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Many years ago, five basic, profound, and startling principles dropped into my lap.
Well, it was a bit more work than that. I was participating in a 10-day retreat on the big island of Hawaii with Vanessa Stone. The location was deliriously beautiful. We were in a Bali-style home on the Kona coast with just an old lava flow between us and the startlingly gorgeous ocean.
In contrast to the beauty around us, however, I began the retreat in pain.
Despite decades of therapy, meditation, yoga, Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, herbs, organic food, raw food, Tibetan Buddhist practices, and more, nothing substantial had shifted for me. I believed that I was failing at life and that I was not worthy of being loved. I was depressed, anxious, stressed, slightly overweight, and pretty much hated myself. You get the picture. Perhaps you can even relate (I hope not).
On the first day of the retreat, I spoke with Vanessa about a friend who I felt had betrayed and abandoned me. I was suffering immensely about it, caught in a repeating loop of trying to figure out what had gone wrong and how I could fix it. I was sure that it was entirely my fault. After I explained it to Vanessa, she said, “It sounds to me like you have given up your essence to this person.” I remember feeling rocked to my core because her perspective was so different. It felt so free from the self-blame I had been locked into.
Could she be right?
She waved toward the ocean across the lava flow and said “Go call your soul back to you, Uma. Call all the pieces of yourself back home. Every time you betrayed yourself. Every time you gave up your truth to someone. That’s all over. Go get yourself back!“
I went down to the ocean’s edge, threw my arms wide, and called out to all my missing parts. I felt them swarming like bees across the water, out of every hidden, lost place, returning to me, finding their rightful home again in my heart and my being.
I dropped my arms and looked down to see a green sea turtle crawling out of the water at my feet, looking like a messenger who had arrived to deliver myself to me.
Another day, during a group session, Vanessa asked if I was afraid that other people didn’t like me (it made sense in the context of our group discussion). I paused, my mouth open to respond with, “Of course not,” but I realized that actually, I was afraid that other people didn’t like me. I said so.
She responded straightforwardly, “Uma, trust me, some people won’t like you. That’s just the way it is. If you are trying to get people to like you, then you will be betraying yourself constantly. And it won’t even work. They will like you or they won’t. You can’t control it.” And just like that, I recognized how absurd it was.
I spent way too much time frantically trying to figure out how to make people like me. Why did I care? A veil had dropped, and I saw my fear of not being liked in all its naked misery. More importantly, I realized it was fruitless and unnecessary and that I could just stop.
Vanessa said, “You have a seat at this table, Uma. This table of life. But you have to take it. It’s up to you. You are loved, but no one can make you feel that until you accept it.” I wrote what she said in my journal. It seemed so simple. Was it possible? I felt myself begin to accept that it could be.
During the rest of the retreat, Vanessa offered us many “Logs for the fire of self-inquiry” as she called them. One was the idea that our life, precisely as it is, is our spiritual path—perfectly prescribed for us. All we have to do is pay attention to what is being offered. Listen and look. Find the living map of our life unfolding right in front of us, and follow it.
Another was the constant reminder that we are always in a relationship with the god of our understanding, mystery, source, the Universe (whatever we want to call it). She emphasized that we have the choice in every moment whether or not we will be consciously engaged in that relationship. “Strengthen your remembering,” she said. “Fortify it. Keep your focus on the one relationship, and you will see that every relationship is simply a reflection of it.”
Toward the end of the retreat, we discussed the idea that everything we wish and long for is already ours. That since our life is our spiritual path, and our relationship with what we understand to be god only requires us to turn toward it, what is left to seek? Our actual spiritual path is not about seeking. It is about being.
Late in the afternoon on the last full day of the retreat, Vanessa said to us, “Tomorrow, you will leave. You have much to integrate into the life you will return to. Please don’t look at your journals for at least two weeks. Instead, go now and summarize the main things you have realized on just one piece of paper.“
I took my journal to a quiet chair and considered my experience over the past 10 days. I reread my writings. I contemplated what I had felt and learned. I listened to a voice deep inside myself. I could feel that a shift had begun within me. It might be small, but it is a profound and powerful start.
In a flash of inspiration I wrote these five sentences:
- Reclaim your essence.
- Take your seat.
- Trust the living map.
- Fortify the one relationship.
- No longer a seeker.
These phrases simply appeared to me, perfectly formed, the essential distillation of what I had realized. Each was a phrase that Vanessa had said, and I credit her 100 percent for each one. By some mystical grace, they were made mine.
That evening after dinner, I shared what I’d written with the group. After I read them, I found myself grinning at Vanessa. She burst out laughing and said, “Uma can’t believe it! She’s tasted freedom she’d never felt before!” Everyone laughed. I laughed. I felt elated, astonished. Freedom!
I knew that these were insights that I would not forget, that I would live by, that I was only just starting to understand. And I was right.
These five simple guiding principles have indeed changed everything for me over the past eight years since that retreat. At least one applies in every situation I find myself in, whether a sad moment or a joyous victory. They are always the way out of a maze. The solution to sadness, the guidance in meditation, and the reflection of who I am back to myself.
So, now I offer them to you. I want you to know that you are not alone. Reclaim who you truly are. Turn toward the life you deserve. Radically trust the guidance you feel inside yourself. Don’t let other people take away your truth, and don’t give up your essence.
Be who you are.
My deepest wish is to see you (yes, you) live your most authentic life. The one that you were born for.
And I ask you, if not now, when?