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Stepping back from the world is an ancient human impulse. Over the last year we have had to retreat. But throughout history, we have chosen to.
We were doing it more and more, anyway. Mindfulness and meditation are all the rage. Wellness tourism, yoga breaks, meditation apps, and spiritual boot camps have been booming - entry-level to hardcore.
Retreat investigates this human obsession, mining neuroscience, psychology and history to reveal why we seek solitude, what we get out of it, and what is going on in our brains and bodies when we achieve it.
What has it meant to the world's great thinkers, and what does it mean, in our age, as an activity we pay for?
Is isolation a means of engaging more fully with reality, or evading it? And what has retreat meant at a time when humanity has - to an unprecedented extent - been forced to withdraw? Nat Segnit has felt the pull of solitude and the fear of it, as well as the warmth of company. To answer these questions, he has been on retreats around the world and met yogic scholars, cognitive and social scientists, religious leaders, philosophers and artists.
Retreat is endlessly enlightening, sceptical and open-minded. It is about seeking happiness, fulfilment, a change of perspective, and relief from stress and anxiety. And it is surprisingly, joyously, full of human encounter. Ultimately, it is about the discovery that retreat is a mental state that can be achieved anywhere, in a monastery or shopping centre, a cave or a crowd.
Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.
For the sad old earth must borrow it's mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air.
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.
Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go.
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all.
There are none to decline your nectared wine,
But alone you must drink life's gall.
Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a long and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.
by Ella Wheeler Wilcox.
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