Spiritual Retreat

There’s a reason why such journeys are called a “retreat”. It’s because one retreats from the real world, to find a connection with the soul. I undertook such a journey when I went to Virginia for a month. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was really trying to get some “me time”. Not the sitting in a bathtub, decompressing with a good book, a glass of wine and a couple of chocolate truffles, kind of “me time”. The kind of me time where you examine yourself, whether you realize that’s what you’re doing or not.

While I was gone, I touched something in myself that I had forgotten. Being around my friends Dan and Bonnie, reminded me of the young woman I was before I got sick. I felt remembered joy, and realized that it was something I used to carry with me everywhere. I used to be happy to be alive. I found beauty and love in everything. I had an expanding spirit, that used to encompass those around me.

That doesn’t mean I was all sweetness and light, or that I never had negative emotions or that I didn’t deal with anger, or sorrow. I did. It also doesn’t mean that I was always “Miss Positivity”, pretending everything was fine, when I wasn’t. I have always been, sometimes to my detriment, an extremely honest person. I refuse to pretend that I’m fine, when I’m not. I won’t “fake it till I make it”. I am true to myself, and my beliefs and I won’t blow sunshine up anyone else’s butt. Still, I felt this deep abiding joy inside of me – rain or shine – and the rain never lasted for very long.

I realized while on retreat that I wanted to recapture that. I don’t want to be young again, but I want to feel a young person’s joy at being alive, tempered by the maturity of the woman I am. I didn’t realize that’s what I wanted immediately, I only knew that I felt a yearning when I returned.

There’s an excellent saying in Gregg Levoy’s book, “Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life”. In Part Three: Invoking Calls, under the heading of “Avoiding the Bends”, he says this about spiritual retreats – “While you were out there circling around the ancient tower, those you left behind were doing the dishes, feeding the baby, and going to work as usual. In other words, they were NOT on retreat, so they can’t possibly know what you’ve seen or heard or felt, and they want to know, or maybe they don’t. Either way, it’s important to be sensitive to this on returning to the Ordinary World.”

This is often a failing of mine. I return with such joy and excitement over my discoveries, that I want to share everything with everyone. I never realized, until reading this, that the expanding joy I feel is very spiritual, and while some might be interested, and even be able to relate from prior experiences, what they feel when I return is primarily rooted in the living of their day-to-day lives. It’s a completely different perspective.

Another thing I fail to do upon return is to protect what I’ve learned or know, or felt, and nurtured it properly. Often, upon return we’re thrust forcefully back into “normalcy” and the transition can be jarring, and often destroys all of our good intentions. Gregg Levoy says of this, “Re-entry is a sort of decompression, and like returning from a deep-sea dive, it’s best handled slowly. If you move too fast, you endanger yourself and your experience.” He quotes Jay Wood, who once told him, “…whatever promises I made to myself during the journey, whatever insights I gained and intentions I set, I would need to defend them against the tendency of life to level all uprisings, to stomp my enthusiasms back into low relief… Be careful, he said, lest I twist an ankle going back down the mountain, get into a car wreck on the drive home, get sick or get into arguments with others. Beware of impulses, however unconscious, that might trigger a panic of retreat back to the relative safety of the comfort zone. He reminded me that after big openings often come big closings. After highs, lows. After breakthroughs, breakdowns. Being part of a couple, I knew this one by heart: Intense fights often follow intense intimacy.”

He uses the example of Orpheus who loses Eurydice to the bite of a snake, and moved Hades to allow Eurydice to return to the real world again. The only condition, was that Orpheus not look back at Eurydice until after they exited the Underworld. Of course, whether out of distrust, or fear, Orpheus looked back at Eurydice just as they approached the exit, and she disappeared forever.

There is a perversity in our nature which causes us to fear the unknown and sabotage our movement towards it. I have experienced this all of my life with my art, and every barrier I break in that regard causes me to feel a hundred-feet tall. There is pain in the breaking, but also immense relief. I’ve lost many people since November, and I recently said to a friend, “It’s as if my life is being wiped clean to make space for something new, but it hurts so badly.” Endings are often new beginnings. They are always painful. I don’t like them, no matter how wonderful the outcome. I’ve always dealt with change poorly. At 18, I cried on Graduation Day, and I didn’t even know why. I felt wretchedly sad, and had trouble coping.

Since returning, I’ve thrown myself into my art, but had trouble wrapping my head around other things. I’ve been extremely defensive, seeing any act of anger or aggression as a personal threat to my safety and the safety of my dreams. I understand now, that in my heart, I’m staunchly defending the things I learned and felt on retreat, from the encroachment of everyday life. However, by reacting this way, I have also endangered them.

Gregg Levoy also has an anecdote here, which I think I will borrow: “I know one smart individual who, upon returning from a vision quest, simply went out to a movie with his wife and saved his tales of adventure and metamorphosis for the following day. My own guide’s admonition, which was astute and saved me from a bundle of trouble, ended with his suggestion that I “post a guardian at the gate”.

It is my belief that the guardian isn’t just there to protect entry from others, but also to prevent us from letting ourselves out. Sometimes, spilling things out too soon causes their loss.