Returning from retreats are always interesting times; transitions from what was to what is; from the extraordinary to the ordinary. Relief to have made it; sadness to have left; reconnecting with loved ones and the familiar; overwhelm of returning to normality. A few friends have been in touch with me today, my first day back, asking “how was it?” - and all I can answer is “I don’t know” - which is really the short (and honest) answer to a multitude of feelings and thoughts which all depend on the exact moment I am asked that question. One moment I am okay, the next overwhelmed.
Since 2010, I have been on retreat a couple of times per year. My longest time away was the 4 week “Dathun” I attended last Spring, but normally I go away for a week to 10 days. That was the case this time around. Two reasons this retreat was different: it was my first solitary retreat, and the first time with the practices I am undertaking as a recent initiate of the Vajrayana (the third ‘vehicle’ of Tibetan Buddhism). The very foundation of the Buddhist path (and indeed of existential-based psychotherapy of which I am also a practitioner) is working with uncertainty, ambiguity and groundlessness. So of course, going in to such retreats with any kind of expectation is risky - and I really did do my best to stay open to what might be, what might not be. I examined my hopes and my fears ahead of the retreat, recognising the storylines I was creating of how it would be. I’ve shared with you before how my emotional ‘default’ if you like is an anxious presentation - so, I like to plan for every eventuality. Planning brings me control…and so the first lesson of the Vajrayana: that ain’t possible. And, I sit here now quite bruised and battered - physically: my body has taken a beating (6h of sitting a day, and taking on a new practice of prostrations), and emotionally: my ego did not like having the carpet pulled from underneath me.
I’ve been back from the US for nearly two weeks now. On one level, I got back in to the normal run of things pretty quickly. I was back teaching 24 hours after landing at Heathrow; the majority of jet lag had faded within 2 days; and my client work resumed in a way that seemingly belied by absence for a week. Since returning, my interactions with friends, family, colleagues, clients have had me reflecting upon how we end up communicating our experiences; especially those of a profound nature. Can we ever truly reveal ourselves? Do we want to? Do we need to?
And, it hasn’t been easy to know what to share when asked “So, how was it?”.
On a very practical side, I know that part of the commitment in becoming a student of Vajrayana Buddhism is to keep the teachings and practices secret. In the words of Judy Lief, the teacher who led the retreat I attended back in June:
“The tantric path requires complete engagement and fierce dedication. There is a quality of directness, abruptness, and wholeheartedness to it, and it is said to be the more rapid but more dangerous path. Tantrikas, or vajrayana practitioners, recognize that the most challenging aspects of life—the energies and play of confused emotions and frightening obstacles—can be worked with as gateways to freedom and realization.”
It is Friday, a statement of fact (as I write) but also a statement of ‘act’: because Fridays are the day I am now putting aside for writing. I’ve spent 5 hours of my day today in front of my Mac; in front of my Mac and also in front of my window with its view of the South Downs. I recently changed the layout of my study around so that I could benefit from this view, as it inspires me. One of the enjoyable aspects of my day has been writing and pausing to watch the trees as they move in the gusty wind today. I feel more engaged with my environment, and also more held by it. Creating the container for the creativity within.
Today has felt a good day to write. On my book project, I have come to a section I wanted to write on the importance of bringing philosophy in to therapeutic work (and therefore in the training of therapists). I value my own training for doing this: firstly because it has helped a critical engagement and reflection with the theories of therapy and with my experience of being a therapist…and of being ‘a Helen’. Secondly, coming to know a little about philosophy through my training has allowed me to consider how different philosophical systems might interact - in this instance, the humanistic and buddhistic.
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