Retreat and Reflection

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

In "developed" countries the non-stop barrage of mass media promoting a corporately-branded "message" is never far away. How can people even "hear themselves think" under such conditions? How will smaller groups develop deep research or action plans and how will society as-a-whole practice the "due deliberatoin" that is necessary for democratic work and progress? Without relief from the insidious assault, how will people learn to appreciate what has value in life? How can they develop a self-identify that is truly theirs?


This pattern applies to anybody or any group that is caught in a grind, a seemingly never-ending cycle of activity. Every person and every group and organization has a need to retreat from the machinations of their everyday, often routinized, lives.


"Beneath the official compulsions of acceleration a cautious interest in greater slowness is beginning to stir. Not as a program, not as a strategy, but rather as a surbversive demand viewing all the glorification of speed as old-fashioned and out of touch with the times. If such experiences accumulate, then the familiar trend might conceivably be reversed and affluence become assoiciated with deceleration." — Wolfgang Sachs, Reinhard Loske, and Manfred Linz, Greening the North

This pattern is about escape, liberation, disengagement — and, necessarily, re-engagement. Neither the name nor its discussion adequately reflects its enormity.

This pattern applies equally to brief escapes from the clutches of mass-media (ever striving to grab our attention), the tyranny of the schedule and the clock (that programs people into vast assembly lines) and to the other habits of thought and action that have been hammered pitilessly into our psyches.

Both an instant of freedom and a year of freedom, of disconnection from forces that are essentially inhuman and unnatural are covered by this pattern. What is not sanctioned by this pattern is permanent retreat. This pattern, the last in our pattern language sequence is intended to help people get in touch with their own feelings, with a different pace, with a reality that isn’t mediated by mass media or by other distractions. It’s intended to help people disengage, recharge and to re-engage in ways that are more lively, more creative, more caring and more wise.

Our species is millions of years old and the universe we inhabit is incomprehensibly vaster in size and in age. The rhythms of our universe, the seasons of the earth and our body likewise seem timeless, they exist still, within what John Trudell calls our "genetic memory." The rhythms of timeless life are not the same as those of television, the Internet, the workaday world.

The practice of cramming tasks into specific, discrete slots of time makes the declaration that the task will take that much time even when a slot with more or less time may be the right amount for the job. Educating people for example, as teachers know, isn’t done best in an assembly line fashion. Some students need more time, some less, and, or course, the type of “lesson” etc. should vary as well.

When life is routinized, when all of one's actions are circumscribed by external events and canned responses, internalized clichés, the ability to change direction and to pursue a different path is minimized. A retreat, a break in the process is necessary; for it is during those times — however brief — when this change can occur.

The digital realm, for social (as well as structural) reasons, has helped promote a culture where “answers” or “solutions” exist. The Internet is good for finding “facts”, (what “Centerville” in the U.S. has the largest populations? Centerville, Iowa.) but can’t “teach” analysis, interpretation, critique, or, “even” common sense. “Reality” even when addressed “artificially” through computer simulations (a proper use of computer when its limitations are sufficiently appreciated) must cope with numerous levels of complexity and interaction.

The (post-?) modern world of the Internet, mass media, "virtual reality," globalization, spectacle, empty abstractions, and real-time data, on the one hand, and SUVs, AIDS, homeless children picking through garbage for food, landless peasants, mega mansions and mega-slums, on the other hand, are both "real." They both exist as perceptable information that exists in our individual and collective minds, which, even if intangible, has tangible implications. Our thoughts, ideas, and memories, no matter how incoherent, paranoid or illogical, play themselves out the "real world:"

The wilderness or other setting relatively unperturbed by humankind is probably the best setting for the practice of this pattern: "Alone in the forest, time is less 'dense,' less filled with information; space is very 'close'; smell and hearing and touch reassert themselves. It is keenly sensual. In a true wilderness we are like that much of the time, even in broad daylight. Alert, careful, literally 'full of care.' Not because of principles or practice, but because of something very old" (Turner, 1989).

The function of this pattern language is to acknowledge and celebrate seeds of life that can be used to generate more life in the face of violence and corruption. Remaining pure or removed, aloof from the sordidness of the world that has developed over the centuries, is not an option. Nor is it necessarily more admirable than retreating into the vast media wastelands, work, mysticism, sports, or drugs. Engagement and retreat together form an eternal cycle that we ignore at our own peril.


People need to set up times to think, to step back and to recharge their batteries. After this respite, one is more likely to be happy, committed, and ready to re-engage once again. Retreat and reflection are necessary counterparts to engagement and both are necessary in the "fierce struggle to create a better world."

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