Retreat helps therapist give busy mind a break
BY DELISE DICKARD
“Eat, Pray, Love.” Many may have read the book or seen the movie with the main character, Julia Roberts, fleeing emotional turmoil to embark on a journey not just through three countries, but through several states of consciousness: eating, praying and loving.
I had my own little breakdownlette at the dinner table on a Monday night a few weeks ago. I must have appeared so riddled with anxiety that my husband said: “You need to go to Yogaville.”
He knows this is a place that I’ve been several times—not necessarily for spiritual reasons, but for healthy food, some contemplative meditation and the exercise of yoga.
I didn’t have six months for my healing like Julia Roberts’ character did. But a quick calendar scan showed I could squeeze out six days without gross negligence to my many obligations.
In 10 minutes, I found a six-day retreat that started the next day. It was called “Journey through the Koshas.” I didn’t have any idea what a Kosha was, but I didn’t care. I had to go. If it claimed to be a journey toward peace of mind, body, and spirit, I needed it.
So in less than 24 hours, I was in a silent mediation room at Yogaville in central Virginia. The room was silent, but my mind was not. I was batting away intrusive thoughts like you’d bat off mosquitoes in a backwoods swamp. Meditative prayer can be torture to an overzealous mind.
There were 12 of us together on this journey, and the teacher’s intent was to let us experience the different levels of consciousness that have been identified for thousands of years and interpreted in many different ways by many folks.
In our retreat, we were exploring the levels of human experience described in ancient teachings. If you are concerned about whether this information might conflict with your religious beliefs (or disbeliefs), I’d like to assure you that it shouldn’t. If you are open to understanding more about your levels of experience as a human being, then this kind of journey will only strengthen, in my opinion, the beliefs you already hold dear.
Interestingly, similar information is described in other venues, including psychology. One close comparison that comes to my mind is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which starts with the basic needs of the body and moves up to a greater level of awareness—Maslow called it self-actualization. I’m grossly oversimplifying Maslow’s hierarchy, but I’m trying to be brief.
In our journey at the retreat, we tried to experience, to the extent possible, a higher level of consciousness each day. The first day was about experiencing the skin and bones of our body and its basic needs. While I can offer great advice to my clients in this regard, I am secretly proficient in ignoring my own body.
I can breakfast on a half a banana, skip lunch, and load up on nachos after dinner. I can go without much sleep and water—well, you get the point. So this level was hard for me.
To sit before three healthy meals, taste the food, drink the warm ginger tea and smell the mint along a walking path instead of planning next week’s agenda was challenging. I had to recognize that all other levels of my being need the body. I can’t help anyone if I am dead!
Related to the body is the second level of consciousness that involves the breath. We can’t go long without oxygen. So, I spent a luxurious day learning to breathe.
That may sound like a long time to focus on the breath, but as our group of travelers began to see the power of the breath in reducing pain and anxiety, we realized we were just experiencing the tip of this breathing iceberg. Good thing we got to take the breath home with us, so we have a lifetime to practice!
The next level of consciousness we worked on deals with thoughts and emotions. Frankly, I admit, my mind was numb to the idea that the other levels of consciousness even existed. Our minds and emotions help us greatly, but the mind can also drag us along relentlessly with its thoughts and emotions.
In fact, I realized that in my earlier meditative prayer I was giving this emotional mind full rein to run wild. So I learned, on this day, to put the mind at rest.
I could reassure my mind that it was useful many times during my day. But during meditation, prayer and silence, I learned I could give it a rest like you might gently stroke a child to sleep.
That brought our group to the next level of consciousness, which deals with wisdom. This part of the mind can see more clearly all the turmoil and obligations in which the lower mind and emotions get so frivolously involved.
As we spent some time in silence, I became aware of how my mind can be heavily attached to what is proper. “Are my eyes supposed to be closed or open?” Or, “Am I sitting in the right position?”
When I could see this lower mind with compassion, it was just like experiencing the energy of a little kid just running amok, still so eager to please everyone and trying so hard to be good. When I put my mind to rest for a time, I began to understand that in the chaos of this mindset, I was missing so much—the sunsets, the rain, the butterflies busily populating the earth.
Letting that lower mind get a rest from the emotional drama opens us up to the life that was always there, swirling around us while we stayed preoccupied with trivia.
It’s not hard to fall in love with the beauty and energy of this world once the other lower levels of consciousness are quietly resting. Keeping them quiet is yet another matter.
Our group couldn’t possibly experience pure bliss or self-actualization in six days. In fact, my impish child–mind kept waking up ready to translate all this into words. It helped to just brush those words away and breathe in the experience, like one could breathe in the sunshine on a mountaintop.
The good news is that contemplative prayer or meditation is a practice, not a destination. And there’s no need to rush because, in fact, our journey is a lifetime.
Dr. Delise Dickard, a licensed professional counselor, is the director of Riverside Counseling in south Stafford County. She welcomes reader comments and questions. For contact information, see riversidecounseling