Photo by B. T. Newberg, May 13, 2011
– by B. T. Newberg
The retreat is almost over already – tomorrow is the last day. From the beginning I’ve been carrying a token, a small stone found at Minnehaha Falls. This represents my commitment to the retreat. Tomorrow at noon, at the moment of greatest light, I will throw the stone into the Mississippi River to mark the official end of the retreat.
The token serves as a kind of reinforcement called a displacement. That’s what I’ll be talking about today.
Buzz, buzz went the alarm on my phone set to vibrate. It was 5:10 a.m. and I wanted anything but to haul my behind out of bed. My fiance mumbled an incoherent word as if deep in a dream, then rolled over. Outside, the darkness lifted ever so slightly, as the first hints of morning seeped in through the window. I pulled back the covers and stumbled into the bathroom to brush my teeth.
Waking at dawn is not something I do unless I absolutely must. That is why it was perfect as a displacement, or practice which displaces the ordinary flow of the status quo. Most retreats and spiritual paths feature something like it – special restrictions or duties undertaken as part of the experience. Some of these are cast in moral terms, others purificatory. Often they are consistent with the lifestyle required of a specialist in the path, such as a monk or priest. For example, Buddhist retreats may hold participants to a number of monk-like precepts, such as abstinence from drinking alcohol, eating after a certain time, or lying on luxurious beds. Ignatian Christian retreats may include total silence as part of the experience. In the ancient world, the Isian Mysteries required a period of sexual abstinence prior to initiation. Such practices typically have important rationales within the worldview of the particular spiritual tradition, and serve to instill values and support progress toward the goal. At the same time, they also serve another function, which usually goes unstated. That function is to signal to the mind that something out of the ordinary is happening.
We go through our day so supported by habit and routine that it can be difficult to break out of that flow. It’s not enough to tell yourself to change; your whole being needs to hear the message. For that, you need to engage the language of the subconscious: symbolism. By performing certain symbolic actions or taking on certain signs of commitment, you can communicate a message your subconscious will understand. Wearing special garb, such as a monk’s robe, can do the trick, since clothing is so central to identity. Abstaining from a favored activity, such as eating meat or drinking alcohol or coffee, can also be effective.
In my case, I have chosen three major displacements: 1) waking at dawn; 2) abstaining from junk food, sweets, alcohol, and coffee; and 3) carrying a token on my person at all times, to be given up at the end of the retreat. These are effective choices because they are quite contrary to my usual routine. I don’t normally wake at dawn. I consume an embarrassing amount of junk food and sweets (cookie dough is my Achilles’ heel), and often enjoy coffee during the day and alcohol in the evening. And it is certainly not my habit to go around carrying little fetish-like tokens on me. So, these displacements constitute a significant break from the status quo.
An important note should be inserted here: It cannot be emphasized enough that in Humanistic Paganism, displacements imply no moral judgment of these activities. They are simply disruptions of routine that signal the mind to wake up. One may decide to abstain from sex during a retreat, for example, while affirming the positive value of this natural human activity. No comment whatsoever is made as to whether it is good or bad in itself, only that abstinence marks a difference.
Photo by B. T. Newberg, May 13, 2011
Displacements and cognitive dissonance
These practices can support you in times of flagging enthusiasm. When you encounter the desire to give up – which may come to the surface when tempted to “cheat” by ignoring a displacement – you are forced to ask yourself why you are on retreat in the first place. Is it really worth it?, may come the voice. Would it really matter if I “cheated” just a little? A moment of reflection is imposed as you decide.
At this moment of decision, there flashes into play the influence of cognitive dissonance, that uncomfortable feeling which accompanies conflicting beliefs. In this case, the conflict is between the belief that you are a rational human being and the belief that what you have chosen to do doesn’t matter. If it didn’t matter, it would have been irrational to undertake it in the first place. But I am a rational person, so it must matter, you tell yourself. Thus, that feeling of discomfort prods you to stay the course. This is a bit of mental sleight-of-hand that keeps us going, not just through retreats but through jobs and relationships too.
If at this point it sounds like lying to yourself to avoid change, you’re right – partly. Cognitive dissonance can keep us in negative situations, spurring us to rationalize dead-end pursuits just to maintain our self-image. But I wouldn’t sell it short; cognitive dissonance can have positive value too. Employed mindfully and for the right reasons, it can offer precisely the support needed to overcome momentary temptations and continue toward a greater payoff in the future. Displacements, like a commitment not to eat chocolate for the duration of the retreat, serve as stimuli for the fruitful engagement of cognitive dissonance. When that Hershey bar appears before you, you hold back so as not to spoil what you have worked for. In so doing, you are shown something valuable: how far you are willing to go to create change. Your resolve becomes even greater than if you had undertaken no displacements at all. The Hershey bar becomes a symbol of your commitment. And that is a message the subconscious can understand.
By the way, the feeling of worthlessness that follows upon failure to uphold a displacement – i.e. if you do eat the chocolate bar after all – is a result of cognitive dissonance too. When you “cheat”, your subconscious understands that the retreat really isn’t worth it, that it really was irrational to undertake it, and that you are a stupid human being for having done so. Hence, the result is low self-worth. Approached mindfully, such an experience can be instructive. You are not really stupid, of course. It was simply a moment of impulse in which you lost sight of the goal. Next time, you will know that the payoff in the end is worth the little stuff in-between. Reasoning thus, self-esteem can be restored at the same time that commitment is reaffirmed.
I had both successes and failures on this retreat. First of all, there was frequent craving for Cheez-its and chocolate, and I really thirsted for a beer in the evenings, but I stayed pretty true to my resolve. My fiancé did call me out on some hot chocolate, though. When I resolved to abstain from sweets I had cookie dough and ice cream in mind, but not hot chocolate. I guess it is a sweet, though. So, pride brought low, I admit a bit of cheating there.
Second, getting up at dawn was rough – I wanted to give up almost every morning. Once I got going, though, it was no big deal. I actually had more energy throughout the day as a result.
Finally, the token proved interesting. It is a different kind of displacement than the other two, insofar as it imposes nothing to carry it around in my pocket. The temptation, rather, was to forget it was even there. It took a while to figure out how to involve it more in my practice, to make its presence felt throughout the week. Finally, I gave it a role during the observations of sunrise. I would hold it in my hand as I gazed at the sun and said an affirmation: The night ends, the day begins; it will be a good day if I let it. Then I would kiss the stone and return it to my pocket. Throughout the day I would thumb it gently, reminding myself it was there. By now the stone feels personal, like a bond has been made. I almost want to keep it now. When I cast it into the river tomorrow to end the retreat, it will be significant. Which is exactly what I’d hoped. Giving up an item to which I have bonded should invoke enough pathos to make an impression on the subconscious. The moment will be memorable and transformational.
Last, before ending this post, I have a final confession. I have been absolutely terrible about observing sunset. It wasn’t a displacement specifically, but it’s still a significant violation of commitment. Time and again I found myself wrapped up in writing retreat reflections. Even when I started setting an alarm for myself, I would still try to finish up things before going out to see the sunset – and end up forgetting altogether. I guess that says something about how I work. Perhaps my therapist was right; maybe I do need to “dial back” the intensity a bit. This gives me something to work on as I head back into the ordinary flow of non-retreat life.
The overall effect of displacements on the retreat experience has been to remind the mind, constantly, that something out of the ordinary is happening. As a result, I experienced enhanced resolve and heightened awareness. There is no intention of making permanent ethical obligations of them – I do love my Cheez-its and cookie dough, after all. And I can’t wait for a beer. But I can say with confidence that the retreat was far more fulfilling for having gone without. It has taught me the strength of resolve that I can bring to bear when needed. It has shown me my commitment. And it made every moment of the retreat stand out as something special.