THERE are more than 100 retreat centres across France, offering everything from prayer to painting and claiming to reinvigorate you. While an "ordinary" holiday can help recharge your batteries, what makes a retreat so special and can they really help us with our lives?
Kanshoji is a Zen Buddhist monastery in the northern Dordogne. Surrounded by woodland and lakes, it provides a tranquil setting for its 16 monks and nuns and welcomes people on retreat most of the year. John O’Reilly, 50, from County Clare on the west coast of Ireland, recently stayed at the monastery and explained what being on a retreat at Kanshoji was like.
"I’ve been following Zen Buddhism for a long time and have been on many retreats in Ireland, Scotland and France. This is my second time at Kanshoji and for me, it is a particularly good place to come. The first day of the retreat, you are left on your own to get settled in.
"You join the others for meals and Zazen [Zen meditation] then on the second day you follow the routine of the residents. As well as Zazen, we are involved in practical tasks such as preparing lunch or gardening.
"My work [as an architect] in Ireland is very cerebral and doing these practical sorts of tasks frees up my mind. When you arrive at the monastery, you leave yourself at the front gate. I’d describe being on a Zen retreat as being like taking a holiday from yourself.
"I switch off my mobile phone and forget about my work, where I spend a lot of time staring at a computer screen. Checking emails is a compulsion. At Kanshoji, you leave all that behind.
"A lot of retreats seem to focus on analysing your problems or on personal development. I shy away from anything that smacks of psycho-babble, but Zen isn’t like that; a retreat here takes you out of yourself and helps you think more clearly.
"The best way I can describe it is like this: think of your brain as a TV with loads of channels. Most of us are switching channels all the time; I might be talking to you but I’m also thinking about other things I have to do.
"After a few days on the retreat, you’re still dealing with those channels, but every day the remote control moves further and further away.
"When I return to Ireland after a retreat, I really feel the effects. You see things differently. If something goes wrong at work, rather than becoming flustered or confused, I’m able to view things from a more balanced perspective.
"I like my life. I like my work and spending time with my son, but coming on regular retreats helps me to become a better person and that makes me better for those people around me, too."
For some people, retreats at Kanshoji have led to the monastic life. Two residents explained how they felt.
"I’ve been living here since last August, but before that I came on many retreats. I lived in Paris and spent some time in the United States. I always had temporary jobs, so I had time to come on retreat.
"Each time I came to Kanshoji, I’d arrive and leave with a big grin on my face. The smile would last for a while afterwards and then fade, so then I’d come back. Last year, I decided to stay for good.
"We get people coming on retreat for all sorts of reasons; for some, it is academic interest; some feel lost; some have personal problems; and others just want a break. They are not all Buddhists, but they are all searching for some sort of spirituality."
"I’ve been a resident for four years and became a monk in November. I had a lot of trouble as a teenager and young adult. Each time something went wrong for me, I blamed others; they were always the stupid ones.
"One day I thought that maybe it wasn’t everyone else who was stupid; maybe the problem lay with me.
"I came on a retreat here when I was 28 and decided to stay. A lot of people come on retreat looking for a quick fix and I think some do go away disappointed.
"Zen Buddhism isn’t like that – it doesn’t give you all the answers. It is more about giving up unhealthy emotions such as hate and anger. That can be hard as it means letting go of part of yourself."
Across France, there are more than a dozen Buddhist monasteries offering retreats. Plum Village is in the south of the Dordogne and offers retreats throughout the year. A stay of a week or more is recommended in order to truly benefit.
Described as a "mindfulness centre", it was set up by renowned Zen master and human rights activist Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh was born in Vietnam and became a monk in his teens. His work as a peace activist during the Vietnam war, as well as campaigning on behalf of political prisoners, the poor and the Vietnamese boat people, led to him being expelled from Vietnam.
He settled in France and set up Plum Village in 1982. He has lived there ever since and continues to help oppressed minorities and the poor, as well as travelling the world speaking on "the art of mindful living".
Thich Nhat Hanh’s philosophy is to encourage his followers to focus on the present and, like the Zen Buddhists at Kanshoji, to live in the moment without dwelling on the past or thinking about the future.
People on retreat join in with the day-to-day life of the monks, including meditation, and can also hear the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh.
Plum Village hosts more than 2,000 visitors on retreat every year. While many stay in dormitories or bedrooms, you can also bring a tent or camper van and stay on the monastery camp-site. Residents at both Plum Village and Kanshoji do speak English.
If a Buddhist retreat doesn’t appeal, what others are available?
France has a plethora of Catholic retreats, although most are in French. One notable exception is L’Abbaye Saint Joseph de Clairval, a Benedictine monastery in Burgundy that offers retreats for men all year round, including some retreats with mass and prayers in English.
Meanwhile, a retreat centre, Otium Sanctus, in the Creuse, offers the chance to relax, study the Bible, pray and contemplate life. It is run by committed Christian expatriates Ian and Becky Jefferies.
Gardoussel Retreat in the Cévennes mountains of the Languedoc offers retreats specialising in yoga and Ayurveda (ancient Indian healing techniques).
Therapies also include massage, alternative remedies; a new and busy programme of creating writing retreats; and acclaimed vegetarian cookery lessons.
Arguably the quirkiest retreat is Retreat Biarritz, whose name gives nothing away bar its location. Set up in 2007 by Fiona Robertson, who got her inspiration while travelling abroad, she said she had completed a masters in Reiki and then discovered colon cleansing. When she settled in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, she wanted to continue with it but the treatment was only available in the US.
She said: "I started making detox kits for myself, my family and friends. The idea grew into setting up the retreat centre."
Retreat Biarritz offers week-long retreats which combine walking in the countryside with flotation, massage and Reiki sessions, alongside full detox therapy.
"Most of the people who come are women between 35-55. It’s a complete time-out for stressed people. They learn to relax, but also get cleaned up, lose toxins and get a deep-cleaned colon. It makes such a difference; you become much more energised and I show them how to maintain their colon after they leave here."
Other retreats include La Muse in Languedoc-Roussillon, a retreat specifically catering to writers and artists. It is open all year round and offers subsidised accommodation to budding or struggling artists.
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L’Abbaye St Joseph de Clairval: