This past weekend, I took a solitary retreat in an effort to “get away from it all” and look for answers to questions that had been keeping me up at night much of the summer. Since, I’ve been processing all that shifted internally as a result, and I don’t think it has all settled in just yet. Before I share some of that, however, a quote that sets the tone:
“Beat poet Jack Kerouac, feeling primed for a spiritual breakthrough, wrote to a friend before he retreated into the wilderness, ‘If I don’t get a vision on Desolation Peak, then my name ain’t William Blake.’ But later he wrote that he found it hard to face the naked truth. ‘I’d thought, in June when I get to the top…and everybody leaves…I will come face to face with God or Tathagata [Buddha] and find out once and for all what is the meaning of all this existence and suffering…but instead I’d come face to face with myself, no liquor, no drugs, no chance of faking it, but face to face with ole Hateful…Me.'” — Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, p. 37.
Yes, last Friday, I went off for a solitary retreat of sorts: a hotel room, four books, a paper journal, my laptop and a few DVDs, a little bit of food and drink for the minifridge, and Me. I thought it would be great and relaxing when I planned it. As I said, I thought I would get the answers to the questions that had been keeping me up at night all summer, like: What is my calling? What should I do after my current job ends? Where should I move after my current job ends? I was picturing bright, sparkly visions and dreams, or sitting in meditation and hearing a still, small voice.
Instead, Friday morning I woke from the most gruesome, viscerally real-feeling nightmare I’ve ever had. I’m not going to recount it here, as I don’t want to remind myself of it and I don’t want anyone else to have it. It left me nauseated and shaking with horrible smells lingering in my nose and the feel of strong hands clasping my upper arms.
I was already on edge when I got to work Friday morning. The workday, by turns, intensified that nervousness and bored me to tears. I did, however, get to leave at 3:30–an hour early–as planned. On the way to the hotel, I almost got into two car accidents, and ran through three downpours so severe I couldn’t see very far past the front bumper of my car, but with nowhere to really get off the road, and so I crawled along like an old lady. I also forgot about the trick red light in my destination town, which, if you’re close to it and going the speed limit, there’s not usually time to stop between its turning from green to turning red, and this day I ended up running that red light due to being so close and the roads being so wet. By the time I got to the hotel, I felt I’d been violently shaken, not gently stirred, and my stomach was all in an uproar though I couldn’t figure out why. After I’d settled down some, I went out to buy chicken soup and crackers in case of a full blown stomach upset.
By Saturday morning, I had figured out what was likely at the root of the stomach upset. I was alone. I designed it that way. That was the point: to get in touch with myself. The thing is, I obviously didn’t think that through too much.
You see, being alone without family and friends around to distract you now and then, or without shopping that has to be done or errands that have to be run, forces you to tune into what’s going on with yourself in a deep, visceral manner. Scratch that. It makes you tune into your Self, that part of you that liest at the intersection of mind, body, and spirit. Even the books I took with me–Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (2nd time reading it), Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper and Succulent Wild Woman by SARK, and the aforementioned The Places That Scare You by Pema Chodron–are about finding your Self, or aspects of it.
This process of tuning into the Self is not always, as Kerouac illustrates, well, fluffy bunnies and rainbows.
Sometimes tuning into the Self is jangling nerves, upset stomach, and a heart cracking open to daylight. In Kerouac’s case, it was coming “face to face with ole Hateful.” In a way, I also met my inner Ole Hateful, and, at times, felt like the Biblical Jacob when he wrestled with an angel.
For one thing, I had to own up to all the ways I’ve been mistreating myself, and all the areas of Denial I’ve been swimming in, which included the following charges:
- Denying myself the cleansing cry I needed a couple weeks prior because crying is inappropriate at work and much maligned at home. (Finally gave in and remedied this one.)
- Putting off buying properly fitted bras until the one I wore that Friday literally wounded me, just because I hate trying on so many and because it usually brings a bit of body dissatisfaction. (Remedied this one, too.)
- Not having a handle on my stress, for which the best medicine, as prescribed by my Self, was getting back into the daily spiritual practices that worked for me, perennially, when I took the time to do them, namely: praying, meditating, writing down at least five things for which I’m grateful every day in my gratitude journal, and reading something spiritually nourishing. (I’ve started up that daily practice since I’ve been back, and so far I’m on track.)
- Mistreating my body by gulping down my food instead of savoring it, and overdosing on processed sugar, especially rich desserts, which were perfect recipes for stomach upset. (I’m now eating more slowly, and much, much less processed sugar, and hope to keep it up, as I feel much better.)
- Mistreating my body by not exercising, and also, in so doing, denying myself another stress release valve. (During the weekend I swam in the hotel pool, and promised myself I would swim–it’s my favorite physical activity–at every chance given. I decided that, when swimming isn’t an option, I’d fall into a regular yoga practice, run and/or walk outside when weather permits, perhaps pilates, occasional bellydancing, and at least once weekly Nia. This has been a bit slippery, but I’ve not been able to breathe well due to allergies for much of the work week so far, though that will change this evening, I hope.)
- Mistreating my body by not sleeping enough, and by not making an effort to develop nightly rituals that signal my mind and body that it’s time to go to sleep, though I had started working on this before I left using Goddess Leonie’s Divine Dreaming Meditation and some of the suggestions she makes in the accompanying e-booklet. (Best money I’ve spent in a long while. If you have trouble sleeping, check it out!)
- Trying to cover up the very clear signals the skin on my face was sending that all was not well, i.e. breakouts, unevenness of tone and texture, and excessive oiliness which made the makeup I was trying to hide it with look worse than bare skin, rather than addressing the health of my skin and the rest of me. (I’ve been makeup free since Saturday evening, and my skin thanks me for it.)
- Putting off or outright ignoring my creative impulses, mostly for fear of not being “good enough”. (Am working on that.)
Now, for the uplifting parts…
I got tired of being alone with myself Friday evening and Saturday evening, so I spent a little time each evening talking to one of my university friends via Facebook messenger. Saturday’s conversation was quite fruitful for me, but I hope for both of us. She had just registered for the first semester of a brief-residency MFA Creative Writing program concentrating in poetry, which is due to start later this Fall. She was feeling stagnant and uninspired and worrying if she’d be able to fulfill her coursework obligations, and I gave her a pep talk. There were four main points of the pep talk that I definitely needed to hear as much as share, namely:
- Your Muse isn’t gone. She’s on vacation in Puerta Vallarta. She’ll come home eventually. There are only so many cute cabana boys and only so many drinks with the little umbrellas in them that she can drink and not get unbearably fat.
- To distract the Inner Critic and lure your Muse back home, try changing media. Instead of wriitng, try photography, painting, drawing, music, etc., or simply change genre.
- Create anyway, even if you think it’s crap, but try also not to force yourself. Let it happen, without judgment. Don’t worry about whether it’s an original idea, or if you’ve come out with a pristine poem in iambic pentameter or a painting worthy of display next to the Masters in the Louvre.
- The good thing about writing as a calling is that it is a portable discipline, not bound to any one place. So you can’t move yet? You’ve got a computer. You’ve got pens. You’ve got paper. When your Muse inevitably wanders home, you shouldn’t have any problem.
It was a clear case of “Teach that which you most need to learn.” Haha.
Then, there was the must-do trip to the bookstore. To calm my nerves after the bra shopping expedition I undertook, I went to the bookstore across the way to comfort and calm myself. I needed some time in my happy place, which bookstores and libraries are for this former English Lit major.
The second I walked into Books-A-Million, it was instant calm. All the tension went out of my muscles and a smile played across my lips. I sucked in a very deep breath and exhaled, not realizing I’d been breathing very shallowly before. The smell of new books, the sound of people picking them up and flipping through them and the magazines, seeing and hearing workers putting out even more new ones, and hearing the manager talking about a new display to come…All of that settled my nerves and put me into a state of relaxation.
I then did this thing I sometimes do at bookstores and libraries: I let go of conscious thought and let my intuition lead me around the store. I looked at lots of books, but an inner “A-ha!” went up when I lit on the two I ended up buying: Prayers: A Communion with Our Creator by Don Miguel Ruiz and Eckhart Tolle’s DVD/book set Findhorn Retreat: Stillness Amidst the World. The prayer book fit in perfectly with my desire to pray more, but my accompanying lack of freely-flowing words for prayers, so being intuitively led there wasn’t such a surprise. (I am focusing on one chapter and prayer per week. Each prayer is prefaced by some of Ruiz’s thoughts on the subject. This week’s subject is “Truth.”) It was a little odd what attracted me to Tolle’s Findhorn Retreat; I was first attracted by touch and smell, then by content and the internal “A-ha!” I gobbled down the book portion of Findhorn Retreat as soon as I got back to my hotel room, which is all sorts of food-for-the-soul deliciousness. It is comprised of photos taken by Mr. Tolle in Oregon, British Columbia, and England set alongside quotes from the retreat. I plan to do the 2 DVD, four hour retreat this coming weekend.
I simply must share two of my favorite bits from the book portion of Findhorn Retreat:
“The original reason for art is the sacred — to be a portal, an access point for the sacred. When you see it or experience it, you experience yourself. In it you see yourself relfected. In true art, the formless is shining through the form.” — Eckhart Tolle, Findhorn Retreat: Stillness Amidst the World, p. 29
You don’t solve problems by thinking; you create problems by thinking. The solution always appears when you step out of thinking and become still and absolutely present, even if only for a moment. Then, a little later when thought comes back, you suddenly have a creative insight that wasn’t there before.” — Tolle, Findhorn Retreat: Stillness Amidst the World, p. 35
The latter is probably the least easy maxim ever to live with, but it bears notice and continued notice infinitely. It was and is the knots that my thoughts tie me into that cause a lot of my stress, worry, and problems.
Finally comes the biggest most important part of my weekend away. Wrestling with figurative angels, facing down my inner Ole Hateful, and looking for The Answer to the Big Questions yielded a product, but not the one I was aiming for. I was hoping for rote answers to each of my Big Questions, cut and dried answers that would snap everything instantly into place: I’d know what to do with my life, I’d know where to move to next, I’d know whether to quit my stressful job or stay on, and so forth. Yet, I did get an Answer to all those questions, and to questions I hadn’t bothered to ask.
Overwhelmingly, everything I thought or read or experienced or dreamed over the weekend affirmed The Answer that I actually received, which was this:
“Baby girl, be here now! Planning for the future is all well and good, like saving up a monetary nest egg, for instance, but you’ve got a life right now to live. Life is here now, just as it is over in that other field you think is so much greener. You already know, deep down, what you’re here to do, and one day soon that’s going to become very apparent, so apparent that even you can’t mistake it. When the time comes, you will know where to go next and what to do next. Don’t worry, don’t complain, and trust the process. Plus, if you can learn to live fully and happily where you are, then you will know that you can live fully and happily anywhere. Pray. Meditate. Read. Write. Sing. Paint. Draw. Practice yoga. Go outside more often. Visit and call and talk to friends. Whatever you do, be fully there. That’s ‘The Answer’ you’re getting for now, nothing more and nothing less.”
That is the crowning product, the chief fruit of my time away with my Self. It’s not The Answer I was seeking, but it is so much more.
I told one of my older, wiser friends–a soulful, forty-something Southern Mama Goddess–about the Big Questions and my Answer, and she said that what she wanted to say to my Questions, before I told her The Answer, was, “Will you STOP trying to live your whole entire life in a day?!? Just do what you can in the given moment.” She added, “Great minds think alike.”
I’m trying my best to live up to my Answer, and am grateful to have received an Answer at all.