Sunday, September 16, 2007

Spiritual Retreat

Just made my escape from a spiritual retreat. It seemed like a good idea, a weekend in an exquisitely restored Arts and Crafts house set in the foothills of Ojai. Panoramic views and a swimming pool; the womb-like wooden interior of the house and landscaped gardens; what’s not to like?

Well, perhaps the fact that it was a spiritual retreat should have been my first clue. On Sundays I go dance, free-style, at a hippie-dippie gathering full of yogis and New Agers, where I regularly feel a soaring freedom as I launch into pirouettes across the room, not caring at all what kind of a fool I’m making of myself, because nothing, and I say this most sincerely, nothing can compare with what the other folk are up to. There are even moments when the shaking of my body to some compulsive rhythm or a moment of quiet, sitting on the floor, I feel “connected to the Source” (as Jo, the DJ/guru would say), bathed in white light. It was the pursuit of more of that white light that led me to sign up for this retreat, even though I couldn’t really afford it and Josh will complain again about PB&J sandwiches for lunch and I will be shod in flip-flops for another year.

Unfortunately, our first retreat session was right after Friday dinner and I didn’t feel like prancing about, thanks to a very gifted (cute, interesting) chef. I had been assured that this first session would be gentle, but in place of Jo’s customary world music mix, we had live drumming – something I am usually enthusiastic about, but not on a full stomach. I swayed on the spot, waiting for that moment of enlightenment, of other-worldliness, but all I got was repeating pine nut and dill gravy. Maybe tomorrow, I thought, when I’m not so tired, and slipped out to get to the head of the line for the shower.

Despite being engaged in writing a book about my missionary experiences, I had forgotten the full Technicolor horror of communal living. I was sharing a room with 4 other girls and a bathroom with 8. Even though I stole the lead on the bathroom queue, there was nothing I could do about enforced proximity with 4 other people and their nocturnal habits. All night long, I was kept awake by someone tossing and turning (me?) and more trips to the en suite bathroom than seen by an airport restroom. Bang, went the wooden door; clang went the antique metal flush; thomp, thomp, thomp, went the returning weak bladders.

At 6:30 AM, a particularly annoying Hungarian woman took a shower (after two closely timed visits to the bathroom, just to set her intention) and then proceeded to fire up a hairdryer. Realizing I wasn’t about to get any more sleep, I shuffled down to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea. There I engaged in a conversation with a “body worker” (as in humans, not cars) and a yoga teacher. When asked how I slept, I could only be honest; when asked about the previous night, I couldn’t lie about my disappointment with the music. At this point, the Hungarian woman arrived and put her finger to her lips. Apparently, we were supposed to be observing a vow of silence until 9 AM. “Sod this!” I thought with my reflex refusal to abide by rules that don’t make sense to me (ergo, my current status as backslidden missionary). The other two early risers had sloped off to find more “positive” interactions, and the Hungarian woman and her sidekick smiled and shook their heads sadly as I expostulated about attempts to curtail personal freedoms. Usual story: I find myself in a religious community who are confused and hurt by my refusal to “get with the program.” My objections put a dent in their smiling serenity. Not good when we’re supposed to be cultivating inner calm as per the rituals of whichever religious leader I find myself aligned with at the time.

I started my new book, Misadventures of a Missionary, for a bit of fun. The accusation that I’m “rebellious” is a theme that runs through both this book and the last, and I took to be merely a misunderstanding - I don’t go around tearing things down for the sake of it; I just cannot shift my inner compass to unquestioningly point to the prevailing ideas of how I should think, act, be. If that makes me a rebel, then I guess guilty as charged. I prefer to see myself as Frank Sinatra, singing and pirouetting to “My Way.”

Explaining all this to a kindly roommate, I found myself in tears. I hadn’t realized how deeply I cared about being misunderstood by all the well-intentioned religious people in the past who have shaken their heads sadly over me; how much I wanted to be part of a shared experience of the divine; how much I wanted to be accepted and my inner compass respected rather than to be seen as a heretic. I just want to love God, love people and be loved. Simple really, but somehow I always find myself on the outside.

Realizing that in this state I was not going to be anything but trouble to the 50-minute meditation before breakfast, I snuck back into the kitchen to make more tea. (At least this one British religious ritual remains to me.) Lo and behold, the chef was in residence, and turned out to be someone with a colorful past to equal my own, and cute, did I mention he was cute? And Dutch. Perfect!

While everyone was dancing to more wild drums after breakfast, I packed my bag and left. I could not take another night like the last, and I was already getting far too much attention from fellow-participants who suspected I was mad about something and crazy, which just made me more mad and crazy. It’s the way they look at you – like you’re dangerous, or have something contagious. Lack of credulity, perhaps?