Contemplative Photography & Reflections

On Retreat: A Most Incredible Journey

I just returned from a three-day/three-night, solitary Healing Retreat at Light on the Hill Retreat Center. (To read about a previous retreat experience I had at Light on the Hill, click HERE.)

Spiritual retreat is a powerful, transformational process. Removed from the usual distractions and energies, the process deepens each day. Going on retreat was my most urgent summer priority. After all the intensity of the past school year, including my mother’s illness and death, I am a different person. The old ways no longer work. As often happens following a brush with death, life took on a greater urgency, and I felt a desperate need to integrate my new awareness and find my true North – for life is short, and I have wanderlust. I felt like someone ready to embark on a new journey on a boat that is tied to shore and slamming repeatedly against the rocks. Surely, the ropes served a purpose in the past, but now they need to be untied so I can sail to new harbors.

Day One

I arrived at Light on the Hill late in the afternoon and until the next morning was on my own to ease into the energy and solitude of the Meadow Cottage and surrounding environment. I eagerly anticipated the July “supermoon” that soon would illuminate the sky. I hadn’t planned to be on retreat during the full moon; it just worked out that way. As it turned out, in addition to my guide, Alice, my retreat experience was facilitated quite dramatically by the moon and the weather.

Once settled in, I considered my intention to find my true North and sat down with a book of Hafiz poems. Trusting that I would open to exactly the page I needed to read, I nonetheless was surprised to open to a poem about a “golden compass,” excerpted below:

I am a Golden Compass – 
Watch me whirl.

To the east and to the west
To the north and to the south,
In all directions I will true your course
Toward laughter and unity.

Watch me whirl into nothingness
Your fears and darkness – 
Just keep tossing them onto my golden plate.

My only duty that now remains
To this world

Is from every direction
To forever serve you wine and
Hope

Source: The Small Table of Time and Spacefrom The Subject Tonight is Love: 60 Wild and Sweet Poems of Hafiz (versions by Daniel Ladinsky), Pumpkin House, 1996, p. 38-39)

I took a walk as the sun sank in the forest.

As the moonrise drew nearer, I headed to one of the two Chartres-style labyrinths on the property. As I walked the labyrinth, I noticed an orange glow in the window of the cupola of the adjacent Stillpoint Sanctuary chapel.

Ten minutes later, I spotted the full, orange supermoon floating above the treetops.

I continued to walk the eleven-circuit labyrinth as the moon lifted higher in the sky, savoring each step and knowing I would remember this experience for a long time. By the time I arrived at the center, it was quite dark. There was a pile of stones and some offerings people had left, and I knelt on the ground and balanced the moonlit stones. I barely could see them and balanced them by feeling their weight in my hands. There was one large and bulky rock that I probably wouldn’t have been able to balance so easily if I had relied more on my eyes. Fireflies glowed all around as I walked the path back out of the labyrinth. I heard something rustle in the adjacent woods and felt a little frightened but maintained my slow, deliberate pace. Then an owl hooted the same rhythmic pattern over and over. I kept walking, delighted by the fireflies and moonlight and a little nervous about what lurked close by that I couldn’t see.

The environment and your emotional responses are all feedback and data when you’re on retreat. Everything seems to mirror and guide your inner process.

I returned to the cottage and fell asleep, serenaded by what sounded like hundreds of frogs croaking and making plucked rubber band sounds as the moon began its journey across the meadow, illuminating my dreams.

Day Two

In the morning, I met with my guide for an hour and a half and received some practices to work with until meeting with her the following morning.

I followed a path through the woods back to the cottage and wasn’t a happy camper because I didn’t have proper footwear, clothing, or bug repellent for the woods. I was worried about ticks (hello again, fear) and ended up taking a longer route to avoid tall brush. I wandered from the trail briefly when I was probably at the closest point to the cottage and was hot, tired, thirsty, and grumpy. I felt lost but knew I’d eventually find my way and get back “home,” just not as quickly as I would have liked to since I opted for the longer, “safer” route. When I came out at last on the road, I heard these words in my mind:

When you are done being pissed at the world,
We are here (and always have been)
To help you find your way.

After regrouping at the cottage, I returned to the labyrinth and found the stones still balanced at the center.

I walked the labyrinth and balanced more stones – nothing special, but it reminded me of how drawn I am to balancing stones!

After walking the labyrinth, I retreated to Stillpoint Sanctuary, a chapel for prayer and meditation.

The view of the cupola above where I was seated looked like an octagonal mandala.

I had no energy at all in the afternoon, which is normal for the first full day on retreat. Every muscle in my body felt heavy and hard to move. I took a nap, listened to the rustling of wind in the leaves, did some practices, and savored the dinner that Alice’s husband, Larry, delivered in a basket. Then more practices. And some crying – until I realized:

I don’t have to fix anything.
I don’t have to fix anyone.
I don’t have to fix myself.
All is well.

It occurred to me that life isn’t so draining when you get rid of the “shoulds.” Why do we put so much pressure on ourselves and complicate life unnecessarily?

I waited for the moonrise with two darting dragonflies and a meadow of fireflies. I could hear firecrackers in the distance and the chirping of a single cricket. The sky was very dark by the time the moon floated above the the treetops and began its journey across the meadow. What a lovely night!

Day Three

This is the day when you go really deep on retreat. I woke in the morning from a dream in which I was absolutely livid. I met with my guide for another healing session. After two sunny days, the sky was overcast with rain in the forecast, and the first thing she told me was that the weather one encounters on retreat is exactly what is needed to help the process along. We did some guided imagery and addressed my fear, and I received more practices and materials to work with. I experienced healing around my existential crisis that manifested in lingering questions and regrets about my mom’s final days on earth. I understood that other people and forces larger than myself were involved and that I was not in control of the process, despite my ego wanting to be.

I realized that my true North was obvious and that my next step was to reestablish a daily meditation, yoga, and exercise discipline. These practices were abandoned when life became intense, and I realized that I need them more than ever to help me navigate through life from one harbor to the next. They are my rudder. I felt certain that guidance will come if I ask for it, practice daily, and keep my senses open.

With my guide’s help, I realized that I am in a time of transition, sometimes called “the valley of not knowing.” This is a place that by and large is not valued by society, although it is essential for growth and requires patience. It is like a cocoon – the state of dissolution (disillusion?) in between a caterpillar and a butterfly. This is what it feels like to me:

To consume without knowing what I hunger for,
Not content to be a creature of craving.

There is a big difference between what feeds the soul and the mindless clinging and craving of the ego.

It began raining as soon as my healing session was over and rained all day for the most part. I took advantage of a brief interlude without rain and attempted to walk the labyrinth. No sooner had I reached the center, and the downpour resumed, so I returned to the cottage. The weather drew me more deeply inward. As I worked with the practices and materials given to me, I realized that even in the unlikely event that nothing further transpired on my retreat, it already was successful in that I:

  • Discovered my true North
  • Understood that this transitional “valley” has value and is essential for growth
  • Experienced a sense of certainty and an inner shift from which I gave myself permission from deep within (not just in my head) to let go of that which no longer sustains me

I felt profoundly peaceful.

When the rain seemed to die down late in the afternoon, I turned on my phone (which I had been instructed to turn off for the duration of the retreat) to check the hourly weather forecast and determine whether another trip to the labyrinth was feasible. However, an alarm sounded, and a message appeared: “A tornado warning is in effect for your area. Seek shelter immediately!”

So much for my peaceful state of mind!

I had experienced a devastating tornado while living in Florida back when my children were very young. It was the most terrifying experience of my life. When you are huddled in the laundry room with your young family not knowing whether or not the tornado already has gone by, you realize that Mother Nature is in control and that anytime you believed you were, you were mistaken!

I jumped into action, assessed my environment, and determined the best place to seek shelter. The clouds were dark and threatening. Surrounded by couch cushions, I kept my phone on to receive further updates. I remembered that when I had finished packing the car to leave for retreat, my husband – who loves to tease me about my fear of tornadoes – asked if I had packed my helmet. Haha – no, I didn’t. My heart was pounding, and I felt a familiar sensation of fear in my body. Ideally, I would “go into” the fear and investigate it, but my mind was like a chattering monkey. I was not meditating or being mindful while taking shelter and waiting for the storm to pass. (It turns out there was a small tornado in the neighboring town that was headed in my direction but changed its course.) Once again, forces larger than myself were in control. I couldn’t change the weather around me, only the atmosphere within me. And that’s a pretty big deal, actually.

Once the sky appeared safe and the tornado warning had expired, it occurred to me that my ability to perceive beauty in the world was all fine and good – and has uplifted me through some very challenging times. However, I need to cultivate mindfulness and meditative awareness that equips me to work with the stubborn weed of fear so I am not immobilized or derailed by it. I need to practice daily so that when storms come I am ready. That was a very powerful lesson. It also made me think of the book of Mary Oliver poetry that I have misplaced and cannot find anywhere. Perhaps at this time I do not need to read about the beauty of this earth, for that comes so easily to me and reinforces everything I already perceive. Perhaps instead I need to learn to work with my fear, like those lines from the Hafiz poem:

Watch me whirl into nothingness
Your fears and darkness – 
Just keep tossing them onto my golden plate.

What a precious opportunity for transformation.

I also realized that taking shelter was very much like being in a cocoon, not knowing what was next. And what was next? The birds chirped merrily, the stream bubbled along, the mist rose gracefully, the lovely fragrance of milkweed drifted through the air, and the sun shone from behind the trees making the wet leaves and needles sparkle with light. Such wondrous peace. My world was wrapped in a mist blanket of peace and love.

And then this:

Jaw-dropping beauty, lovelier than anything I could have imagined. Naturally, I had to go exploring.

Here is a view of the pyramid at the top of Inner Light Lodge, where my husband and I were married.

And here is a spectacular view from the back of Inner Light Lodge, of the surrounding hills and the mist rising all around.

I returned to a dark cottage, lit a gas lantern, and resumed my practices. After completing one guided visualization, something in me seemed to have shifted. I realized (really realized, not just “knew”) that I am the daughter of Life. The birds, trees, and everything that is alive are my brothers and sisters – including my human parents. I cannot be orphaned, nor abandoned, for I am the daughter of Life and carry within me a divine inheritance. I have all that I need.

At that moment, I was able to let go of my mom. I wouldn’t need to ask her to visit me or prove to me that she exists beyond death. Although I had told her I was letting her go as she was dying – and really meant it at the time – it was different now. I was releasing her to be wherever she needed to be. She did not need to hover around earth to take care of me. I am a daughter of Life, and she is a fellow traveler. I needed to break the ropes and let her fly, light and untethered.

That night, the nearly full moon floated into the sky and shone through the skylight above my bed. I fell asleep listening to the frogs and the bubbling stream. And I had the Most Incredible Dream Ever. It was the most prolonged, joyful, and poignant dream of contact with my mom that I have had since she died. It was long and detailed, and I won’t go into it here, other than to say that she communicated very strongly through various objects. There was dialogue and gratitude and humor and so much love. By the end of the dream, I felt jubilant and exclaimed that life continues after death and that I have absolute proof of this now! The feeling continued when I woke up at 3:26 a.m. with tears of joy in my eyes as I wrote down the dream.

I got out of bed and climbed down the ladder, lit a candle and a stick of rose incense, and sat with the moon and this bliss. I began to sing a Sufi song that I hadn’t sung in a good 20 years. Sometimes I had to whisper the words because crying made singing impossible. I sang it four times, and by the fourth time, my voice was strong and sweet. I felt that I was singing for my mom. And then I sang her favorite hymn, “Amazing Grace,” four times, exactly the same way – belting it out strongly the fourth time. I felt she was harmonizing along with me.

I sat gazing at the meadow, which was filled with white, moonlit mist, thick and dreamy. It was like a dynamic stage. The moon had traveled about 3/4 of the way across the meadow, and I watched the clouds pass in front of it and noticed that some clouds couldn’t obscure the light at all. The stream bubbled louder near me and softer down below in the distance – soothing, gentle, white noise. Then an owl punctuated the stillness with the same haunting call I’d heard in the labyrinth. A single cricket chirped. The world was quiet but for these sounds. The eastern sky began to soften and glow, but not from moonlight. The birds were sleeping, but not for long. I was filled with gratitude and wrapped in love, beauty, and awe.

What a powerful lesson I had learned about letting go. When I was able to let go of my mom, she came to me in a dream. Let go, and then something profound will come to you because you have cleared space for the unexpected to enter in.

Eventually, I went to bed as the birds awakened with the distant call of one. Then another sang merrily and energetically. Before long, there was a dawn chorus of bird prayer-song heralding a new day. Before falling asleep, I set an intention to awaken in time to see the sunrise.

Day Four

Two hours later, I awoke to a lovely mist all around.

I headed down the road to the labyrinth

…and walked the labyrinth as the mist floated lightly through the air and lifted into a blue sky.

Even after the previous day’s stormy weather, a few stones remained balanced, and that made me smile. There’s something deeply gratifying about balance.

I met briefly with my guide and then continued working with more practices and materials before packing up and heading home, feeling very satisfied with my retreat experience. On the way down the hill, I realized that I don’t need to hold on to anything that has outlived its purpose in order to please anyone else, including my parents. I thought about my mom and felt certain that if I could speak with her after all she has been through (i.e. physical death), she would not advise me to cling fearfully to habits and situations from which my soul has withdrawn – but rather to withdraw my energy and go forth toward the places that engage and feed my soul. For life is short, and letting go in big and small ways throughout life is essential practice for our own inevitable death. And for living our life dynamically and magnificently.

Bless the dried up places, and let them go with gratitude for the gifts they have given us on our journey through life.

In any situation, what’s the worst that can happen? You can die. (Or maybe even worse, not live?) But guess what? Everybody is going to die eventually. And I believe that our life on earth is a precious opportunity for transformation. So break those ropes of fear, and live your life!

Or in the words of the 15th century mystic poet, Kabir:

Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive,
Jump into experience while you are alive!
Think…and think…while you are alive.
What you call “salvation” belongs to the time before death.

If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive, do you think
ghosts will do it after?

The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body is rotten – 
that is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death.

If you make love with the divine now, in the next life
you will have the face of satisfied desire.

Source: The Kabir Book: Forty-four of the Ecstatic Poems of Kabir (versions by Robert Bly), Beacon Press, 1977, p. 24-25

 

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