I did this same retreat back in 2014, when I was just starting to grasp that our journey to parenthood might be a long and excruciating one. The retreat is held in silence (no icebreakers, no introductions, no small talk — just humans) and solidly scheduled from 7am until 9pm with two yoga sessions and four meditation sessions every day plus meals, meetings, workshops, and some breaks to let us walk meditatively around in the lovely fall scenery of the rural setting.
The meetings can get intense. They always start with beautiful music and readings from history’s great mystics to nourish the soul, then the organizers speak for some time, then we break up for art therapy or journaling. Then, if we choose, we all share what’s coming up for us with each topic and assignment.
It was always fascinating and respectful; even the longest meetings seemed to fly by.
It was a deeply important experience to me, because it helped me get a handle on my constant directionless fear and anxiety at the time:
“I named [my fear] Fred and pictured him as a lonely guy in a huge fire station randomly pulling at bells and alarms because no one had trained him properly and he didn’t know what else to do. I explained to him that I needed him alert and watchful, not making meaningless noises all the time. I told him he was valuable, and he would be even more valuable… if he stayed rested up in case there was a real emergency. After quite a bit of back-and-forth, he seemed to believe that made sense.
Now when I feel anxiety gnawing away at me, I try to remember to say, “Fred? Is there a problem?” Usually he says, “Uh, no, sorry. Old habits,” and he shrugs apologetically and I smile, and I feel much better. It’s just Fred knocking around. There’s really nothing wrong at this particular moment.”
I did something similar with my ego at the time. Instead of trying to push it away or deny it, I made friends with it and gave it some guidance and training about boundaries and appropriate behavior. When the ego knows you respect it — and you have its number — it’s less likely to act out in harmful ways. Believe me, it’ll still get you sometimes, but little by little the inmates can get to know their asylum and their place in it a little better, and you start to find more harmony and fewer noisy wars within yourself.
Then, of course, three very tough years passed, and finally now things are actually pretty good (knock wood), but I’ve been trained in the past three years to always expect the worst. It’s become very hard to enjoy this life even when it’s good.
My confidence has also taken a lot of hits. For example, I’ve spent far too much time in the Google research rabbit hole and on Facebook in the past few years trying to avoid or deny problems that felt all-consuming, including the fertility hell itself plus the fact that all that denial was robbing me of a chance to work hard at work worth doing. (I could have written four books by now instead of just two if I didn’t waste so much precious time.) And the whole thing would make me feel bad about myself and unworthy to write anything worth anything.
It was a tight little self-defeating spiral, and every time I tried to claw out of it, I’d find the old patterns reasserting themselves before I knew what was happening, and I’d have that much less confidence I could ever get out of it.
I know it sounds ridiculous, and I feel ridiculous writing it. But I have addictive / compulsive tendencies in my DNA, and while I managed to stay away from drinking or gambling or running up huge credit card bills I couldn’t pay, Facebook and internet research became my drugs of choice. Addiction is “a brain disorder characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli, despite adverse consequences.” And I’d say wasting half your life on things that make you miserable counts as adverse consequences.
But it seems like such a “silly and harmless” addiction, it’s that much easier to be in denial about it, even as you sit down determined to finish Chapter 9 only to “just check your Facebook messages” and then look up and realize four hours have passed and you’ve written off the day. Again.
When your addiction is just a tab away from your work, it’s that much easier to indulge and feel like it’s no big deal. Like an alcoholic bartender.
Facebook is not inherently bad, of course, any more than drinking or gambling or credit cards are inherently bad. But when it becomes a compulsion that eats away at your life and work, something needs to change.
So this retreat was about looking myself in the face and making this change happen by whatever means necessary. (I didn’t take my computer and don’t have a smart phone, so it was a nice four-day “detox.”) Addiction, feeling unworthy, and feeling uneasy even in good times — these seemed to be my main issues, and it was time to deal with them square-on.
We started this year by talking about how our animal minds have a bias toward paying attention to and accentuating negativity but how we can consciously train ourselves away from this default behavior. Yes, our minds come with “factory settings,” which have helped us survive and become an incredibly resilient species. And growing up without secure attachments in a culture that has its priorities incredibly screwed up can mess with you even more. (They said about half of Americans grow up not even securely attached to their own parents or caregivers. Yikes.)
But miraculously, our minds also have something called “neuroplasticity,” which means our brain patterns can be changed with practice. Our incredible brains can actually rewire themselves! (Let that sink in for a minute. It’s pretty damned gobsmacking.)
So we started by listing all the things we loved in the world, and it was so easy to let this list flow. My God, there are so many good things in the world. So many lovely people. We can forget that with the daily barrage of awful news. It was kind of jarring to compare this long, lovely list with the way we tend to go about our days complaining about everything.
We talked about some of the ways our brains adapt to seemingly overwhelming stimuli, e.g., through avoidance (addiction can fill this role), denial, dissociation (numbness), intellectualization (processing life through concepts, not direct experience), and somatization (storing emotions in our body).
Instead of berating ourselves for these mechanisms, the organizers encouraged us to meet them with mercy. To talk to them and make friends with them. And then maybe gently suggest that they’ve run their course, and we’ve got this now.
Being a little bit kind to yourself — even the parts that you hate — can be so counterintuitive to hyper-competitive Americans. We feel like we have to beat ourselves into submission. And that just doesn’t work very well. It’s certainly not sustainable. And I was shocked at how hard it was to be kind to myself. It felt very foreign and made me squirm. Seeing my screw-ups and allowing them as part of being human sometimes — this was hard. But it also felt amazing. And it also started, finally, to feel like transformation was really possible. Just looking yourself in the eye and choosing to neither hate nor flinch — this can really change things.
It’s also OK that my life is good, my husband is supportive, my son is on the way, and I’m about to finish a novel that means so much to me (even if it never means much to anyone else). I don’t have to flinch from that, either, or feel like I’m unworthy or everything will go to crap at any moment. It is actually an option to relax and enjoy this. I’ve had some bad luck and I’ve had a lot of good luck, and the bad luck usually passes eventually (one way or another) and the good luck should be savored and cherished.
And sometimes, out of the most impenetrable muck, a beautiful lotus blooms. No muck, no lotus. So maybe it’s really all good luck if we look at it the right way.
The most heady assignment was probably imagining living to a ripe old age and writing our ideal obituary. It was pretty effective in focusing us in on what’s truly most important to us. None of us wrote that the most important things to us were money or status, that’s for sure. My summing-up paragraph at the end:
“What mattered most to Pamela was a healthy, happy family, making life better for others, and seeking the truth no matter where it led, with unshakeable faith that the universe was worth knowing, and so was every jot and being within it. She wanted others to know and love the universe as much as she did, and more.”
And that’s really the take away message of the retreat: You have to make friends with all of it. You have to make peace with all of it. If you reject any part of the universe — or yourself — you are fragmented from yourself and the universe, at war with what is. Even if there’s something about the world you want to change, you first have to truly meet that thing and accept that it is what is right now.
But coincidence or kismet, I was reading The Darkness of the Light Chasers at the time of the retreat, and during the retreat I read the part about how the author took different aspects of her personality — including the ones she could hardly bear to look at — and met them as distinct individuals within her psyche, all clamoring to be known and respected.
After all, we are all lazy and hard-working, ugly and beautiful, fit and slobby, judgy and accepting, kind and cruel, graceful and awkward, arrogant and insecure, confident and humble, easygoing and repressed, paragons of integrity and flaming hypocrites.
We ALL have all of these traits within us and countless more. If there’s a trait we strongly deny in ourselves, that’s where we most need to go. That’s whom we most need to meet. Because denying or disrespecting parts of ourselves makes that part wild and grumpy, and to try to get us to pay attention to them, they act out and cause us to behave in inappropriate ways.
It makes sense I guess. I mean, I know children desperately want that: to be seen, known, respected, not dismissed or downplayed. Why should I be surprised that the ‘children’ within me want the same? This universe longs to know itself. It longs to be known.
So in a number of meditations I waited to see which part of myself wanted attention, and then I approached them, humbly and respectfully, and asked them who they were and what they wanted from me. I recoiled from some of them initially, but I put that reaction aside and approached each with total kindness and patience. And to my shock, they all had something wise and valuable to share. They were all people I ended up liking. Even Lazy Lina and Unworthy Ula. Hell, even Facebook Fanny turned out to be a hoot. But now she’s calmed down and isn’t in the driver’s seat anymore.
What was actually harder for me was approaching the aspects of myself that are supposedly positive, like Brave Beverly or Industrious Isabelle. I was afraid they’d be full of themselves and fooling themselves, or just uptight and boring. But they were pretty cool as well, once you got to know them, and pretty down-to-earth.
I introduced Industrious Isabelle to Lazy Lina, and at first they hated each other. But they talked for a while and eventually made friends. There is space for both of them in my psyche. Sometimes I’m lazy, sometimes I work hard. And now I know both of them, and neither is scary or out of control, nor are they at war with each other.
It may all sound a bit schizophrenic, but it’s working for me. I’m feeling better than I have in years. It’s really strange and sometimes disconcerting being kind and curious about myself. It’s so much easier and more natural to beat myself up. But I am, after all, a reflection of the universe that created me, and I love the universe. So maybe it’s not so crazy to love myself, too.
I came home and had my husband disable Facebook on my browser during working hours except for the lunch hour + ten minutes to use whenever I choose. So far it’s working wonderfully, and I don’t feel nearly as compulsive as I did before the retreat. I feel more free and open. I’m also working on instituting daily rituals of yoga, meditation, and journaling to keep things on track and expand on the work I did at the retreat. (I still have a lot of aspects of myself to meet and befriend, after all.)
Life can be really good if you let it be, and I’m taking steps to let it be. It feels like a big leap forward after many years of stagnation. Like a huge breath of fresh air.
P.S. I still have the preggo munchies, and I ate like a beast when I was there. So much good food. People were saying my bump was visibly larger by the end, and he’s also started moving more and more. I love it every time. It’s like the clock starts again — the clock on him being OK. I was twenty weeks on Sunday. Halfway there!!