Path of Love is a seven day process of expressing your deepest emotions and exposing your naked soul. All of it. The good, the bad, the ugly, the denied, the hidden, the downright shameful, and with a special focus on the "I vowed to take this part of me to my grave, but here it comes..."
Why would anyone want to embark on such a journey? Because for most, when we get really honest with ourselves about this question, we know we have work to do:
AM I TRULY LIVING MY FULLEST LIFE?
This question was not on my mind when I arrived in Verona, Italy on March 29th, 2017, and handed over my cell phone and computer for the week. I had smaller intentions. What I gained was far more than I could have ever imagined, the highlights of which I feel called to share while they are still fresh from my experience. Here are the top ten breakthroughs that I'll carry with me as I continue on in my life. I hope they somehow serve you:
1. All the barriers are on my side. In the beginning of the process, we were given 7 keys to guide us through the week. This one really hit home. Accepting that we have willingly (though often unconsciously) contributed to every difficult situation in our life is a far more empowering stance to take than victimizing ourselves and blaming others. Admitting that we are the ones responsible for creating the barriers to love in our life is the first step toward removing them.
2. The intensity of my longing will show me where I need to go. This was another one of the 7 keys, and it was a relief to read it on the first day. For years I've carried the same heartfelt longing, but have denied allowing myself to feel it fully because of what I've learned on my spiritual journey. Many of the teachings I've come across drill in the importance of practicing detachment; that being attached to any specific outcome in life is bound to cause us suffering. But during this process I realized there is a big difference between what our heart deeply longs for and what our mind creates attachment to. It feels amazing to allow my heart's longing to blossom fully and fearlessly.
3. Commit to trusting the mystery of life. On the first day of the retreat, we were asked to make a commitment for the week that we could carry on into the rest of our lives. I had been gifted the retreat by my dear friend Rachel Brathen. Before giving my phone away I texted her to say goodbye, and she responded, "Go all in!! Trust! Trust! Trust! The timing is divine." When the moment came to create my commitment, I knew it would be to trust and fully surrender to the process, no matter how uncomfortable it got. And it did get uncomfortable, like life often does. But I was reminded all week that living life with a deep sense of trust that everything is unfolding perfectly allows space to love the unknown. Ultimately, committing to trust in life's mysteries allows us to live much more fully.
4. Expose your shadow. If you hide it, it grows. This was one of my biggest takeaways. For years I have been so focused on being a force of light in this world that I've completely denied my own darkness. Path of Love taught me that our shadow is simply anything we cannot accept about ourselves, and that it carries significant power. If we try to suppress or "transcend" (i.e. spiritually bypass) our shadow without fully acknowledging it, it only grows and wreaks havoc on our lives.
One extreme example that our facilitator offered to us was the denied shadow of the Catholic church, which is particularly powerful in Italy. I was raised Catholic in the suburbs of Chicago, and when our facilitator brought up this example I remembered being 16 years old when a story came out the news that on the same day three different priests near my home city were accused of sexually abusing young boys. I remembered feeling so enraged and disgusted that I denounced Catholicism then and there.
Hearing this example struck a cord in me and made me brave enough to really come clean about my own shadow. My heart was pounding as I began to share some very hidden parts of myself, and I cried many tears as I told my most shameful thoughts and stories to a group of people whose silent response was essentially, "That's it? That's all you've got?" The feeling of liberation, relief, and acceptance that I experienced after exposing my shadowy parts can not be described. The truth will set you free!
5. If we minimize our traumas, we will never heal. Another belief that has often held me back from cleaning up my own life was believing that my traumas were nothing comparing to those of other people. All things considered, I've lived a very privileged life. I've never been violently abused. I had a peaceful, stable upbringing, and both of my parents loved me unconditionally. But trauma is trauma and if we define it as anything that comes at us "too much, too fast, too soon," even the most privileged people in the world have experienced it. Using our privilege to give energy to help those who have suffered far more than we have is an important and noble thing to do, but ultimately healing our own life and facing our own traumas (no matter how minimal they seem relative to what is happening in the collective) is the most effective way to contribute. Path of Love is a time to focus completely on healing our own lives, and it is impossible to come out the other side without a greater understanding of who we are.
6. Anger = Red Energy = Sexual Energy. It is vital to let it flow. Osho is one of the few spiritual leaders I've come across who teaches that our sexual energy is our greatest wellspring of power. On his Path, sexual charge is the source energy that we can learn to draw upward into our hearts, and further upward to our crown. (The current US President has not yet figured out how to do this. His consciousness, like many others, is stuck in his genitals as Deepak Chopra and Conan O'Brien observe.)
This "red energy" is the vitality in our lives as well as our source for passionate love and spiritual transcendence. This alone was a breakthrough for me, but when I later realized that our anger is also in the same realm, something really clicked. My first response was, "I'm confused. How can anger be the same vibration as sexual energy? Sexual energy is loving and it creates new life! This makes no sense." But after finally getting in touch with my own anger and releasing it (cue some wildly untamed moments), I understood in my own body that by not releasing my anger I'd also been blocking my sexual energy. Rawr.
7. My inner judge is a real bitch. This was also a big lesson. For years I'd operated under the assumption that because I have a lot of genuine self love, I am pretty much free from the shackles of self-sabotage. NOPE. I'd also started to feel, especially in recent years, that I'm becoming more quick to judge other people for various things that trigger me. What I realized during this process is that I am judgemental of others because I am incredibly judgemental of myself.
Toward the middle of the week we were working a lot with our anger. Many people shared stories of being abused or mistreated or shamed and were able to express massive explosions of anger toward their abusers as they relived those experiences. But I felt completely frozen. I couldn't find my anger. I too had experienced traumatic situations and been treated terribly at times, but I didn't really carry anger toward others. Desperate to feel something, my facilitator came up to me and said, "What I perceive is that you take all of the anger you feel and you turn it on yourself, sabotaging yourself and convincing yourself that you aren't loveable." That did it. A rage broke free in me and I screamed and thrashed and went totally mad. I'd been abusing myself for years and finally realized that my own worst enemy is me. After clearing a LOT of my anger, I was miraculously able to sit down over a cup of tea with my inner judge and look on her with compassion. I see her now, fully.
8. Free the folks in your dungeon. (And acknowledge whose dungeon you may be in.) Toward the end of the week when we were feeling very open, we listened to a powerful audio track on the topic of forgiveness. We were guided to go deep into the darkest dungeon of our souls and see who we were keeping locked in a jail cell, unwilling to forgive. We were reminded that it takes a great effort to keep people locked up down there. And we were guided to leave them there if we needed to, but that there was a tiny corner of the dungeon where a small candle was lit. We were instructed to go to the candle pray for the grace to forgive, and that until it comes, to pray that they would not suffer.
At the end of this track, the voice reminded us to also consider whose dungeon we might be in. This really struck me, and a few people I've encountered in my life (most from many years ago) came to mind. In following days I began to write letters of whole hearted apology.
9. Where there is safety, there can be no shame. Never before have I felt as vulnerable as I did at Path of Love (perhaps aside from this experience). But I have absolutely never felt more safe and more held than I did during this retreat. There were 40 participants and 40 staff members who had all gone through the process themselves. They healed alongside us. The amount of love, understanding, compassion, and professional space holding that we experienced was of the highest integrity. And it was needed, because we were really slaying our demons. Only in a space like this can such deep healing occur on every level, for everyone involved. It was magical.
10. To make peace with the darkness in the state of the world, I must make peace with the darkness in myself. This was my biggest realization of the whole process and it is one I feel is very relevant in today's world. For as long as I can remember I've held an unshakable belief that it is possible for humans to live harmoniously on this planet. The lyrics of John Lennon's song, "Imagine," truly speak to the dream I carry, and I've done my best to live/work/eat/act in alignment with the peaceful world that I long to live in. On the last full day of the retreat, a female cover of this song came on and I burst into tears. In this moment I realized how much fear I carry about the future of our world. That my unshakable faith had actually been pretty shaken up in the past year. That perhaps the reason I'd been unable to manifest the missing puzzle piece of my life that I long for is because I'd lost trust in what is coming. My heart had been burdened by the immense suffering in the world and I'd been terrified of what the planet will look like in 20, 30, or 50 years. BUT. Then I made the connection between the darkness in the world and the darkness in myself. Darkness is darkness. Shadow is shadow. And because I'd spent the week exposing and owning my own darkness, suddenly, the darkness of the world seemed far easier to accept. In that moment I had received some kind of divine understanding of the true duality of existence. That it is all God, somehow.
Since leaving the retreat, I've been able to see the beauty of the world on a whole new level. And days later, after returning to the internet to see a terrorist attack in Sweden and the refugee crisis more intense than ever, I am able to digest the darkness without carrying it.
I look at myself with more understanding than ever before. I feel free to live my life with a more robust fullness. I exist with a renewed sense of trust that the calling of my heart is being answered. And though I still believe it is possible to live in peace on this earth, I'm gripping it a little less tightly. It feels good. So good.
Thanks for listening.