When I decided what I really needed was a retreat as an antidote to the drudgery of domestic life—the constant laundry, school lunches, bickering and meltdowns—an avalanche of obstacles came raining down upon my beleaguered brow. The main one, besides the financial aspect, was how I would arrange childcare for my two kids who went to different schools in two different towns? Hint: It would involve a complicated spreadsheet featuring seven of my dearest friends who volunteered to step in and pinch hit for me. It meant I had to swallow pride and really call in the help I needed, not once but ten times.
I almost gave up, but I did it. It meant that much for me to go away—I just could feel the voice of my soul requesting this of me. And so somehow it came to pass, that one bright fall day in September, with my bag and journal and yoga mat packed, I carpooled down to Santa Fe with two friends also going to the same retreat.
Just being in the car for seven hours, experiencing rich conversation and rousing landscape without the clamor of kiddos, was enough to induce what astronauts describe as the “overview effect”: the experience of glimpsing the earth from a great distance. Some astronauts say, according to Michael Pollan in his New Yorker article “The Trip Treatment, that this perspective permanently altered their priorities. For me, it was a taste of the bigness of my life—of life itself—when not seen through the filter of crunched motherhood. You know, that old familiar plot line of limited time, space and patience.
It was a true sense of spaciousness going on retreat offered. Not being online. Not having to cook for a week! Having my time be all mine. Going to sleep when I wanted to, then waking up when I felt like it. It was coming home to myself in a new way.
And all that was on top of the fact that I got to be in retreat with a teacher whose only agenda was the invitation into the bigger mystery of our souls. Going on retreat—in taking that small but complicated amount of time just for myself—was a prayer not only for possibility, but for transfiguration.
Delving into dreams
The retreat, as I experienced it, was a process of working with shadow and emerging into light. The way in was through dreams—literally, the dreams you would have in the night and the inner-directed teachings they revealed. The teacher, Michael Regan, was something of a dream whisperer, someone who could engage in a dream’s symbolism and distill it down to essence. I had never before heard anyone, in all my years in India and on the spiritual circuit, who could extract the applicable wisdom of dreams in a way that made them at once both prophetic and practical.
His teaching, although profound, eschews hewing to abstract spiritual principles that don’t actually transform the heart. Instead of a lofty premise, he starts small, with the petty wounds and minor miseries that each person bears. These wounds, when left to fester, can block our access to our deepest nature. Or they can be the point of contact.
Regan uses the language of dreams to help put one’s finger on the wound in order to face it. Because the wound, ultimately, is how the light gets in. It’s where we are most vulnerable, and most hungry for love.
The set up of the retreat was intimate, loosely structured, gatherings. We met everyday in an adobe dome for a morning session and afternoon session in which we would sit, listen, and share our dreams or what was fondly referred to as our “core dilemmas.”
It was an amazing group of mainly women, nearing fifty or beyond, who were actually an unlikely band of spiritual warriors the likes of which I have rarely been blessed to encounter. All of them walking the path of the bravely wounded, they showed me how I could dismantle my personal armoring with grit, humor, and boldness.
Out with the old, in with the new
What stood out in all of the dream dialogues was the potential of change. As the poet Adrienne Rich said, “The moment of change is the only poem.” To be able to feel into my moment of change, and to witness others in theirs, created a tsunami of imperceptible shifts. Together, we were leaving behind the old worn-out stories. We could enter into a new, collective conversation that we have never had before.
In one of the dreams I shared I dreamt I had stepped on someone whom I deeply respected. Instead of shouting or scolding, the person in my dream yelped and then covered up her pain by saying it was self-inflicted—she was stretching and thus had injured herself.
Sounds innocuous enough, right? But through the kind of skilled, nuanced exploration that Michael leads, it uncovered a wealth of stealth material. I understood, through the dream and the ensuing dialogue, the depth of my aggression and petulance, the habit I had of playing the victim.
The heart of change
Here is a taste of Michael’s commentary that the dream generated:
“There are deep biases that make yourself more complicated than it needs to be.
There is way you can lose yourself by making emotional bonds that leave your deeper self behind. The dream brings you into a different alignment. The woman in your dream is gracious but not emotional in her response. You have to choose graciousness.
It is difficult to recover from a response of contempt. You should know better. You have to end that cycle. You haven’t cleared that wounding from your own psyche. You sense of injustice comes from your own wounds. It’s Ok to have emotional needs, but you can’t impose those needs. You can acknowledge them from a place of vulnerability, where you can tolerate insults without needing to lash out. The demanding quality is what drives you out of your light. Graciousness is the capacity to resolve our wounds.
Your exemplar [most characters in our dreams exemplify a type of behavior that we don’t realize we aspire to] embodies graciousness with pain, instead of blaming with pain. Blaming traps you in your emotional development. Release yourself from your emotional dependency as a substitute for your true self. Adjust your compass so you can move through that threshold.”
Seeing my vengefulness, my self-righteousness, my collapse into betrayal for what is was proved difficult. Who can withstand the shame that such insights can coagulate around? It’s a delicate kind of bearing witness. It helps to have a sense of your own inherent goodness as counterweight. I love what the poet and philosopher John O’Donahue says: “And that there is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there's still a sureness in you, where there's a seamlessness in you, and where there is a confidence and tranquility in you. And I think the intention of prayer and spirituality and love is now and again to visit that inner kind of sanctuary.”
So after that kind of sanctuary, within me and without “me,” I could come home and face the laundry. Even fold and put away the clothes with tenderness instead of resentment. Hold space for my children’s bickering and injuries. Kneel down before what I have chosen and what has chosen me. And discover what I had been temporarily blinded to: That, as John O’Donahue, says, “The mystery never leaves you.”