Published by In Her Place on November 29, 2011

Close The Door On The World, Open The Door To Self

by SuzAnne C. Cole

Many hours into a twenty-four hour retreat at home, a semi-annual spiritual practice, I have reached the point of recognizing and accepting my own rhythms. I am content. Cocooned in pillows, I lie on my back finding pictures in the clouds that drift across the tranquil summer sky beyond the window panes. I’ve been at this delightful task for more than an hour despite harangues from my internal critic–Get up this instant, you lazy slob, and do something productive. Review that book you finished two weeks ago. Those shutters haven’t been dusted in weeks. The windows are filthy. A delicious languor gently disarms every impulse towards busyness; bliss overflows my soul, bathing every cell in sweet contentment. I gaze at the tangle of cottonwood, oak, and tallow limbs in the front yard. A red-headed flicker pounds away on a tree-trunk, reminding me of my usual head-banging approach to life. I’m glad to be here now doing nothing.

But it was not always so. When I closed the door of my small study early this morning, I experienced anxiety, even faint claustrophobia. I knew that except for two fifteen-minute meal breaks, this 10′ by 10′ room with its connecting bath would be home for my next twenty-four hours of self-imposed withdrawal. I would deny myself my usual activities—writing to publish, reading, drawing, listening to music, watching television, practicing yoga. I would not answer the door, I would not collect the mail. The answering machine would take phone calls.

I was alone with myself, my thoughts and feelings. The initial panic was familiar; I curled up on the floor with a blanket and a pillow and let it wash over me, comforting myself with a litany: I have chosen this retreat, and I can choose to end it anytime I wish, but just now I choose to remain here, listening to my inner voices, reacquainting myself with my natural rhythms, accepting the gifts of solitude. I need not fear drifting away from reality like a balloon, for I am grounded in love, and the Mothers will watch over me.

The waves of panic ebbed only to be succeeded by paroxysms of grief. Again I submitted, giving up my will to resist the pain, hearing but ignoring the insidious whisper of the internal critic–How ridiculous you look lying on the floor crying. It’s a beautiful day. This is a pretty house. You have a wonderful husband, three fine sons, a daughter-in-law. What on earth could you have to cry about?

From tears I slipped into sleep, brief and easeful. When I awakened I began to journal, the one activity I permit myself during a retreat. Since the point of a retreat is staying with myself through physical and psychological discomfort, I like to record what happens to read later. I know that during the twenty-four hours I will vacillate between contentment and despair, one hour accepting passivity, the next railing at myself. Each retreat has its own tempo, rhythm, and structure. Some have revolved around a single issue; others have released creative blocks as poems, essays, even the plan for my last book have gushed out as fast as I can record them.

This morning I wanted to discover why the need for a retreat had been building over the last few weeks, a need which could no longer be placated with quiet reflection at bedtime or an afternoon lost in thought at the computer. I wanted to learn what aspects of my life need to be examined now, what my soul requires of me at this time.

One issue emerged immediately. Lately I have accused myself of hypocrisy and laziness in my spiritual life and practices. As I journaled, it gradually became clear if attending church no longer seems to be doing anything positive for me, I could give it up for awhile or try another church.. I believe in a Creator God; I believe we are to use and share our blessings. I believe the effort we go through in creating ourselves as we are—personality, education, behavior, thoughts—is purposeful, that it does not disappear with the death of the physical body but is born again in some form although I am not certain what that form may be. If I question whether I can continue in good faith to call myself a Christian, then I could read a gospel and decide if it portrays my God. I could return to meditating or centering prayer.

Another issue was exploring what my husband’s eventual retirement will mean for me. I fear his requiring too much of me; it seems only yesterday I finally had time to myself, time to set my own schedule, time to live authentically. If I let others start nibbling bites off me now, I may be back to where I was several years ago—insecure and uncertain, too prone to look to others to discover how I should feel, what I should think. I may appear selfish now, I do refuse to participate in activities I used to do, I feel guilty because I do less volunteer work , and I’m not as disciplined about my writing as I would like to be. But developing an authentic self is difficult, arduous, time-consuming—and ultimately very worth-while.

I left the computer then to practice self-hypnosis. I asked for guidance from my future self and she rose up before me, cloaked and veiled, but strong and tall. And her cry was full and deep–I want to be accepted as a writer. That’s how I preserve my individuality within our marriage, that’s what I want to do in our retirement. And that’s also how I help others—by honestly sharing what I think and feel through my writing. The practical self chimed in then, saying okay, start writing. Work up a schedule, set aside blocks of time, write, write, write. Turn that future vision into reality. Nothing else will make you happier.

I emerged from trance and went to the bathroom again, perhaps for the fifth or sixth time, much more often than usual. Perhaps I ordinarily ignore my body too much. Perhaps my body is mimicking the emotional process of expurgation, getting rid of physical toxins. Today I honor all of my processes and rhythms, physical as well as emotional, spiritual, and mental.

Then I was hungry and left my room for a meal break. Being enclosed in one room had already apparently caused a certain degree of sensory deprivation, for the brightness of the white kitchen, the strong reds and browns of the kilim in the breakfast room dazzled me. I savored lunch, realizing as I ate that reading during meals as I often do weakens the pleasure of eating. When the timer reminded me the quarter-hour had passed, I climbed the stairs a bit reluctantly and shut out the world once more. Bellyful, I napped briefly.

Awakening, I stretched out on the loveseat and watched the clouds. But as I move into meditation, chanting in my mind “be still and know,” instead of peace, I find agitation, an accelerating heart-rate, my throat closing and tightening around unspoken words. Tears come. Trembling, I sense someone, something, waiting to leap, and I struggle, resisting. Then I force myself to belly-breathe, empty my mind, go where I am being taken.

Suddenly facing me is a hag, pointing a bony finger saying, You are going to stand here and listen to all the worse things you ever thought about yourself; I’m here to tell you they are all true.

I recognize her as a shadow-self and realize I’ve been expecting this confrontation.
She begins, You are a liar.
Yes, I have told lies and I also tell the truth.
You are selfish.
Yes, I am selfish with food I like, my time, my affections.
You don’t love your husband.
I don’t like some of his expressions, habits, behaviors, but I care about his happiness, and I want to share the rest of my life with him. I call that love.
You’re lazy.
Yes, I am. I’m tired. I was superwoman for many years and I’ve given that up. I’m more realistic about my energy. I can’t do as much. Sometimes when I appear to be doing nothing, I am gathering resources, incubating ideas.

You procrastinate.
Sometimes I put off what I don’t want to do, but often that’s because I’m not sure about the activity. That’s a luxury of mid-life.

Do you know what you’re doing now? You’re internalizing approval. If you keep going, you won’t need any external standards of approval. Then where will you be?
In a very good place.
The image of the hag begins to soften as she becomes my mirror image. I smile. How much easier it is to embrace you now. Come and get a hug.

We embrace and I smile as I emerge from trance and begin to journal. I have bubbling moments of pure joy now and the hours seem to be passing more swiftly. I decide to practice self-hypnosis again. I feel myself floating past layers of present concerns, noting them, letting them go. A spirit guide I call bear woman appears, clasps me tightly in her arms, and dives with me into the sea. Momentarily afraid, I struggle, but she blows her breath into me, and I find I can breathe underwater. We sink lower and lower through transparently iridescent bubbles, ribbons of beckoning plants, technicolor fish. Enchanted, I would stay and play here, but she moves purposefully past these glories to the cold, dark bottom of the sea. I see a path outlined by rocks upon which luminescent plants glow.

We start down the path, and I find it lined with tableaux from my life, past moments of fear, embarrassment, rage, and pleasure frozen for me to examine. In one a small girl in a pinafore cringes in terror before an angry father. I scream at the man, telling him to direct his rage where it belongs—but not at his child. I take her in my arms. I see an older child being punished for not watching her younger sister carefully enough and I say it was her parents’ fault, not hers. She joins us. We embrace the preadolescent whose first menses repulsed her mother and give the mother permission to enjoy her womanhood too. We reassure the teenager confused about her sexuality.

We meet the college student who fell in love but postponed marriage until she finished a graduate degree, the young mother who found balancing her needs and those of her babies so difficult she gave up having any desires of her own, and many others. With the help of my guide, I am able to view these younger selves with compassion and detachment, to forgive, accept and love each.

When I emerge from this trance, I journal until it is time for dinner. Afterwards, I watch the sky darken until my mind empties and I can meditate. When I become aware of my surroundings again, it’s after nine. I reflect on the lessons of the day. I feel relaxed, purged, at peace. Towards midnight I fall asleep and don’t awaken again until 6:30. The vigil is over. I long for a hot bath and some physical activity, but first I record my last thoughts and read my journal. The solitude of a retreat has once again cleared some of the brush from the tangled paths of my life and restored, refreshed, and renewed my soul.

Read SuzAnne C. Cole’s bio »

One comment

I enjoyed this very visual story. I loved your honesty and open expression of your retreat. Thank you for writing.

by Circe Denyer on December 1, 2011 at 8:04 am. Link