By Carmie Verdone
I have been a seeker/yearner since I was a teenager looking for a spiritual path that really spoke to me. I was raised Roman Catholic and left the church when I was 17. And although I tried a few times to renew my faith and understanding of Catholicism, for most of my adult life, I have called myself a recovering Catholic. I became very involved with Buddhism for many years and found a lot of it very helpful but it was missing something important—mysticism. In the last 3 years, I came to find myself drawn slowly, steadily and surprisingly to St. Philip Anglican Church and to the Contemplative Society. I started reading a lot of Cynthia Bourgeault’s books and practicing Centering Prayer as guided by her in her book and I became determined to be a participant in her 5-day retreat, Luminous Wisdom, held at Cowichan Lake April 2-5, 2019. The Contemplative Society’s Margaret Haines’ Scholarship was a very generous assistance in making that a reality and I am so grateful to the Society for this gift.
Part of the offer of receiving a scholarship was that I would write something of my experience afterwards to go on the Society’s blog. Knowing that, I started feeling some anxiety—a very familiar behaviour pattern—even before I left home for the retreat, wondering how I’d ever be able to do the retreat justice with my writing. After our first supper together as a group at the retreat and then our first teaching from Cynthia that evening, I felt my body tension start to ease as some of Cynthia’s words landed deep inside me, like a deep gentle vibration when sounding OM or the sound of the space between the a and m in Amen, the mmm sound. The next morning, a new sacred word, the touchstone of Centering Prayer, came to me—trust. I had previously tried out a few different words and hadn’t found any of them to really resonate with me and now I had trust and trust had me. I had a felt sense that it was the sacred word I needed. Cynthia said that “centering prayer grows an inner ground of receptivity, a place to rest and assimilate”. With trust, I felt my heart turning towards the unknown, the cosmic heart. I will speak more about turning farther along.
As I was experienced in the daily routine of Buddhist retreats, I found the routine at this Wisdom retreat similar in some aspects but I was surprised that there wasn’t more silence, perhaps during lunch and supper times. We did morning sits before breakfast and afternoon sits before Cynthia’s teaching and the energy in the meditation hall was always so full and deep. I treasured those times of silent communion with all of us sitting together. We also did some chanting at each sit which always stirred my heart.
Each day there was conscious outdoor work—moving chopped wood to another location and stacking it or preparing garden beds for planting, as examples. Work was to be done with mindfulness and attention to our body felt senses, trying to be present in the moment. I was not able to participate in that because of back pain but I incorporated the practice into the daily walks that I took during that time. I noticed that as I focused my attention on the soles of my feet and the sensations there, as one foot landed and the other foot lifted to take another step, I felt a spaciousness around me and in me and then I’d let go of that sense and bring my focus back to my feet trying not to get caught up in any of it but just observe it. Cynthia spoke of the three key points of practice: Attention, Self-Observation and Non-Identification.
I found throughout the retreat days that the anxiety about writing about my experience of the retreat would pop up again and again and I sometimes was able to catch it, be aware of it without falling into the pattern of judging it and pushing it away. If I caught it when it appeared, I sometimes said, “Welcome”, to it as Cynthia suggested and sometimes said, “And this too”, as a Buddhist teacher had suggested once. By saying one or the other of these phrases, I was able to take a step away from the anxiety, look at it more objectively and see that anxiety wasn’t who I was but it was an old behaviour pattern from childhood conditioning. This step away gave me space to breathe, to hold the anxiety with compassion and then let it go, to be able to find some equanimity, at least for a while. This is the practice of self-observation. It can be done alone or while in the company of others, as in conscious conversation. Cynthia encouraged us to expand our attention while listening to someone talk, to what is around us, the noise level, other single people or groups of people.
Cynthia talked about the influence of Sufism in her teachings, about seeing with the eye of the heart, entraining the mind in the heart. She invited 2 women in our retreat group who were experienced in turning—the Sufi meditative movement of turning or whirling in one spot, turning toward the heart—to guide us through the chanting and turning practice. And it all began first by sweeping the floor clean in a conscious slow manner which was so touching to watch. It was Holy Work to me. I had the opportunity to sweep the floor the next evening before we did more turning and I felt so humble and present in the moment. I was very grateful for that experience. After the sweeping, we started chanting, La illaha ilallah, and then we slowly added turning. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to do the turning because of lingering vertigo symptoms but I was so happy to find that if I kept turning slowly, I was fine. I’ve always loved the beauty, devotion, and sacredness of the turning. Deeply moving to have my own experience of it.
There are so many more teachings and experiences during the retreat to mention but I think I’ve written enough—well, almost. I need to say that with Cynthia’s teachings about Jesus and his path of consciousness—bringing the rising tide of consciousness to the world, we are all one—cracked open my heart and filled it up. For me to hear of Jesus in that way throughout the retreat, lifted me out of my experience of teachings of sin, shame blame and guilt into the spacious, sacred practices of consciousness, Centering prayer, Lectio Divina, chanting, devotional rituals and turning, to name a few.
Oh and one more thing—the Contemplative Eucharist after our last morning sit was devoted to Mary Magdalene and I wept with the depth of spirit and love with which Cynthia acknowledged and honoured her.
Well, another one more thing—I know that a significant part of how I was able to dive deep down inside during the retreat beside Cynthia, her presence, wisdom, humility, breathtaking speaking ability and humour, was because of the devoted group of seekers/participants from experienced to inexperienced that filled the room. It became apparent to me in the first full day of the retreat that we were a cohesive group with energy waves, love waves going out to each other, co-mingling, supporting each other, loving our neighbour as ourselves.
By the way, when it was time for me to write about my experience, I had a strong bout of anxiety and judgement that stopped me in my tracks. And then I remembered to take a step back and do the practice and after 2 days of practice and letting go, I felt a possibility, an opening. Hallelujah!