By Margaret Critchlow
The news that Queenswood Retreat Centre in Victoria, Canada is closing after forty years (Monday Magazine, June 18, 2010) comes at a time when retreat centres matter more than ever. Why? As an anthropologist studying the culture of retreat centres for the past five years I have been asking: What is the value of holistic centres as the second decade of the twenty-first century begins?
In my research, I have visited nine centres, mainly on the west coast of North America and attended three Holistic Centre Gatherings, annual conferences for owners, managers, and staff. Some centres are religious, many are not, but all participate in a global, holistic movement, seeing all beings, the planet, and universal energy as interconnected and interdependent. (Holism, a concept also important to anthropology, is the idea that any system is greater than the sum of its parts and that the parts make sense only in terms of the whole.)
In the best anthropological tradition I have participated in the culture of these centres, taking workshops, talking with several hundred people, and learning the local “language.” I’ve done a lot of what we anthropologists call “deep hanging out:” overlooking the ocean from a hot tub, chatting with guests under shady trees, sitting in meetings and in meditation with staff. This has been some of the most enjoyable and deeply rewarding fieldwork of my career. And, I suggest, it is has profound significance for understanding the human condition.
That significance comes down to one simple question: What is the value of being there? This is not to question the value of being here. The power, indeed the necessity, of being fully present in the here and now is indisputable. The precious, impermanent beauty of the present moment is all we humans have. But what I have touched is the power of retreat centres to disturb the comfortable “here” of day-to-day life. Centres create a “there” in which to be fully present and from which to envision and ground that most precious and elusive goal, a positive future.