HIGH DESERT RETREAT - a conversation with Dan Petersen, by Karen Childress
Personal development coach Dan Petersen has the kind of life many people dream about – quiet, comfortable, close to nature, and almost never hurried. At the end of a long, winding gravel road just outside Cortez, Colorado is Sage Canyon Ranch. In this special place Dan lives seamlessly. Each day is a wonderful blend of solitude, physical work around the ranch, reading or writing, time on the telephone with coaching clients, visiting friends and neighbors and – with increasing frequency – working with individuals who come to Sage Canyon for guided solitude retreats. During a recent visit to the ranch Dan and I had a conversation about the retreats he does with his clients. Listen in as Dan discusses the value of these inner journeys.
Karen: Dan, I’ve had the good fortune to stay here at the cliff house, so I know how special it is. For someone who has never seen it, how would you describe it?
Dan: I designed the cliff house and lived here until just recently when I built a second home which is set up both for me to live in and for small group retreats. Now that I’ve moved into that home, this space is open for people to come and stay for a few days in retreat. What makes this house unique is that it’s built into the side of the cliff, so the living room and bathroom walls are literally a rock mountain. The interior is almost all wood, and there’s a wood stove in the corner. The view across the canyon is a red rock mesa and behind that is a huge mountain that has snow on top a good part of the year.
Karen: It’s a magical place.
Dan: It is to me. There is something transforming about getting away from the activity and demands of what most people know as modern society. It supports clear thinking and redesigning the next chapter in life. There is also something we’ve largely lost in contemporary culture and that’s a recognition of where we fit in with nature. Out here, somehow people are able to get a picture of that. It is a powerful place that has been the home of the ancient Anasazi culture. There are ruins and signs of ancient civilization around every corner.
Karen: There is nature everywhere you look out here. It’s interesting to think that it wasn’t all that long ago that this is how a lot of people lived. Fast-paced cities were a long way away.
Dan: More and more I think one of the benefits clients get from being out here for a solitude retreat is a reprieve from technology. The cliff house, where most people stay, has the basic modern conveniences – electricity, heat, a bathroom – but just being away from TV, the radio, phones and computers is now considered a real adventure for a lot of people.
Karen: How do people cope when they come here, with the lack of interconnectivity?
Dan: Really well. It takes them about a day to get used to the quiet but then their more thoughtful, reclusive, creative side kicks in and they love it. They don’t want to leave when it’s time to go home. It’s amazing what we can get used to when we’re caught up in all our busyness and the adrenaline of cosmopolitan life and work and success. Clients who really want to get away from it all can stay in the teepee on a small mesa back in a canyon. That’s the next level of solitude and being in touch with nature.
Karen: I remember the teepee from when we hiked up there last summer. It wasn’t as isolated as I’d imagined it would be.
Dan: It’s not that far from the house, maybe a 20 minute hike. It’s even more remote in the teepee and it’s safe and comfortable. For most people just being in the cliff house and away from noise and technology and the news for a few days is plenty of solitude. And clients have the choice. They can stay here in the cliff house, up at the teepee, or split their retreat between the two places.
Karen: When people come here, what do they most need?
Dan: They mostly need to slow down. They need to unwind, relax, get some sleep, cook and eat slowly, take time to reflect. They start realizing what is possible and that they are capable of being the authors of their own lives and their work. Possibly the most difficult is the process of letting go. When clients slow down enough to look at their lives from a new vantage point, they start to get in touch with the fact that this is it, this is my life and I get to choose how I want to live it. For this to materialize, it is always necessary to let go of old ways of being and thinking. They begin to break free of their external references and authority. They start asking themselves what I think are some of the most important questions we can ask.
Karen: Which are?
Dan: How do I want to live this very precious life I have been given? What do I want to do for the remainder of my time? What does my intuition want me to do and to be?
Karen: Do people get answers?
Dan: Yes, they do. The biggest challenge is for people to trust their own insights and take action, which is why subsequent coaching is a vital piece of this process. I encourage them to begin to ask what is wanting to happen in their lives instead of trying to figure out what to do. Most people coming here are at a stage where they are realizing that there is a source of knowledge waiting to be heard which sometimes has very different plans than their reasoning mind does.
Karen: What do you mean?
Dan: There is a wisdom that goes way beyond human intellect. At a certain level of awareness, we all know this and we have access to information that is ’out there’ – call it intuition, call it spirit, call it God, call it whatever you’re comfortable with. Getting in touch with a deeper wisdom is one of the benefits of being out here, in solitude, this close to nature.
Karen: What is your purpose in doing the work you do?
Dan: My work is helping people develop as human beings. It’s working with the next generation of conscious leaders and elders. We need more of both right now, so that we can help our world evolve in a positive way and create a more userfriendly future for our children. It looks to me that if we don’t start looking at new ways of being in the world and new ways of being with each other, it’s going to be nip and tuck as to whether we’ll make it as a species.
Karen: That sounds pretty serious.
Dan: I don’t think it can be denied. We need to be able to ask the hard questions in order to get different kinds of answers. It’s time for a new breed of adults to help us grow beyond the adolescence of our culture.
Karen: You mentioned leaders. Who are our future leaders and how do you want to work with them?
Dan: Many different kinds of people will be emerging as leaders over the next few decades. The question is what kinds of leaders they will become and how will they be thinking. Our organizations and the systems of our culture are mostly struggling to adapt with ineffective models to the demands of the 21st century. It’s understandable, but it’s not sustainable. What is most needed for civilization right now is human and organizational evolution. That is why I have chosen developmental coaching as my vocation to help leaders and other adults grow into new ways of thinking for the future.
Karen: When your clients come here for a solitude retreat, what should they expect?
Dan: Most people experience some initial loss of equilibrium, which is great. They start questioning things that maybe they’ve never looked at closely before, they reconnect with the natural world, they find where they are on their own path in life, they often make new decisions – or at least get the initial glimmers of ideas that will ultimately lead them to decisions. These might be decisions about work, about relationships, about what’s important. Most people go to new areas of thought and feeling. It’s pretty much a given that they’ll go home changed in some way as a result of three or four days in solitude.
Karen: But they’re not in total solitude, right?
Dan: That’s right. I spend time in conversation with clients while they’re here. We do some coaching, sometimes meditate together, often hike or walk around the property. But it’s good for people to spend a good portion of the time alone. I ask them to write more than read, except for a few selected books that I might suggest for them ahead of time. I also provide healthy meals and encourage light eating. Some people like to fast for part of time they’re here. Food can be a great distraction.
Karen: What sort of physical changes do you notice in client during or after a retreat?
Dan: When people begin to live in or near the wilderness, they remember to pay attention to the ground under their feet. Balance and awareness change significantly. People are more conscious in their movements and clearly less uncertain and less fearful. They learn to trust their capacity to move safely over uneven and unfamiliar terrain. This amounts to a more natural look of flexibility and gracefulness. I’ve begun to include some body work in the retreats. I’ll bring in a yoga teacher or Rolfer, both of which can have a profound effect on how a person moves and also on their standing and resting postures. Sometimes I’ll do meditation with clients, or teach them some Aikido practices. The one physical difference in people that is routine is in their faces. Their eyes are clearer and look deeper, and the overall look in their face is an appearance of being open and enthused. This is the most significant reward for me and it’s the most reliable difference in their physicality.
Karen: What kinds of people have done retreats here at Sage Canyon?
Dan: All kinds of people. Coaches, people working in organizations in a variety of leadership roles, authors, people considering making significant life changes, and people who are creating a new vision for their future. People who are at a transition point, maybe leaving or changing a long-standing career and embarking on a new chapter. That new chapter may be an alternative career or it may be designing a unique retirement, but either way, claiming a new direction in life. Recently a client did a retreat here who had been in the process of advancing in his organization. When he went back home he decided to take another path entirely. These are the kinds of big decisions people tend to make as a result of the work done here.
Karen: So if someone feels ready, they should call you?
Dan: Yes, that is the best way to begin. It is only in conversation that we can get a sense if this is the right thing for someone to consider. If it does feel right, then we can proceed with making plans for working together.