I am just back from the most amazing retreat in Portugal. I wanted to share some of my experience there with you. Rather than describe the practices or the surroundings it felt more meaningful to me to share a short encounter that occurred towards the end of my week on retreat. I hope it gives you a little flavour and sense of what it was all about for me...
So. This was it. After a week of contemplation and dropping deeply into ourselves on retreat in our secluded valley, this was our first trip back into the big wide world. A world full of many objects, lots of space, sounds and textures, tastes and smells. A world full of people, so very many people, who were conducting themselves by their lights and playing by their rules. But we didn’t need to meet all of them right now. We were starting gently. We had come to the pretty little Portuguese town of Tavira, close to the sea.
I wandered aimlessly and cheerfully around town for about 45 minutes, simply enjoying being wherever I happened to be. In some ways this was a new experience for me, just staying close to myself in the town and with the town. In other ways I realised this was a way of relating to the world that I had occasionally chanced upon before. It felt sweet and easy and simple. I felt sweet and easy and simple.
Eventually my wandering feet led me into a small private gallery space. The walls of the gallery were hung with large long brightly coloured paintings of unhappy looking people. In the centre of the gallery stood a central plinth on which stood small clay sculptures depicting the same unhappy people gathered in dissatisfied clusters.
I didn't much like it - the art. It was well made enough, it had some feeling in it, but it didn't really touch me, I didn't really connect with these people or care about their predicament. After a week of retreat, I was getting good at following my feelings and my feelings told me that I didn’t need to see any more of this. I had spent about 3 minutes glancing around and was about to leave, when it happened.
The woman who had been sat at the end of the gallery space fiddling with some paperwork approached me, smiling. I had half noticed her when I had come in but had avoided making eye contact in case she engaged me in a conversation that I didn’t want to have. I felt slightly sheepish when I noticed this. She was about 55 years old, slightly plump and wearing rather a lot of make up, I noticed a little judgmentally. She seemed earnest and proprietorial. She said something friendly to me in Portuguese. I apologised and told her that I didn't speak that language. She offered me English and Spanish and I chose English. She asked me what I thought of the work. A warning bell rang somewhere inside me. Something told me that there was an important question to ask here before answering her question, especially as I did not care for the art. I asked it.
"So...are you the artist?" I enquired casually. "Yes!" she beamed back at me. "How do you find the art?".
I was left in a quandary. I had spent a week learning the value of being in truth and speaking from truth and that the possibility of real meeting was founded only in complete truth. Yet I really didn't want to hurt her feelings. She was really proud of her art. I didn't like it. What to do?
My patient teacher, the secluded valley and the week of retreat had knocked down many of my usual defences to being myself. I decided to trust. To speak the experience and response of my heart and not the judgment of my mind. None of this was conscious - it's just how it happened. I jumped off the diving board and watched to see what happened - what I would say, how she would respond. Trusting in trust, trusting in Being to take us where it would. It didn’t feel momentous. It felt sweet.
I looked again at the set of clay figures closest to me and felt my way into my response to this set of confused wanderers in the mist. My mind still didn’t like this piece of art but my heart could easily appreciate its qualities, its essential nature. I shared this first response. "There is a lot of feeling and emotion in this work", I ventured, tentively. "Yes!" she replied, “I feel it very deeply”. "These people," I said, looking into her large brown eyes, "they seem very lost". My mind wondered if I had said the wrong thing, whether I’d offended her by speaking so bluntly. The response came immediately. "Yes!" she said with a sense of something close to pride. "Everyone here", she pointed to all the sculptures and paintings, "all of them are lost!". I breathed a sigh of relief – contrary to the stories playing out in my mind, the truth had been trustable. “At least this time” said my mind. Something settled. Something dropped a little.
She asked me what brought me to town. I wondered what to say. Would she be able to get a handle on the somewhat esoteric way that we had spent our past week in the valley? What the heck? I was on a roll. I decided to see where the truth would take us. I told her that I had spent a week on a meditation retreat (not quite accurate but as close as I could get in one sentence).
Her face lit up. She seemed genuinely excited. She motioned me to follow her to one end of the gallery where she pointed proudly to a smallish clay sculpture which seemed to show a man in 3 stages emerging from a swamp. She told me that it depicted the possibility of accessing altered states of consciousness. She said that she thought it was very exciting and important to be able to do so as different things can be seen in different states. She said animatedly that she presumed that this is what we were doing on our retreat, and waited expectantly for my response, looking closely into my face.
I was a little surprised and slightly disappointed. What she had shared with me didn’t seem to have anything to do with what we had been doing. She seemed to be coming from a very different place, a place of ideas not experience. And to make it worse, I wasn't touched in any way by the sculpture. But I felt that we were in genuine communication, that she really wanted to share with me and engage, so I decided to take another risk. To share my truth as it appeared in me in that moment.
I told her that I agreed that different things were visible in different states, but on our retreat we had been much more concerned with discovering what it was that did not change, what was in common between all of these states. It felt bold not to agree, but I felt excited to be seeking to share.
Her eyes lit up again. "There is something that doesn't change!" she said. I felt excited. My heart swelled at the prospect of connection! She continued "I believe that there is one tiny molecule within each human being that goes with them when they die. This is what does not change. Don't you agree?". Her eyes shone. My heart sank a little.
Again, I was in a little of a dilemma, as for me this was completely missing the essence of what I was seeking to share and I really did wish to share it with her. Her eyes were alive and I felt our connection. It opened my heart. I felt warmly towards her and our conversation. Once again, I trusted the ground of our communication and sharing to tell the truth. I gave it my best shot. "What you have just shared with me is lovely", I said, "but it is just an idea about reality, it is not reality itself; the same way that your sculpture of a man (I gestured) is just an image of the man, not the man himself. What I am really interested in is not ideas about reality, but the experience of reality. Seeing reality, living reality".
It was her turn to be puzzled and rather disappointed with my answer, but I could see that she was genuinely curious and very much still engaged. I felt touched. She looked into my eyes like a slightly crestfallen child and said "but this reality is not very special, it’s much more interesting and important to see other things. This is really not very important, those things are much more interesting". Ouch!
I felt a pang of sadness in my heart, a feeling of touchedness and suddenly a rising of passion within me. I could feel the softness and the hardness in her words. It felt at that moment that we had reached the heart of it, that this was really important. I felt her dismissal of reality as a tearing and almost a stamping upon it. It felt sad and painful, but also tender.
Words came out of my mouth, from I don’t know where; they certainly didn't come from my thinking mind. I looked directly into her big brown eyes and was touched by our connection. I heard myself speaking to her fervently saying "don't throw away this moment, this experience! This is your life. This our life. This connection between us is life happening right now! This is it! This is it! Don't dismiss it! Don't throw it away!".
I was a little taken aback by the passion with which I spoke, but it all felt very true. I was speaking to her but also speaking to me. My words were part plea, part prayer, part sharing from the depths of who I am and beyond who I am. It was gently surprising and touching to me.
Something softened in her eyes; they were moist and shining. Something dropped deeper energetically between us. The silence outside and inside was suddenly palpable. Some alchemy had taken place. We had served as transformative substance for each other. No-one had really done anything, yet it had happened nonetheless. It felt like we really had met.
I felt quietly joyful. I continued to look into her eyes as I held her hands in mine and kissed them. It was clear that there was nothing more to say. I beamed a wide smile to her, looking deep into her eyes as she smiled softly back. I bowed to her with my hands in namaste and left the gallery.