About Solitude

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

Eat. Pray. Bore.

Awhile back, I started writing a book with some friends, and one of those friends said to me that he wanted it to be the caliber of the bestseller Eat. Pray. Love.  “We’re talking New York Times Bestseller List,” he said.  I gulped, since I was supposed to do the lion’s share of the writing.

Well, my own book is still in process, partially because I quickly discovered that group process via writing doesn’t work, and partly  because I was never entirely able to figure out what the hell he meant (about EPL, that is)…in addition to which, the book I was writing didn’t seem  to want to be what he said it ought to be.  But I finally talked myself into reading the book said friend wanted me to write, terrified because it was supposed to be such a great read, so profound, and so well-written, and I was fairly sure I could never measure up.


Well, friends, it just wasn’t all that great.  I really wanted it to be, because then that might have inspired me, and I think if I’d read it when I was in my twenties or thirties (as I assume the author was), then perhaps I would have been terribly impressed.  As it was, though, it struck me as a book that should have been entitled The Cosmo Girl Seeks Enlightenment or some such.  And oh, this is such a snarky thing to say, but. . .  the entire process seemed to have been an exercise in narcissism.

Most of all, though, I wondered about all the truly great literature that never makes a dime, while The Cosmo Girl, etc., evidently made a bundle.

Now, having gotten that off my chest, I will say that the author is probably a truly sincere seeker (at her own level), and did indeed do a reasonably good job illustrating the fruits of her search.  The book had numerous rather charming moments and a few truly lovable characters.  She was just. . . young.  It seems that life gave her what she wanted, and it didn’t prove to be as great as she thought it would be, and so she became depressed and sought a divorce, and followed it with another obsessive, attention-seeking relationship with a like-minded man.  For people in their twenties and thirties, that’s all pretty much the standard human experience, right?  Please understand, I do not say this with malice, having been there.

Anyway,  so our heroine figured out what she needed to make her happy–again–and she created–through an intricate series of events having to do with divorce lawyers–the means to make it all happen.  She went to Italy and sought the experience of pleasure.  She gorged herself on food and beauty and friendship; and well, who wouldn’t have felt better after all that pasta, wine and great art and architecture?  She made some great friends, too.

It wasn’t enough, of course, but she had planned for that, and next she went to India (where do people get all that money?), to live in her guru’s ashram and seek an experience of the Divine Being.  I must say, remembering the stories I’d heard about authentic Indian ashrams, I got the distinct impression that this was more of a resort than an ashram, although I gather that India, seeing a market for its age-old proficiency at the contemplative life, has been smart enough to create a market for us more affluent (and lazy, and luxury-loving) Westerners, and so the idea, here, was that if you want to find God, that’s where you have to go.  I mean, we all know that.  But don’t worry, it seems that at least some of the buildings were air-conditioned, and the food was really good, although not as good as pasta.  Our Cosmo Girl was still having a great time, despite the despair (read:  egotism)  for which she sought remission.  Despite the snarkiness mentioned above, I can honestly say, also, that she did have an authentic experience of awakening, and did a fairly good job of describing it.  This is something I admire, because I decided, awhile back, that while one cannot and should not be able to find words for the ineffable, it is important to point out the Footprints of the Ox for those who come after.  It is the least we can do, right?

After India, our heroine went to Bali, to live with a Shaman she’d met awhile back, and to seek balance.  She was feeling pretty good by this time, as might be imagined, and it was here that she–so far, as I understand it–found True Love.  I enjoyed her descriptions of all these places, of the people she met and the food she ate and the experiences she had, yet it was here that the story began to deflate a bit for me, and I realized what it was that had sort of disappointed me all along, and it was exactly what I’d said above:  our heroine really wanted to find love, to find a human being who would fulfill her narcissistic desires for affiliation and happiness and sex, and well…why not?  As I said, she was young, and when I was her age, I felt exactly the same.  It is only now, when I am growing older and have become thoroughly disenchanted with my experience of the earth plane, that I am impatient with love stories that end with . . . human love.  But when I was in my 30s, and awash in a sea of hormones and the urge to procreate, I’m sure I felt exactly as she did, although I find it interesting that our heroine was quite clear that she did not want children.  Being an innate breeder and natural-born Mommy-type, it is tempting to cite that narcissistic designation again, but I am aware that people who have children tend to be judgmental of people who don’t choose to have them, so I should let that alone.  Suffice it to say that, although the book had its pleasant and even charming moments, and much that I could relate to, I found it to be rather a waste of my time.  It was interesting, however, to learn that this is what becomes a bestseller these days.  I must say, I was much more reassured as to the fate of humanity when people loved Harry Potter than I was with the success of Eat. Pray . . .

Then I saw the film.  Now I know that if I am ever in need of a sure way to waste about two-and-a-half hours, I will put that film in my Netflix queue, confident that it will do the trick.  My husband and I read each other numerous examples of the reviews others had written about the film before we saw it, howling at the number of “one stars” given it, more than I’d seen any other  film of my choice get, and we therefore approached it with curiosity and trepidation.  I am pleased to report that it was not quite as bad as we had been led to believe, but it was pretty darned bad.  I will say that Julia Roberts was not nearly as bad as I’d heard she was:  the poor woman really did her darndest to play her part, and wasn’t afraid to look plain to do so, but…well, there just wasn’t much to hold on to, really.  Whoever wrote the screenplay evidently thought it would not suffice to tell the writer’s story as written, but seemed determined to beef it up with angst and Hollywood in equal measures.  I usually simply hate watching a film I’ve read the book for, because in my experience, the film never equals the book; the only films I can say I was completely satisfied with were the Lord of the Rings series, simply because although they didn’t quite follow Tolkien’s books, they were . . . complementary, in the best possible way.  But back to Eat. Pray. Love.  Again I sigh.  I have never seen a film quite so divergent from the original writer’s story and words.  In fact, the film actually caused me to appreciate the book more, simply because it was so bad it made the book look better by comparison.  Julia Roberts didn’t have a chance.  The only bright spot was Javier Bardem, who depicted a most lovely and lovable REAL MAN (in my opinion), although he didn’t strike me as remotely like the character of the Brazilian lover in the book.  As far as the rest of it, the screenwriter seemed determined to leave out all that was meaningful and profound in the book–including the characters who had given the book the most life–and inject as much Hollywood angst and schmaltz as possible.  Lucca Spaghetti became an inconsequential bald man, when he had been a fascinating and charming character in the book.  And as for Richard from Texas, even more of a bright spot in the actual book for me, well . . . what a pity.  His character alone could have carried the film.  Instead, he became a watered-down James Garner who did indeed, as the main character herself said, speak Bumper Sticker.  What on EARTH was the screenwriter thinking of???  Why was the experience of eating the “best pizza in the world” in Naples watered down to a less-than-profound dialogue about our heroine’s jeans?  Why was the delightful and humorous attempt of Wayan to get our heroine to give her even more than the $18,000 she gave her completely left out?  AND WHY ON EARTH was the trip to the island of parrots turned into a silly and vapid couple’s spat as an opportunity for our heroine to come to terms with her relationship issues?  Perhaps an even better title for this film would haven been “How to Sacrifice a Huge amount of Money, Time and a Reasonably Decent Book on the Altar of Inconsequentiality.”

I am left with only one question:  how does the author of this book, Liz Roberts, feel about the desecration that was made of her reasonably sweet and occasionally profound little novel (and it was little, metaphorically speaking)?  Perhaps she has made so much money from the entire thing that she doesn’t care?  Or perhaps I am being snarky, but if it was me, I don’t think I’d be able to sleep nights after selling my soul to the devil that is Hollywood to quite that extent.

My apologies to Liz Roberts, who probably is a Good Egg overall, and to anyone who simply loved the book, because I can see how that could be possible . . . all in all, though, Eat. Pray. Love. was on about the same level in the genre of spiritual literature as Eckhart Tolle’s books (and don’t get me started on him!).  I would recommend, if you want something inspiring for your Netflix queue, Fierce Love, about our good friend Ram Dass, and for books, The Bread of Angels, another book I ought to write about, and probably will, now I think about it.