My sister is a Spiritual Director St. Bueno’s in Wales. I am a lifelong disavower of my Catholic roots, and more recent acolyte of the Vipassana school of meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka. The last few years especially have seen many rich and lively conversations of well-intentioned dissent and mutual befuddlement, of the clash between egolessness and the love of a personal God, between a life free from desire and one in which desire is integral to the tapestry, only for it to become increasingly and disconcertingly possible that perhaps we were actually talking about the same thing. To find out, we agreed to conduct a ‘retreat exchange’. Hands were shaken, vows were made, and here I am.
I attended an 8-day Individually Guided Retreat at St. Bueno’s in May of this year. Having before only sat a couple of 10-day silent retreats at Dhamma Dipa, I suppose my sense of the ‘retreat experience’ was quite specific. And Bueno’s was not it. A private room? 3 meals a day and unlimited access to jaffa cakes? Room to roam? Music at mealtimes? Only 45 minutes a day of fixed scheduling? Staff conversations? A library? Other retreatants catching your eye and smiling encouragingly? Wanton art? Imagination encouraged? My ascetic sensibilities were stunned. This was not the ineluctable solipsism I had come to expect, not the continuous and laborious quieting of the mind with a view to perceiving embodied reality more subtly, not the attempt to notice and detach from the ceaseless roaming of the desirous thought-train from sunup to sundown. Instead each day I was sat down upon my director's couch and asked about how I was feeling. And feel things I did. Initial doubts about the Epicurean style of the centre, confusion about how to ‘pray’, acute sadness at the break-up which had occurred on the eve of my arrival. I found it difficult to maintain my daily Vipassana practice – sustaining both modes of a) letting thought-clouds pass overhead and b) following them to see where they led, was confusing – and opted therefore to give my full attention to the Ignatian approach for the duration. And after a day or two of settling in, of finding the rhythms of the monastery retreat centre (confusing Jesuits), of the quiet corridor and a quieter corner, I started to deepen into it. A rounded, sinking stone.
I still at times resisted the play of my mind as being somehow counterproductive, and struggled with conceptualising the process and value of discernment whereby ‘imagination’ is prized over mere ‘fantasy’; I thought that storytelling (about Self and God) got in the way of more directly experiencing reality, and represented one of the major pitfalls of the mainstream Christian tradition. Old Testament accounts of Samson and David riveted me, but as debaucherous soap operas rather than documenting a divine lineage. However it became apparent over the course of my time that Ignatius’s preoccupation with the content of the mind, especially the imaginative, affective content, is a starting point, a point of access to where God (/universe/oneness) is moving; a finger pointing at the moon. Although the avenue is different, it seems to me that as with Vipassana the focus is on what is happening right now, what is the truth of this moment. They differ in that Ignatius explicitly works with the psychology of the individual whereas Vipassana is an impersonal technique of sensational observation, but they both practise a non-judgemental and open welcome to whatever truth is currently manifesting. I found Ignatian practise helpful in working with ideas of my path in life, and how to live from a feeling of meaning, but clarity did not follow linearly from decisions made or roads taken. In the silence I noticed that the often turbulent dance of my thoughts, dreams, and memories was enfolded by the fact of having them. In the fullness of the present moment nothing is lacking, and within the ebb and flow of experience – both imaginative and bodily – is the fact of experiencing. To live without desire is to truly live from the deepest desire – toward awareness, toward selfless love, toward God. Somewhere along the hem of that insight came a profound sense of peace. Meeting whatever is arising with smiling acceptance, or with loving forgiveness, is grace. Nothing added, nothing taken away.
So St. Bueno’s was awesome! In terms of my spiritual life there remains the issue of a Christian presupposed personhood, an individual identity loved personally by God; I am not convinced that experience presupposes an experiencer, some’one’ who can be differentiated, described, and isolated from the wider cosmos. I do not know if the gospel stories are powerful and evocative because of the particularity of the story of Jesus as son of God, or because they tap into the collective mythic roots of the hero’s journey (what about the ongoing power of Gotama? St. Francis? Luke Skywalker?). But story means something if it means something. My experiences on both retreats have convinced me that it is the deepening into direct experience, which is indeed from a particular perspective and moment, that matters. Working with what is manifesting, moving with what is moving. Choose your path and walk it. Now I await my sister’s experience in the Spring.
Tell me about God,
yours, and I will tell you mine.
Tell me about Self, yours,
I’ll see what I can find.
Perhaps together we can make sense of it.
Perhaps how it makes us sense is the measure of it.
Or perhaps there is no meeting
of those ancient paths, those ancient yearnings,
tomorrow’s cries, yesterday’s learnings,
we walk because we walk because we walk.
Where is your deepest ache? Your darkest fear?
What is the language of your longing?
Go to the edges of your exquisite pain.
Go to the rough places, unpolished, plain.
And do not let that dark flame go out, black midnight’s vigil,
for the shadow speaks of light
and shadow, light’s sigil.
And who is to say which you are
and which your God
until all other lights are gone?
do not look away
begin to feel