February 18, 2018

Chasing Highs: Confessions of a Spiritual Retreat Junkie.

Everyone likes to get high.

When I say high, I don’t necessarily mean high on mind-altering substances. I am referring to that feeling of ecstatic jubilance where everything feels bright and shiny and in the flow. When we are in the flow state, it’s as if we are able to greet our lives with effortless grace. We may feel energized, a sense of confidence and trust in our direction, and at ease in our bodies and relationships with others.

We may feel happy. We may feel there is an overall sense of rightness or goodness. When we are in the flow state, we are in a space of expansion. Our physical, emotional, and energetic presence is literally bigger and wider. We are in the delicious grip of a peak experience.

Our desire to make contact with the world is amplified. From this vantage point of flow, being seen or going out on a limb to share ourselves can feel comfortable and even exhilarating. We want to be seen, celebrated, and celebrate. Our capacity and ability to receive and give love and pleasure are magnified.

We know with great certainty how amazing it feels when everything is in its right place. But what happens when we encounter the inevitable fall from grace? How do we respond when we hit that roadblock, obstacle, or wrench in our plan? Like any normal human who is suffering, we try to escape our pain. We seek to find our path back to the land of blissful ignorance—light, free, unencumbered.

In Buddhism, this feeling of being on top of the world is named the god realm.

In the god realm, we can often feel invincible, omnipotent, or untouchable. It’s as if we are liberated from the fears, pains, and concerns of our daily lives and able to effortlessly connect with an essential sense of freedom and pleasure. Yet, there is an intrinsic fallacy and fundamental flaw within the god realm.

Those existing within the god realm are living in such an exalted way that they become devoid of compassion and insulated from the experience of other’s suffering. They grasp so feverishly onto their illusion of freedom, power, and joy that they entrap themselves within an endless cycle of suffering.

Unsurprisingly, the promise of utopia is far preferable to feeling the weight of the world’s pain in every moment. It is for this reason that we collectively chase experiences and substances that can help us escape from the daily grind of our lives to a land of mindless euphoria. In some circles of spiritual practice, they call this spiritual bypass. We negate the shadow always in favor or pursuit of the light.

We are often catapulted into the god realm through spiritual practice, ritual, or meditation. Utilization of mind-altering substances, spending extended time in the natural world, or the atmospheres of certain types of retreats or festivals can also induce a profound shift in our consciousness.

These types of experiences take us out of the auto-pilot of our daily lives and can connect us with our true nature. We can explore who we are at the core of our being without the pressures and responsibilities of the external world.

As a long-term spiritual practitioner and meditator, I’ve attended my fair share of different retreats, workshops, and transformational festivals. It’s intoxicating to be in an environment where individuals are coming together with the explicit intention of being more present, wakeful, relaxed, or free. There is a palpable air of openness, wonder, freshness, and excitement.

On the first day of a retreat or transformational experience, I feel tremendous relief as I unburden myself of all my material weights and identities. The majority of the retreats and workshops I’ve attended have almost always created an atmosphere of deep connection, permission, safety, and camaraderie.

There were essentially no requirements other than to be present and welcome my whole self into the space. Having the opportunity to exist within a collective field such as this can be profoundly healing and transformative. Yet all retreats, festivals, or transformative experiences ultimately come to an end.

What my fellow spiritual explorers and I have pondered is how to maintain this state of expansion and connection outside of the retreat or transformational environment. How can we preserve that sense of flow state, higher alignment with our soul, and deep communion with the divine nature of life?

How do we sustain openness, expansion, connection, love, and trust as we navigate life’s inescapable trials and challenges? How can we welcome the totality of our experience, and resist the temptation to exclude or avoid anything good, bad, and ugly?

When we re-enter the chaos of our lives after an ecstatic or life-changing experience, it can feel easy to lose ourselves in the familiarities of what we worked so hard to free ourselves from. We might be afraid that if we don’t hold onto the experience, we will lose it forever.

This experience of grasping is a perfect example of the temptation we have to stay in the god realm, or promised land. The idea that we can free ourselves from anything is the first illusion to be dispelled. The second illusion to be dispelled is that we have something to lose or escape from.

When we make a choice to consciously retreat from our lives, without abandoning any aspect of our experience, we are offered the gift of perspective. This is what practices like meditation, yoga, communing with nature, dance, art, therapeutic work, spiritual practice, and music can provide us. These practices can illuminate our awareness around the conscious and unconscious structures that hold our lives together.

When we are in a state of expansion, we can attune more easily to what isn’t in alignment or what isn’t working. The freedom we seek lies within our willingness and our honesty for what supports the flow of our lives and what blocks the flow, without grasping onto a fixed experience of how we think it should be. We are leaning into a higher wisdom or fundamental truth of what is in service to our lives while surrendering our desire to create a specific outcome.

Applying this lens of perception to our lives can feel impersonal or harsh to some—especially when we begin to acknowledge that specific friendships, or even our intimate relationship, might be blocking the flow of energy.

When we start to highlight the aspects of our lives that are inhibiting the flow of energy, it can feel painful and vulnerable. We might encounter tremendous resistance at the thought of having to change.

We might feel paralyzed by the realization that our career, friend circle, intimate relationship, or current living situation isn’t serving or supporting us in its current state. We may balk or feel resistance with the realization that the way we care for ourselves might need an overhaul.

When we are faced with the hard and painful truth that some of the choices we have been making aren’t supporting our wholeness, it can feel devastating and heartbreaking. We might have a crisis of faith and question who we truly are.

So, what can we do from here?

Cultivating awareness is the first profound and courageous step that we can take. Through our capacity and courage to wake up, acknowledge, and accept what isn’t working, we are empowered to change and embrace a new way of being.

We might feel overwhelmed by the complexity of our world. Instead of hyper-focusing on what might not be working in our relationships, job, or life circumstances, we can start with ourselves. We can turn our awareness inward. Before we make any drastic changes or proclamations, we can begin to subtly shift the way we care for and nurture ourselves.

We can start to make different choices about how we spend our time and energy. We can move toward and engage with practices, people, and environments that make us feel expanded, supported, and nourished. We learn how to resource ourselves and fill up our reservoir.

It’s harder to discern what our needs, desires, and boundaries are when we are running on empty. When our reservoir or cup is full, articulating and communicating our needs, desires, and boundaries becomes easier. From a space of anchored self-connection or inner home, we can tune into an innate intuitive wisdom or higher truth.

From this space of wisdom or higher truth, we can make informed choices and often receive a wider and more holistic perspective around how to negotiate and initiate action in relation to our life’s challenges. We can also learn to reside within such a deep space of self-connection and trust that we are able to attune to and read the subtle flow of energy and patterns that are continuously surrounding us.

As we lean into greater trust and love, our boundaries or internal walls become softer. We become more welcoming of all that is in our experience, and we are able to discern our path forward with grace, ease, and natural flow.

If you were looking for a quick fix or solution to sustain the flow state after a retreat or vacation bliss, or finally reach enlightenment, I don’t have one for you. I can only tell you that the first step for me was to decide that I was responsible for the life that I desired to create.

The second step was to recognize that living in avoidance of my suffering and pain only served to create further separation from the love and joy I deeply desired.

The third was to accept that my ability to embrace all aspects of my experience with an open and unguarded heart was the key to true freedom and wholeness.

Author: Sandra Bershad
Image: Unsplash
Editor: Angel Lebailly
Copy & Social editor: Callie Rushton


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