A Conversation With Dan McKee – The Warrior Monk Retreat

We are excited to welcome Dan McKee and the Warrior Monk Retreats back to the Whidbey Institute! In anticipation of his upcoming program, November 1-5, 2023, I took the opportunity to learn more about his work and his approach to holding Warrior Monk retreats, particularly at the Whidbey Institute.

I know you and your programs have been associated with the Whidbey Institute for a long time. When was the last time you held a retreat here and was that a Warrior Monk Retreat? 

Yes, it was another Warrior Monk Retreat in early 2020, not too long before the pandemic-induced hiatus.

We’ve been holding this retreat almost yearly – sometimes twice a year – at the Whidbey Institute since the early 2000’s so it’s wonderful to be coming back.

Can you describe the Warrior Monk retreat, perhaps for someone who has never attended or has little to no background on your work?

The Warrior Monk Retreat is a five-day full-immersion retreat designed and facilitated to support people into finding and sustaining their unique authentic next levels of development.

“It’s work that engages us experientially on all levels – emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, physically, purpose and living-joy.”

It’s a body of work that has been consistently refined and practiced over 27 years in over 100 retreats to meet people where they are in their lives and give them a transformational retreat experience that also results in lasting sustainable growth.

It’s work that engages us experientially on all levels – emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, physically, purpose and living-joy.

In this way it is truly integrative.

We’ve been describing for decades how the retreat works for these reasons. It’s a unique opportunity the participant has; to work and grow these essential parts of our nature – our heart, mind, body, spirit/ soul – all at the same time, and in collaboration with each other.

This happens in a small, safe, connected and committed cauldron of like-minded people, in residence deep in the nurturing natural environment.

The days hold an elegant and well-paced mix of learning, practices, process-work, large and small group work, movement, play, time in nature and an experience in true community – all held within a rhythm that moves from ecstasy to sobriety, from peaceful contentment to raucous joy.

People consistently report that the retreat is both deeply restorative and life changing. As a staff, we’re dedicated to that goal. More than an intention, it’s our commitment.

With the hiatus you mentioned due to the pandemic did you shift the retreat to a virtual setting? Or consider letting it go altogether? 

The time since the last Warrior Monk at the Whidbey Institute largely coincides with the period of the pandemic. In the first two years I continued to schedule Warrior Monk Retreats around the world, only to see them postponed.

While a lot of good work can translate well-enough virtually, to provide this level of development and transformation requires the real-life environment of a true human to human experiential depth community.

As I often say, it’s the circles we cast that do much of the work. There is no way to replicate the sparking and resonance, love, and empathy, safety and power that fuels the development this kind of human container offers.

So, I waited. It was humbling and at times I deeply felt the loss. Eventually I let go, and let the retreat settle into a sabbatical of sorts.

I recalled how often people spoke of the Warrior Monk Retreat as critical to move through the significant transitions of their lives. Perhaps more than any other feedback, this comes up – how this work served to, consciously and with an open heart, move through those critical stages of transitions – endings, liminal or neutral space, and new beginnings.

So, I let go and let the transition for the Warrior Monk Retreat and community begin. And my own.

I never really considered letting it go. After all these years I consider it a community entity, with a heart and soul of its own. It matters a lot to so many and I consider it a privilege to be one of the many who care about and steward its future.

Ultimately, the work of calling, purpose and being of service threads its way through all the Warrior Monk philosophy and practice. It was valuable to be able to apply that to myself and the core support community in a walking-our-talk kind of way.

What have you learned about the value of the retreat through this time?

During this time I talked with and supported scores of people who have attended in the past; some from as recent as 2020 and some from the mid to late 1990’s.

Hearing that the retreat and follow-up work lives in them and sustained them through difficult times was inspiring. It helped strengthen my commitment and shape my thinking of the future of the work.

I was reminded how the ways this retreat uniquely holds the healthy tension between depth work and deep-to-the-bones levels of personal restoration.

The value gained is more of a credit to the people who did and continue to do the work. People spoke of carrying forward both the practices and memories of the circle to create much needed personal resilience.
Many kept connected, or reconnected, to the original practice and supported small groups we set up at the retreat.

Many spoke of how, through challenging times, the work we do to become present – and return to presence when we’re not – serves to find the everyday blessings to be grateful for. And, to have the awareness and discipline to work with life as we’re experiencing it, not as we wish it were.

In these times, what are you currently experiencing with participants?

I’m experiencing participants as more committed and courageous than ever. There’s a sense that given all we’ve gone through and the current state of the world, there is no time to lose.

This feels to me like a healthy urgency. A hunger to make the most of our lives.

There is a lot of heartbreak, tenderness, loss, and grief walking into these circles. Many of us have lost family, friends, loved ones and in some cases, ways of life we once held as dear.

For this, I believe there is a great need for the support, compassion and love that circles and communities like this offer. Perhaps more than ever we need to allow ourselves to need each other and hold that kind of safe and gentle space for real healing.

“Perhaps more than ever we need to allow ourselves to need each other and hold that kind of safe and gentle space for real healing.”

At the same time, I’m also experiencing a deep and fierce desire to use what we’ve been through to spark a significant life change. A desire to live in a more authentic way, with more joy, presence and purpose.

It’s humbling to hear people honestly and vulnerably share the ways in which they know they’ve become entranced; find themselves in a slumber, in some cases watching their lives pass by. More than ever, I hear people talk, achingly, about wanting to wake up.

I also believe that to become more awake – meaning; fully authentic, present, useful and able to access greater joy and connection, we also need each other.

If we’re courageous enough to challenge ourselves to grow, to risk letting go of old patterns and self-limitations, we need fiercely loving support, the kind of intensity that can catalyze change.

It’s humbling to meet people these days intent about their own process of waking up, standing at the threshold of their commitment to transition, ready to invite such personal alchemy.

Have you changed your approach to meet their current needs?

We’ve always treated each Warrior Monk as its own unique retreat community. While they are very similar, overall, we adapt the process and pacing for each as we go. Based on what we learn about them coming in and how the group is coming into its own identity and character in those first 24 hours we shape-shift things toward what’s most helpful.

And still, taking nothing for granted, we’re being even more sensitive about our approach in this new time.

We’re paying attention to where we need to slow things down a little, do more checking in with people and assessing as we go along.

This includes watching for those places that call out for tenderness and also looking for the best moments to spark more joy and fun.

We’re also keeping the groups a little smaller and taking even more time than in the past to get to know people in advance of the retreat.

And with everything I see people going through in these unprecedented times, having fun, and using respectful humor is more than ever good medicine for what’s ailing the spirit.

It seems that the serious work of becoming more fully human these days requires – paradoxically – that we also learn when not to take ourselves so seriously.

In light of what you’re seeing, are there any particular themes you’ve worked with in the past that you feel even more important now?

Attention is a key theme we’ve integrated into the work for 25+ years, one that I consider to be more important than ever.

Even before smartphones, social media and the current levels of societal chaos and distraction, we invited participants to try on the idea that our ability to harness and refine our attention may powerfully be our ‘precious life energy’.

That, in a real-life way, it’s what we devote our attention to – consciously – and unconsciously – that determines the quality of our experiences and relationships. In this way we shape our own day to day reality.

We use curative and practical strengthening exercises and tools to help participants shape-shift and sharpen their ability to use attention to “tend to what matters most” in life.

Longing is another theme we’ve used forever, also more useful than ever. To be able to access and honor our longing gives us a lifeline to our compassion, creativity, and self-love. It’s critical to our ability to walk through life with an open heart; allowing us to experience joy, grief, and true connection.

Can you speak to how the process you use in your Warrior Monk program meets people in the different ways they might learn? Some people learn well through speaking or lectures, while others may need to move to integrate what is being taught or communicated?

This is something we’re committed to when we say meeting people where they are is one of our core tenets.

We don’t give lectures or spend much time ‘talking at people’. With the few themes we center much of the work around we keep the theoretical and cognitive learning concise and heart-centered; then build on them in experiential and participatory ways.

We use gentle movement and dance and walks in nature to engage the body and support full-spectrum integration.

We use process work that engages our emotions, belief systems and physical being to create and embed increased levels of emotional maturity and new ways of experiencing ourselves and our life. Emotionally and psychologically.

We know that one of the ways we most grow is to be witnessed and witness others in our most authentic and vulnerable sharing. We practice this with a high degree of safety in small and large groups. This serves us to become more open and complex as we move through the days together.

All of this contributes to what we mean when we say the work is integrative in practical and effective ways.

What brings you to the Whidbey Institute? What are the elements that support your program?

I’ve always considered the Places we hold Warrior Monk to be a primary facilitator of the work. In this sense, Place holds and enables all that we aspire to make possible with this retreat.

If what we’re striving to offer participants and staff is their own authentic spiritual evolving, reaching out like branches further into life, Place is the “soul” that makes that possible by offering the grounding and strength to go into our past and take the risk to change our lives. Our roots.

We’ve held Warrior Monk at over a dozen locations on four continents and while we’ve always focused on finding places in beautiful natural settings with great food, the Whidbey Institute is one of the two Places I’ve come to consider the standard to measure all others by.

The physical setting – the hallowed grounds, hiking trails, beautiful hall, sanctuary and simple yet elegant lodging are everything we could ask for.

The healthy meals – and the consciousness and love that go into them – are as good as it gets. Don’t get me started…

But mostly, it’s the intangibles that matter and give the Whidbey Institute the soul that sustains us. The spirit and roots from the ancestors first on this land, the intentions of the founders and supportive early community… all matter immensely in what we get to step into and play around in.

I’ve been fortunate to witness the work of the staff over the last 20 years as it has wrestled in admirable and humbling ways with how to not only make this place exist, but have it serve ethically and sustainably, with human centered values and equitable principles.

This Place and its people – past and present – support and inspire us to walk our talk of service and pay good work forward.

You can learn more about Dan McKee and his work with The Warrior Monk Retreat by visiting his website.

October 2, 2023

People & Partners

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  1. Maurice Abarr says:

    Since I was unable to attend the November session this year (I have attended two previous retreats at Whidbey with Mr. McKee), i was wondering if he has scheduled the next retreat at Whidbey (a location I particularly enjoy)?

    1. Bryan McGriff says:

      Dan should be returning in 2024 and as soon as we have the dates and details, they will go up on our website. We will also list them on our newsletter, so be sure you are signed up for it.

    2. Bryan McGriff says:

      Maurice, Dan and Warrior Monk will be returning to the Whidbey Institute in March: https://whidbeyinstitute.org/event/1279/the-warrior-monk-retreat/