Why has withdrawal always been so foundational to spiritual transformation? Why do we go on retreat?
Retreat not just physical retreats but the notion of going inwards has to do with letting go of all the surface distractions in our lives. It allows the minor irritants and frustrations that create a little static in our hearts and minds to fall away. As we let go and step away from the surface, we leave behind complexity, we turn away from our projects and plans, our unresolved issues and unrealized dreams.
Retreat is what enables us to sink into our Selves. It settles us into that backdrop of consciousness that pervades all that is. It brings us home, into our deeper selves, into the heart of the mystery.
While we may physically join others, the first step or inner posture of retreat is a solitary one. We retreat alone into that cavern of the soul, into that corridor to the fathomless. Daring to leave all of our unfinished business alone, unresolved, we leave behind the fuss of the world, like shedding worn clothes, sweat-soaked and dust covered from a day of labor. As we step out of the skin of our lives, we wash ourselves clean, preparing ourselves for an encounter with the sacred.
Retreat enables us to make ourselves ready. In a small way each time, we die to the limited perspective we’ve cherished and open to a more vast and unknown way of coming to know Spirit. As we meet Spirit anew, so we also discover a new way of interacting with ourselves and with the world.
A sacred and holy act, retreat marks a journey to Source, a discovery of that which we’ve always known yet forgotten. Retreat is a first act towards new growth.
The first time I discovered retreat was in 1981 in the unlikely Sumneytown, Pennsylvania. In this small East Coast town a little known yogi had established a retreat center. It was a magical place and a magical time. One that left a mark and shifted the course of my destiny.
A college undergraduate, I was wide-eyed and in awe of the residents, it was the first time I’d come upon women and men who’d given up their jobs and homes to live a life of ongoing retreat and spiritual discovery. The atmosphere was so focused and clarified it unnerved me. I felt I had to awaken to a far more conscious sense of self or I’d knock over something delicate and precious that I couldn’t even see.
In spite of my clumsy awkwardness, over the course of the retreat I started tuning into a different frequency. I loved the order and the freedom. Days started early, something like 4:30 or 5:00 AM with a gentle jog in the cold mist. Then chanting and meditation weaving a prayerful space, establishing centeredness, tuning into a sensitivity to the unseen. By breakfast, inner worlds had been created and destroyed and we hadn’t even broken the spell of silence yet. The days would unfold with inquiry, practice, discovery, inner rest.
That environment, as foreign and unsettling as it was, felt far more like home than my college classes. While I never went back to that retreat center, during those days I’d immersed in the exhilarating current of retreat and found myself at one with it. Those days set an inner course that was only to deepen over time.
Retreat has a mysterious way of doing just that, opening doors and passageways that continue to reveal themselves at the most unlikely moments of our lives, long after the initial experience has faded out of view.
What is renewal? How do we repair and refresh our inner selves? What is healing, acceptance, forgiveness? Where does grace fit into it all? And what does renewal have to do with transformation or evolutionary emergence?
Renewal occurs when we put the ego or frontal self down, when we let go and allow ourselves to be supported by that which is, rather than by our own will. Rest and repair are found here. Closures and openings move one into the other. The mystery of consciousness has all kinds of capacities. Our work in certain moments is to make ourselves available, to trust enough to put down our burden, our fears, our angers, our illnesses, our concerns. Listening to that which makes no sound, we open ourselves to a type of inner ear and we allow the cadence of the Self to waft through us. Renewal is an act of faith and an act of will. It takes heart strength to let go of the grosser strength we rely on to hold ourselves up. It takes a force of Love to allow time and space to heal or to winter before new growth is ready to burst forward.
Renewal is an act of courage. Just as retreat takes strength to pull away from the magnetism of the external—of that which we intend to accomplish—and turn within, renewal requires its own tenacity. It calls for a stalwartness of Love that creates a haven for rest, space, gentleness, and freedom.
In renewal we open up to the infinite reservoir that is the nature of consciousness. We trip ourselves up on this unfamiliar ground. Finding, often clumsily, unexpectedly that that which has no limit, no boundaries, no fractures is also a reality. Renewal is like the dawn of a relationship, a shy meeting with a special friend. We listen, we observe, we allow, we hold ourselves with grace. The numinous begins to shine through us, like bamboo in the sun, a dappled dance of light and shadow. We sway, we turn, we become still, we listen, and we find our way towards intimacy with that which is always whole.
Wholeness has its own qualities. Like water refracting on the surface of a clear lake, the qualities of fullness splay out in myriad patterns. Putting our attention on this mystery feels both foreign and familiar. It awakens us to a soft and self-sufficient delight. As we spend time like this, we tune into the possible, and that presence of the possible revitalizes and renews ourselves.
I had the good fortune under unfortunate circumstances to let go into renewal for an extended period of months, lying in hospital bed looking out over a summer field where I could watch the yellow finches and bright colored insects dance from bloom to new bloom. I would go with them in my mind for a time, content to allow for renewal. I’d been in a serious motor vehicle accident. Now, happy to be alive, I remained in a state of let go. It’s an odd feeling to experience fullness and thankfulness that extends the world over, beyond anything specific, beyond any incident, experience, person, or capacity, beyond pleasure or pain, in a way beyond emotion. Just happiness at Life, its unfolding beauty, and always-hidden-always-present Spirit.
During this time, my occupation was equally my vocation—renewal. As I allowed my mind to rest and my body to repair, I gently paid attention. Not to anything specific. To everything. Open. Still. Not in hibernation or incubation, but also in an entirely different rhythm from the rhythm of action. Paying attention, I came to realize an intimacy with Self and self, with Spirit and my own nature as one. Listening to the rhythms and cadence within and without, I could all but measure the fertilization of my body and my mind.
Renewal, I discovered, is also an action. An act of will, which is the will to have faith. Faith may not be a very commonly evoked quality in evolutionary spirituality, but as in any transformative path, faith in the numinous is essential. It fills us with joy unbidden through times that should be hard. It infuses the world with beauty and gratitude and riches. Faith is the closest term I can find to describe that time of renewal. It leads us to be carried by the wings of the universe. Learning how to renew, we gain the strength to fly.
Rejuvenation is that irrepressible arrival of Spring. After the winter of our inner seasons, those times, short or long, that our spirits call for gestation and withdrawal, we do awaken to new beginnings unfolding in us. Mysteriously and somewhat miraculously, our inner stores get replenished, our spirits lift anew, and what may have been inconceivable a few short days, weeks, months before now seems like the only thing to do and the only pace we could possible move in.
How do we rejuvenate? Can we learn a way to be that is more tightly attune to the workings of our own souls? Rejuvenation is a natural aspect of inner life and seems to have a pace of its own, yet we can learn the tools of transformation that restore and refresh, that tip us, just before we think we’re ready, over the edge of the nest to take the first few wingbeats in a cool dawn.
Rejuvenation puts us in touch with the thirst of our Selves and conditions us to drink long draughts. We learn to open the membranes of our soul and as the tides wash into us we fill, expand, and revitalize. Conscious rejuvenation includes preparation for that intake, learning in big and small ways to not rush new growth before its time. The culture around us favors extension over withdrawal, yet both are essential for inner transformation.
Rejuvenation is also a verb. We rejuvenate each other, feeding another with our insight, good will, aspirations, and joy. We rejuvenate each other through intermingling of our selves, our curiosity. A spark of life ignites matter; it bursts into a new form. As we rejuvenate, we populate the fields of our inner selves. Our inner selves populate the space between us. That space newly seeded becomes the expanded context we then inhabit. And so our inner development unfolds.
SIGNS OF REJUVENATION
It had been a long winter, filled with grey days and a damp chill in the air. Everything in me it seemed had sucked back into itself, like the rip tide pulling the waves edges back into the sea’s belly. I felt still, not full and still, just still, and couldn’t imagine new energy ever stirring again. I went to a short retreat in the desert, more conference than retreat. There was lots of talking and information, new faces and a handful of familiar ones, little time to process and think, but delightful still.
In the evenings I’d walk back just a little ways into the desert, past the saguaro cacti wave their stubby arms in greeting and Astrea, perched above the red mountain’s silhouette, tossed a handful of stardust across the sky. It was chilly and I didn’t go far. My mind over-full from the event, I didn’t contemplate anything in particular.
In the backdrop of myself, behind everything, the cells of my spirit surprised me. In spite of the winter’s seeming death, inspite of the overload of input, there was all of the sudden space to drink again. Space to grow. My inner spirit had stretched in its own time. And there was the unmistakable quiet happiness of mystical openness. When a bud finally opens it can turn toward the sun. I was doing nothing to prize open new growth and nothing to inhibit its process. By the end of that short couple of days in the desert retreat, my system was restored and revitalized. Calm and still, a transition had occurred and a transformation was in process. It was time for new beginnings.
EMERGENCE IS A PROCESS
Emergence is a process, not an object. New capacities and openings occur in relationship, not in isolation. Built on so many interwoven factors, we create favorable conditions. We strengthen our hearts and our core, and we cultivate tenacity and resilience to allow, to let be, and to let go.
© 2015 Amy Edelstein
Image by Zdenko Zivkovic, courtesy of Creative Commons license.