“Pain is the roadmap that leads to healing.”
~ Jude Smith ~
It was a difficult retreat week. Unlike my usual retreat weeks spent cavorting with God, this one was spent cavorting with the dark sides of my soul. I didn’t like it. I felt ripped off. I want to be able to do it all over again. The right way this time. I want to redo my retreat week in a way that will make me feel all warm inside, with the knowing that life is perfect, and that I am being held.
I should have known something was up, because I just couldn’t seem to settle in. Monday was spent answering emails that I convinced myself couldn’t wait another week. Tuesday was spent roaming the retreat center grounds, camera in hand, convincing myself that my camera was allowing me to see. Wednesday morning was spent using those photographs to create art, while convincing myself that sinking into creativity would bring me closer to God. But by Wednesday afternoon, with half my retreat already spent, another half to go, I was filled with remorse that I had allowed that much time to pass with barely any time spent looking within.
I dove into my remaining days with the passion of one running out of time. Out went my books. Away went my computer. Off went my phone. All that remained was me and my chair. And I made desperate love to that chair during endless hours of meditation, yet somehow not experiencing the joy usually guaranteed.
Instead I felt grief. Instead I felt anger. Instead I felt fear. Where was my God? Meditation has always been the one sure thing allowing me to feel the peace that passes all understanding, as I deeply sink into that blissful place that lies beneath my thoughts. Not this time.
Even with my thoughts becoming quieted – something raw was still bubbling deep within me. Perhaps activated by my mother-in-law’s death, perhaps activated by some freelance work coming to a close, perhaps activated by the onset of winter, a season that always reminds me of death, I couldn’t seem to shake this lonely darkness, no matter how many spiritual tricks I called forth.
What did I do? I went deeper. I went longer. I went harder. With some preconceived notion of what my retreat week should look like, I attacked my time with all the fury of one scorned. I was determined to shed the dark emotion that was swirling around me, to reveal the bliss I had come on retreat expecting to find.
But the more I tried, the more wounded I felt. The ache went deep, to a place I thought had healed a long time ago. Every wound, every hurt, every disappointment, every fear, was competing for my attention during this week retreated from the world. And I hurt. And I ached. And I trembled. And I raged. And I meditated some more. It had worked in the past…….
And somehow, in spite of my misery, I knew that there was nothing else for me to do. I couldn’t make this into the rosy retreat I had come to expect. I thought I went on retreat every season to remind myself of the beauty and love offered by life. Instead, I discovered that I went on retreat every season to discover the depths of what was real. This time what was real were all the dark emotions that my busyness insulates me from calling by name.
I am a spiritual warrior. I live life with a commitment to experiencing it fully. That means getting to experience the awe of fog coming off the river with the surrounding hillsides ablaze in autumn color. But it also means feeling the despair of unacknowledged disappointments when that is what is on the plate. And in my endless quest to live life fully, it is only be experiencing all of what life offers – the warm fuzzies as well as the cold fears, that we can claim the awakened awareness we so quickly say we wish for, yet avoid when it feels other than good.
I sat down yesterday evening to recount my week. I wrote, and I deleted, and I wrote, and I deleted some more. With each attempt, I was trying to put my week into a neat box that I could hold out to you as proof it was time well spent. And each time I reread the words I had written, I cringed with the hollowness of what I had said.
But my words have a need to be born, just as my emotions have that need as well. And just as I can’t push my emotions back into their hole when the time has come for their birth, I also can’t neglect my words. And so, as is true of so many middle-of-the-night births, my words decided their time had come just as my clock was turning 3. And although I tried to convince them to wait until a more reasonable hour, they were relentless with their labor pains. Having no other choice, I heeded their call and this is what was born.
My words today are not the wise and pretty words I so proudly claim to own. These words are filled with sarcastic darkness and pain. But that is what is so, right now, even if I wish for it to be another way. And in the midst of my misery, a little voice is gently whispering to me that this too shall pass, and that the only way to speed it on its way is to honor it by giving it a life of its own.
I am bravely sitting with my misery, believing I have no choice. Oh, I could immerse myself back into work, which I will probably do come Monday. But for the moment, I am honoring my wounds by giving them a voice, hoping they will move on once they have nothing more to say.
Did I have a good retreat week? Will I return come winter? You bet I will. For as much as I ache, as much as I hurt, I feel fully alive and real. And when my last day on earth arrives, I will have known that I made use of them all, with awareness and deep respect for the depth that is me. For I’m more than the smiling woman I usually present to the world. I am the human being, just like you, with hurts as proof of my wounds.
In the wise words of Oprah, we get to turn our wounds into wisdom. At the moment, the wisdom is a little bit beyond my reach. But I suspect that by starting the process of honoring my wounds, their wisdom is coming a little bit closer to within my reach.
I go on retreat each season to bring me closer to my God. But this week, God eluded me, and I felt abandoned to just my misery and me. But God has a way of reminding us of the fallacy of our thinking, and God didn’t cease trying each day I was away. And my final moments on retreat were no different. For as I shuffled through my iPod, the achingly beautiful words of “In the Garden” began to play, just in case I needed a reminder to return……..