Interview with Phil Rice on Personal Retreat

I’ve known Phil Rice for some years now, but one of the things that has always stood out to me is his intentional and methodical approach to life. The first time I visited he and his family in Norman, OK upon arrival he handed me a hour by hour schedule of our 2 day visit. Complete with scheduled down time. After a few unexpected and quite unannounced visits in Kansas City, whereby he was flying solo for a weekend retreat, I was taken by his ability to regularly carve out time in his life for rest. Mind you, Phil is a husband, father, and is the executive director of Ember, a prayer and creative company. He also regularly writes at philrice.blog on on the topic of religious disillusionment and other things. Not exactly a slacker. (Also a certified yoga instructor wizard, dude is legit.)

While there are a wealth of topics you would want to pick Phil Rice’s brain over, personal retreat was at the top of my list as I have witnessed the fruit of it in his life first hand. If this conversation resonates with you, you’ll want to check out his upcoming resource Simple Retreat. Phil is a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. You can’t help but think differently about life after talking with him. Enjoy the interview!




Isaac: I’ve always thought highly of your commitment to regularly find time to escape and take short retreats. This seems like a time that you hit reset in a few areas, spiritual, mentally, emotionally, and take a step back to look at the big picture. How did you get started taking personal retreats, and was there anything in particular that pushed you to start?

Phil: I'm an introvert by nature, so I've always found time to get away to be alone and collect my thoughts. I remember, growing up, my dad having a huge impact on my understanding of retreat. When important decisions needed to be made (for him personally or for the family), he would take to the woods for a few days to hike in nature to be alone with God. In more recent years, several close friends and mentors of mine have had some kind of rhythm of retreat that I sought to emulate. After leaving a more formal 9-5 job in 2012, I was able to have more say in where I put my energy. I have found in examining my needs as a normal human desiring to sustain productive work and simple spiritual connection to God (and to others), regular rhythms of retreat are a vital piece of the equation.

Isaac: Creating space in the schedule to recharge can seem like a battle in our fast paced society, and to some, the idea of regular retreat may seem extravagant or indulgent. How frequently do you try to get away, and how much time do you take?

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Phil: You're so right on. It does feel indulgent for people. The idea of a couple getting away totally makes sense in our culture or a family taking time to be together (even that is a challenge for us to schedule). The concept of an individual taking time away (alone) feels completely foreign. My wife, Becky, and I both see the value in individual space to envision for the next quarter, year, or phase of life. Typically, I take 4 days (including travel time) in the spring and in the fall for personal retreat space. These times can range from a 4 day backpacking trip in the rockies to hiding out at a local airbnb. The common denominator is simply to have time for solitude and silence. Each retreat is a little different and typically evolves based on what I need in the moment. Along with these extended personal times, I usually take a day out of the month and retreat on a mini scale. I usually just retreat for the day and then am home in time for dinner with the family. I also think it's important to think through daily retreat. I find a short length of time each morning to be alone. The amount of time varies depending on what time the rest of the house wakes up. This time can be spent sitting and watching the birds on my back deck, meditating on scripture, talking with God, or simply sitting and enjoying the silence.

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Isaac: As a fellow introvert, a twice a year 4 day retreat sounds incredible. I could see that weekend becoming a lifeline that you begin to anticipate and look forward to. Even those single day retreats. But I think most of us, if given a four day weekend to ourselves right now, would feel overwhelmed at the thought of that much empty space. What sort of learning curve did you go through when you started implementing these retreats? And now that you’ve been doing it for some years, have you found a format over those few days that is most helpful for you?

Phil: I think it's really important not to plan too much for a retreat, but more give yourself a rough outline. The goal is not productivity, the goal is rest and recovery. But, if you start jamming on a particular idea while you're away and it feels energizing, go for it. There was definitely a learning curve when I started. But oddly enough, I think the learning curve centered more around learning not to feel guilty for being inactive or unproductive. A successful retreat for me is where I include a mix of things I find relaxing and things that I find energizing. To recharge as an introvert, it means I interact with as few people as possible over the course of four days. For the sake of an outline, I'll break up my retreat into three cycles — cycle 1 - productive detox, cycle 2 - personal reflection, cycle 3 - creativity/productivity. The beginning cycle of my retreat is usually spent in productive detox. I read fiction. I do yoga. I eat food. I take a nap. And then I do it all again. I repeat this first cycle until I actually feel inspired to move to cycle 2. There are some times I may take all four days to stay in cycle 1. And that's okay! This is about me taking time to set myself up for the next season of time. If I don't do it now... it won't happen.

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Isaac: I like that, ”the goal is rest and recovery.” It’s funny how we can set out to engage in a retreat and get hung up on our lack of productivity. The purpose of a retreat is rest, not productivity. Sounds like you spend the first part of your retreat detoxing (as you put it) from the feeling of needing to be productive. You’ve peaked my interest with the idea of these cycles, could you take more about what cycles 2 and 3 look like?

Phil: Absolutely. For me, cycle 2 (personal reflection) can only happen once I've removed myself from my environment. If I'm still in it, then I'm going to be less able to reflect on what's actually happening in my life/business. So, after exhausting myself with rest, I begin to want to think about and process the pieces of my life. Sometimes this takes the form of reflecting on pieces of scripture that are meaningful to me or reading over things others have prayed or spoken over me. It can look like conversation with God, resting in his words and his thoughts about our relationship and my circumstances. It can also look like writing rough drafts of articles that help me process what I'm working over. A lot of times though, it just means silence and listening.

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Honestly... sometimes cycle 3 (creativity/productivity ) never happens during my time away. This does not mean that my time was unsuccessful. In fact, it often means it was more successful. But, if I actually get to cycle 3 in my retreat space, this normally looks like working on projects and ideas that I'm excited about — firming up and scheduling articles, recording mostly final drafts to songs, determining strategy for a particular project or way forward for my organization, or implementing changes of some kind.

Isaac: Thanks for sharing! I want to drill down on the idea of rest a bit more. When I think about the topic it can feel a bit arbitrary. Stretching out in a hammock can be restful, but so can working in the garden. Could you define what rest means for you? And based on that definition, is there a sort of artifact that you are aiming to produce in your life through the act of resting?

Phil: When thinking of rest, let's use the image of weightlifting. You stress your muscles for a time, breaking them down, communicating to your mind that you must grow and evolve. But, the time of rest and recovery is just as important as the stress. The back and forth of stress and recovery (or rest) is what sustains growth over time. Too much of one or the other and you offset the balance. Rest to me is simply the opposite of stress or productivity. So, to the level that one exerts themselves in life, one must rest and recover. Rest is nonproductive work. It's doing things, not because I'm trying to build or get ahead, but because this particular activity (or lack of activity) delights me. It helps me to slow down. It is not measured. There is no deadline or finish line. It is the opposite of stress. My goal in this is to find the continued balance of stress and recovery so that I continue to grow and evolve as a person in every area of life — body, mind, and spirit.

Isaac: That really helps me frame the goal of a retreat. Rest and recovery is necessary because of the rounds of thinking/creating/problem solving I’m putting my mind through on a daily basis.

For those that may be more extroverted, how might a retreat differ for them? Is solitude a necessary component of retreat?

Phil: In the same way it's not healthy for an introvert to go live in a cave and never interact with another human (although that sounds kind of awesome sometimes), it is equally unhealthy for an extrovert to not be comfortable alone. For an introvert, a retreat might actually mean not interacting with another human for one to four days. But, for an extravert, it could look like a morning alone with oneself (or even in a coffee shop among other people, but alone) and an afternoon with a spouse or good friend. Perhaps the extravert could bring a group of friends with them on this retreat and they could all commit to some version of solitude, while gathering back together in the evenings to process the things they are thinking about with the group. This sounds absolutely terrible to me as an introvert, but I have friends who would absolutely thrive in this kind of a retreat environment.

Isaac: Do you think then that everyone (introvert or extrovert alike) should have a rhythm of retreat?

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Phil: Absolutely. I think it’s important for everyone to have a rhythm of retreat (using the language of stress and recovery). Again, it can look different for each individual, but intentional time to recover and reassess is important for all of us. In my experience, if we don’t take the time intentionally, our bodies will force us to do so eventually, usually under circumstances that aren’t very convenient - emotional breakdown, sickness, lethargy. We will rest. But I would rather rest on my terms.

Isaac: One final question to wrap up this conversation. If you were to give me the hard sell, what has the fruit of regular retreat been in your life?

Phil: The result of regular rhythms of retreat in my experience has been sustainable, enjoyable life.