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Centers of Solace for the Self

October 28, 2001

Centers of Solace for the Self


IN the quiet sanctuary of the Dominican Retreat house in McLean, Va., just outside Washington and not far from the wreckage at the Pentagon, the phone has been ringing more than usual in the last several weeks. People have been calling to request information about programs and ask whether there is room to stay for a few days.

At Esalen, the venerable alternative center in Big Sur, Calif., whose mission is fostering personal and social transformation and "the realization of human potential," nearly all the rooms are full. Usually the center has a large international clientele, but just now more of its visitors are from the United States. "Sept. 11 has triggered a lot of feelings, and people are looking inward," said David Price, operations manager at the center.

Powell House Retreat and Conference Center, a Quaker establishment on 50 acres in Old Chatham, N.Y., not far from the Berkshires, focuses on peace, community and family, and has had full participation in recent weeks. Many sojourners from New York City spend the night. If guests are there on a weekend, they are welcome to attend Sunday Meeting in the library of the old farmhouse on the property.

It may seem odd to mention Dominican nuns, a Quaker retreat and Esalen in the same breath. However different the paths may be that lead visitors to their doors, all offer tranquil shelter and comfort for the spirit. "People are standing back, taking a look at their lives and reprioritizing," said Janet Berney, secretary for the Dominican Retreat. "They are taking more time for the spiritual side of things."

Tourism and leisure travel are markedly curtailed this season; roughly 30 percent of Americans who had plans for vacations have changed, canceled or postponed them, the Travel Industry Association of America said in a report this month. But many destinations offering restoration and solace, a chance to reflect and perhaps begin to heal, are holding steady. Some had cancellations the week after Sept. 11, but enrollment in programs since then has been strong — in some cases stronger than in past years.

"It makes sense that they're coming," said Louise Leckner, a spokeswoman for the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, N.Y., north of Poughkeepsie. "We help people reconnect to themselves, which is what you really need to get through something like this." Although Omega closes its Rhinebeck facility from November through April, it offers winter programs in the Caribbean. One of them is a Valentine's Day cruise for couples and singles, called Voyage of the Heart, on the Maasdam, a Holland America ship. The cruise, which begins in Fort Lauderdale and travels to Jamaica, the Bahamas, Cozumel, Mexico, and Grand Cayman, has had slow but steady bookings, Ms. Leckner says, and enrollment is higher than it was last year at this time. Omega also runs programs at Pura Vida, a yoga center in the mountains of Costa Rica.

The Christmas season at Maya Tulum, a yoga retreat that accommodates 80 in a beachfront jungle setting an hour and a half south of Cancþn, Mexico, is fully booked and has a waiting list. At its sister property, Pura Vida, the calls were slow after Sept. 11 but have been picking up in recent weeks, according to Jennifer Kehr, marketing manager for R & R Resorts, which represents the properties. The focus at the two places is on yoga, meditation and "conscious living."

Meditation is a core offering at all these retreat centers, religious or secular.

"The healing mechanism is the same through all the traditions," said Chaia Lehrer, director of marketing for Elat Chayyim, a Jewish spiritual retreat center. "Clearing the mind, sitting with oneself, you quiet the mind."

Elat Chayyim has had five organized retreats since Sept. 11, and welcomed 85 people to its grounds near New Paltz in the foothills of the Catskills in mid-October for a Renewal Shabbat weekend as leaves turned brilliant on the mountainsides.

Participants usually spend most of their time in silence although there are prayer services in a contemplative style that incorporate chanting and meditation. Individuals and families can arrange for a stay during retreats any time all year; the price for a weekend, including meals, is $165 to $300. The Renewal Shabbat included a session titled "The Torah of Anger and Equanimity," led by Rodger Kamenetz, author of "The Jew in the Lotus." "People have curtailed their activities, but they're coming on retreat," Ms. Lehrer said. "This is one thing they want to do."

At Powell House, reservations are coming in for "Cherish Family and Friends," the retreat's annual New Year's celebration weekend, where among other activities, families make and launch hot-air balloons. A new labyrinth, carved out from the property's woods and meadow, is drawing many visitors, says Cody Collett, a Powell House administrator. The price for the night, $40, includes a cold cereal breakfast with coffee or tea. In the Quaker tradition, when guests finish their stay, they make up their beds themselves with fresh linens, ready for the next sojourner. Retreats like Powell House are often sites for group gatherings, in which an entire congregation books a weekend, but they also have space for individuals and families.

Beyond solace, two factors that may be helping to keep enrollment up at religious retreat houses and yoga centers are price and proximity. Three-quarters of all leisure travel is done by car, according to the Travel Industry Association, and a few days on retreat at a center within driving distance seems easily manageable.

Some centers report that guests have expressed guilt at being nurtured; that a massage seems like an inappropriate indulgence. The standard response is that guests need to be taken care of, to find their own strength, before they return to the outside world and take care of others. The cost for these places is generally far less than that for a luxury spa or hotel. While some programs venture so deep into murky New Age theories that they might be off-putting to the average visitor, it's possible to go seeking only solitude in a peaceful place. The accommodations are often spare and the meals basic, but asceticism has its own appeal.

Since Sept. 11 the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, in Lenox, Mass., in the Berkshires, has been offering financial assistance on a limited basis to people who can't afford the entire expense of a stay. (The reduced rates are available through mid-December; regular prices range from $113 to $256 a night with a minimum of a two-night stay.) Michael Floyd, a graphic artist at the New School in Greenwich Village, went to Kripalu soon after the disaster, which he watched, in horror, from his window at work. There were many others from New York there during his stay.

"I was grateful to be at a place where when people ask you how you are, they know what that means," Mr. Floyd said. He'd been to Kripalu before, and sought the chance to get "back to nature a bit." He took a hike in the mountains and got back to practicing yoga, which he said helped give him determination and focus. "I realized that even just being able to get away to the mountains for a few days involved a certain amount of freedom," he said. "I started to understand what President Bush had been saying about this country's resolve."

The Dominican Retreat house in Virginia, which offers retreats for women and men and is run by the Congregation of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de' Ricci, does not want financial considerations to keep people away. The cost of a retreat is $230 for a weekend, but the sisters' policy is to turn no one away. Mass is celebrated and confession is heard on each retreat; attendance is optional.

"One of the things we do as Catholics," Mrs. Berney said, "is be prepared. We know not the time or the hour. We try to be ready."

Christine Cable of Annapolis, Md., has gone to the Dominican Retreat every year for the last 15 years with members of her parish and will go again this year. Part of the reason, she said, is that there "you have a chance to be ministered to. Inside the house is not quite silent, but close, so that you can slow down enough to listen to God." Each year the sisters adopt a theme from Scripture for the talks offered on retreat weekends. This year it is from Deuteronomy: "God is with you on your journey."

Some retreats offer opportunities for both solitary reflection in a tranquil setting and interaction focusing squarely on events of the day. At Kripalu, before Sept. 11, one of the programs planned for the fall was titled "Catastrophobia." It was meant to deal with fears of natural disasters, like floods, earthquakes and other traumatic events. However, the program, which took place last weekend, focused on terrorism as well, says a spokeswoman for the center. Another program, "Yoga and Buddhism," led by Stephen Cope, author of "Yoga and the Quest for the True Self," scheduled for Nov. 28 to Dec. 2, will discuss how to deal with suffering and hatred.

Numbers of visitors have been hard to predict. The Healing Center of Arizona, a nondenominational retreat center of geodesic domes set in the landscape of rock and juniper in Sedona, is usually busy this time of year, but bookings have been abnormally slow the last few weeks, said its founder and director, John Paul Weber. Overcoming logistics has been an obstacle for travelers after the disasters, and some people have canceled their reservations for visits to the center. "If they are afraid of flying," Mr. Weber said, "we help them with that."

Jackie Prete, a yoga teacher at Equinox Fitness Clubs in Manhattan, recently took a group on a four-day retreat as she does a few times each year to Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a 25-year-old Zen monastery near Livingston Manor in the Catskills, which also accommodates solo guests. About 30 people participated. "We've had last-minute cancellations and last-minute registrations," Ms. Prete said while organizing the group. "One woman who really wanted to come had two memorial services scheduled that she felt she needed to attend. Other people don't want to be separated from their families right now, and for others money, income, jobs are disappearing; they don't feel they can go away just now."

At the monastery, Ms. Prete said, "the quality of the quiet and peace is amazing. We come together and do some healing away from the sirens and the noise." Marcelo Albertal, a Brazilian-American architect living in Manhattan who attended the retreat, his first, said he signed up because "it was the proper thing to do, to recognize the loss, a month to the day of Sept. 11, in a soothing situation." A candlelight vigil in memory of the victims was part of the retreat.

"It seems like you need to do things to get strong," Mr. Albertal said. "It is not an easy moment."


A resource for those seeking a retreat in the United States is "Sanctuaries: A Guide to Lodgings in Monasteries, Abbeys, and Retreats," by Jack and Marcia Kelly (Bell Tower), first published in 1996 and updated and reprinted in March 2001. It offers descriptions of spiritual havens of many different sorts.

Information about the centers mentioned above is available at these Web sites.

Dai Bosatsu Zendo monastery:

Dominican Retreat house:

Elat Chayyim:

Esalen Institute:

Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health:

Maya Tulum retreat:

Omega Institute for Holistic Studies:

Powell House Retreat and Conference Center:

Pura Vida retreat:

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