the job would make me happy since it was exactly the job I had been seeking. Less than a year in, I still couldn’t shake my dissatisfaction. Back in the U.S. after two weeks in Spain, my motivation to throw myself into a job I didn’t enjoy was at an all-time low. Apparently, it showed.
At least I had something other than job applications to fill my time. I had started a travel blog just over a year ago and knew I wanted to focus more on travel writing. Unemployment is stressful, but the bright side is that it made me realize I am most happy when writing or traveling. I always valued the ability of cultural exposure to engender a respect for humanity and counteract prejudice and accordingly, said my dream job was to be a travel writer. But over time, the pressure to find a stable 9-5 job overpowered that dream. I had lived my life based on what is supposed to be the responsible, safe path. You go to college, get a job, and keep moving up to better jobs. That path hadn’t worked for me since I graduated from college in the midst of a recession, but I went through the motions anyway, losing any sense of direction along the way.
Through all this, I’ve noticed a theme: freedom. When I travel, write, blog, and use my creativity, I am most fulfilled because I feel free. Although I’m now in a full-time job that I enjoy, I’m no stranger to that nagging feeling that I’d rather be writing and creating content. I suffered from a setback, including the debt that piled up during my unemployment, but thinking back to that feeling on the beach reminds me of the sense of freedom I’m now working towards.
What the LMDES Retreat Taught Me: Be grateful
During the retreat, I shared a room with four other women. That may sound unappealing, but it was actually an ideal situation. As an introvert, I got to interact with each of my roommates without having to make much of an effort. One of them suggested we share gratitudes every night before going to bed. So that’s what we did. We ended every day on a high note by reflecting on something we were grateful for and sharing it with everyone. One of my gratitudes was for the strong and supportive women in my life. My mother is one of those women.
After Mother’s Day 2018, my mom told my sister and I that her doctor found a tumor in her breast. I didn’t know how to process the news at first, but I tried to take solace in the fact that she seemed to be handling it well and it was a small tumor that was caught early. Ultimately, doctors were able to remove all cancerous tissue and my mother can now say she is cancer-free. As scary as this time was for all of us, I tried to take cues from my ever-optimistic mother and find the silver lining. I remembered the importance of gratitudes and how good it felt to remember the positive things in life by speaking them out loud every day. With that spirit in mind, I can say I’m grateful not only for my mother’s health, but for the fact that she is and has always been a solid example of positivity, optimism, and strength.
During a Q&A session with expat women who moved to Spain, one of the women spoke about her decision to move with a happiness in her voice that almost moved her to tears. She told us, “I’m at a place where the goals I’ve set have either happened already or will happen within the next year. It’s crazy to realize that I’m living out the vision I had for my life and that goes to show the power of not being afraid to go for your goals, that they’re not out of reach.”
Her words and the words of the other women who found fulfillment and happiness in Spain still echo in my head today. I’ve struggled with an anxiety disorder and depression since I was a child, but a recent low point made me reevaluate how far I’d actually come. Feelings of loneliness, disregard, and self-loathing resurfaced from my past as I waited alone for a friend to show up at midnight on New Year’s Eve. I eventually went home and spiraled into a dangerous depression that resulted in me leaving work early the next day to check myself into the hospital. With the support of my therapist and family, I got the help I needed and everything turned out better than before. Still, it reminded me that I can never stop working on myself. Mental illness has to be managed and as exhausting as that management is, it’s important to keep working at it for my own health and happiness.
Although no clear endpoint may exist for depression and anxiety compared to goals related to moving abroad, the concept is the same. No matter how hard it may be, we need to keep pushing on if we want to reach the goals we’ve set for our lives.
I can honestly say attending the LMDES retreat was one of the best decisions I’ve made and well worth the money. There are a lot of retreats out there to choose from, but to be able to truly connect with other down-to-earth and like-minded Black women is an invaluable experience. The level of self-reflection and intentionality built into the retreat made a lasting impression on me. Two years later, it still motivates me to continue working toward my goals even when things get tough. Struggle is a part of life, but as I saw from the women I met in Spain, it doesn’t have to be the end of your story.
*All photos taken by Tanya Weekes
Aisha Springer is a writer and blogger at Urban Escapist, a travel and wellness blog that encourages self-care through travel and local exploration. Urban Escapist reflects three themes: a sense of freedom and exploration, self-care and mental wellness, and cultural appreciation. Aisha is based in Baltimore, Maryland and works full-time in nonprofit organization fundraising.