Over the past few years I have undertaken numerous creative residential retreats. This prompted me to think about the benefits of these processes for artists, writers, thinkers and performance makers. All images are the author's own from the Performing Wild Geographies event at the Knepp Estate in October 2017.
Retreating: Thinking, Making, Being
The word retreat implicitly has the promise of a “treat” within it, referring to the notion of a treat as "anything that affords pleasure." Treat comes from the Latin trahere (to draw or pull), through resonances of the Middle English “negotiate” (for example treatise) and retreat as a pull away from something. From these etymological roots, we can see some of the ways in which the word “retreat” has come to have its current meanings. If we are to retreat, the word suggests that we are moving away, we are withdrawing, recoiling or fleeing something or someone. Antithetically, a retreat (or more recently to be on retreat) holds connotations of a place that offers seclusion, withdrawal, solitude, isolation, privacy, and sanctuary (to move away from something to find peace, space and time). “Retreating” explores the ways in which retreating from our everyday lives can have profound benefits in terms of what Cal Newport calls “deep work”, and how these practices can improve thinking, writing and being.
Newport defines deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit” (Newport, 2016:3). He uses the example of Carl Jung retreating to Bollingen, a tower in the woods, “not to escape his professional; life, but instead to advance it” (ibid: 2) and argues that many great thinkers and writers such as sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne and writer Mark Twain all removed themselves from their everyday, urban lives and retreated to a more rural, natural environment, in order to undertake deep work, thinking and writing. Newport’s hypothesis can be applied to a range of fields and these processes of retreating, of withdrawing from our technological and (largely) urban lives, in order to find solitude and sanctuary, can be of particular relevance and interest to artists and creative practitioners.
What are we retreating from?
[withdraw, retire, draw back, give way, give ground, recoil, flee, take flight, beat a retreat]
Newport argues that our contemporary lives and constant need for connectivity is eroding our ability to think deeply. He argues that deep work is necessary in order to fulfil human intellectual capacity and that “this state of fragmented attention cannot accommodate deep work, which requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking” (Newport, 2016: 6). Author of The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, Nicholas Carr agrees: “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation” (2008). Newport’s Deep Work Hypothesis is as follows:
The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive (Newport, 2016: 14).
How can we think deeply about the issues facing our lives and our planet if we are perpetually distracted, engaging in superficial and self-generating tasks such as emails and social media? How can we find time and space for contemplation and deep thought? We must retreat.
How to retreat
[seclusion, withdrawal, retirement, solitude, isolation, ebb, recede, privacy, sanctuary]
A retreat can happen in many ways. For most people, it is difficult to justify long periods of time away from work, family or study, but there are some small changes in focus and attention that can allow for a deepening of your life (and as a consequence, your work). The first (and most desirable) is a literal removal from your “usual” life to another environment, in natural surroundings, where you can be alone (or with a group of like-minded others) away from the anxieties and demands of everyday life. This withdrawal from your usual routine and immersion in natural surroundings is perceived to be the best way to embark on a period of deep work. As this is not always practical, Newport and others suggest strategies for retreating to a state of deep work within existing patterns of labour. An internet “Sabbath” (one day of no internet connection) or an internet “sabbatical” (abstaining from the internet for periods of time – only checking at assigned times if you need to do this for your job or practice) are some of the options that Newport suggests. What these strategies do not offer that a physical retreat does is the experience of being outdoors, and recent evidence suggests that this is a vital part of deep work, thinking and being.
What are we drawn to?
Newport argues that in a post-Enlightenment world, we have tasked ourselves to identify what’s meaningful and what’s not, “an exercise which can seem arbitrary and can induce a creeping nihilism” (2016: 87). How do we decide what is meaningful for our lives? What has value? What should we focus our attention on to think deeply about? What can deep work philosophies offer artistic practices and processes? Behavioural scientist Winifred Gallagher argues that it is focusing our attention on something (anything we choose) that is the key to a happy life: “Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioural economics to family counselling, similarly suggest that the skilful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience”. As she summarises: “Who you are, what you think, feel and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on” (Ibid: 77). By paying absolute attention to the thing that we are doing at any given moment; cooking a meal, taking a walk, writing a poem, creating a performance, spending time with a friend; the focus of this allows us a mental retreat from the distractions of our everyday lives. That focus and attention can be achieved more fully out with usual patterns of work/family life and in a natural environment is supported by numerous studies.
This intense focus and concentration on thinking, making, writing and being cultivate a “concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems” (Newport, 2016: 79). This may be more difficult in practice than in theory, however, like everything in life, deep work is a practice that must be nurtured and maintained throughout a lifetime. As the yogi Pattabhi Jois said to his students at Mysore: “practice and all is coming”. Writer Dani Shapiro agrees: “When it comes to the practice of writing, it cannot be distraction that propels us but rather the patience – the openness, the willingness – to meet ourselves” (Shapiro, 2013: 132). We meet ourselves when we are immersed in natural environments, when we have time and space to think and to engage with our natural surroundings and to consider our mirror in the landscape (Natural Change, 2010).
Retreat into Nature
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in” (Muir, 1938).
While the benefits of pressing “pause” on our normal, busy lives might be evident, recent studies indicate that in order to make the most out of a period of deep work, a natural environment is the most suitable, and as well as being devoid of the usual distractions (assuming we disconnect from the internet) has other effects in terms of health and wellbeing. Payam Dadvand et al. explore the benefits of green spaces to improving the attention spans of children:
Natural environments provide children with unique opportunities for engagement, discovery, risk-taking, creativity, mastery, and control, and for strengthening the child’s sense of self; in addition, they also may inspire basic emotional states (including a sense of wonder) and enhance psychological restoration, all of which may positively influence cognitive development and attention (2017).
As well as the positive effect on attention described here, discovery, risk-taking and creativity are all essential to developing a creative practice. The benefits of being outdoors are evidenced in recent studies exploring all age ranges. Kuhn et al’s 2017 study found healthy brain changes to older residents of urban environments who live near forests and further studies show that even small and brief encounters with something natural can improve overall mood.
As Kathleen Jamie says in her essay Into the Dark (2003), it can be easier said than done to remove ourselves from humankind-built structures, buildings, and spaces, and sometimes difficult to find a natural or wild place to be. I am reluctant to use the phrase “being in nature” as it implies that we “go out” into nature, that it is something outside of us and our normal lives. The binary between natural, rural environments and built-up, unnatural urban ones feels like an unhelpful dichotomy and perpetuates ideas that we are other than, or even against nature. Admittedly, we have become very disconnected from our natural world and environments in most aspects of our lives and most of the working age population have few regular encounters with natural environments beyond their urban place of work and home. Kayleigh J. Wyles et al’s 2017 study also indicates that wild natural spaces such as rural areas or coastlines are seen to be more beneficial than urban greenspaces, gardens and parks. To retreat further away from urban centres and more deeply into a natural environment has potentially more benefit to a period of deep work than an urban retreat, for example.
The benefits for all are evidenced, however, particularly for artists, writers and creative practitioners, walking through nature exposes you to what author Marc Berman calls “inherently fascinating stimuli,” which “invoke attention modestly, allowing focused-attention mechanisms a chance to replenish.” (Newport, 2016: 147-8). The process of walking outdoors, particularly in rural and coastal areas allows your directed attention resources time to replenish and can be of benefit to a creative practice. The majority of the writers I have mentioned have advocated intense periods of retreating from the chaos of our daily working lives in order to have intense concentration and focus on whatever it is they are doing. They also insist that relaxation and time away from work is also as vital. When retreating to his stone tower in Bollingen, Jung would work, deeply, alone in a room every morning without interruption. He would then meditate and walk in the woods in the afternoon to clarify his thinking in preparation for the next day’s writing. This break from work, this time being in a nature environment was able to support his thinking and writing practice.
When you are on retreat, think about the following questions:
- What are you retreating from?
- What are you drawn to?
- What has value to you?
- What will you focus on, deeply?
Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life (2009) says: “I’ll live the focused life, because it is the best life there is”. What kind of life do you want? Is it a deep life?
I offer Wendall Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things” as a final thought:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Berry Wendell. 2012. “The Peace of Wild Things” from New Collected Poems (Berkeley: Counterpoint).
Carr, Nicholas. 2009. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/ accessed 03/01/18.
Cimons, Marlene. 2017. “Connecting With Nature Improves Minds and Moods” https://www.ecowatch.com/nature-minds-moods-2511641154.html accessed 03/01/18.
Dadvand, Payam et al. (2017) “Lifelong Residential Exposure to Green Space and Attention: A Population-based Prospective Study” Environmental Health Perspectives; 097016-1 https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/ehp694/ accessed 04/01/18.
Gallagher, Winifred. 2009. Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. (New York: The Penguin Press).
Jamie, Kathleen. 2003. “Into the Dark”. London Review of Books. Vol. 25 No. 24 · 18, pp. 29-33.
Muir, John. 1938. John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir
Linnie Marsh Wolfe ed. 1978. (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press).
Newport, Cal. 2016. Deep Work. (London: Piatkus).
Shapiro, Dani. 2013. Still Writing. The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. (New York: Grove Press).
Kuhn, Simone et al. (2017). “In search of features that constitute an “enriched environment” in humans: Associations between geographical properties and brain structure”. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 11920 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-12046-7 accessed 04/01/18.
Wyles, Kayleigh, J. et al. (2017). “Are Some Natural Environments More Psychologically Beneficial Than Others? The Importance of Type and Quality on Connectedness to Nature and Psychological Restoration”, Environment and Behaviour.