Social isolation is one of the markers for depression. Sometimes when we are witness to someone retreating for a time, whether for a few hours, a few days or even longer, it’s not a time for concern or frustration, but for holding space. Social isolation in the form of retreat and social respite can be a time of healing, reassessment and regrouping.

Retreat is a time honored hallmark of the ascetic. All of our great mythological and spiritual figures, whether we consider Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Odysseus, Demeter, Odin, Lao Tzu or some other, have all disappeared for while at some point. This is not to suggest that we should all secretly aspire to life of the Yogi, the prophet or the seer, but myth is a meta-descriptor of the human condition, and so it is not unreasonable to suggest that if we find it in myth, we will find it in life and if we find it in life, we will find it in myth.

People retreat in different ways. We see it in children’s play, in the “own little world” of the teenage girl, in the “cave” of the adolescent boy and it is a trait that many of us carry into adulthood. Rather than seeing it as “something wrong”, whether in ourselves or another, we might be better served by recognizing that it is often part of a larger process of development, even in an adult.

This brings to mind the case a drug addicted young man. One weekend he disappeared into his room. For three days he did nothing but lie about, watch movies and play video games. His parents, assuming he was using again, were beside themselves, and common sense would dictate that he was, indeed, doing just that.

Quite to the contrary, when he emerged, he had come to a new-found sense of purpose and conviction. He had, in his respite, found the peace that he had been seeking and, in that, a renewed sense of purpose. Not only had he not been using, he had spent his time concretizing his sobriety. He needed, and had consciously undertaken, a break from his reality so that he could return to that reality more fully present in both it and himself.

When not attached to depression or even simple melancholy, the slippery slope upon which social isolation stands is escapism. We are a culture that thrives on escapism; just look at how much television we watch – and television, when you think about it, is really just about watching someone else make a living. If, however, this potentially escapist element that is built into retreat is undertaken with an underlying intention that amplifies our interior process, we may then get somewhere. If not, then we are only avoiding or running away.

Used properly and constructively, retreat is both a useful, and necessary, means for supporting self-evolution. If undertaken with intention, and not as foil for wallowing or self-pity, it can be a powerful tool for bringing us to our own next level, becoming more fully present in both ourselves and our lives.

© 2010 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved