Some weeks this post is about art, some weeks it is more about spirituality. This week I've just returned from an eight day silent retreat hosted by Contemplative Outreach of NJ. Everything that follows are my musings (as is always the case in this blog) and should not be attributed to any other person or organization.
As I was leaving from work, preparing to be gone for the following week, someone asked what was I doing on my week off. At first I answered in general terms, about silent meditation. But then I added, for me it is not about gaining focus or stress relief, my purpose is spiritual. She asked why? What drew me to pursue a practice for an increase in spiritual growth? The question stymied me. It still does. Why would I be drawn to a practice in order to draw closer to the Divine indwelling? I have no response, you might as well ask why I breathe. Still, as I drove up to the retreat house, anticipating the ensuing days to be spent in silence and centering prayer, I asked my self, why? I had been looking forward to this for the five months since I had registered. Now faced with the prospect of participating in a prolonged period of silence, without distraction or entertainment the challenge seemed overwhelming.
The retreat began with a meal during which there was talking, followed by an orientation session after which we entered into silence. Day 2 began with rising at 6:15 the first Centering prayer session began at 6:45. We sat in a large circle and centered for 30 minutes, completed a meditative walk around the outside of the circle and then continued with another 30 minute centering prayer session. This was the pattern we followed every time we met for centering prayer. There were 3 sessions of centering prayer a day, we took meals together and had time for private activities; reading, writing, thinking, exercise. I had decided to not spend time reading and writing. I wanted to stay in the right side of my brain during this week, so I drew and painted or walked on the beach or the bay during these periods. Centering prayer is a particular form of prayer where one is consenting to the actions of grace to work within us. It is our intention to move beyond words, thoughts and even emotions toward a more complete awareness of and union with God.
The first morning I awoke with a painting in mind. I saw a sort of horizon line with a yellowy light coming in from the right hand side. I saw a separation that went down to the bottom of the page that could be a road with a person on it. The bottom of the image was flattened out, this was not an image from the world. This was a painting. I painted this the first day (including the little person which is against my personal set of rules of what should go into an abstract painting).
At the end of the second day we gathered for a ritual to begin the “Grand Silence”, which means that we avoided looking others in the eye. This sounds strange but it creates a condition of solitude even when you are among others. Think of a movie you've seen two monks pass each other in a monastery corridor, each is there and not there at the same time. When you are in silence, looking another in the eye can be such a strong form of communication, it can be a very intimate act. So out of respect for each other, we moved beside each other, in our own cocoon of solitude. I wasn't perfect at this. I'd forget and look up sometimes but I was aware. Developing awareness is always a good thing.
Centering prayer reconnects you to your inner self, your authentic self. It brings you to the source of your thoughts, emotions, and desires. Our creative source. It also brings you to forgiveness and healing. After the first full day of centering and reflection I painted this.
"Anywhere you go, there you are." When you are moving among others, walking in silence and solitude, going about daily functions in total silence, sitting to pray in silence, without interior dialogue, you come smack up against the fact that all of your feelings and reactions come from inside of you. It is not possible to outsource the blame. That generous and compassionate person you self identify as, is not always present. True, you sink into a more peaceful state in general, and have moments of deep contentment. But then something happens, like someone jolts you wake at 1:40 in the morning by walking loudly down the hall and doing who knows what , and there you are, that same grumpy person you are all to familiar with. You notice how judgmental you really are, with no outside provocation. Because you have been in a receptive state, you recognize that the crankiness is out of proportion, and you release that attitude.
On the evening of the second day we had a beautiful sunset that lit up the sky with oranges, yellows and pinks. After the sun had set, the sky still had the glow of the earlier brilliant colors. The next day I created a water color of that memory.
As you sit in meditation again and again, eventually emotions and memories arise. As you become aware of your shortcomings and past hurts, you also become aware of the great gift of peace and acceptance. Then as you persist in the silence, sitting through your feelings of unworthiness, you heal. You are enabled to approach each moment with fresh eyes and an open heart, you are no longer defined by your past pain or your fears for the future.
"Have patience. All things are difficult before they become easy." Saadi, Poet
On the fourth day I kept my promise to myself to sketch. I sat in from of a scrub pine ( I think?) and paid attention to it. I drew all the little details while maintaining the generous upward movement that attracted me to it. By giving our consent to be transformed by the Divine indwelling spirit, we consent to living in awareness of the peace, to move forward, experiencing God’s presence and guidance in each moment.
Eugene O'Neill puts it this way: "For a moment I lost myself – actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the...high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life...to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way.”
The creative power of your conscious self achieved through silent meditation enables you to recognize yourself in all others and celebrate the unique expression of life at this present moment. Any kind of regular meditation practice has many of the same effects, the intention for transforming union with God sets this practice apart. I painted in brilliant colors using the previous day's drawing as an inspiration.
The last painting was in recognition of the physical landscape we were in the entire week, which provided a sense of majesty, and calm, with weather that was generally sunny , with occasional strong winds blowing ….