Housden, Roger. Retreat: Time Apart for Silence & Solitude. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.

There are literally hundreds (if not more) books and web resources on retreats of various sorts, but Housden's book is a good start for a pleasant if mixed overview of what is certainly a popular phenomena.

The book devotes a page or two to standard retreats while offering information on retreat organizations that most readers may find unfamiliar. With color photographs on every page, the book could easily have been a coffee-table standard if published in an oversized hardcover format. But there is something to be said for a book of this general sort given the many specialized and sectarian versions available. Housden is a fair-minded guide to a phenomena that ranges from authenticity to industry.

The most important guideline for Housden is the elective and tolerant nature of the retreat. Housden explains that

All of the centers referred to in this book are open to individuals who want to take a personal retreat of their own design but who want to be in a meditative context that supports their need for personal silence and reflection. Most of the centers welcome individual retreatants to join in the community meditations and practices as and when it suits them; someone is usually available for discussion and guidance if needed.

After a few preliminary concepts, the book is organized into various traditions and the style of their retreats. Thus we have a variety of ways: "The Way of Knowledge," The Way of the Heart," "The Way of the Body," and so forth. This method is especially useful in introducing less familiar retreat styles, giving them a place but not an undue emphasis.

As "The Way of Knowledge" suggests, the retreat emphasis here is on self-knowledge. Housden's examples are the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts and Gaia House in south Devon, England, relating his personal experience at the latter. A lengthy section on Chan/Zen and Tibetan retreats is part of this section.

Under Raja Yoga, Housden presents the Self-Realization Fellowship, which is bound to conjure sixties' nostalgia of the (then) popular Yogananda (one wonders at his popularity today). More oddly-placed in a section on "knowledge" retreats is the section on Shamanism with its Native American sweat lodges and sun dance ceremonies, and Hawaiian Kahuna retreats, which promise inner knowledge but no specific content.

"The Way of the Heart" has the challenge of summarizing the vast tradition of Christian retreats. The author first touches upon highlights of Christian meditation tradition, with an emphasis on Thomas Merton. He presents as modern exemplars Matthew Fox, Father Lawrence, and Taize.

Clearly Housden is not here describing the retreat tradition as constructed by traditional religious organizations. There is no treatment of modern Franciscan, Jesuit, Benedictine, or Orthodox retreats, and certainly not Evangelical camps or revivals meetings. Housden sticks to his tolerance theme and does not pursue strong sectarian retreats where solitude and silence do not reign. His emphasis is on the individual not on forums of doctrine, so he is bound to favor modern flavors, however unproven they may be. For readers seeking a historical perspective or these rigorous retreats, Housden is not the right resource.

"The Way of the Heart" includes Bhakti Yoga, which has exploded in offerings since Housden's book, though not with his emphasis on solitude and silence. He lists the anomalous Ram Dass (like Yogananda, a "blast from the past"), and Amma, now also spun off into a busy non-profit organization. Among other mixed blessings in this section is Housden's mention of Osho.

"The Way of the Body" redeems some of the dubious entries above. Tai Chi is difficult to conceive of as a retreat format except for experts. Hatha Yoga, and various yoga retreats overlap with the Way of the Heart and edge the reader to the prolific New Age versions ranging from jet set getaways and cruises to authentic yoga work in quiet and concentrated settings. Again, the silence and solitude is often accidental in many packaged yoga retreats.

The remaining "ways" are more esoteric and specialized. For example, not just anyone will benefit from art-centered retreats unless they have already developed a skill and aesthetic sensibility. Sound-centered retreats involving chanting or drumming can be more of a "Way of Expression" (not one of Housden's categories), primal release rather than anything insightful. These systems represent an eclectic addendum to traditional practices of mainstream religions. Again, these retreats skirt the theme of silence and solitude.

With the "Way of Wilderness," Housden is on more comfortable ground because he has lead such retreats himself. The wilderness retreat plunges the individual participant into nature to reconnect with the patterns of landscape and setting. This is a Thoreau who hikes and observes and listens but without schedule, goal, hardship, or notebook. The wilderness retreat promises an encounter in silence and solitude with the elemental forces of nature.

Housden led a Sahara walking journey in southern Algeria. The Upaya Mountain Walking Retreat in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado, plus a description of a Chiapas (Mexico) rainforest retreat, are likely to be unfamiliar to most readers. "The Tracking Project" is a community education project in which participants identify wild creatures in the southwest USA and Florida Everglades as they encounter the solitude and silence of the natural environs. Scientific field trips might be a parallel today, with the "retreat" structured for amateur non-scientists as ecotourism.

Housden concludes the book with "The Solitary Way," describing vision quests inspired by hermits of various traditions: Christian desert fathers, Taoists, and Buddhists. Housden describes a solitary desert mountain retreat at Assakrem in Algeria, a Sufi retreat called Halvet which involves forty days in a desert cave (like a dangerous sensory deprivation experiment), and, finally, the Kagyal Retreat Center's three-year retreat in Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The last is clearly not for the curious or casual; however, the Kagyal retreat is punctuated by study and communal practice and is rather a retreat from the world as an initiate, something akin to the postulant retreats of traditional religious organizations.

Housden has moved on since Retreat to books and lectures on poetry -- and moved from his native England to the US. But he has kept his popularizing style and inquisitive disposition. Retreat is still a useful book for seekers and explorers, and unwittingly demonstrates the paradox of finding silence and solitude even in retreats.