Describing my longer retreats always presents me with a challenge and an opportunity. The intention behind them is audacious and subtle, and communicating exactly what it is sometimes feels overwhelming. At the same time these retreats are the place where everything I teach comes together in the most comprehensive and intensive way so articulating them is a chance to express everything that my life is dedicated to. It has become my habit to prepare for each longer retreat by writing a series of essays that explain what happens on retreat and why it is designed the way it is.
This is the sixth in a series of seven essays.
My life, since the age of 29 has been consciously dedicated to the pursuit of spiritual growth and awakening. For the past 25 years every other aspect of life has been secondary to my spiritual work and vision.
This depth of focus and devotion has blessed me with miraculous experiences of awakening and an orientation to the spiritual path that recognizes the value of deep surrender.
Those of us who share our spiritual experience have come to our insight and understanding in different ways. For some sudden seemingly unsought for explosions of grace initiated them to the path of teaching. For others extreme suffering catalyzed the release of spirit from which they teach.
Whatever spiritual riches I have to share came to me by way of hard and devoted work.
Hundreds of thousands of hours of spiritual practice and study fueled my path. For a two decades I lived in a residential practice community and for the last decade of that time I was my teacher’s assistant. In the role I played during those last ten years I was available by phone 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and always ready to go anywhere and do anything within a moments notice. That was a very powerful practice of surrender.
I relay this part of my story in order to distill out of it what might truly be of value to you. There is a bigger conversation about the wisdom and healthiness of this depth of devotion that I have a lot to say about, but it will have to wait until I have more time and more space to say it in.
Right now I want to convey the positive fruits of that time in my life and the invaluable inner freedom that it generated for me. As I look back on it now I see that my real practice was being perpetually available for whatever was next. All of the meditation, chanting, prostrations and study that I did supported my availability, but being available was the primary practice.
Was it difficult? Oh my god yes. There were times when I was so angry to be called into service that I wondered if you could die from rage, but I would move through it and serve.
Why was I doing this? Initially I saw it as an opportunity to give myself to the life that I had chosen, but over time I saw it as a practice of surrender. I wanted to be free and I saw that I was in some ways conditioning myself to not allow anything in the world to inhibit me. I saw a miracle on the horizon and I didn’t want to have anything in me that would deflect me from that miracle when it presented itself.
It was so hard it sometimes felt unbearable. I would get so confused about what this was all about. One of the things that kept me going were the explosive experiences of awakening that I would so often have along the way.
I had so many mind shattering realizations. It seemed that every time I was tempted to give up the divine would give me exactly the experience I needed to recharge my spirit and inspire me forward.
I share all this to give you a sense of my own path at a time when I feel called to share much more deeply with those who want that level of engagement.
What I struggle with is how to unleash the amazing power of extreme commitment and dedication without fostering any of the unhealthy aspects that sometimes accompany this level of surrender.
So far I have chosen not to shy away from extreme opportunities. Instead I’ve tried to create spiritual atmospheres that leave room for being more radical without demanding or even encouraging it.
Something is changing. I am feeling a desire to offer more radical opportunities for spiritual practice.
In saying this I want to be completely clear. Extremities of spiritual pursuit is not the right path for everyone, and it is not the right thing for anyone all the time. I believe that the injection of intensive practice can be exactly the right thing when it is the right time, but it is not the right thing all the time. Being sensitive to knowing when to accelerate your practice and for how long is so important.
All of my years of practice have brought me to the conclusion that the ultimate spiritual practice is living surrender. That means being perpetually available for spirit's next call.
Most of us are not available. We are busy. Busy with our lives, busy with our problems, busy with all of the things that make up our lives. We may be listening for the call of spirit, but we are often listening through ears that are clouded by their own considerations.
The divine could be offering opportunities for dramatic awakening ten or a hundred times a day and we are simply not available to notice.
There are layers and layers and layers of stuff we can be busy with. And of course our pursuit of spiritual practice can be something we are very very busy with too. If we are busy with our practice we are just as unavailable as if we were busy making money. Busy is busy.
Being available means not being busy with anything. It means being done with everything.
Nothing you do, gain or accomplish will ever be enough. In the end you just have to decide to be done. To stop seeking, to stop looking and be available for whatever is next. That is when the real spiritual life begins.
In my case, all of that extreme practice did seem to help me let go, give up, and stop seeking for more.
I believe it's possible to create conditions that give you the opportunity to do extreme practice and live in perpetual availability at least for a time. I believe that opportunities for radical spiritual practice can be created. I believe intensive practice is like nuclear power – it needs to be engaged with cautiously within a protective casing. What makes spiritual practice safe is surrounding it with a spirit of love and good will.
How do we engage with intensive practice safely without the practice losing it’s potency.
First of all, your practice must be inspired and not forced. You must be presented with a possibility that you find so compelling that it calls you to go places you never imagined you could. You should not be pushed into awakening from behind, but guided from the front. This allows your spiritual unfolding to happen organically in alignment with your own needs, desires and capacities.
Secondly, the circumstances in which the practice is happening must be stable and free of drama. This means both the immediate surroundings during practice as well as your life in general. Intense practice is destabilizing to your current sense of self. There is no reason to add additional risk by practicing without the proper support. Don’t manufacture intensity by disrupting your life unnecessarily. If the circumstances of your life need to change it will be obvious, if it's not obvious don’t force it.
In the end the big event is not some experience that you are going to have in practice. It is the recognition that you don’t need any more experiences. Some people recognize that they don’t need more experience after having very little. Others, like me, seemed to have needed a hell of a lot before we were ready to let go.
Since dramatic spiritual breakthroughs are not ultimately the point anyway let’s have as many profound experiences as we need as quickly as possible so we are available for what’s next.
The retreats that I lead are a safe place to have dramatic breakthrough experiences. They are the cauldrons that generate the kind of intensity that breeds these kinds of life altering shifts in perception.
I have always designed my retreats to be spiritually charged, but I am feeling called to offer even greater opportunities to experience the kind of breakthrough that can leave you confident enough to let go of any further seeking.
The goal of being on retreat is to come to that sacred recognition that you have no need for any more experiences at all. You will no longer be spiritually busy so you will be available for whatever is next.
Are you ready to be done with the path so you can be truly available for life?