The following is an essay I wrote based on my experience at a Shalom Retreat in the Catskills, in mid October 2007. It is one of my first steps in my journey into FEELING the repressed emotions from my childhood.
Within 15 minutes of boarding the Shortline bus at the Port Authority in NYC, I am on a stretch of road leading out of the city. Tall and looming power lines, tower over dark green, slightly yellowing patches of trees; an interesting contrast of technology and nature. As I am on my way to the Catskills for a retreat, I expect to experience this same contrast there. I’m grateful for my trusty laptop and cell phone, my only connections to the outside world.
I don’t know what to expect, I don’t really want to expect anything. I want to be surprised, delighted, welcomed. I don’t really know much about where I’m going. I heard about Shalom Mountain on a survivor radio show. The survivor being interviewed mentioned a loving place, where she was able to push through issues with touch. This resonated with me and without too much thought; I quickly made contact with someone who lives there. Afterward, even as I allowed the usual doubts to creep in, there was also a distinct pulling and knowing that I just had to go. I can’t explain it except to say that it was like the mountain was calling me.
As we get closer, I realize that I am giving myself over to strangers for four days. Feeling a bit trapped and afraid, I hope they will treat me gently, yet firm enough to guide me to new heights. I want so much to grow and change. I don’t want to be this person who is so closed on a physical level. I want so desperately to let my true loving self emerge but there is a strong part of me that doesn’t believe it is possible.
It is a bumpy ride with turns that make me want to look up and begin my usual gripping, anxious wonderings about whether we are going too fast or are we too close to that wall or truck. Do we have enough room between us and the little red mustang in front of us? I try to refrain. Anxious thoughts and fears race through my mind. I hope I know where to go when I switch over to the next bus. I hope that I don’t forget my bag underneath the bus. I hope for a lot of things on this 5 hour trip. I hope I get there okay. I hope they like me. I secretly hope to be healed. I don’t want to hope for too much. I continue to clarify my intentions to myself. To connect and to FEEL, are the goals, nothing else.
Just relax, Stephanie.
I am met by a tall friendly man at the bus station who greets me with a hug. I’ve heard this place is like this, affectionate and warm and so I am prepared to greet him in the exact same way, like a child who copycats the adults around them. It is not my normal way of greeting people, but I’ll bite. The ride up the mountain reminds me that I am far away from home; I am in the boonies without my usual ways of protecting myself. The houses are very far apart, the fall colors are vibrant, the simplicity and absence of technology are apparent and I am happy that I have my laptop and that they at least have wireless connection to the internet. Thank God for that, who knows if I’ll even have a cell phone signal up there, I think to myself.
As soon as I walk into this beautiful expanded white house, I am caressed by the aromas of a Thanksgiving dinner. There are two turkeys in the oven and an incredible array of side dishes. I am taken to my room and told to feel free to walk around and check out the place. I sit in my room and arrange my toiletries and snacks on the dresser. No sense in unpacking, it being such a short trip and all. It is raining outside and warm inside. The aromas from the kitchen are becoming overwhelming. I’m hungry and have already chowed down a bunch of cheddar fishies and a peach fruit cup from my carryon bag.
Everyone has their own room, there is a gentleman across the hall, two women down the hall and a young girl. I make my way down to the kitchen and meekly ask for water, they say they have the best water, delicious and point me to the tap. They are serious, not sarcastic, and a familiar apprehension grips my stomach. This is not home. There are strange rules about the toilet paper, if it’s white put it in the garbage, red or brown flush it. I occupy myself with these details to avoid the bigger details around me. The fact that I am really here, in this place with these people I don’t know, who I am about to let in to my internal world. It is all too big at this point for me to absorb.
I browse through the books in the bookshelf in the cozy living room and find the perfect book, “How to love yourself, when you don’t know how”. I start taking notes right away making note of the list of characteristics about people who love themselves. I’ve always wondered what that looked like. This is my way, my repetitive pattern of distraction. Taking notes keeps me busy, keeps me numb, it keeps me disengaged. I rely on it for my sanity. The truth is I don’t like feel. Feeling is very destabilizing for me. Even joy can be jarring. There is a distinct fast moving wall that comes down with a bang, whenever I feel, especially in front of people. There is a rush of emotion, a flood really, a crick in my neck or pain in my arm and then nothing. Inside I am choking, breathing heavily from my chest and then I am numb. One minute there, next, poof, gone. In this place I will have to feel and so at least in the meantime, I can stay up inside my head, where I believe, I am safe.
The first evening we eat dinner together as the last of the retreat members file in. There is a get to know you exercise on that first night. We have to partner up every two minutes with a new person and answer the question being posed by one of the leaders. For me some of the questions are fully loaded. Name five adjectives that describe your mother and what is your relationship with your body? How much time do we have? By the third question I’m done, but there’s a bunch more to go and I plug on.
Afterwards we gather together in a U -shape created by mattresses and pillows. They go over the principles of loving and I am half there, half somewhere else. I do not understand what they are talking about. Love is not time bound is especially foreign to me and I can’t quite wrap my brain around it as the leaders speak in soft, loving, confident voices that assure me that they know, they know.
That evening I play FreeCell on my laptop, numbing myself out of the anxiety of what is to come the next day. I know Friday is when it will really begin. The problem is I don’t know what ‘it” is. I don’t have much to go on since I really just threw myself out here, without a clue. Way to go, Steph, I think. There is anger there, but underneath there is fear. I do not allow myself to feel it for longer than a few seconds. Later I realize this is how I spend most days, brushing the feelings off of my chest in rapid and large swoops.
The next day we start with yoga, breakfast, then some dancing to start the session. Afterwards, we look into each others eyes deeply and again I am half there, half thinking, what the hell am I doing? I copy cat what I see the others do, I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to see behind the eyes. It is uncomfortable to look at anyone so steady and long but it more unsettling to allow them to see me. By the early afternoon we each share our stories. I listen, amazed at the resiliency, the courage, the softness of allowing oneself to be that vulnerable. I wonder about what I will say. Will I spill out all my secrets, even the most shameful ones? I go up to share and tell them about my mother, the nine men, my husband and my heart pounds. Later, I watch to see if anyone looks at me differently. They don’t.
There is a lot of love in this place, a lot of hugs and by Friday afternoon I have been officially loved up and surprisingly, I am getting used to it. I am softening up inside. The rest of the retreat will mostly consist of each persons mat trip. The leaders describe it and I am confused and unaware of what is coming.
On a mattress.
An hour and change for each person…
I have to ask the person next to me, “Do they mean an hour for the whole thing, for everyone altogether?” The woman smiles at me and says, “No, an hour and twenty minutes or so for each person”. I cannot compute, my brain begins to draw a protective blank. They assure us once we see others who have been here before, we will begin to understand. A part of me doesn’t want to understand.
As soon as the first woman goes up, I am totally engrossed in the process. I am in awe and acutely aware that I am in the presence of something special. While I cannot share the stories of others here, I can say that I feel immediately connected with each person who bares their soul in front of all of us. I feel honored. I feel as if I am witnessing something so miraculous that I must be reverent, I must be open, I must be fully present. I do not think about myself anymore.
I do not think about what will happen during mine, at least not during the process of others. I am completely absorbed in the miracle. I feel connected in a way I have never felt before.
There is something very bonding about seeing people at their most vulnerable, working through something so difficult and being brave and trusting enough to do in front of a company of strangers. Some people work through rage, grief, pain, and betrayal. I find that I am forever changed with each one and that I am in fact beginning to FEEL.
It may be difficult to understand, how this community is built so quickly, how can one trust and be open so fast, so soon, especially with my history. There is a perfection to how it is done. The tone is set by the leaders. They are confident, secure, down to earth and humble and they are always in control. These qualities are essential for participants to feel safe enough to go there. Living in the same house, eating meals together, spending intimate hours together all contribute, but there is this undeniable loving higher consciousness that seems to flow from each person. Somehow what seems difficult in the outside world is natural and easy in this safe space. As one retreat member said, “it’s like everyone left their shit at the door.” Shalom Mountain makes it easy to do that.
As I witness each process, I begin to feel a strong connection to these people. I am seeing them in their rawest form, at their most vulnerable. Feelings of love and admiration are quickly stirred up and I wonder, how could I love them? I don’t even know them. The fact that they trust me with themselves, let me in, in a way they probably have never let anyone in has a lot to do with it. Witnessing them in their process, in their nakedness, I am not seeing the personality and all its inherent defenses and flaws, instead, I am seeing their true selves emerge from the darkness. I am a witness to their transformation and for a moment I am a witness to the existence of their soul. As I catch a glimpse of it, my own soul comes forth to meet theirs. How could I not love them?
When it is my turn, I sit on the mat in front of the female leader. I am less afraid than I anticipated. She is a survivor too and I feel comfortable with her, knowing that she will take care of me. She asks me, how am I doing with all of this? With emotion, I respond that I do not understand all this love. I do not understand how people can be so loving? I talk about feeling and not feeling. I talk about how my feelings seem to go underground. We go into some of my history and who taught me about love. We talk about what I want out of this and my eyes drift up to the wall where there is a small passage about self love and I am sure that it is exactly what I want for myself. I say I want enough self love to be an active part of my life. My voice is low and childlike; it is not my usual loud tone. I am drawing into myself, getting into the mode of feeling. For me it is like becoming a child again, vulnerable, unsafe, and afraid.
During my process I am slow to get to any emotion. She guides me ever so gently and I find that I trust her. She guides my breathing, but I keep stopping briefly on the inhale. I become frustrated that I’m not getting the breathing right, that I’m not getting to emotion like others have. I feel like a failure. As soon as any emotion surfaces, it’s gone. I am painfully aware of this pattern of self defeat even as I lay there on the mat, blindfolded. Trying to be good, not getting it right, feeling inadequate, then giving up, my modus operandi.
She asks someone to repeat, “You’re not getting it right, you’re not getting it right, Stephanie.”
She is pushing me to emotion but instead I give up.
My leader asks, “How do you know if you are living, if you are not feeling”?
“I think”, I say.
“What are you thinking now?”
“My mind is blank”.
“So you are barely living then and to breathe would really challenge this.” (I’ll never forget those words. Today, they remind me to let the Life Force in.)
My leader asks me whose voice that is, the one that says, I’m not getting it right. I quickly acknowledge it as my mothers. She guides me to the first time I felt like I wasn’t getting it right. I am taken back to the time my mother beat me because I was playing with her makeup case. She guides me into feeling for the little girl but I can’t.
“What would you do for the little girl now?” she asks.
“The right thing would be to pick her up and tell her everything would be okay, but…I can’t feel enough to do it.”
She guides me to feel for my mother and I am able to say I feel badly for this woman who had her own share of trauma in her childhood. I say it, but there is little emotion there, for I have spent the last few years, rationalizing my way into forgiving her, feeling empathy so that I could let her go while ignoring my own pain.
Since I am unable to feel for myself she asks the community to say what they feel as they hear my story and to place their hand on their own bodies in the places where they feel it. She then places her hand on my body, in the places where the community is now feeling for me since I cannot feel for myself. Words like horror, grief, and love are given to me. I hear their voices and I am thankful for them and what they feel for me, but I am still numb.
She notices that most of what is felt is near my chest and throat and I am able to connect this with my difficulty with breathing. She asks me to describe how that feels and I say like a gripping hand. She asks someone in the community to place their hand on my chest. At this point I am completely in my process. I am not self conscious anymore. I am completely in the moment. Within seconds I know what I need and ask the person to grip my chest a bit harder. This pain triggers intense emotion almost immediately.
“Pain reminds me of her”, I say.
I am prompted to say, “stop hurting me” and with the first words directly uttered to my mother in years, the emotions begin to surface.
My leader repeatedly mirrors what I say and asks me to say my mother’s name.
“What did you call her?”
I don’t answer for a few seconds. I seem to have left at the prospect of feeling this overwhelming emotion from the past.
“Mommy”, I finally say.
“Stop hurting me mommy!” I say this over and over and over in the throes of emotion, crying like the little girl I once was, like the little girl, I still am. I fully experience and release the emotion I could not feel thirty one years ago. Eventually I pull the hand away. She affirms that I can do that now and guides me to put my loving hand on my chest while placing hers on top.
She asks the community to acknowledge that they have heard my voice and they do. After soothing me and getting me to stay in the moment, she asks the community to offer blessings to me. She then has me place each one in my body. I am told later that I looked just like a little girl as I placed hope, love, courage into my hands, my chest, my belly.
After this, I am literally lifted up by the community as they play a song specifically pertaining to my mat trip. Mine was “Give Yourself to Love”. They rock my body to the song, then lift me up higher at the crescendo. Afterwards, they place me on another mat where each person hugs me and speak to me for a moment, sharing whatever is in their heart. That night when I return to my room, I look at myself in the mirror, my eyes, are swollen yet bright. It is a child’s face I see reflected back to me. I sleep peacefully that night and prepare myself to be there for others as they brave their own edge of no return.
There are so many layers to this experience that I am still uncovering and processing, so many truths that came out for me. It was difficult to return to real life. The technology that once called to me was no longer of any interest in those first few days. Going on the internet and watching television seemed so unnatural. I yearned for something more. I yearned for the intimacy I felt with strangers for four days and while I was able to connect with my daughters by sharing the experience, I find that it is difficult to sustain these wonderful connections to those closest to me. The personality is strong and hard, full of tenacious habitual defenses, while the heart is quiet and soft, fragile even. I work on staying heart centered throughout my days. I must admit that it is hard, painful and scary, but I know that who I was on this weekend is my natural way of being. I am someone who loves and loves to be loved. I am someone who feels deeply and that is okay.
While there were some of us literally fighting for our physical lives, I think we all were fighting for our lives that weekend. We all were fighting for the chance to FEEL, to BREATHE, to LIVE into the true essence of who we are. It is my deepest hope that we will remember the ease with which we loved each other, the courage it took to go to that edge and that we have the power to do it again and again and again.
Keep healing and growing.
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