“It wasn’t easy, but it was amazing.”
This is what I overheard one of my fellow retreatants say to someone on the phone when we were about to depart at the end of a seven-day silent vipassana meditation retreat at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA.
She summed it up perfectly.
The retreat wasn’t as I’d convinced myself it would be after reading someone else’s account online. But I think I knew all along that my results would vary. A week after returning, I feel very different than I did before going on retreat and am immensely grateful for the experience. I’m sharing my experience to provide a taste of what this kind of meditation retreat is like for anyone who may be interested or curious. Just keep in mind that your results would vary, too!
I went into it expecting a “mindfulness bootcamp” experience because of the full schedule that began with a 5:15AM bell and ended close to 10PM. And because I wouldn’t be able to read, write, use my camera, or even check the weather forecast on my phone. There would be no contact whatsoever with the outside world so we could observe our minds free from distraction. My impression was that it would be strict and Zen-like, and I dreaded the intensity, although I believed it would be beneficial in ways I couldn’t yet understand and therefore was worth doing.
When I arrived at the retreat center and was trying to find my dorm room in what seemed like a maze of corridors, a young man asked me if it was my first time there and kindly pointed me in the right direction. I asked him if he’d been on retreat there before. He said yes, and I responded, “And you came back?!” He assured me that by the end of the retreat, you don’t want to leave. Before we went into silence that first evening, I heard numerous repeat retreatants talking and started to suspect the experience would be quite different than I’d anticipated.
It wasn’t bootcamp after all. It was more like a weeklong mindfulness learning laboratory. There were nearly 100 of us, and we were well supported by comfortable accommodations, easy access to nature, skillful teachers and staff, and deeply satisfying vegetarian meals. The retreat center has been operating since Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, and Joseph Goldstein founded it in 1975. With more than 40 years of experience, they know what they’re doing and do it well.
At the beginning of the retreat, we took five Buddhist precepts:
- To refrain from killing living beings (including insects)
- To refrain from taking what is not given (stealing)
- To refrain from all sexual activity
- To refrain from false speech (not an issue when you’re in silence)
- To refrain from taking intoxicants which cloud the mind and cause heedlessness.
In addition, we were to observe noble silence and avoid eye contact with other retreatants for the duration of the retreat – even when we ate next to each other in the dining hall and held doors open for one another.
The daily schedule was:
5:15 Wakeup bell
5:45 Sitting meditation in the meditation hall
7:00 Yogi job (I was a pot washer in the kitchen)
9:15-12:00 Self-scheduled practice (alternate periods of walking meditation and sitting meditation)
12:00 Lunch (the big meal of the day)
3:00 Optional mindful movement (I did yoga on my own during this time)
4:00 Self-scheduled practice (sit/walk)
5:00 Light dinner (soup, fruit, and bread or crackers)
7:30 Dharma talk
9:00 Lovingkindness dharma reflection/sitting meditation
For the most part, the day alternated between periods of sitting meditation and walking meditation. Walking meditation basically consisted of choosing a space indoors or outdoors where you could walk back and forth about 20 paces with full attention. Imagine what it looked like with so many people walking slowly back and forth all over the grounds! (I laughed to myself, “The zombies are walking!” because that’s what it looked like.) I was glad to learn of a three-mile loop on surrounding country roads for walking as vigorously as we wanted to while maintaining awareness. I did that every day, and it was a highlight of my day.
Every other day, we’d meet for small group interviews with one of the three teachers for an hour during self-scheduled practice time to talk about how our practice was going, ask questions, and receive personal guidance regarding our practice. We weren’t allowed to talk with each other, only with the teacher.
In my first interview, when I commented on the demanding schedule, the teacher explained that nobody was forcing us to attend every session in the meditation hall. However, they hoped we’d at least attend the morning instructions and the evening dharma talk. In other words, there was some flexibility. We just had to be honest with ourselves about whether we were truly tired and needed to rest or were avoiding practice. I felt relieved to learn that sitting meditation could be done either in the meditation hall, an alternative sitting room, or elsewhere. Sometimes when I didn’t feel like meditating with everyone else, I’d sit alone on the balcony of my dorm adjacent to the woods and listen to the birds and the breeze in the trees.
So that’s the basic container of the retreat, within which the inner exploration took place.
The Inner Process
I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation more or less regularly for 25 years. However, meditating for 20-30 minutes a day or in the course of everyday life is one thing. Witnessing what was going on in my mind constantly for a full week in silence is another thing. Throughout the week, practice continued to build, presence deepened, and some issues arose. I’ll describe some of the highlights.
Thoughts inevitably would arise, and the instruction was to notice where my attention was. What am I experiencing right now? The point was to develop the witnessing presence, not to be free from thought (because thinking is what minds do) but to be free from attachment to thought – so as not to be thrown off-balance by craving, aversion, delusion, etc. Most of the thoughts that arose for me during the week could be labeled planning, problem-solving, or counting. (I’d count how many days I’d been on retreat and how many more to go, how many hours I’d been practicing so far that day and how many more to go, the number of meditators in the meditation hall during the dharma talk, etc.).
I experienced the glorious spaciousness of noticing but not processing thoughts. For the first half of the retreat, thoughts would come, but they weren’t too interesting. When I “brushed them lightly with awareness”, they tended to dissolve swiftly. By day five, I noticed thoughts with more of an emotional charge starting to arise – perhaps in anticipation of returning home. When they did, it was not time to analyze or react to them. It was time to become aware of the emotion, allow it, and notice what it feels like in the body.
For example, one afternoon I was sitting on my bed and noticed the towel hanging on the rack next to my sink. My mom had bought the towel. It reminded me of her, and I remembered what a sweet person she was. Then I felt a wave of grief arise, and tears welled up in my eyes. However, instead of feeding the grief with more sad thoughts, I simply noted, “This is grief,” and noticed where the physical sensations were in my body. Then I watched the grief recede like a wave after it’s crashed on the shore. All things, including grief, are impermanent. They arise and fall away naturally if we don’t feed them.
Early on, I realized how self-conscious I tend to be around other people, even when there’s no interaction. I noticed that awareness of others took me out of presence. When thoughts arose (sometimes after the fact) about how self-consciousness limits me, I practiced noticing them and noting simply and without judgment, “This is how self-consciousness feels. It’s OK.” Then I noticed the sensations in my body and watched “self-consciousness” pass, without forcing or resisting it in any way. It was a welcome alternative to getting carried away by critical self-talk and feeling bad!
By midweek, it took me a half hour to eat a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. All week, my definition of multitasking was chewing one bite of food while arranging the next one on my plate…and even that felt like too much. So I’d put down my spoon or fork between bites to be more fully present. It felt so spacious.
I tuned in to how my body felt and what it truly wanted in terms of food (quantity and quality) and movement. During dinner one day, the soup and freshly baked bread were so delicious, and I lingered even more than usual, one mindful bite after another. When my bowl was empty, I became aware of a tension between satisfaction and desire. My body was content and satisfied, but my mind craved more, wanting to prolong the pleasure. As I drank a mug of cinnamon rose tea, I was more aware of the tension than the taste of the tea. However, every slow swallow and the spaces in between sips took me further out of habit/craving/future and back into presence and contentment. I experienced the difference between craving and true hunger.
How lovely not to feed the habit of craving, by becoming aware of it! After meals, I’d linger at the table to experience the physical sensation of satisfaction – enoughness – and become more acquainted with it. Just sit with it instead of getting up right away to attend to the next thing.
Transitions were opportunities for mindfulness, too – such as walking to the dining hall, meditation hall, or back to my room. I played a little game with myself: How far down the hallway will I get before I realize I’m walking?
I began to recognize the first hint of recurring thoughts – like the very first notes of a familiar song.
I acknowledged that my body is my tool for evolution in this lifetime and provides useful information, such as: This is what yes feels like, and no. This is what hungry feels like, and satisfied. This is what garden variety craving feels like, and deeper aspiration. This is what the tug of habit feels like, and freedom.
I had a lot of dreams during the retreat. Normally, I work with my dreams as a source of inner guidance. However, doing that conflicted with the instructions for vipassana meditation. I asked the guiding teacher during an interview how much attention to give to dreams during the retreat, and she said, “Not much.” When you wake up, you can note that you had a dream and where you feel it in your body, and then keep meditating. So for the duration of the retreat, I let my dreams go and suspended my usual spiritual practices, realizing I could return to them when the retreat was over.
There was a dharma talk every evening addressing various aspects of the Buddhist path to enlightenment. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been drawn to Buddhism and its practical, rational approach to spiritual development and liberation from suffering. Through the dharma talks, I understood the root of my “abundance blocks” and “poverty mentality” and how deeply ingrained Buddhist ideals of simplicity and modest living are in me.
I also acknowledged the contrast between vipassana practice and pursuing goals, including the use of tools like vision boards. While immersed in vipassana practice, it felt like Law of Attraction mindset and vision boards reinforce craving and desire, which is accepted in Buddhism to be the cause of suffering. I didn’t let myself think about it much during the week, but it was something I could contemplate after the retreat was over.
At the end of the retreat, after we broke silence, lunch was offered in the dining hall, and I realized the stories and personalities I’d attributed to fellow retreatants were wildly inaccurate! I sat with other 50-somethings and noticed a table of much younger retreatants who seemed to know each other, engaged in lively conversation. There were even couples. I felt a combination of envy and regret arise and wished I could have connected with others who were dedicated to a spiritual path when I was younger.
In my twenties, when I went to meetings of spiritual groups, I was always the youngest, and others would comment on my age, which made me feel uncomfortable and like I didn’t quite fit in. I had a wonderful teacher, who is still my teacher today, but I didn’t have any companions my age “on the path”. Sitting at the middle-aged table, I couldn’t help but wonder how my life might have been different and how much further I’d have come by now if I’d had more spiritually supportive relationships. Certainly, it’s easier now with the internet. But oh, if only… When I noticed the “if only” thoughts arising, I remembered the words of one of the retreat teachers describing the process of spiritual development: It takes as long as it takes. That’s a gem I’ll hold onto. I can’t be reminded of that enough!
Re-Entry to Everyday Life
After doing some photography, I drove home on country roads through small towns, which was perfect. Although I’d considered going grocery shopping on the way home, it felt like that should wait. At the end of the retreat, one of the teachers explained that we were more tender and sensitive than we might realize. It never occurred to me to turn on the radio as I drove for nearly three hours. Doing anything more than driving felt like too much. When I walked into the house, I felt like Dorothy stepping out of her house and into Oz for the first time. Everything was so colorful! It was as if I was seeing my home for the first time, through fresh eyes.
I also was technologically challenged. Using my mobile phone felt strange and confusing. It took a couple days before I was at all interested in using my phone or computer or even loading the pictures I’d taken onto my computer. A week later, my relationship with technology still feels much more spacious and less compulsive. I only check my phone a few times a day, and when I receive a notification alert, I might not even look at my phone, but the sound serves as a meditation bell that cues me to tune in and take a mindful moment. I’m loving this new relationship with my phone!
I went grocery shopping the next day but kept it as simple as possible because it felt like sensory overload. I was glad to have a few days before returning to work.
For a few days, I also felt like I didn’t have any kind of protective shell around me. Maybe that’s part of what the teachers meant by being more “sensitive”.
Perhaps the most wonderful shift I’ve experienced is that I haven’t been multitasking, even while driving, eating, or cooking. I’ve tried, for example, to listen to a podcast while preparing a meal, to listen to the radio while driving, and to read an article while brushing my teeth, but I haven’t been able to. It’s still too much! As a result, I’ve been doing less, but what’s fallen off my plate are the more compulsively driven and ultimately unnecessary activities. They don’t seem as important as they did before, so I’m not making myself frazzled by trying to fit them in and over-delivering. This includes activities like posting daily on social media. Less is more. I’m focusing on what’s most important rather than trying to do it all.
I also haven’t been getting ahead of myself. My mind hasn’t been arriving at destinations before my body does. I’ve been noticing that I’m walking instead of focusing on the destination and what I’ll do when I get there. This morning, I noticed a lovely patch of flowers next to a pond and went to my car to get my camera. As I walked to my car and back to the flowers, I was aware of walking and of the other beautiful flowers and sounds along the way, rather than focusing on how excited I was to photograph and later share a beautiful sight. I didn’t even feel excited. I felt alive and present, connected. Similarly, I tend to notice that I’m walking from room to room instead of being caught up in I have to do this, this, and this. That’s very different for me.
I feel much calmer and more peaceful.
I still don’t feel as ambitious or passionate as I did prior to the retreat. The idea of having ambitious goals and marketing/promoting my services in any way feels strange. However, one thing I know from observing my mind for an entire week is that this will pass. I’m still re-acclimating to normal life. And perhaps the stillness from the retreat continues to strip away the more compulsive needs to achieve something I’m passionate about so I can be guided by deeper aspiration and more spacious awareness. Less tunnel vision.
However, I’m used to generating motivation from a state of passion, which I have not experienced since I left for retreat. I wonder: Can I still be motivated and productive if I’m not in that high energy state? When I contemplate that question, I see an image of me as a young woman writing poetry at the bottom of an Ithaca waterfall. In my early and mid-20s, I thought I had to be near a waterfall to write poetry. When I moved out of Ithaca the first time, I was worried about not being able to write poetry anymore. However, in time I discovered I could write almost anywhere.
It wasn’t the waterfall. And perhaps it’s not a particular state of mind. Perhaps my work will be of better quality if it’s not coming from such an intense and driven state of mind.
With regard to goals, I’ve been considering: What are my heart’s innermost desires? What motivations do my aspirations spring from? Are my goals fueled by altruistic or selfish intentions? Selfish motivations will strengthen craving, which causes suffering, whereas wishing that my success will benefit others brings deeper satisfaction. I’ve been considering my vision board through this lens. I haven’t removed anything from it but am trying to be more aware of the underlying intentions. My sense is that as awareness deepens, false values fall away, and vision boards reflect that.
I bought a statue of a serene Buddha in seated meditation that I placed outside the window of my workspace. It elevates the energy of the space and serves as a reminder to take mindful pauses or embody mindfulness in my work.
I have new appreciation for how mindfulness practice balances my personality patterns and the benefits of daily practice. Mindfulness practice helps me to cultivate a more skillful relationship with my thoughts and emotions. It also keeps me in the here-and-now rather than focusing on my to-do list, regrets, mistakes, what’s missing from my life, etc. It generates equanimity and a stillness from which deeper wisdom arises.
Since returning from retreat, I’ve been doing sitting meditation every morning for 30 minutes, followed by walking meditation, and I look forward to it because I realize how it benefits the well-being of myself and others. I consider it a valuable opportunity to become aware of what my mind is up to. It’s absolutely worth getting up earlier to practice sitting, walking, and yoga. I also have been embodying the practice in daily life, for example, by not doing anything else while eating or driving and pausing before selecting/preparing food to consider if it’s habitual craving or what my body really wants.
I touched base with my long-time guide to discuss the issues that have arisen since being on retreat, and she put my mind at ease and told me that I must have misunderstood something about Buddhism earlier in life that made me think of voluntary poverty as a spiritual ideal. She reminded me that the teachings come from cultures in which spiritual teachers were supported by the community, which is not the case for us. That was something I needed to be reminded of. She also told me she often doesn’t realize what she got from being on retreat until months later. Integration can take time.
In the closing talk, one of the teachers cautioned us not to get attached to our practice always going smoothly. She said there inevitably will be times when we will experience two steps forward and one step back…and that’s OK. A week after returning from retreat, I’m still riding the wave and appreciating the steps forward that have shifted me into greater presence, clarity, spaciousness, and calm. But if I find myself clinging to that, I know what to do. It’s a matter of becoming aware of it and allowing, “This is what I’m experiencing right now.” And then noticing what happens.
Again and again and again.
© 2018 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m preparing to do something I’ve never done before and am feeling a little anxious about. Something that will take me completely out of my comfort zone.
Soon, I will go on my first seven-day, silent vipassana meditation retreat. It was on my bucket list of “someday” items. However, I wouldn’t have done it so soon if it weren’t a prerequisite for the mindfulness meditation teacher certification program I’m about to embark on. I’ve been on plenty of spiritual retreats in my lifetime: silent retreats, group retreats, and lots of individual retreats. But this one will be different.
For a full week, the day will begin at 5AM and end around 10PM. Until the tail end of the retreat, we will maintain “noble silence”. When I’m not eating meals mindfully in silence, I will alternate between periods of seated and walking meditation. There also will be a daily period of silent, mindful work of some sort and a dharma talk and/or meeting with a teacher. It will be a week of mindfulness bootcamp!
But there’s more…
For the whole week, I will have no access to my camera, phone, or even a journal. I will not be able to write down any ideas, record any insights, or look up any information. I cannot imagine going a week without writing!
Basically, I’ll be removed from all my usual crutches and comforts, with no place to run or hide. Just bare presence and witnessing every move my mind makes. All the mental gymnastics. And there will be nobody to vent to because everyone will be maintaining noble silence.
Spending 20-30 minutes a day in seated and/or walking meditation is one thing. Practicing every waking moment is another ballgame! Sam Harris described this kind of retreat as “extreme sports for the mind”.
I’ve spent the past couple weeks – since getting bumped from the waiting list to the confirmation list – anticipating and coming to terms with what the week will be like. Some people close to me have expressed disbelief about what I’m voluntarily choosing to put myself through. Some have commented that it sounds like I’m already there because I’ve been thinking about it so much. And they’re right, of course.
But no worries: It’s not some kind of cult. It’s totally legit, and the teachers come from a long Buddhist tradition. If you’ve ever heard the story of Siddhartha Gautama (the historical Buddha) meditating under the bodhi tree until he became enlightened, it’s more or less inspired by that.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t expect to attain supreme enlightenment during a seven-day retreat and actually am not expecting any particular outcome. I simply realize that some of my habitual thoughts and thought patterns – even ones I considered virtues – cause me to suffer deeply and needlessly, and I know I can do better. I want to do better.
I want to become more intimately acquainted with my mind and be more of a wise conductor and less its slave. I want to understand how my mind manufactures and sustains attitudes, beliefs, and realities that ultimately do not serve me or anyone else, and that don’t support my goals, my vision of who I am and who I can become, or my core values. I want to understand how I can value this and do that and my tendency to react to the behavior and words of others by creating stories, fantasies, and interpretations rather than allowing things simply to be as they are. I want to stop adding fuel to the fire and experience greater stillness and equanimity that will allow me to engage with the world with more inner peace and wisdom and less ego.
For a full week, I’ll have nowhere to hide and will have to face with awareness whatever arises in my mind. I might even get to experience my mind as a peaceful oasis for a while when the mental activity settles down. What an awesome opportunity, huh?
I see mindfulness as a tool that can cut through disempowering, dualistic mental patterns that send me running into all sorts of places for relief and comfort. My hope is that instead of talking myself out of taking action that would serve my goals or engaging in thoughts of unworthiness (one of my go-to fantasies), through greater mindfulness I will be able to acknowledge my mental patterns and not get derailed by them. Or at the very least, it will shorten my recovery time – the time it takes to realize I got carried away by thoughts and feelings and bring myself back.
THESE are some reasons why I am going on the vipassana retreat.
It does seem like the retreat has already started, weeks ahead of time. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve already been able to witness the places my mind goes in preparation for this retreat, and that is useful information to better understand how my mind works.
I’ve already noticed that when I’m mindful of my thoughts and simply witness and label them rather than indulge them, I don’t get hooked and feel calmer. I don’t get carried away by whatever thought-stream arises. So much of my mental activity is neither useful nor necessary. It just fills the spaces. There’s no time like the present for some thought decluttering! Spring cleaning for the mind that starts with taking a good look at what’s in there.
I’m confident that “mindfulness bootcamp” will be beneficial. And if I can gain more insight into my own mind and how to work with it rather than be at its mercy, then I can help others to better understand and work with theirs.
Soon, I will give up all my comforts for a week to experience greater freedom. I will deal with it and get through it, one breath and one step at a time. And when it’s over, I’ll let you know how it turned out!
© 2018 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.
Ahhh… I just returned from a four-day retreat at Light on the Hill retreat center in Van Etten, New York. It is where I go when I need to remove myself from all distractions and journey deep into inner space to work with what arises and get a sense of direction. It felt as if I’d set up camp at the biggest crossroads I’ve ever come to in my life, and it was time to get a move on! I intuitively knew that going on retreat would help to set me in motion.
My underlying intention for going on retreat was to release what doesn’t serve me ( just as a backpacker would want to lighten her load for more efficient traveling), which really means letting go of the attachments and perceptions that don’t serve me. I wanted to purge, from the inside out, what is no longer beneficial and establish “right relationship” with anything I have developed an unhealthy attachment to. I sensed there was some kind of inner blockage preventing me from moving forward in many areas of my life, and I wanted to get in touch with that blockage and dissolve it. Fall is a natural time for letting go, and the fall equinox seemed like a perfect time to be on solitary retreat and make (surrender to? pray for?) such shifts so I could proceed with clearer energy that would attract what is in alignment with my highest self.
Through talking with my guide, Alice, I decided to do a healing retreat, which I had never done before. This kind of retreat involved meeting with her each day for a 90-minute counseling and healing session and doing simple practices and activities in between sessions to integrate the healing work.
I stayed in the Meadow Cottage, as I usually do. When I first walked through the door, the familiar space embraced me as though I’d never left.
Like the other retreat cottages and huts, the Meadow Cottage has no electricity, which helps me return to a more natural rhythm and fall asleep earlier at night. The view from the sleeping loft is a joy to awaken to.
And the mist in the valley was irresistible each morning.
But I was there to do some deep work, and it was a revelatory journey. Drawing upon dreams, emotions, memories, and a whole lot of s*** that surfaced (much of which I thought was long buried and forgotten), I got in touch with the blockage in me and discovered a fantastic story that was living in my solar plexus region. Under Alice’s masterful guidance, I worked with that story, some related dream material, and an understanding of my personality patterns and managed to shift into a healthier, new paradigm for perceiving and interacting with the world. I won’t go into detail because it was an intense and deeply personal process that probably would be lost in translation. But I experienced a profound shift – possibly the shift of a lifetime. At first, the amount of s*** that came up was nearly overwhelming. But bringing it into the light was necessary for releasing and transforming it. It no longer bubbles beneath the surface.
The weather couldn’t have been more spectacular, and I spent a lot of time walking and writing. Twice a day, I walked either of the two labyrinths on the property.
Both are based on the 11-circuit Chartres Cathedral model, and the path itself served as an allegory for my journey. After walking in the labyrinth for quite some time, I ended up on the outermost circuit, feeling farther away from the center than ever (much like the part of my retreat when I was dealing with all of the junk of a lifetime coming to the surface). However, after just a few more turns, I was at the center. So when I felt the farthest away, I was actually almost there. What a hopeful metaphor!
An Extra Day
By the time my healing retreat had ended, I didn’t feel ready to return home. I decided to stay an extra day, to make sure the shift I experienced was solid enough to really take hold.
I didn’t spend the day meditating. I mostly walked around Light on the Hill with my camera and did some writing.
As the sun set, I headed back to my cottage – a different cottage than I had stayed in for the healing retreat.
The sunset was dazzling!
Before going to bed, I realized I left my toothbrush in the car and had to walk all the way to the parking lot to get it. On the way back, the lighted path leading back to my cottage was so lovely that I was tempted to take my camera out and photograph it – but I knew better and opted for sleep! However, it made me realize how exquisitely beautiful everything here is. Every building, the land itself, the view – every single detail.
Alice has been my teacher and guide for the past 29 years, before Light on the Hill even existed. During the past 29 years, I have witnessed an incredible story unfold. I remember each step of the process, including when she moved out of her house in Ithaca and onto the hill and married her husband, Larry, who had recently bought the first parcel of land. I remember the various obstacles she and Larry ran into in the course of manifesting their shared vision of building a retreat center. At times, it seemed the universe required them to prove they really wanted it. I remember going on my first retreat in what is now the healing hut, which at the time was the only structure on the land besides Alice and Larry’s house. And now there are two cottages, two huts, a meditation chapel, two 11-circuit Chartres labyrinths, and a huge lodge (for group work) that hosts: 22 dorm rooms, a commercial kitchen, a dining room, several cozy and inspired meeting spaces, and a great room with a fabulous view and a 32-foot high, tipi-like ceiling that comes to an apex with a pyramid-shaped skylight.
Every detail at Light on the Hill is intentional and uncompromised, from the environmentally conscious products and the comfort of the spaces, to the inspired art work and the architecture and placement of the buildings.
When I woke up during the night with the light of the nearly full moon shining through the windows, it occurred to me that the reason I stayed an extra day was to really experience my connection to the land and to absorb its story. To experience the spiritual, nurturing, protective energy that’s built up here over the past 24 years and to which I’ve retreated whenever I was at a crossroads, sought answers or healing, or simply wanted to deepen my spiritual life. I’ve come here since the very beginning, with the exception of a few years when my children were very small, and I couldn’t leave them. It is where my second wedding and a couple other very personal ceremonies took place. I am so grateful for Light on the Hill.
The work, patience, and persistence that went into making Light on the Hill what it is today is beyond inspiring. Alice has modeled to me that getting over your issues with money and not being afraid to ask for what you’re worth is part of the process. The story of Light on the Hill has been an incredible lesson for me. Without knowing, I stayed the extra day in order for this lesson to really sink in. Here, I have a model for living larger and not compromising the vision you hold in your heart, even when you encounter obstacles.
I felt so grateful for Alice’s presence in my life as my teacher and guide for the past 29 years. She has unfailingly pointed me inward to the source of my own wisdom and helped me deal with the repercussions when my unconscious programming took me to places I might have avoided had I been more mindful. Having known me for 29 years, she is able to point out my dysfunctional patterns and assist me in healing them. Her message has always been one of empowerment, strength, and love, and she has supported me no matter what I brought to the table. I wish everyone on this planet could experience this kind of steadfast, healing presence and have someone so conscious, wise, and honest in their lives. I am truly grateful for everything she has modeled to me in the context of our relationship and for all she has awakened in me.
In addition to the dynamic shifts and integration I experienced, I had some major takeaways from my retreat that centered around energy. For instance…
My work is to keep reclaiming my energy and attention when they wander outside of myself. It’s kind of like retrieving a kitten that keeps wandering out of the basket. When my energy wanders outward, it dissipates. And when that happens? Close your eyes, get still, and feel the inner body – the energy and light in it. Really experience it, and remember that I am that light. Doing so brings me back to the place where I know what is most important and will find everything I need for this journey. It is the most wondrous sanctuary, the most beautiful homecoming to enter my own heart, which is a vast universe of love. It is where I find guidance. Although I’m a human being who needs to do work in this world, my work can be fueled by this source of supreme love and wholeness. When I step through the threshold into this inner chamber, it’s like entering a different frequency, dimension, or channel. Heaven truly is in my heart. And daily meditation and “checking in” is essential to remain centered, experience my inner light, and bring my awareness back when I start to wander.
In addition to realizing the importance of daily meditation, I also realized how vital sleep and movement are to the quality of my energy. I can’t accomplish much when I’m sleep deprived, and I have been in this state for quite some time, almost as if I’ve been operating on a brownout. And it’s such a simple fix that just requires discipline! Adequate, restful sleep is the foundation for getting my mind in the best shape it can be in for the work I need to do and needs to be a priority. After five nights, it’s already making a huge difference! And movement and exercise are fundamental to getting the energy circulating and channeling it outward so it won’t get stuck. Tune in and feel where the energy wants to go, and take movement/exercise breaks as needed.
I also learned not to get attached to the content of my emotions because they are often signals that my energy is out of balance. For instance, what manifests as sadness and depression is probably exhaustion and signals a need for sleep. And when I’m feeling panicked, agitated, anxious, or blocked, these feelings are signals that I need exercise or movement. There’s an excess of energy that needs to be released, so go for a walk or do some yoga! Rather than buy into the storyline, “I’m sad, and this is why” and become dramatic about it, focus on the level of energy and ask what my energetic needs are this moment – and be disciplined about fulfilling them.
It seems to be about working with energy and patterns, not a fixed or stationary self. And that is both empowering and hopeful! It takes courage to see and accept your patterns in the first place, but if you can go to that scary place and not get hooked into self-loathing or self-pity (which also can be patterns!), you can begin to transform them with discipline, patience, and self-love. And even when having a hard time struggling with something, remember that I am light. I am more than this problem. I am a spiritual being having a temporary existence in this human body.
During one of my healing sessions when I expressed lingering resentment, Alice brought me back by telling me exactly what I needed to hear: “I have known you for 30 years, and your life has been a series of mistakes, and the common denominator is you.” (There have been some good choices, too, but we were focusing on what gets in the way of my inner peace and areas for healing.) This message is at the same time humbling and hopeful. I got me into all these messes, and I can change the patterns and get back out!
As I walked the labyrinth for the last time before going home, I reflected on how I wish I took more risks throughout my life, especially related to formal education. There was another time that felt like a huge crossroads, in the early 90s. If I had it to do over again, I’d have left my safety zone and gone to either Boulder, CO or Cambridge, MA to study at Naropa University or Lesley College or followed through with attending either Harvard Divinity School or Union Theological Seminary. Instead, I became involved with my future husband and father of my children and went with him to Syracuse where I pursued an MSW degree part-time while working at Syracuse University full-time. I regret playing it so safe and small – and being steered by a relationship – because doing so prevented me from following my own path/calling/wisdom in so many ways. Even later in life, after getting a master’s degree in education from a progressive college, I took the “safe” route and worked in public education. Early in life, I didn’t have any models for thinking bigger and making more authentic choices. But now I do. And my life isn’t over yet. It’s not too late!
And so, fueled with hope and a planner filled with ideas and deadlines, I left the hill and brought the light with me, ready to pack up camp and start moving. I don’t know how anything will turn out, but as Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, said about the willingness to get going and follow your heart: “It is taking you forward, and you are leaving the nest [safety zone]. And that never can be a mistake.”
© 2015 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this blog post, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness mentor whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.
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.
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
Source: “The Small Table of Time and Space” from 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.
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!
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.
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
© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (www.susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
“We are here to find that dimension within ourselves that is deeper than thought.” -Eckhart Tolle
It’s a school vacation week, and I spent a few days on a solitary, spiritual retreat in a cabin on a hill in Van Etten, New York at a retreat center aptly named Light on the Hill. I have been visiting Light on the Hill since 1990, which was around the time it began, and have done so much deep, transformative work there that I feel “all my changes are there.” My husband and I even got married there. It is a very special place, run by a very special couple, Alice and Larry.
I met Alice when she was a religious studies professor at Ithaca College. I enrolled in her Introduction to World Religions course and was so drawn to her energy and teachings that I took a course with her every semester. As her student, I recall Alice talking about her dream to operate a retreat center and how perfect it was that the man she was soon to marry owned some land. As she eased into retiring from academia, she and Larry were busy behind the scenes building their shared dream. To see how it has grown and blossomed since those early days is truly astonishing and inspiring.
Alice and I have remained in contact all these years. She became my guide in the Sufi tradition, she and Larry officiated at both of my weddings, and she assisted me during the homebirth of my son. I could go on and on about the important role(s) Alice has played in my life, but the purpose of this post is to describe the retreat process as I have experienced it at Light on the Hill.
I feel called to Light on the Hill when I am at a crossroads or in the “valley of unknowing” and seek clarity and direction. I embarked on this week’s retreat with a specific intention in mind. During the course of a retreat, one is drawn more deeply in touch with the divine Self each day.
To prepare for the retreat, I intuitively withdrew from technology for a full day before leaving. The four-hour drive to Light on the Hill (which included an out-of-the-way stop at my favorite waterfall in Ithaca) provided further preparation and a rare opportunity to photograph Ithaca Falls without anyone else around.
From Ithaca, it’s about a half-hour drive along country roads. Light on the Hill is located a mile up a dirt road that climbs a hill, taking you away from the distractions of ordinary life. And then you go even deeper as you drive slowly along the narrow road to the cottage.
By the time you arrive, you have a sense of being nestled deeply and protectively in the sacred space on the hill. Such peace.
I stayed in the Meadow Cottage, which is also where my husband and I spent our wedding night. Over the years, I have stayed in every cottage and hut on the land. Prior to this week, I had experienced Light on the Hill during every season except spring.
There is no electricity in the Meadow Cottage, but it is heated and very comfortable. There is a kitchen, bathroom, and living room downstairs and a sleeping loft upstairs. The sofa downstairs also converts to a bed. The refrigerator and heat run on propane. There is a gas stove in the kitchen, and you turn on a generator for a hot shower and to flush the toilet.
The windows and sliding glass door open to a picturesque view of the meadow and distant hills. The sounds of spring were all around.
Here is the view from the windows by the table:
In the past, I have gone on fully guided retreats as well as unguided retreats. This time, I chose a partially guided retreat, which means that Alice visited the cottage to sit with me once (rather than twice) each day. She is highly intuitive and brings practices that she discerns will facilitate spiritual attunement and growth. I received some guided meditations on CD and inspiring conversations and teachings on cassette tape (with battery-operated players), along with some handwritten instructions for practices and a few quotes to contemplate.
I spent the next 24 hours (until meeting with Alice again and receiving new practices) engaging with the meditations and practices, doing some yoga/movement, and taking walks.
Walking, meditating, resting, moving, dreaming – it’s all part of the process. Slowed down and removed from the usual distractions, I find that I intuitively know what to do, what to eat, etc. It feels as if my soul is guiding me, and I am still enough to hear it. The soul connection is much stronger than in normal daily life, and it deepens each day on retreat. There is a momentum that builds and is difficult to describe in words.
As I was settling in to the practices, I heard (in my mind):
Quiet, quiet, quiet!
Put your mind on a diet!
…which made me laugh.
Each day, I walked the 11-circuit labyrinth (based on the Chartres cathedral model), letting the 34 turns of the labyrinth work their magic on me. A symbol of wholeness, a labyrinth is different from a maze in that there is one pathway from the entrance to the goal (in this case, the center), with no dead ends. If you keep walking, you are certain to arrive. My time in the labyrinth was especially powerful and transformative. I don’t know if this is true for others, but there is a certain point in the labyrinth where the insights seem to come and really take hold. There is a pile of smooth rocks near the entrance to the labyrinth, and I carried one with me each time and offered it when I arrived at the center.
Not long after meeting with Alice in the late afternoon, Larry arrives with dinner in a lovely basket. In addition to being a dedicated caretaker of the land and facilities, he is a fabulous cook. The meals are vegetarian, as meat and sugar are best avoided while on retreat because of the effects they have on one’s energy field. I always look forward to Larry’s nourishing meals. This one featured rice pasta with a delicious, puréed sauce.
After the sun sets, I light the mantle on the gas lanterns on the wall and continue doing my work next to the warm glow of the wood stove.
Eventually, it’s time for sleep. I find that I go to bed much earlier on retreat than I normally do, and I think the retreat rhythm is closer to my natural rhythm. You have to climb a ladder to the sleeping loft, and therefore you can’t bring much with you. I bring a notepad, pen, and a small headlamp. Note: It is not necessary to climb in order to sleep, as there is a pullout sofa bed in the living room. Also, the woods cottage has downstairs bedrooms.
Multitudes of stars shone brightly in the clear sky through the window and skylight over the bed. So peaceful and comforting. I was tempted to do some astrophotography but felt it was more important to get some rest.
Dream work is an important part of the retreat process. I record my dreams on the notepad and work with the content the next day.
Here is the view to which I awakened in the morning:
The first morning, I woke up to a snow-dusted world. I drank some hot water with freshly squeezed lemon juice and watched the snowflakes dance through the air. My first insight of the day came from the snowflakes:
Water is not content to stay still.
It constantly moves and changes form:
A snowflake. A tear. A river.
A snowflake does not expect
To remain a snowflake forever
But enjoys dancing its way to the ground.
In its brief time as a snowflake,
It gives its all to being a snowflake.
Then the sun melts it,
And it is time to move on.
Let’s melt and become a puddle
Then soak down and nourish the plants
Thus spoke the higher Self.
Throughout the course of the retreat, I did experience guidance and clarity with regard to my original intention and also had some time for some unanticipated, additional work that Alice’s inquiry and intuition felt was important. I have complete trust in her, which is important when working with a guide. It is a trust that has developed through the decades, and I feel so blessed to have her in my life. She is an amazing teacher and healer.
I appreciate that the journey back home takes quite a while. After being on retreat, the energies of the world feel very dense, and I prefer to ease myself back in. I stopped again at my favorite waterfalls in Ithaca, and experienced more people than usual smiling at me and approaching me – remarking about my starry shoes or that I’m “obviously” a professional photographer (::smile::). I think I was radiating a higher energy than usual. The quality of my energy after being on retreat also reminds me of the value of making time for daily meditation, prayer, and reflection. I see the image of a dusty attic with the sun shining in through the window. Meditating is like sweeping the dust from the floor and cleaning the window. Doing this daily makes a difference in your life and how you view the world around you. It creates a sense of spaciousness. Going on retreat – especially a guided retreat – is like doing deep spring cleaning!
I find it rather interesting that as I was writing this blog entry, a cardinal landed briefly on my windowsill – just long enough to get my attention before flying away. I have been trying to photograph a cardinal for weeks and haven’t been able to get close enough. It’s as if this one came to me. Post-retreat magic!
You can visit Light on the Hill’s website by clicking HERE.
© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.