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Contemplation

Should I go on a retreat, and how do I choose one?

San Marco monastery in Florence

A friend emailed me asking about retreats, whether they’re useful, and how one goes about picking one.

It’s an interesting question, and a good one for Lent. Sixty years ago, before the spiritual revolution of the 1960s, you’d be hard-pressed to find any retreats in the West, unless you were Catholic. The Reformation attacked the whole idea of sitting in silent contemplation of God, you should be out there doing stuff (or if not, reading the Bible). The closest British Protestant culture got to retreats, before recently, was the health holiday – the spa or mountain sanatorium, or the hiking / bicycling holiday. 

Then came the Sixties, that ‘spiritual supernova’ of ‘galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane’, as philosopher Charles Taylor put it. Suddenly, retreats and transformational workshops were back with a bang, in large part thanks to the influence of a place called Esalen, on the coast of Monterey, where hip Californians would go for massage, hot-tubs, Gestalt workshops and the occasional orgy.

Today, there are a bewildering array of retreats on offer in the spiritual supermarket, as wellness tourism and spiritual tourism become bigger and more profitable trends. Wealthy Westerners don’t just want to sun-bathe and down Sangrias anymore. They want some yoga, massage, meditation and gong baths thrown in. They want some fine-tuning of their soul, then the Pina Coladas.

Would you like to see our menu? You could go on a yoga retreat, a surf-and-yoga retreat, a pet retreat, an ayurvedic retreat, a meditation retreat (Buddhist / Christian / Law of Attraction), a Ramadan retreat, a pilgrimage, a transformational workshop, a tantra or conscious sexuality retreat, a men’s retreat, women’s retreat, LGBTQ retreat, couples retreat, family retreat, a writers’ retreat, an entrepreneurs’ retreat, a plant medicine or chocolate healing retreat, a vision quest, a wild retreat…Or, like Dominos pizza, you can combine any of the above. LGBTQ surf n’ yoga retreat? You got it!

The sheer variety of retreats may put you off. It may feel a little bullshit, this combination of tourist consumerism and spirituality, particularly considering the ludicrous price-tag of some of these spiritual retreats.  $8,000 for a week’s ayurvedic retreat in India? $11,000 for a 10-day ‘entrepreneur’s retreat’ on ayahuasca? $5000 for a ‘digital detox’ week in the Algarve? Mate for £20 I’ll smash your phone and give you a Vicks inhaler, how about that.

Plenty of recent films and TV shows have had a laugh at this mash-up of the spiritual and the consumerist, from Fleabag doing a runner from her luxury silent retreat, to Don Draper coming up with the Pepsi slogan at Esalen in the final scene of Mad Men.

But this cocktail of the sacred and profane is not necessarily new: in the middle ages, monasteries were incredibly plush – exquisite gardens, gorgeous libraries, elegant chapels, and kitchens described as ‘the most distinguished temple of gluttony in all of Europe’. They made a fortune welcoming wealthy aristocrats for pampering weekends of spiritual guidance, to squeeze out the big donations. 

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to wind down on a pampered retreat. If you want to go to eat some delicious healthy food, drink a bit, swim, hang out with some cool new people, and also do a bit of yoga or surfing, why the hell not! 

Can retreats be useful if you’re trying to develop spiritually? Can they help if your ultimate goal is moksha, liberation from the ego? Yes, definitely so. Most religious traditions emphasize the importance of occasional retreats. They can help to:

  • settle the mind from its furious planning and ruminating
  • resist some of our usual habits of distraction, like booze, the internet, TV, chitter-chatter. This resistance of usual habits sharpens our awareness, wakes us up, and can help us develop our powers of focus, insight and self-control. 
  • turn our attention to our inner world and begin to get to know the mind better – not just the surface rolling news, but also the deeper levels of awareness.
  • learn to make friends with ourselves, to accept aspects of the psyche we usually run away from
  • discover inner resources of peace, courage, acceptance, kindness and insight, and take these resources back into our usual life
  • meet friends and guides on the spiritual path

Retreats can be challenging. We may go with the spiritual tourist mindset and be in for a rude awakening. I remember one lady at a Vipassana retreat complaining to the teacher: ‘I thought this was meant to be relaxing!’ And another guy, at an ayahuasca retreat in the jungle, who told us at the start that he didn’t really have any problems and was just there to optimize himself. Ayahuasca gave him a kicking, and he bailed out of the third ceremony, declaring he just wanted to ‘chillax with a movie’.

A retreat can feel like a little death, coming down from the usual buzz of coffee-sugar-internet-gossip-ego-planning, and just sitting there…The ego may scream for distractions, for the first day or two. Don’t just sit there, do something! But then things do settle down. And we discover a mind beyond the usual ego-chatter.

That’s the whole point – we’re not who we think we are. We think we’re our ego, and the whole game of life is to bolster the ego and gratify it, with achievements and compliments and security and so forth. Build a really good sand castle, and get everyone else on the beach to admire it. Everything in our culture supports us in this view. But there is a Great Mind around the little castle, which is free from fear and suffering, and we can sometimes discover it, get to know it bit by bit, make friends with it, and rest in in its luminosity. 

The modern ego is like 24-hour rolling news. So absorbing, so distracting! Constant headlines of triumph and catastrophe, And we’re always in the news! Like Trump, we’re fascinated by anything in which our name appears.

You see that? That’s you.

But you can look deeper than the endless clickbait headlines and ask….what is the screen on which this news is appearing? What is the TV channel? What is the light that makes the screen light up? Can you not chase the headlines but rest in the light? 

OK, how to choose a retreat. The main thing is to get over your awkwardness and embarrassment at taking your spiritual development seriously, and putting a bit of time and work into it. Don’t be embarrassed, it’s totally normal and healthy. It’s weird not to think about it or do anything about it. Think of it like a spiritual pension – you’re going to die soon, and the occasional retreat is putting a little effort into preparing for that transition. 

As with finding a therapist, you may not find the perfect retreat first time. You may do a runner a few times. I first went on retreat to a Russian monastery in my late 20s. It was such a beautiful, mysterious place, but I only lasted one night. I couldn’t handle the long, standing, Orthodox services, or the abbot’s incessant efforts to convert me (luckily I couldn’t understand a word he said). Some years later, I went to a Benedictine monastery, where there was no real programme, just regular services in Latin. I was bored and depressed. Finally, in 2016, I found Buddhist retreats which had more of a directed programme of meditation, which is what I was looking for. Very, very slow progress, but that’s OK. 

If you’re a beginner, like me, directed programmes of meditation can be really useful. If you’re not religious, perhaps try a Buddhist retreat – you could start off by finding a local Buddhist organization which offers drop-in weekday sessions, then try a weekend retreat, and then try a week-long retreat. Or you could go kamikaze and try a 10-day Vipassana retreat, which is a great crash-course, but remember, it’s not a sprint. The aim is gradual progress over the years.

If sitting meditation is not your thing, you could try a pilgrimage, or a yoga retreat, or even a week’s surfing or cycling. Or you could go on a transformational workshop, like the Path with Heart, or the Way of Nature, or a plant medicine retreat. These are much more social, and might be useful if your issues are around intimacy and interpersonal relations. But do your research first, they can be quite full-on. As I said, retreats can bring you face-to-face with your deeper issues, and for me, that sometimes involves my issues with other people, my feeling of being judged and my tendency to judge others in return. All that sh*t can come up. It’s good sh*t. It’s the manure in which your soul can grow.

Anything can be a retreat, if you bring the right intention to it. This day at the office can be a retreat, if you do it with the intention to focus, practice, and serve all beings. Washing the dishes can be a retreat. The commute home can be a retreat. A Sunday where you choose to go offline can be a retreat. The retreat is merely an artificial bracket we use to set aside a time as sacred, to sharpen our intention and help us focus on higher goals rather than the day-to-day headlines. And the true goal is to have no distinction between your level of awareness on retreat, and your level of awareness in ordinary life.

Don’t be embarrassed. Take your spiritual development seriously…while retaining the ability to laugh at yourself and the general ridiculousness of life in general, and the spiritual supermarket in particular. Accept the imperfection of all spiritual communities, there’s always a bit of bullshit, which you can use as an excuse not to work. It’s not ultimately their job to do the work for you – you’re in charge, you need to do the work. Accept whatever arises in your mind…but don’t get hung up on spiritual highs, don’t chase the fireworks. Remember, it’s just a holiday unless you bring what you learn back home and practice it there too. I’ll end with this great quote from Yuval Noah Harari.

On mysticism and metaphor

02003_hiresLast weekend I went to Wilderness festival and gave a couple of talks. It was a magical festival – the musical acts weren’t that stunning, but there was lots of marvelous, weird, dreamy stuff happening that I wandered into, like a Mardi Gras parade and a mock fertility ritual with a man dressed as a penis and a woman dressed as a vagina. It was all very Dionysian.

I was there at the invitation of Sunday Assembly, the ‘atheist church’, and gave a talk in their Sunday service  to around 1200 people – on the benefits of spiritual ecstasy! It felt an unusual topic for a humanist church, but good on Sunday Assembly for inviting me and embracing what I said, and even asking me back! The only time I’ve ever been invited to speak by a Christian church was to say how amazing the Alpha course is (I went down like a sausage at a bat-mitzvah when I started talking about Greek philosophy).

After that high-point, I went to do a talk at the Now mindfulness tent, which was full of people mindful-meditating, mindful-dancing, mindful-running, mindful-knitting, mindful-colouring, mindful-sleeping, and so on.

In my talk I asked whether there’s such a thing as western contemplation, and if it’s worth reviving. I noted that when I went to the International Symposium of Contemplative Studies last year, there were over 100 presentations, but only one on Greek philosophy, and one on Christian contemplation (and that was cancelled). All the other presentations were on non-Christian contemplation – probably 70% Buddhist, 20% yoga, and the rest Taoist and Sufi. Is it not odd, at a western conference, to so completely ignore the 2500-year-old indigenous traditions of western contemplation? Is that not a regrettable act of cultural forgetting?

In my talk, I tried to paint a brief history of western contemplation, starting with the Greeks – Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the NeoPlatonists – and then looking at Christian contemplation, and how it played a central role in the thought of the Church fathers (Augustine, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and others) and then in later mystical thinkers such as Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, St Theresa, and so on. It wasn’t a great talk at all – the material is too new to me, plus my practice is woeful – but you have to start somewhere.

51bKLoudTdL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My knowledge of Christian contemplation (or mysticism) is not very advanced, but it’s been hugely helped by two books. Firstly, Olivier Clement’s The Roots of Christian Mysticism (1995), which is a wonderful collection of writings by the Church Fathers from the late fourth and early fifth century AD. Their writing is so beautiful, poetic and radiant with love and spirit, it’s been a revelation to read it. For example:

In the house of God there is never-ending festival; the angel choir makes eternal holiday; the presence of God’s face gives joy that never fails.

So sings that well-known raver, St Augustine. And here’s Gregory of Nyssa – another of the greatest theologians of the church:

The soul then says: ‘Bring me into the banqueting house. Spread over me the banner of love’ (Song of Songs 2.4)…Her thirst has become so strong that she is no longer satisfied with the ‘cup of wisdom’ (Proverbs 9.2). The whole content of the cup poured into her mouth no longer seems able to quench her thirst. She asks to be taken into the cellar itself and apply her mouth to the rim of the vats themselves that are overflowing with intoxicating wine. She wants to see the grapes squeezed into the vats and the vine that produces these grapes, and the vinedresser of the true vine who has cultivated these grapes…That is why she wants to enter the cellar where the mystery of the wine is performed. Once she has entered she aspires still more highly. She asks to be put under the banner of love.

Who knew those old Church Fathers could dance with such abandon! But then, they did invent the concept of perichoreisis, or the cosmic dance of love.

I particularly liked the excerpts from Origen and St Isaac of Nineveh. Origen was never canonized, because he believed in reincarnation and was therefore a Bad Thing, but he’s acknowledged as one of the most influential thinkers on Christian theology. Interestingly, both Origen and Isaac had great faith in God’s mercy and love, so much so, they believed it was possible that all would be saved, even Lucifer!  ‘As a handful of sand in the boundless ocean, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with God’s providence and mercy’, writes Isaac. Origen agreed: ‘For the Almighty nothing is impossible, nor is anything beyond the reach of cure’. And Gregory of Nyssa wrote: ‘Our Lord…heals the inventor of evil himself’. Odd that the God of those stern Church Fathers should be so much more merciful and loving than the God of the modern church.

The other book that’s been really helpful and enjoyable is Bernard McGinn’s Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. It’s like Clemont’s book – a collection of extracts, organized by themes like ‘rapture’, ‘dereliction’, ‘mystical itineraries’ and so on. But McGinn’s book goes from the Church fathers all the way to modern contemplatives like Thomas Merton. It’s been very helpful for giving me an overview of the history of mysticism, something McGinn has explored at length in his seven-part history of mysticism (he’s written five parts so far). He makes the convincing case that mysticism / contemplation, far from being something on the dodgy fringes of Christianity, is or should be a central part of it.

51etjs4EaCL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The book is full of treasures, but a particular treat has been discovering the mystic philosophy of Nicholas de Cusa, a 15th century humanist and papal envoy whose scientific discoveries included the idea of measuring the pulse as an indicator of health, and also the idea (before Galileo and  Copernicus) that the earth is not the centre of the universe, that it is likely that intelligent life exists on other planets, and that planets do not move in perfect circles. He saw no contradiction between his scientific and his mystical investigations, writing such Zen-like wonders as ‘What surpasses all reason involves a contradiction…the opposite of opposites is an opposite without opposite just as the end of things finite is the end without end.’

I’ve already written too long, so let me make three quick observations from my research so far.

First, the more one reads of the mystics, the more one realizes how deeply Christianity is influenced by Greek philosophy – the Stoics, Aristotle, and particularly Plato and the Neo-Platonists. As a lover of Greek philosophy, I feel much more at home in the writings of the early church than with modern Protestant theology, because there’s so much more Greek philosophy in the Church Fathers and in medieval mystics like Eckhart. Nietzsche went as far as to suggest Christianity was Platonism for the masses, but I’d rather put it like this: Christian culture is like a 2000-year-old musical improvisation, a fusion of Judaism and Greek philosophy, in which successive musicians explore different themes – the nature of Christ, identity, the  Feminine, God’s unity and trinity, the problem of evil, and so on – and perform calls and responses to each other over the centuries. That improvisation is ongoing – McGinn suggests one of the ‘new themes’ in modern mysticism is the body and sexuality, and their incorporation into the mystic life, as seen in Donne, Shakespeare, Swedenborg, Blake, DH Lawrence or Pentecostalism.

One of Hildegard of Bingen's illuminations
One of Hildegard of Bingen’s illuminations

Secondly, many of the classic Christian mystical texts are by women. This is in contrast to Buddhism and Hinduism, where almost all the classic texts are by men. In Sufism there are some great female saints, but I think Christian mysticism is more female-dominated. Christian mystic women were cultural pioneers – the first book in English by a woman was by Julian of Norwich, the 14th century English nun; the first autobiography in English was by Margary Kempe, a 14th century lay-woman. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12-century German nun, is particularly remarkable, as one of the earliest-surviving female composers and female artists in Europe. They were also politically active, establishing and running nunneries, reforming movements.

Does this mean mysticism is gendered, that it’s a particularly feminine capacity to surrender one’s soul into ecstatic union with Christ? That was certainly argued by 19th century psychiatrists looking to pathologize ecstasy as ‘feminine hysteria’. I’ve sometimes wondered if perhaps women and gays are more into visualzing ‘the kiss of the mouth’ from Jesus than heterosexual men. But in fact, what strikes me about mystical experience is that it’s gender-bending. Look at Tiresias, the Greek prophet, with both male and female genitalia. Look at Dionysus, the cross-dresser, how he made King Pentheus dress up as a woman. Or the followers of Cybele, also cross-dressers. Look, in medieval mysticism, at the gender-bending, where the soul is now described as the female bride awaiting the bridegroom, and now as male suckling at the breast of Jesus the mother or embracing Lady Wisdom.

This suggests to me that our soul –  our fundamental identity – is not essentially male or female, but rather both, or neither…a dancing flickering fire of Being. It doesn’t surprise me that one of the proponents of mystical cinema – Larry Wachowski, director of The Matrix and Cloud Atlas – recently changed sex and became Lana. My soul is not male or female, introvert or extrovert, intellectual or emotional. It is all these things and more.

Third, and finally, what strikes me about Christian mystical books is their use of metaphor. They offer a dazzling array of metaphors for the soul and its transformation: the soul as mountain, the soul as mansion or castle, the soul as garden, the soul as mirror, the soul as ladder, the soul as ark, the soul as bride.

Mysticism is a collection of metaphor-maps to memorize information, structure thought and emotion, and explore and expand consciousness.
Mysticism is a collection of metaphor-maps to memorize information, structure thought and emotion, and explore and expand consciousness.

This makes me think that metaphor is crucial to consciousness-exploration and inner work. We live in such a rational, empirical and literal era, when metaphor is seen as something slippery and suspicious. And there are those, like Sam Harris, who want the science of altered states to deal only in ‘empirical facts’, stripped of all ritual and metaphor. Harris writes: ‘Mysticism requires explicit instructions, [with] no more ambiguity in their exposition than we find in a manual for operating a lawn mower.’

This is ultra-Protestantism: do away with all metaphors and symbols, leave just the facts! But, as the great consciousness-researchers Julian Jaynes and Owen Barfield both explored, it is very difficult to talk about consciousness except through metaphor. And the metaphors we use for consciousness are not just descriptive, they are creative. They create new ways of thinking, new realities, new worlds. Among Jesus’ greatest gifts to us were new metaphors for the soul – it’s like a mustard seed, it’s like buried treasure. These were not just descriptions but creations. In the beginning was the metaphor!

The mystics likewise used metaphors as ways of remembering information, structuring thought and emotion, and exploring and expanding consciousness. Metaphor-maps play a crucial role in guiding the soul to new forms and realizations.  One could think of mysticism as a forge where new metaphors are created, new ways of experiencing the inexhaustible play of Being. And the clash between the institutional and the mystic wings of religion is in part a clash over metaphor – the institutional wing wants to fix God into particular metaphors and insist they are true forever, rather than a way of putting it.

The central role of metaphor in experiencing and shaping consciousness is one reason why religious studies scholar Jeffrey Kripal is right that the humanities have a central role to play in consciousness-research – they help us to explore the metaphors and stories by which we structure and expand consciousness. Neuroscience is also very helpful in that process, but the metaphor of ‘brain as computer’ can only get us so far.