Photo by B. T. Newberg, May 8, 2011
– by B. T. Newberg
Yesterday was the final day. In the morning I performed the final rituals and meditations, and at noon rode my bicycle in a cool, damp drizzle to the Mississippi River. There, at the moment of greatest light, which was actually indistinguishable from any other moment due to an overcast sky, I tossed my token stone into the river to mark the end of the retreat.
Reflection proved one of the most valuable experiences of the retreat. It was instrumental in bringing to the surface a wealth of insight and self-knowledge. Each day I spent most of the afternoon and much of the evening setting my thoughts and feelings down in writing, generating artwork, and crafting posts of which I could be proud. I am ecstatic about the results – enough material has been generated to keep me thinking for months.
Making the reflections public by posting them on this blog enhanced the experience. Knowing that I would have to give a public account helped me take reflection seriously. I went into greater depth and detail than in the past. Perhaps it was the threat to my self-image, the vulnerability of putting myself out there publicly, that pushed me to probe deeper.
Image enhanced from original by Lucien Freud
“So how did the retreat go?” asked my friend Drew Jacob, author of RoguePriest.net. I sat in the passenger seat as we cruised along the freeway en route to a friend’s house. “Fine,” I said. “No complaints.”
No complaints?, I thought to myself. Is that all I can say? It wasn’t that I was being modest, or hiding my feelings. But at that moment, the evening after the conclusion of the grand experiment, I felt nothing special. What an underwhelming finish to the experience. Suddenly, I wondered if I had made a mistake. Shouldn’t a retreat leave you feeling like a million bucks? Serene and enlightened? On top of the world? I felt the urge to “talk up” the experience in front of my friend, to “sell” it as a success. Instead, I just gazed out the window at the houses whizzing by. Perhaps the whole retreat had been a sham.
I could already feel myself hardening toward the experience. This morning, as I woke for the first morning in seven days that I was not obliged to perform ritual, there was a feeling of vague revulsion as I passed the statue of the goddess Isis. Through my mind flashed an image of myself kneeling and chanting before the statue, then an image where I was not doing anything religious, anything spiritual, anything weird like that. Accompanying the second was a sense of being acceptable in the eyes of others. The two contrasting self-images stood side-by-side in uneasy tension.
It was then that I recognized a pattern in myself. Something was happening to the retreat experience that had happened many times before. I was beginning to withdraw from the experience, to dis-identify with it, to alienate myself from it. Why? Because I had allowed myself to become vulnerable. It was a threat to expose myself as a spiritualist. Even though I had done it of my own volition and yearning for self-discovery, there was a part of me that now wanted to put that behind me. In its place would be nothing but an image of uncontroversial, uncomplicated conformity. Nothing to explain, nothing to defend. Nothing to justify to my fiance or to my friends, but most of all to myself. Having two conflicting self-images – of Brandon the eccentric spiritualist and Brandon the regular Joe – was producing that peculiar discomfort that psychologists call cognitive dissonance. The rift between the two images was experienced as a wound. And the blade that struck that wound, by laying plain the contradiction, was the retreat. Hence, in a mostly subconscious process, I was already beginning to resent it.
This wasn’t the first time this pattern had emerged. For about five years I practiced Buddhism, and for another five a polytheistic form of Paganism. Both of those seem alien to me today; I can no longer identify with them.
But the pattern had also emerged more recently than that, very recently in fact. I realized that I had done the very same thing with my graduate program to get my teachers license in ESL. Over the last twelve months, I had gone through one of the most demanding academic experiences of my life. At one point during student teaching, I was putting in ninety-five hours per week. I had emerged just one week ago shaken and uneasy. I couldn’t relax without feeling guilty, and couldn’t think about the job search without feeling anxious. A string of psychosomatic illnesses had arisen throughout the program, and showed no signs of stopping. That was the reason I entered therapy, and it was the primary motivation for this retreat. The realization dawned that the grad program, too, had left me wounded. I had taken on a greater challenge than ever before, laying myself vulnerable to failure. And in that moment of vulnerability, my body began to rebel. Stress-induced illnesses revealed the limit of how far I could push myself. Hitherto, I had always been a success at whatever whim dared me to do. There was a sense of infinite potential. But this experience showed me a self that was finite. The two self-images, that of Brandon with infinite potential and Brandon who can handle no more, collided with each other. The result was cognitive dissonance, a wound, and the urge to flee from the teaching profession. From this perspective, it became clear that my self-image had become totally identified with the program, so that success as a teacher equaled success as a person. A threat to the one was a threat to the other. Teaching itself had become an object of fear.
There it was. The source of my anxiety was unmasked.
Photo by B. T. Newberg, May 10, 2011
No complaints?, I thought as I sat beside my friend in the car after the end of the retreat. Was the experience so un-enlightening that I had nothing more to say than that?
I see now that a goal had been achieved. It wasn’t serenity, or peace, or ecstasy, or enlightenment. No, the goal achieved was nothing so dramatic. But perhaps it was worth far more. It was self-knowledge.
Humanistic Paganism is not a path of transcendence. It does not seek mystical elevation, divine epiphany, apotheosis, redemption, or the cessation of suffering. Rather, it centers the individual on humanity and the human experience. That includes all the faults and frailties that go along with being human.
I entered this retreat with hopes of relieving stress and putting the path into practice. What I have emerged with is a new understanding of myself. Whereas before I felt the source of my anxiety in teaching, now I know it to lie within myself.
Now begins the real work: changing my attitude to reflect this insight. Acknowledging a truth is one thing, integrating it quite another. Mental habits need to change. Only then will the pattern of vulnerability-wounding-withdrawal give way to a more productive structure. I need to learn to recognize the fear inside me and own it.
It occurs to me at the end of this post that the preceding may appear sentimental. After all, I have not done anything special to arrive at this claim of self-knowledge. I have not climbed a mountain, braved the wilderness, or created a lasting work of art. Mostly I have stayed home and worked on my own frailties of mind. But to denigrate that endeavor is to distance once again from the experience, to shield the vulnerability. Even as I write this, I can feel the urge to harden the heart.
And that is not how it will go this time.