The Contemplative Toolbox

II. Staff Retreats

A staff retreat day scheduled into the regular work life of an organization can be a source of great unity and inspiration. As we learn to be with each other in different ways, we develop deeper understandings of who we are as individuals and as a group. Spending time with coworkers in a way that is fun, relaxed, and reflective can be nourishing as well as productive. Rarely in this culture do we take the time to simply pause from the frantic pace of our actions. A commitment to pausing on an organizational level can lead to the manifestation of an entirely different and powerful orientation toward work, vision, community, and self.

Creating a pause within a regular workday can help to create a healthy pace for our work lives. And the commitment to taking an entire day for staff contemplation and rejuvenation can make those changes more profound, especially if repeated at regular intervals throughout the year. It may require a leap of faith to take a precious eight hours out of the month [or even the year], but that kind of commitment signifies an understanding of the importance of the dynamic relationship between process and product and a willingness to invest in the long-term sustainability of your workplace.

At the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society we have a staff retreat every month. You may want to start with four retreat days per year, one for each season, in order to develop a pace that is comfortable and regular and does not interfere too greatly with your schedule. The seasons also provide thematic variation, helping to ensure that the staff retreat does not become stale. Holidays from various traditions often coincide with seasonal changes and can be used for inspiration and content.

We will introduce the basic elements for creating a contemplative retreat day for staff. Using our basic approach as a model, we encourage you to try the suggested activities, as well as to experiment with new ideas. Build on the strengths of your staff. Come up with a design that incorporates contributions from all members of staff, in order to best recognize and support the gifts that everyone brings to the group.



There are three general elements at the heart of our retreat days at the Center: sharing time in silence, engaging in meaningful conversation, and having fun. Typically, all of these elements are taken up with the spirit of “practice” – with the deliberate intention of maintaining a deep engagement and a sacred presence in the activities. We arrive at each activity as fully as possible with respect for the activity and those who designed it, care and consideration for our fellow coworkers, an interest in deepening our own wisdom and compassion, and a desire to manifest the full potential of the larger group.

As we create a different kind of environment from our regular work, it is important to take special care that everyone feels secure. Because these kinds of contemplative spaces are so uncommon in our hectic world, sharing silence, for example, with a group of people can be challenging and uncomfortable for many of us at first, even if we know the others in the group well. The challenge is to negotiate a balance between creating a space that feels comfortable and pushing the edges of what is possible. Incorporating everyone’s ideas and interests into the staff retreat days is one way to assure that everyone feels ownership of the space.


Sharing Silence

At the Center, we tend to lean rather heavily toward silence on our staff retreats. You may choose to do the same, or silence may play a smaller role while your staff adjusts to these new ways of being together. When we speak about silence at the Center, we don’t mean the environment. Rarely is it possible to create the conditions for “perfect” silence. There are always cars driving by, birds chirping in the trees, or old pipes clanking away in the office building. Rather, we think of silence as something that we are engaged in. Silence is a quality of mind, a way of being, and a powerful type of presence in the world.

When we practice silent, there is a self-consciousness that we often ignore in daily life, when we are compelled to express every thought, emotion, or idea that floats into our heads, without fully understanding the intention behind them or their repercussions. Embracing silence allows us to be with ourselves in a way that is simply observant – not judgmental or mindless. This quality of observation can make our appreciation for life more subtle and profound and can transform group experience into a richer and more nuanced experience.

As we share silence with each other, it is important to be careful that we are not “silencing” others or ourselves. For some people, this may seem like an unnecessary distinction. But for people who have been silenced in their lives due to racial, sexual, or political oppression this distinction can be deeply important. The silent dynamic we are trying to embody here is not one of “power over”, where we are not permitted to speak, but rather of “power with” coworkers and friends, with whom we have made a commitment to understanding the value of sharing space and time in a way that is supportive, meaningful, and infused with respect.

Here are a few great ways to share silence with each other:



Many members of our staff are inclined toward artistic expression. But even for those of us who do not consider ourselves to be artistically gifted, time spent engaged in artistic expression has proven to be fun and fulfilling. Sometimes, one staff member with a particular skill will teach the others a technique [like brush calligraphy]. Other times people will simply bring in supplies to share so everyone can spend time making some little piece of art. Often we will put on some music [or have a staff musician practice their instrument] while we work silently on our individual projects.

One particularly powerful project was a collage based on visioning the future of the Center. The staff member organizing the activity brought in a variety of old magazines that we were invited to search through and cut up as we looked for images that answered a question she posed. This time the question was, “What would the world look like if the mission of the Center were fulfilled?”

We spent an hour looking through magazines and composing our visions quietly. After, we each spoke about our pieces, sharing the ideas and images. In the end, we came to an understanding of each other and the ways in which we hold our work that was different from what emerges from answers alone.  



There are many forms of meditation that can be incorporated into a staff retreat day. In fact, we find it important to apply a meditative quality of mind to all our activities while on retreat. Formal meditation practice can also deepen the quality of contemplative mind. Meditation can help us meet the changing conditions of the world with ease and come from a place of deeper truth and tranquility when we are engaging others. In many ways, meditation can be seen as a core practice for individuals and groups alike. Please refer to the meditation booklet, audio materials, and instructions for incorporating meditation into your office space or your organizational retreat day.



We typically hold our retreats at the house of our executive director. During the summer her garden is full of flowers, vegetables, and weeds. There have been several retreat days where our desire to be outside has led us to offer help with the weeding. Of course, the director doesn’t mind our offering to help out in the garden. And so we give ourselves the opportunity to do some low-key gardening together while we silently commune with the plants and animals. We have found it to be a fulfilling and fun way to spend an hour or two in the afternoon. Doing it collectively and in silence allows us to center ourselves individually, become more aware of the natural elements, and come to group cohesion as we mindfully and playfully hang out in the garden.

If you work in an environment in which gardening isn't possible, any number of other group outdoor activities can substitute – try cleaning up the street! It may be valuable to find a location for your retreat days which provides opportunities that do not exist in your office.



Occasionally we elect to have our lunch during staff retreat in silence. This practice gives us the opportunity to be more mindful of our eating and to enjoy the process of eating in a way that we are not accustomed to. Though it can be initially awkward, silence at a meal can add to the intimacy and connectedness of the group, invoking a quality of sacredness as we physically sustain ourselves. Coordinating the meal without speaking can also be a fun and challenging way of experimenting in non-verbal communication. Setting the table, preparing the food, washing the dishes can feel completely different when done in silence. Of course, having a conversation over food can also be a great way to enjoy your time together as a staff. You will find a balance that works for your organization.


Mindful Movement

During retreat days at the Center, we always include mindful movement exercises. They help get people out of their heads and into their bodies and can help prevent fatigue during the day. This can include anything from yoga and tai chi to dancing or playing twister. We often use instructional videos and DVDs, but of course, nothing is better than an actual teacher in the room, so if you can get a local yoga or contemplative dance teacher to come in for a workshop, all the better! Maybe someone in your organization has hidden talents and can lead this kind of exercise.



Journaling in silence can help people concentrate their thoughts on a particular idea and aid in quieting the mind. Journaling can also be good preparation for a conversation, allowing people to center their thoughts and get to the essence of the conversation more quickly. If you have a large group discussion planned and would like the group to thoughtfully prepare, try asking people to spend 20 minutes writing in response to a guiding question. Journaling of course does not need to be in the service of conversation. In and of itself, it can be a powerful way to connect with our inner lives and our world. Learn more about journaling and intuitive writing.


Meaningful Conversation

As a society we have fallen into some troubling habits when it comes to dialog and conversation. We are often so focused on projecting our opinions and defending our agenda that we fail to hear the voices of others. This tendency is why contemplative dialog practices challenge the way we normally engage in conversation. Some of the formats are very structured while others are less so, but all rely on a commitment to self-control and self-awareness, as well as a group-centered rather than self-centered approach. The two main aspects of most dialog processes are what may be called “deep listening” and “speaking from silence.”


Council Circle, Claremont Dialog

Council Circle and Claremont Dialog are two similar practices from different traditions that are intended to create meaningful and productive interaction in groups of people. Council Circle comes from the Native North American traditions, while Claremont Dialog comes from the Quaker tradition of Europe and the United States. One may say that they both encourage four intentions around the discussion: speaking from the heart, listening from the heart, speaking spontaneously, and speaking leanly. Learn more about these two practices.



When staff members share stories from their personal experience, they draw out the collective wisdom of the group. A theme related to your work or to a particular challenge facing your organization can make these offerings more clearly relevant to staff. It may help if the facilitator starts with a story from his or her own experience. Investigating the interrelating themes, content, and meaning of these stories can help an organization use their collective knowledge and wisdom in very practical ways for common goals.


Practice sharing

If some of the staff claim particular religions, spiritual, or ethnic heritages, providing a space for sharing of the practices associated with these can be a wonderful opportunity for the whole group. This can also be a place of great sensitivity; individuals may not feel comfortable sharing their practices or engaging in the practices of others. If there is a general level of interest and openness in the group, try an exploration. If there is resistance, the resistance itself can be a good thing to carefully explore. You may want to ask an individual or a couple of people to lead the group in an activity or create an interfaith ceremony or celebration, in which a number of traditions are shared. Experiment with the options, and allow plenty of space for feedback and reflection from the group.


Small-group deep-listening activities

We know that large-group discussions can be productive and powerful, but it can also be important to have small-group or paired conversations on certain topics. This can conserve time and dramatically shift the quality of the interaction. Often people feel more comfortable sharing their personal perspectives in small groups. This process can help build deeper relationships than might occur in the larger circles.


How to use small groups

If consensus is a desired outcome, it may be harder for a large group than for a small group or pair. When four small groups of three people are asked to come back to the larger group with an idea, the larger group will have an easier time negotiating four ideas than six or more. This is not always the case, of course, but the quality of interaction among a few people can encourage people to cooperate and negotiate, while a large-group dynamic can lead to a stauncher defense of certain perspectives. The goal is to find ways of using small-group and large-group models in collaboration to generate more creative and productive outcomes and processes. By moving back and forth between large and small groups, individuals who might not normally speak up in front of a lot of people may feel more enabled to share their perspective and have their voices heard.


Large group games, invitations, strategies

Here are a few ideas that can help break the ice in large circles.


Introductory circle

In an introductory circle, there are a few simple ways of making introductions more meaningful. They can encourage us to bring more of who we are to the group, which can lead to greater group cohesion.

One idea is to name ourselves as the child of our parents and the grandchild of our grandparents. For example, Sally might say, “My name is Sally Jennings, daughter of Alicia Francesco and Walker Jennings, granddaughter of Claudio and Melissa Francesco, and Robert and Rosario Jennings.” You can also add the places where they were born or lived. As the circle goes around and the names of our ancestors are brought into the room we begin to develop a sense of the many trajectories that have brought us to this room. For some, even this simple exercise can be difficult, and it may be helpful to openly recognize at the beginning of the circle that for a variety of reasons we may not all know even this much about our heritage.

Another good introductory circle process is to give our names and offer one thing about ourselves that we think no one else in the room knows about us. Again, this allows us to offer something personal to the group without feeling overexposed. Each individual has full discretion around what they offer. Often, we find out about co-workers’ hobbies and talents, giving us new opportunities to connect. Here are a few other leading questions you can try: “When was the first time that you knew what you wanted to be in the world?” “What song do you find most inspiring when you are feeling overwhelmed?”


Other Group Activities

Group sharing can become deeper according to the level of comfort and openness that your group develops. Joe Lambert from the Center for Digital Storytelling offered us one such practice:

Everyone in our circle was handed a 3x5 note card and a pen and asked to write a short letter to someone who you could no longer contact. They may have passed away or you may simply have lost contact with them. They may not even have been someone you knew but rather someone you who made an impression on you. We were given ten minutes to write the note. We were then asked to read the note out loud if we felt comfortable and, if we wanted, to share more about the person for whom the letter was intended. After the readings, individuals were invited to leave the letters on a group altar, keeping the memories and stories and people in the room with us throughout our time together.

Another time, we were handed paper and an assortment of crayons and markers and asked to break up into pairs. We were asked to think deeply about the other person in the pair – who they are, what they bring to the group, what is their essential being. Then, we were asked to design an emblem- a seal, a crest, a design – using simple images and shapes- that captured the essence of that person. We were given ten minutes for the design and then were asked to share it with the larger group. This practice encouraged us to think about the positive attributes of our partners and the ways in which one’s energy and talents add to the group dynamic. It also allowed us to publicly acknowledge the aspects of each other that we value, thereby giving us a unique opportunity to voice our respect for each other.



A mandala is a visual map of a system. Traditionally, in Tibetan Buddhism, they are maps of the mind, of the cycles of life and death, of universal systems of change and fluctuation. In a more secular setting, mandalas can be used to create inspiring images of our personal visions. For an organization it can be helpful to have a visual representation of the entire schema surrounding and involving the work: organizational values, beliefs, vision, programs areas, work, structure, members, roles, and relationships that exist outside of the boundaries of the group.

To create your own organization’s mandala, begin with a brainstorm of all of the components of your organization, from the most mundane to the most complex. What are your organizing principles? Who is involved? What is at the center? What is at the edge? How is the work done? Who is responsible for what? Once all of the components are up on a chart, begin to work as a group to see how they all fit together. The final mandala can be simple or complex. Not only can this project help us understand our organizations and work in new ways, it can often help us see where the causes of highly functional or less functional aspects of the work. When complete, post it in the office as a regular source of reflection.


Teacher guests

It can be helpful to occasionally invite guests to staff retreats to share your work, as well as learn from them. Ask guests to lead workshops, facilitate a discussion, or train your staff in a spiritual practice. Remember to invite a diverse group of people over time- people of different backgrounds and spiritual traditions so as not to support or recognize only one tradition.



When designing a staff retreat day, it is important to pay attention to balance and flow throughout the day. No agenda is ever perfect, but we can try to create a structure that supports people in their natural tendencies and needs. If we say that during the day there will be time for silence and time for speech, time for stillness and time for movement, time for reflection and time for production, we begin to see balance in the day. We begin our days with some kind of movement exercise, like Yoga or Qi Gong, which is a good way to enliven people, get the group energy moving, and settle people into the agenda.

Sleepiness tends to make the early afternoon a difficult period. Sometimes it is helpful to give people a little extra time to rest after lunch, followed by movement or an activity that is energetic and inspiring. After periods of intense discussion, it can be nice to have a break or at least time to spend in personal unstructured reflection. Just be careful to not let people wander too far off in their bodies or minds because it can be hard to bring them back into the fold of the group.

In general it is good to end the day with a ritual or another cohesive activity that allows everyone to hear everyone else and gives them the opportunity to express their gratitude and appreciation for the day and each other.


Example of a CMind retreat day

10 am arrival

10:15 yoga with video or instructor

11:00 sitting meditation

11:30 walking meditation

12:00 sitting meditation

12:30 lunch

2 pm gardening, art, or other group activity

3:30 sitting meditation

4:00 closing circle


In Addition...

During the day there should be space for collective activities as well as time alone. They will balance each other so that ideally no one feels drained from group activity or isolated from personal time.

We have found that it has been very beneficial to use an off-site space for our retreat days. Getting out of our office where work can beckon moves us into a more contemplative mode. On the other hand, when we have not been able to go off-site, a few decorative elements and shifts in the space have helped us turn our work space into a new environment, lending itself to deeper reflection.


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