Recently, a male friend of mine told me how he had created the money for a trip to India so he could do a 40-day retreat with a prominent Sufi Pir. I thought about it, off and on, for several days afterward, wondering why the whole idea kind of….puzzled me. I felt a slight annoyance, too, probably because I have yet to make it to India, and wouldn’t mind going at all, although I doubt that I’d spend my time there doing forty days on retreat. I believe in retreats, don’t get me wrong. In fact, I too have been on retreat for about a year and a half now, a fact which surprises me. It surprised me when I first felt drawn into my retreat, and it surprises me now. I am a “certified retreat guide” in the Sufi Order International. That means I am supposed to be capable of guiding people on silent retreats, intuitively. It’s been awhile since I did so, but I felt reasonably prepared for my own long retreat, and I have had a wonderful long-distance guide to see me through it, largely via email. I must insert a disclaimer here: don’t try this at home, folks. Well, unless you do. Generally speaking, the retreat process is an extremely difficult one, and the retreatant ought to be ready for it. It’s possible I may have been more prepared than some, having done many group and individual retreats, and guided some, as well. There are “retreats” and retreats, of course. I am not speaking of the “retreat” you take if you are an executive for a huge corporation and your “team” retires to the beach for a weekend of mind-games and rest, led by a psychologist. I am speaking of the kinds of retreats taken by the dervishes, the yogis, the desert fathers, the monastics of the various esoteric schools. I am speaking of drawing away from everything, becoming silent, and sitting for long hours every day, practicing intense and difficult meditation practices, eating little, speaking not at all, and working very, very hard. In the Sufi Order, it is called an “alchemical” retreat, the concept based on the work of Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, who staged the process around the phases of the classical medieval alchemical process. The Sufis I know go on retreat as often as they’re able, and they do retreats of three, six, ten and sometimes even 40 days. And I’m sure that a chance to go and be guided by someone who is steeped in the teachings of one of the traditional Sufi Orders in the East is particularly attractive. The retreat process is a difficult, intensive, and even dangerous one, if the retreatant is not ready for it, and if there is not a guide. Esoteric practice can strengthen the ego, not subjugate it, unless one knows what one is doing. But back to my friend and his retreat in India. Why, I wondered, does one have to go somewhere spiritually impressive (which India obviously is) and be guided by someone who is well-known? Is the retreat better? Are they more enlightened afterward? Why would someone need this?
My own retreat has been quite a humble one: having gone through six surgeries that left me debilitated and depressed, I was looking around, trying to figure out what I was supposed to do next, when I felt myself drawn, inexorably, into an intense meditative process. I will admit, my back was to the wall at that time, I had come to the end of all my devices, and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself next. Everything had changed. I had changed. I didn’t know who I was or why I was here. I didn’t know why I was alive, and in all honesty, I didn’t even know if I wanted to be alive. And I was pretty sure that none of my other remedies for this kind of state were going to work. And this time, I wasn’t going to try to make myself feel better. I was going to go for broke. I suppose I decided to put this Sufi path of mine to the test. If I could be healed and made whole, I knew of no other way that I wanted to do it.
I didn’t go to India.
I didn’t pay a lot of money to some notable spiritual teacher to guide me.
I didn’t go away to a well-known monastery or ashram.
I sat down in my rocking chair on my porch. And I practiced. And I practiced. And I practiced. For long hours every day. I read holy books. I corresponded with my guide via email. I listened to incredible music. I listened to the birds chirp and the trees rustle. When my husband came home in the evening, we were together as usual, and when my daughter came home from college for the weekend, we were a family.
I ate carefully, but well. I slept at night. When I could. I did not wear a robe or sleep on a cement floor, as I once did when I went on retreat in the French Alps and made a retreat in a shepherd’s hut.
It worked. The Divine Being blessed me endlessly. I am convinced that I could not possibly be any happier with the results than I would have been if I had traveled to India. I cannot speak of these results here, but if someone reads this who knows…they WILL know, and that’s all I can say. But perhaps I can say that the sky and the earth are meeting right inside here.
I really hope I get to India sooner or later. I hope I get to a lot of places. But God is right HERE. and given that this is the case, I am carrying all the rest anyway.
If you are a male, you may not like what I’m going to speak of now. Unless, of course, you are a male who is in touch with his animus and has the ability to laugh at the absurdity of being human. Just be warned . . . and “don’t shoot the messenger.”
I was speaking of my friend’s trip to India with a woman friend, and I asked her, “what is it that makes someone think they MUST go and seek God under the auspices of some famous and well-known person in a spiritually impressive place?” She chuckled. “Well,” she said mischievously, “he’s a man.” And yes, we laughed….wickedly. So sue me. Yet I do believe there is a bit of truth in the idea that it is the more asssertive, outward part of a person’s nature that causes them to need something outside to bring them to the place of finding that their heart’s desire was available right inside all along.
It’s very convenient.
At the end of a crazy-moon night
the love of God rose.
I said, “It’s me, Lalla.”
The Beloved woke. We became That,
and the lake is crystal-clear.
Lalla Ded, c. 14th century