Within you there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself. – Herman Hesse
Solstice is coming up, a time of spiritual retreat across many traditions. As I head out on my own retreat, I thought it was a great time to share some thoughts on how to prepare and engage in a spiritual retreat of your own. A retreat can be anywhere from a day to months in length (in some traditions years), and can be done in your own home or away. Of course there are organized spiritual retreats at centers around the world, or you can combine retreat with pilgrimage, drawing upon the energies of a natural or religious destination as part of your journey.
Even if you stay home, a retreat is always a journey – a journey outside of your usual daily routine and mind. The purpose of retreat is to clear the decks of your mind, allowing yourself to discover a layer of your being that is difficult to access within the busyness of your daily life and routine. Sometimes you might also be seeking healing or clarity on a particular life issue, or striving to break through a spiritual plateau or dark night. Whatever your intentions, it’s important to trust your own intuition about what you need, and to take your retreat time seriously. This doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy your retreat time – hopefully you will – but sometimes growth is difficult and when we are alone with ourselves, all of our shadows emerge. So it’s important to walk the line between moving outside your comfort zone and feeling supported and safe.
While every retreat is different, here’s some general guidelines that you can adapt for your own purposes:
- Prepare to disconnect. Make schedules and plans and contact lists for whomever will be handling your usual responsibilities – coworkers, babysitters, spouses, house sitters. Think of everything that could possibly come up, everything they could possibly want to contact you about, and write it down. Walk through all of it with them. This isn’t just for them, it’s for you – going through this process will help you to let go once you are gone. You will know you have done all you can to assure things will run smoothly while you are away, so then you can simply surrender to fate. Whatever happens that you didn’t predict will be taken care of – without you, by someone else – and that’s ok. Even if you are simply doing a day retreat, preparing in this way can be very helpful.
Letting go of control is really one of the most important aspects of retreat. You need to create space in your mind and being, space for new understanding to arise. If you are away and your mind is cluttered with everything that might be going on at home, you won’t have that space.
- If you are in contact, make it intentional. If you are going to be in contact with the ‘outside world’ during your retreat, make it substantive. If all of the logistics are covered beforehand, when you do make contact with work or family, you can make it purposeful and/or heartfelt, focused on connecting briefly rather than re-engaging over details that will only pull you back into your regular life. However, really question how much contact you need, how much of the urge to connect might be a fear of letting go, or even a way of holding yourself back from shifts that deep down you know you would like to make. Often we are of two minds when it comes to retreat – we engage in it because we want to change, but then when confronted with change, old fears arise. The comfort of the known begins to take precedence, and staying in contact with ‘home’ maintains our link with that known. If you need to make contact, it’s also best to try to establish when that contact will be before you leave, so you (and those you are communicating with) are not spending time worrying about when or how you might connect.
- Do the same with media, email etc. Be very intentional about what your mind comes into contact with during your retreat. Turn your phone and all other devices off for your retreat (except for the few times you’ve prescheduled to make contact, if you are indeed making contact.) Truly be alone with yourself. Even refraining from music or reading can be useful, although if you are intentional about what you listen to or read, this might also enhance your retreat, so you can follow your intuition on this.
- Establish a schedule for your retreat. If you are attending an organized retreat, of course this part is taken care of for you. But if you are conducting your own retreat, it’s usually best to plan beforehand what your days may look like. If you are engaging in spiritual practice, when and for how long? What other activities will you engage in (hiking, journaling, etc?) Because of the fear factor, without a plan it’s easy for a retreat to slip into vacation mode. Your structure and rituals are your container for your retreat – they provide the framework within which you can let go.
- Set your retreat intentions. Of course all this outer planning is really just preparation for your inner work. Why are you going on retreat in the first place? Be honest with yourself about this. What is your driving force? What are you hoping for? Contemplating this before you go will help you cut through any projections or expectations you may have, freeing you up to just let things unfold once you are there.
- Ritualize your entry into retreat. When you leave home – or if you are retreating at home, once you start your retreat schedule for the day – do so in an intentional way. Perhaps say a blessing for your home, and ask for guidance on your retreat. Express your gratitude for being able to retreat, including thanking those inwardly who are making it possible (see first bullet point!) Mark the official entry into your retreat time with intention.
- Be honest. Once on retreat, be honest with yourself. Where is your mind really? Are you narrating your retreat to others as it occurs? Daydreaming about how great you will feel at the end? Worrying about what’s going on at home? Years ago when boom boxes (for those too young to remember, these were giant portable radios) were all the rage, I remember going to a beach filled with competing boxes, playing music so loudly it wasn’t possible to even hear the surf a few feet away. Thinking of home or mentally talking to others while on retreat is like bringing a boom box to the beach. Leave it!
There are a lot of different kinds of retreats, so it’s hard to give specific advice on how to handle inner challenges that may arise. This is more personal, and somewhat guided by the spiritual tradition and/or teacher or guide that you relate to. But there usually are challenges – we rarely shift to a new understanding without first encountering a block. So when they do come up, know it’s ok. Just be honest about what’s arising. If it’s too much for you to handle, of course reach out to your own spiritual support guide or network. But also entertain the possibility that you can just let it be, just watch what’s going on within you and it may move through on its own. Let go.
- Ritualize your exit too. Don’t judge a retreat. Just like meditation, sometimes you can’t really tell how it’s impacted you immediately after the fact. Big experiences and insights aren’t always the point. So simply express your gratitude, and prepare for your re-entry into your regular life. Set some intentions for what you’d like to take back into your life with you from retreat, and expect some bumps. You may need time to process, to integrate, and that’s all ok.
I hope you are able to make some time for retreat for yourself in the next few weeks, even if for just a day. Peace and blessings to you as you do so-
The time feels right to add to my Historical Women Mystics series, and what a joy it has been to research the woman I am profiling this time – Jarena Lee, a pioneering 19th century African American preacher whose powerful conversion experience inspired her to travel the country, overcoming both the gender and racial barriers of the time. She was also the first African American woman to publish an autobiography, an eloquent account of her spiritual and preaching experiences (the picture of Jarena to the left was painted for the cover of her autobiography.)
I came to Jarena in a roundabout way: I knew that I wanted to feature a woman preacher from the Second Great Awakening of the United States. Spanning from about 1790 through the 1830’s, this period was characterized by large Protestant revival gatherings at which many thousands of individuals converted to existing Protestant faiths or joined new ones that were born at this time. These revivals birthed evangelical Christianity in the U.S., and had a wide-ranging impact on our history. For one thing, women converted in much greater numbers then men, and took an active role in religious life in a way they had not done so before, expanding their role for the first time outside of the domestic sphere and into the public domain. In later decades, this would evolve into women’s social action groups, most of which were originally grounded in religion, fueling both the abolitionist and suffragist movements.
There are many interesting things to say about this phase of history, and how the seeds planted then are still at work in the spiritual and social movements of today, but my interest in this series is more personal – how have individual women throughout history and from varying cultural and religious backgrounds, experienced spirit? Jarena’s own words are a goldmine from this perspective. As with the stories of the other women featured in this series, if we pull back from the specific language of the time (common to most conversion narratives of the period) and look at her actual experience, we find so many similarities to the spiritual experiences of other mystics from other times and traditions (and perhaps also to our own experiences.)
Born in New Jersey in 1783, Jarena was not a slave, but was placed in a home as a servant girl at the young age of 7. She had no formal religious instruction from her parents, but learned about religion from her co-workers, and at 21 went with a friend to a Presbyterian meeting, during which she began to feel the ‘weight of her sins.’ In the coming days, she became consumed with the idea that she was a ‘wretched sinner’, eventually becoming suicidal, and walking to a river with the intention to kill herself. She doesn’t go through with it, and feels that spirit played a role in saving her from this fate, but afterwards still does not know how to go about releasing herself from what she still believes to be her essentially sinful state.
This kind of obsession with sin and self-judgment is always difficult for me to read about in historical Christian spiritual narratives, but in the context of the time and tradition, within Jarena’s story it really signals the birth of her self-awareness, and I think it is a phase of the spiritual journey to which many of us can relate. Often we embark upon a deep spiritual quest for one of two reasons: Either we have suffered a great loss or tragedy which has shaken our worldview, or something in our life has triggered an acute self-awareness, in which we are suddenly aware of the self-centeredness and superficiality of our dominant thoughts and emotions, and feel there must be more to life and ourselves. It is the latter really, that seemed to trigger Jarena’s search and subsequent experiences.
Whatever it was, after several months of suffering in this way, Jarena eventually found herself at Richard Allen’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In a sermon there, she felt herself touched in a new way by spirit:
“The text was barely pronounced, which was ‘I perceive thy heart is not right in the sight of God,’ when there appeared to my view, in the centre of the heart, one sin; and this was malice against one particular individual, who had strove deeply to injure me, which I resented. At this discovery I said, Lord I forgive every creature. That instant, it appeared to me as if a garment, which had entirely enveloped my whole person, even to my fingers’ ends, split at the crown of my head, and was stripped away from me, passing like a shadow from my sight – when the glory of God seemed to cover me in its stead.”
Ah, the power of letting go, of forgiveness! This sudden experience catapults her into alternating states of bliss and despair. In the coming weeks, she at times feels a oneness with spirit that transports her, and at other times feels entirely separate and unworthy. She describes weeks of crying spells and prayer, fervently trying to find her way back to this sense of peace and union. She begins to doubt her initial experience, and sees acutely her “pride, anger and self-will.” She vows to devote herself to praying until this feeling returns to her. One day after hours of prayer and contemplation, she is ready to give up when she hears a voice say ‘Ask for sanctification.’ Once she does so, she describes her next experience:
“…spirit said, ‘Bow down for the witness – I received it – thou art sanctified !’ The first I knew of myself after that, I was standing in the yard with my hands spread out, and looking with my face toward heaven…I now ran into the house and told them what had happened to me, when, as it were a new rush of the same exstacy came upon me, and caused me to feel as if I were in an ocean of light and bliss…During this, I stood perfectly still, the tears rolling in a flood from my eyes. So great was the joy, that it is past description.“
From this point forward, her doubts were dispelled, although she acknowledged the need for vigilance throughout her spiritual life (something she preached of often.) Her conversion brought her an amazing fearlessness – fearlessness in the face of the established church hierarchy, who initially told her women could not preach, and fearlessness in the face of danger on the road, once she began traveling to revivals. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that her conversion brought her an amazing level of trust, because her fearlessness was born of a certainty that she would be taken care of no matter what, if she followed spirit.
What spirit eventually asked her to do was preach:
“…to my utter surprise there seemed to sound a voice which I thought I distinctly heard, and most certainly understood, which said to me, “Go preach the Gospel!” I immediately replied aloud, “No one will believe me.” Again I listened and again the same voice seemed to say “Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth and will turn your enemies to become your friends.“
Initially, Reverend Allen rejected her request to preach. However, eventually the drive for her to do so rose up so strongly that she found herself bursting forth during a service, speaking from her heart words that afterwards she could barely remember. Whatever she said, it was so inspiring to those present, including Allen, that he blessed her efforts, and from that point forward became one of her staunchest supporters.
As an African-American woman preacher, Jarena was defying both the gender and race restrictions of the time. Often traveling alone or with another woman through remote countryside from revival to revival, she faced the very real danger of attack. At revivals, she preached to racially mixed gatherings (another reason the revivals are considered so historically relevant, and why many believed they were an important part of the lead up to the abolitionist movement.) Often there was resistance to her speaking, although always once she spoke, this seemed to dissolve. One can only imagine what a powerful and inspiring presence she must have been for this to have been the case.
In her autobiography, Jarena says she “traveled two thousand three hundred and twenty-five miles, and preached one hundred and seventy-eight sermons” during one period, including in Maryland, a slave state. She describes slaves who walked 20-30 miles to hear her preach, knowing they would have to walk the entire way back before dawn. Jarena was pioneering in the content of her preaching too, making biblical arguments against slavery, and in her own way predicting the Civil War, or at the very least great conflict over this ‘greatest of sins.’
In her personal life, Jarena faced struggles typical of women mystics throughout the ages: She married but her husband did not approve of her preaching and so she stopped for a time, returning to preaching after her husband died six years into their union. She bore a daughter and often had to leave her daughter with friends while she traveled. Although conflicted about this, she felt her work was not about her, and that ultimately this sacrifice was necessary.
In her autobiography, she tells many touching stories of individuals she encountered in her preaching travels, and how they were impacted. Here’s a link to excerpts from her autobiography:
Or for the full version try:
Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century, edited by William L. Andrews
I have not found a history of the Great Awakenings that I can recommend, mostly because the ones available are centered solely on their role in the development of Christianity, but if you are interested in mystic traditions of all types that have shaped the development of spirituality in America (including the three ‘Great Awakening’ periods), try:
Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, by Mitch Horowitz
Many blessings to you, and may Jarena’ story, and the story of other seekers throughout the ages, inspire and empower you to follow your own path with trust and hope.
Reminder: Teleseminar Energy Work for Sexual Trauma begins this Sunday, info here.
Home is where the heart is…
When this little quote is hung on plaques in entryways and kitchens, we usually take it to mean that wherever we are out in the world, a piece of us is always connected to our physical home, and to the family and friends that reside there with us. This is a lovely thought, but I’ve also come to view it in spiritual terms – that wherever we are, if we are grounded in our heart, we are home.
This is the theme and energy behind the recorded meditation I’d like to share with you this week, a guided meditation focused on grounding in the root chakra and centering and opening in the heart. After posting meditations for each of the 12 chakras that I like to work with at Meditate Like a Girl last year (you can find links to all my online chakra meditations here), I thought I would start offering occasional additional chakra meditations here at Mommy Mystic this year, combining the energies of different chakras. Since the chakras are psycho-spiritual energetic centers, one powerful way to work with them is to contemplate the energies and psychological aspects we would like to strengthen and/or explore during a particular time in our life. This is the kind of meditation I offer here – an energetic tool for shifting your awareness and vibration by pulling more root and heart energy through you.
I feel that focusing on our root and heart chakras is the most powerful energetic tool for dealing with the scourge of modern society – stress. Most of us lead extraordinarily busy lives, and stress and the resulting anxiety have become the biggest challenges to our health. What does it really mean to feel stressed or anxious from an energetic standpoint? It means we are off our center (heart) and feeling unsupported (root.) Empowering these two centers can help re-establish a sense of foundation – a solid root chakra helps us feel the earth is still beneath us no matter what else is going on, and a strong heart chakra allows us to let go and allow ourselves to feel part of a flow, rather than separate, isolated, and singularly responsible for the fate of our world.
On a deeper level, our root chakra really IS our home base – it is the chakra associated with our physical connection to our body and this world. When we really connect to our root, we realize we don’t have to be in a particular place to feel at home – if we are grounded and connected here than we ARE home, and can feel that way no matter where our physical body happens to be. And when we center in our heart, we turn on the inner fountain of well-being, the sense that ‘all will be well’ in the long term, and this generates the sense of self-compassion and equilibrium we need to live fully and openly in the meantime. These two energies together really create our energetic ‘heart home’ – our root is the foundation, or bones, of this home and our heart is the light which fills the rooms, bringing them alive with love and luminosity.
There are many kinds of chakra meditations, and this particular one is meant to be soothing, more than energizing. Within it we will first settle into our root chakra and use a tree visualization to ground. Then we will focus on opening our heart and letting go of anything we are gripping emotionally. Finally, we will connect these two and shift into a supported, still center point. It is a little over 12 minutes long.
Or click link below to download (the mp3 will open in another window; give it time to load and then do File->Save Link As or Save Page As to begin download):
May you feel peaceful and grounded as you move through the world.
Don’t let the title of this post scare you off – I’ll keep it simple, promise! I’ve wanted to write a post for awhile on neuroplasticity and epigenetics, two of the hottest scientific topics these days. These two relatively recent fields of study affirm the power of the mind-body connection, and (in my opinion) the possibility of energy healing and chakra work to trigger profound physical change, including in our brains and gene expression. This is the weekend to write about this, because Friday we had a solar eclipse, equinox, and supermoon (new moon at the closest point to the earth) all corresponding in a 24 hour period! It’s a transitional peak, and all about change.
Healing and personal development are in essence about our ability to change. Whether we are trying to restore a bacterial balance in our body, rid ourselves of a harmful virus, reknit a broken bone, or repair a damaged organ, physical healing is about changing our physical body from one state to another. And whether we are trying to let go of anger, become more mindful, manage stress, love more kindly, or find a new inner equilibrium, personal development is about changing our habitual mental and emotional patterns. (I am using the term ‘personal development’, rather than ‘spirituality’ because for me spirituality is not about changing ourselves, but about discovering our true nature, which is always whole, always healthy, always at peace. But this post is not about that, and most of us need to work on the levels of physical healing and personal development as part of our spiritual journey.)
Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, refers to our ability to forge new neural pathways and synapses in our brain due to changes in our thinking, our emotions, our situation, and our environment. For a long time, scientists thought our brains were relatively static after early childhood, and real change at the neural level was not possible. We now know that profound changes can and do occur, and that they continue throughout our lifetime. Here are some examples of neuroplasticity:
- Stroke victims recovering lost functionality due to their brains reorganizing themselves so that new neural pathways take over functions previously performed by the damaged part.
- Deep sea divers seeing hundreds of feet deep underwater because they have learned to control their eye lenses and pupils through brain control the rest of us never develop.
- Professional musicians’ brains developing extra gray matter in the areas of the brain related to playing their instruments – so much so that neuroscientists can often identify a professional musician by looking at a scan of their brain.
- Tibetan monks brains’ emitting increased gamma rays, associated with higher mental activity and heightened awareness, even when they are not meditating, indicating permanent ‘upgrades’ to their brains due to meditation.
- Athletes’ visualizing perfect performance, and brain scans showing this strengthens the same parts of the brain that are activated when they are actually physically performing.
What’s the relevance of all of this in terms of energy work? They are all proof our brain changes in response to our environment, activity, or thoughts. Our thoughts change our brain, our brain doesn’t simply determine our thoughts. This sounds pretty basic to anyone involved in mind-body modalities, but it’s a revolution in neuroscience. And of course it means you can change your brain – and thus your body – through the power of your mind.
Energy work such as chakra work, subtle body visualizations, release techniques etc. take this one step further by recognizing that thoughts and emotions are really energy, or vibration, so if we learn to work directly at that level, at the level of vibration within our subtle body, we can impact physical change. We can overwrite longstanding emotional habits, mental patterns, and triggers, replacing them with healthier, happier ones. Because the subtle body is the link between mind and body – we visualize or focus on a particular chakra or location in our subtle body with our mind, and feel it in our body – this kind of work can be even more powerful than working simply at the level of thought, which engages only the mind, and can become disassociated from our body. (Really there is no separation between mind, body, and subtle body, but each ‘level’ offers different doorways or access points into ourselves for healing and self-development work.)
Epigenetics takes this one step further, by offering up the possibility that when we do manifest this level of change, we may actually change our gene expression, thereby impacting not only ourselves but our descendants. Epigenetics is the study of what factors impact how a given gene in our DNA sequence expresses itself. For example, we may have a genetic propensity for a particular medical problem, but never manifest that problem. What lifestyle, diet, and environmental factors impact whether that genetic tendency does or doesn’t manifest? This, in a nutshell, is the study of epigenetics. Our DNA does not change, but which parts of it manifest during our lifetime is more fluid than we ever thought.
One of the more groundbreaking findings within epigenetics is that some changes may actually be passed down to future generations. There is already research to suggest that trauma in particular alters gene expression, and makes us more prone to health problems later in life. Now there is also research to suggest that this gene expression may in fact be handed down to future generations, i.e. trauma in one generation negatively impacts the health of future generations. On the plus side though, there is the possibility that healing from trauma, reversing the gene expression and manifesting good health and psychological impacts, also flows down to the next generation. In other words, that when we heal, we heal not only ourselves, but future generations.
Mainstream science is a long ways away from connecting the findings of neuroplasticity and epigenetics, and certainly does not acknowledge the power of energy healing and techniques to manifest physical change. But looking at this research it’s hard not to feel that science is on the brink of validating what many spiritual and energy healing traditions have taught for centuries: That we have the power to heal, and to change, at any point in our lives, that how we choose to live and the states of mind (or vibration) that we choose to manifest impacts our body, brain, and even genes, and that this carries forward beyond ourselves, to future generations, and thus the future of our world.
When we add to this the powers that cannot be explained by science – the power of love, of insight, of spiritual connection – we can begin to see hope for the future of this world, a possibility for healing our world and our children from damage done by the massive amounts of violence and suffering happening throughout the world at any given moment.
Of course I have to add disclaimers to this. Personally I believe any kind of energy work always works best in combination with psychological and medical treatment, so that the ‘whole’ being is being addressed – mind, body, and subtle body. And manifesting new neural pathways or gene expressions isn’t simply a matter of visualizing or wishing it so. Even the traditions that speak of such powers – or siddhis – those that speak of the ability to manifest healings we would call ‘miracles’, emphasize the tremendous level of training and (more importantly) spiritual realization such healers cultivated over much time and with great dedication.
On the other hand, each and every one of us has this potential, the seeds of self-healing and personal change, within ourselves. Start with one thought or shift today – one act of kindness or self-care, one activity that shifts you out of a dark state and into a light one, one meditation session – and let it be the start of a change that you gift to all those around you and maybe even your progeny. Believe it is possible, believe in yourself.
Namaste, and Happy Equinox!
Happy International Women’s Day (March 8th!) I will be back soon with a new post, but in honor of this day wanted to reblog an updated version of my Women’s Energetics book list, as there are many great resources here. Feel free to suggest any other books of your own. Also, for any of you working to heal from sexual trauma or abuse, please note that I will be offering my teleseminar on energy work for this again in April, clickthrough to the site and check the sidebar for the link. – Lisa
Originally posted on Mommy Mystic:
This list is of books that include teachings on the chakras or other subtle body mappings specific to women. Many energy body teachings do not reference the differences between men’s and women’s energy bodies, and indeed much of our subtle body mappings are the same. But there are differences in emphasis, flow, and energy interdependence tied to our physical differences, and our specific reproductive life phases. These have wide-ranging implications for both energy medicine, and spiritual paths that utilize energy-based contemplative practices.
In general, this list starts with healing and practice-based books, and then progresses to more metaphysical and spiritually oriented ones. I have tried to make the book descriptions explicit enough that they serve as a kind of overview of women’s energy body teachings on their own.
Energy Medicine for Women, by Donna Eden
Movement, breath, and meditative exercises and healing modalities drawn from both meridian-based traditions and chakra-based…
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