Retreat: Picking up the thread of life
The secret is just this: you’re always home, no matter where you are, because Now is home. Now is forever …
Now is Forever
When we were children we understood about retreat. We knew how to live in the moment which is really what retreat is after all. Watch any child at play and see how totally absorbed he is. Nothing else matters, not what happened yesterday or might happen tomorrow, just Now. He is focused in a world of his own imagination, unconcerned with what happened last week or what might happen next.
As a child it never occurred to me that I was young. I was just ‘me,’ exactly the same ‘me’ that lives on today and who has lived throughout time. I was also aware of a ‘before life’ (uncomfortably so at times) and reasoned that there must therefore be an ‘after life’ too – in other words some continuity of consciousness that exists beyond birth and death. Life was an ever-unfolding miracle, inseparable from the Now.
Some years ago I wrote a short story called Now is Forever. It focuses on two children who experience ‘Now’ as their true home and thus discover the eternal thread that runs through life. I wanted to experience a lost world through these two children, to re-capture the magic of childhood and show how this magic disappears once we grow older and life’s challenges and responsibilities take over. I believe if we choose to, we can learn to be children once more and regain our youthful spirit. We can pick up the thread of Life again and find that ‘Now’ really is forever, in one single unending moment.
Children love stories that remind them of the magic that exists just beyond our physical sight. They are very close to the subtle worlds and will often know instinctively that beyond our physical sight there are countless ‘worlds within worlds,’ both the microcosm and the macrocosm. I was lucky; my father, a very stern man with a military background, was also of Irish descent and unusually sensitive. He taught me about the ‘Little People’ and I was able to ‘see’ fairies and not just read about them in books.
My son, I discovered quite by chance, was able to see auras and he naturally assumed that everyone did! His reading of other people was uncannily accurate. He, like many others, would often talk to unseen friends and also showed signs of remembering a ‘before life.’ He lost these psychic abilities for a while along with a degree of telepathy once puberty began but I think this may have been necessary for his development along other lines.
Left to their own devices – and under the right circumstances – children will naturally display other soul qualities such as empathy and the desire to help one another. Something else that is all too sadly lost later in life.
Retreat allows us the space to regain a child-like a sense of the timeless, and to see the world anew. This truly is the life of the Soul.
Who Am I? Why Am I Here?
The more time you spend in the company of your Soul, such as on retreat, the more interesting life becomes. You may begin to feel younger, more energetic, because the soul is eternally youthful. You will inevitably start to identify with the timeless in you and lose any fear of death because you know you are eternal and therefore deathless.
You begin to search more deeply for meaning and ask questions, like Who am I? Why am I here? For every answer you find there is another question that probes more deeply.
When I was in my early teens I would search my local library for books that might reveal to me the secrets of Life. I knew that such books must exist but had no idea where to locate them. This was the pre-Beatles era, before meditation became popular in the West. There were no esoteric sections in bookshops or Mind, Body and Spirit Fairs, no computers to help me with my search. Then one day I happened upon a very old volume tucked away in the library’s Philosophy section. I remember my excitement, reading about the ‘Music of the Spheres’ and although it made little sense to me, it was a start! A few years later I met a young man who belonged to the Rosicrucian Order, a modern-day version of the ancient mystery school. He taught me about meditation and so much more besides concerning the spiritual Laws of Life.
Today there are countless books on Eastern and Western spiritual philosophies; New Age publications abound. The problem nowadays is perhaps too much choice – too many cul de sacs and false pathways for the spiritual seeker to become lost in.
Enlightenment and Spiritual Ambition
My friend Bob often joked that all spiritual books should carry a health warning. He complained that too many made exaggerated promises of health and happiness and that some were positively dangerous. He had learned the hard way, sending himself half mad as a result of practicing certain unsupervised techniques. Spiritual ambition can have devastating results.
Most dangerous of all are those teachers claiming to offer ‘enlightenment.’ Any extreme exercises designed to speed up spiritual awakening (such as the forced raising of kundalini energy through breathing exercises) should, in my opinion, be avoided unless under the supervision of a highly experienced teacher. Kundalini (the dormant force at the base of the spine) is intended to rise through the energy centres normally and systematically and in its own time. Likewise, spiritual growth is best attained through a natural unfolding, facilitated by simple, tried and tested exercises, and always combined with some service activity. To be in a rush to gain enlightenment (which is a never-ending process after all) suggests spiritual ambition – a contradiction in terms if ever there was one!
Retreat, Meditation and Altered States
Retreat, meditation and a more relaxed attitude to life all lower stress levels and produce definite health benefits. These include lowered heart rate and blood pressure, improved digestion, healthier hormone levels and even increased immunity and fertility. There are many studies to support these claims, including Dr Herbert Benson’s well known work ‘The Relaxation Response.’* In meditation brain rhythms change from beta (active conscious) to alpha (rested and reflective), and also theta states (meditative and creative). Meditation therefore can stimulate memory and creativity.
Retreat involves periods of ‘silent sitting’ (meditation) and mindful activity. Any focused meditation strengthens our contact with our soul. This doesn’t mean making the mind go blank but rather quieting the mind so that thoughts no longer disturb the inner peace. The actual experience of meditation doesn’t matter at all. Sometimes it may be blissful, sometimes tiring or even downright boring! It is, I believe, the willingness to meet ourselves in Silence that matters most. Although meditation is an ‘altered state’ – that is to say it differs from ordinary waking consciousness – it is a most natural human activity.
There are said to be as many types of meditation as there are people and techniques such as mantras or breathing exercises are simply tools to still the chattering mind and help the individual to experience his own unique essence.
This practice of ‘stilling’ allows us rest in body and mind and leads ultimately to transcendence, a bodiless, deathless state.
People who have ‘near death’ or ‘out of body’ experiences (NDEs or OBEs) frequently describe the bliss and freedom of their bodiless state. In fact, the experience can be so compelling that they are reluctant to return to the body and may take some persuasion before agreeing to. In the extra-physical state worldly attachments no longer seem to have the same attraction – not even those people we love the most – in comparison with the ecstasy experienced there. Re-entry to the body is often reported as uncomfortable and constricting, although any pain felt on return is frequently transformed and redeemed by a new sense of perspective and hope – and even physical healing. There are many dramatic reports of cures following NDEs. Especially impressive is Anita Moorjani’s account of her own return from death and recovery from terminal illness in her book, Dying to be Me. **
Many people discover their essential ‘self’ through spiritual healing – and this is the primary purpose of healing of course, to bring us into contact with our own Healer, the Soul. Perfect health and happiness can never be guaranteed although a state of contentment, even bliss, is certainly possible. It should be remembered though that any focused spiritual practice, while enormously helpful for our mental, emotional and physical health, also brings to the surface any unresolved issues we have. And we all do! In Transcendental Meditation this process is called ‘un-stressing’ and although beneficial it can be temporarily uncomfortable too!
Retreat and the release of stress
We often avoid silence and stillness for very good reason. Instinctively we know that without our usual distractions – television, telephone, the internet, and so on – we are alone with our thoughts. Retreat can be both a refuge and a catalyst for the release of trauma.
It is in stillness that painful memories or unresolved issues arise, usually as tears or an outburst of anger. This process is a normal and necessary movement of emotional energy that is all part of the healing process. It can happen during private and public retreats alike – occasionally during my own. When it does I ask everyone to breathe with the person involved – as an example let’s call him Joe. This breathing together results in a tremendous sense of being ‘held’ and supported. There may be a tendency to rush forward to help Joe, to console, but it is far better to allow him space for the energy to move off in its own time. Such a movement of energy can have a powerful effect on the rest of us and remind us of our own emotional pain. Our throats may tighten up, tears well up in empathy. I ask everyone then to continue to breathe steadily and to remain very poised. It helps enormously to raise the attention to our ‘High Place,’** the Ajna centre between the eyebrows, and thus allow the process to complete.
People naturally feel embarrassed at having drawn attention to themselves so at some point I thank Joe for staying with it and for enabling us all to acknowledge our own pain. It all adds to a great sense of group coherence and bonding.
I Am the Mountain
At such times I have found it very helpful to identify with the mountain, solid and strong, eternally unmoved by winds and storms (see Chapter 4). This is a very simple technique: simply imagine your feet as the base of a mountain, your head as the summit and your whole body rock-solid and poised against any internal or external force. At the same time you think: I Am the Mountain!
The Messages included in this book often refer to mountains – how their peaks are not really as distant as we might imagine since we have already come a very long way through life’s challenges, each one a mountain to conquer. As the famous explorer and mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hillary said: It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.
So many of our difficulties are self-created, that is to say by the way we think. Indeed we are capable of breaking our own hearts by repeated ‘wrong thinking.’ Our obsessions and anxieties mount up over our lifetimes, yet this mountain of suffering is not as solid as we might imagine. It can be reduced to dust once we penetrate those layers with the light of awareness, the Soul.
The mountains and other remote places in the world have long been known as the retreats of the Masters, Those wise teachers who have evolved ahead of us and mastered all aspects of life on this planet – body, mind, and emotions – and now guide humanity from age to age. Climbing the mountain is an obvious metaphor for human aspiration; of our evolutionary impulse to reach towards some greater goal, to overcome our earthly limitations and so master ourselves. Self-mastery, whether or not we are aware of it, is our ultimate goal for we are all Masters in training.
Enlightenment and the Upward Struggle
Pain and suffering, as the Tibetan Master Djwhal Khul describes, is our upward struggle through matter.*** It is only by enduring and overcoming those things we find most difficult that we eventually reach the summit of the mountain.
However, we would do well to remember that there are always further experiences ahead of us – yes, even for the Masters themselves – and greater summits too. That is the nature of evolution: enlightenment is only relative after all!
Retreat: The Blessing of Suffering and Change
Those who live with chronic physical pain often say that the worst kind of pain is emotional, especially the agony of loneliness, anxiety and depression. My wise friend Bob knew this all too well. Although he was adept at helping others to heal he privately struggled right to the end of his life with his own loneliness, depression and grief.
Retreat offers us the space to observe our life throughout all its ups and downs. Inevitably we learn that everything that gives us pleasure will also bring pain – and then the very knowledge that life is uncertain, that things are not always going to be wonderful, can bring a sense of acceptance. We can either accept our difficulties as opportunities or become embittered and thus prolong our own suffering. This is a choice that involves a good deal of attention and objectivity on our part. Not easy for sure!
Such a space may help us to understand both the cause and the purpose of our suffering – for unless we do we shall continue to draw to ourselves more of the same. We may see that many of our circumstances are created, moment to moment, from our own attitudes. Every problem then becomes a challenge to accept and transform and every challenge met renews our confidence and enthusiasm for life. By acknowledging our human vulnerability we demonstrate the power of the human spirit to overcome challenges – and to find meaning and purpose in them.
Although suffering doesn’t necessarily guarantee spiritual advancement there can sometimes be solace in the knowledge that our difficulties are necessary ‘tests’ that bring rewards of their own. This may sound like a platitude but it really can never be overstated: tests help us to grow in stature and show us that we are much bigger than our difficulties. They help us to get to grips with the mind and its fear of change, loss and above all, death.
We learn that things don’t last; good times, bad times, all passes by, and everything moves in cycles. We try especially to ignore the uncertainty of our own lifespan; we avoid death for as long as we can. Yet death is an everyday reality- we die every day. Something dies, something is reborn – our cells, our relationships, even our ideas about things. But when we become rooted in our inner life, our death becomes less of a problem. We understand that it is only the smaller part of us that dies, together with our temporary identity, the personality. What remains throughout is our consciousness, the Eternal Thread of Life or Soul. This is beyond suffering.
Creativity and Transformation
Creative pursuits can bring solace in times of stress. They help us to find meaning, to transform suffering into a thing of beauty – a fine painting, a piece of literature, a symphony, a garden, and so on. Artists are transformers. They do more than reflect or interpret life; they turn their life experience into something greater, not by prettying it up but by creating something new and meaningful. That should be the purpose of all inspirational work. Not that we should ignore the darkness at all – it’s too important for that – but should instead raise it up, transform it.
Creativity is an essential part of this retreat. It is a natural expression of the soul and can be anything from decorating a room to writing a memoir.
There has never been another ‘you’ or another ‘me’ and there never will be. Whatever we create is an expression of that uniqueness. To quote the American writer William Faulkner we create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.
So, it is vital that we be ourselves – and not what someone else would like us to be! This is our spiritual destiny. We are each born to create and our creations, however humble, live on in the world long after we have said our goodbyes.
Suffering can also increase our compassion, that ability to ‘feel with’ and care better for others. Indeed, it can spur us to alleviate their suffering, as well as our own, in very practical and creative ways.
It’s very important that we treat ourselves with compassion, especially when we feel lost, devoid of comfort, of answers. This is the Wilderness experience and is a necessary part of our spiritual journey. Remember that while distress is very real for the ‘little self’ in the world, for the Undying Self it is all part of a much bigger story. The Wilderness eventually leads us beyond our distress and upwards to the Mountain of Revelation itself.
*The Relaxation Response (Dr Herbert Benson and Miriam Z. Clipper) Harper Collins 2009
**Dying to be Me: My Journey from Cancer, to Near Death, to True Healing (Anita Moorjani)
***The High Place is actually an energy centre, a point between your eyebrows. It is known as the Ajna or brow centre, one of seven major centres in the body. In the chapters that follow and the exercises contained in them, we shall constantly return to this High Place, our portable sanctuary.
****A Treatise on White Magic (Alice A. Bailey) p.53
Copyright © 2013 Moyra Irving
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