Escapism: Recharge your batteries by taking a retreat

It’s that time of year again… holiday booking time! I’ve booked a romantic break to Copenhagen with Conor, on the way back to Ireland, to celebrate the end of the first year of our Masters. I love city breaks — eating out, cocktails in some nice bar, wandering the streets, people-watching and window shopping. I also enjoy a beach holiday, tho’ it’s been quite some time since I’ve had one.mountainsphoto

However, whilst holidays are breaks from routine, they’re not always relaxing. Aside from the old ‘getting sick on holiday’ phenomenon that stressed-out workers encounter when they’ve been working so hard they haven’t had time to get ill, days spent walking around tourist sites, lying in sweltering heat on a beach or guzzling sangria can lead to that ‘I need a holiday to recover from my holiday’ feeling. Sometimes what’s really needed for recharging the batteries is a proper retreat, and in the last couple of weeks of back-to-back deadlines, my mind’s been returning to one blissful escape to Donegal, a few years back.

It was March 2011. For months I’d had a throat/chest infection that died down every few months before coming back again (doctors later figured out it was streptococcus infection and cleared it with a massive dose of antibiotics). I started 2011 frantically catching up on work, and come March, I decided I needed to stop taking on new clients for a bit, and go and work on my business in peace.

My good friend Roisin kindly offered to let me stay in her cottage on the Roisguill peninsula, so I set up my out-of-office notifications, loaded up the car with books, notebooks, laptop, guitar, healthy food and drink and some yoga and exercise DVDs, and set off for Donegal. My retreat ended up being as much about switching off as working, and was just what the doctor ordered — I hope it inspires some of you to take some very precious time out for yourself.

Anam Mara cottage, DonegalI was staying in Anam Mara, a beautiful stone cottage on the shores of Mulroy Bay, with no internet access. It’s been in Roisin’s family for generations, and she has lovingly renovated and extended it, with decking added to the back, overlooking the water. I arrived on a Thursday night, with snow on the roadsides, in rain and howling wind. I had a thrill of anticipation as I turned off the engine and was plunged into darkness, unable to see the bay at the bottom of the garden, and hearing nothing but the wind. This was switching off.

Car unloaded, I headed straight to bed, curling up under the duvet with a paperback, the wind assaulting the little window overlooking the bay. I’d a blissful lie-in the next morning, then made a healthy breakfast, did a workout with a DVD I’d brought — and decided that it was a proper holiday I needed, before getting stuck into work.

And so I spent the weekend reading by the fire, playing my guitar for an audience of black-faced sheep, and exploring the ruggedly beautiful Atlantic Drive. In between home-cooked meals, I treated myself to lunch in the Singing Pub and fish and chips from Carraigart. It was a blissful weekend.

View of Trá Na Rossan beach from Atlantic DriveMonday dawned clear and sunny, and I settled in for a week of work. It was hitting me in this peaceful place how exhausted I was — the stop-start of getting sick, resting, trying to catch up, getting sick etc. that had been going on since the previous summer had worn me out. Before I could think about any creative output, I’d have to stop and recharge my mental batteries.

I began my daily practice of ‘automatic writing’ — writing (or typing) without allowing yourself to pause, preventing your conscious mind from editing your thoughts as you write. Once you get used to the process, you get some fascinating results — I recommend this to clients feeling stuck, lost, in denial or needing inspiration

I discovered beautiful Trá na Rosann and made it my day-time workplace for that week — reading, writing, meditating and just gazing at the sea, writing up my notes when I got back to the cottage.

I really recommend taking a proper break like this if you can. One thing I hear again and again from clients — whether self-employed, working or caring for dependents — is that they’re burnt out and frazzled but are waiting until some major event or piece of work is ‘out of the way’ before pausing to take care of themselves. Or that they can’t take a break because too many people are depending on them. What happens if you don’t take a break, and then completely break down? You cannot keep your foot to the board without stopping to recover every so often — and sometimes you need a bit of distance to get real clarity and perspective.

If you can’t afford to get far away, think about swapping homes with a friend for a spell. And at the very least, consider an internet detox for a few days. Try meditation to give you a mental break — see soulambition.com/tv for a selection of different styles, including mindfulness. For a basic meditation, just sit and observe your breathing for some minutes. Don’t try and control it; just observe the in/out. Shrinking your mental focus to this simple rhythmic action is deeply relaxing. (Read my simple intro to mindfulness here.)

Here in Jyväskylä we’re surrounded by forests and unbelievably clean air, so it’s easy to get ‘into nature’ every day. When I lived in Belfast, I’d call into the Botanic Gardens between meetings; a 20-minute wander through the tropical ravine and palm house was great for de-stressing. If you can, spend time in a natural environment — a park, forest, mountain trail or beach; alone for head-clearing, or with friends, partner or family for shared enjoyment.

DaffodilsFor when you can’t get anywhere near a blade of grass: research by the University of Michigan claims that just looking at pictures of nature gives a bigger brainpower boost than a walk down a city street — so start collecting beautiful nature photos! (See pinterest.com/soulambition for some of mine.)

So, whether it’s for 5 mins, an hour, a day, a week or more — make your escape.

Be well!

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