Tuesday, May 16, 2017

From Shomit to Shamanism: My Weekend with Elizabeth Gilbert and Rayya Elias

Coolest tree ever. More on that later.

If you're like me, then when you find yourself kneeling on the bathroom floor of an old friend's house, vomiting the delicious Cajun-inspired dinner she served earlier plus the curdled remains of a hot fudge sundae while simultaneously shitting your pants, you're fairly certain you won't be experiencing any life-changing moments anytime soon.

Which is kind of ironic, because certainly having "it" coming out "both ends" (i.e. Shomit, according to Urban Dictionary) is kind of a life-changing experience. 

I mean– if it's never happened to you before. Which it hadn't to me. 

That is, until 3 a.m. Friday when I was far from home, visiting a friend I hadn't seen in a couple years, preparing to attend a much-anticipated weekend retreat where best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert and her partner, musician Rayya Elias, were teaching a creativity workshop. 

My friend Kate had mentioned the workshop to me months ago during an email exchange in which we were both bemoaning our littles starting kindergarten this fall and still not having any idea what we were going to do when we grew up. I threw out the idea of going on a retreat together (which was kind of odd because I'd never been on a retreat and never really considered going on one until that moment) and then she wrote back and said she'd heard about this one and thought it sounded amazing and I agreed and then all the sudden we were booking a room and I was bemoaning my lack of appropriate "retreat wear" whatever that was– I assumed it would involve a lot of flowy sweaters, yoga pants in whimsical patterns and beaded jewelry (I wasn't wrong) and she was freaking out about what she would say to Elizabeth Gilbert (I guess we can call her "Liz" now) if she got to meet her.

I'd driven up to Kate's house outside New York City Thursday and we were planning to head up to Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, where the workshop was being held, mid-morning Friday. It's in the Berkshires. That's where fancy people go. And no, unlike Iggy Azalea, I'm not so fancy. I was just planning to keep my head down and sneak in the back door (or back road, rather). 

Speaking of my back door, it didn't seem too likely that I would be sneaking in or out of any doors– unless of course it was the door to Kate's bathroom. Which I crept in and out of frequently for the rest of the night. 

But as Liz told us that first evening, "You wake up every day to the world you're given."

The sun came up Friday morning. Conditions in my gut stabilized. My white pajama bottoms came out of the wash stain free. I promised to take it easy and Kate agreed to drive. It seemed there were forces beyond my stomach bug (and possibly my logic) pulling me to Kripalu.

And it was absolutely the right choice. 

See, that was the first lesson my inside voices wanted to teach me: Trust Me.

Trust Me when there is something inside me is tugging me in a direction that seems strange or illogical or outside my comfort zone. Trust Me that I know what I'm doing. Trust Me that you need to experience what you're about to experience.

And what Kate and I and the 300 or so other (mostly) women who attended the workshop experienced was life changing. And I feel the need to asterisks this by reassuring you this is not a term I throw around lightly (OK, scratch that, I did use it to describe the Peanut Butter Pandemonium ice cream I ate on the ride home Sunday. But in my defense, it was really good ice cream. And I was on a post-life-changing-retreat high.). 

It was life changing. And I knew it would be as soon as Liz took the stage alone Friday night, her face weary, voice thick from a day spent crying. 

Rayya Elias, her person, partner and co-presenter, had been diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer more than a year ago and after a round of chemo had decided to forego treatment. She said she preferred the clean transaction cancer offered– "It promises you death and then it kills you" to the false hope she felt the chemo offered. 

Last week Rayya had taken a turn for the worse. It was clear on stage that Liz felt the end was imminent. That she was preparing to lose the love of her life. But they came anyway. They came– Liz and Rayya. See, they knew it was important– for Liz, for Rayya and for us.

And in that moment I knew my stomach bug might as well have been a paper cut. I was exactly where I needed to be and so were the rest of us. You could feel it in the room. It was a palpable thing.

Which is why, when Liz asked things like, "What are you willing to give up to have the life you keep pretending to want?" answering honestly from the center of my heart felt even more urgent. You know? Now is the time to live that life we keep pretending to want. Right now. Because there's not a better time for it. There never will be.

Over the next two days Liz was our spiritual sherpa– guiding us up the Everests of our souls by forcing us to confront, question and honor various parts of ourselves. The goal: "To bring together all the voices in our heads and get them to learn how to live together nicely."

I mean HOLY SHIT. Is this not what I have been attempting to do for the past five years on this very blog? You're telling me all I needed to do was go on some little retreat up in fancy country to figure it all out?

Liz and Rayya (who took the stage Saturday– this badass force of nature obviously ignoring her physical discomfort to share her story and her songs) walked us through a series of writing exercises. 

We wrote letters to our fear and our enchantment ("Dear Susan, I am your fear and this is what I want to tell you" ... and "Dear Susan, I am your enchantment and this is what I want to tell you.") We wrote ourselves the ultimate permission slip from our inner Principal ("Dear Susan, I am the principal and this is your ultimate permission slip. Here is what you have permission to do:"). We wrote a letter of defense from our persistence (the nagging voice that tells you to keep going and going). We wrote a letter to our own souls telling them why they could trust us to steward them through this life. We wrote to our stumbling blocks and our monsters. We wrote a letter to our fear from our soul. We wrote and wrote and wrote. 

And many times we were asked to read what we'd written to the stranger sitting next to us. 

Which, you know, wasn't awkward at all. Especially when, while reading about my deepest, darkest metaphysical fears, I started, like, ugly crying all over my journal with nary a tissue to be found. (Liz instructed us to smack the ass of said stranger before sharing with them as some sort of, what? sorority sister hazing situation? I don't even know, but it seemed to work.)

We were all in it together, though. There was no judgment. No eye rolling. No shaming. No alienation. I can picture, vividly, the faces of each of the women I shared with. I could feel their anguish and fear, their resilience and compassion. Their strength. It was all right there in that room. 

At the end of the program, we speed read through everything we wrote– all the letters and notes we took– and underlined the parts that spoke most loudly to us. We picked our five favorite lines and turned them into a poem. These poems, Liz told us, were our instructions for living the life we actually want, not the one we're pretending to want.

Here's mine:

I am afraid not to listen to what my heart is telling me.But my persistence tells me: I am the one who got you here today And who will get you to tomorrow.Today is not going to be how it is forever.I give you permission to take up more space.Just trust me.

It's not a masterpiece by any means (though, Liz liked it on Facebook ... NBD), but it's the simple truths I needed to drill down to. 

And look, I know how kooky this might all sound. How I spent a weekend in Fancy Land and have officially relocated to LaLa Land, but damnit, it's the truth (Ugh. This sounds dangerously close to "my truth" territory which is just around the block from the universe telling me shit ... but oh well. Here we are. Pass the kombucha! We're leaving Zen Town on a one-way ticket. Destination: enlightenment.) 

For those of you who are still reading– I'll just say this. Well, actually, I'll borrow what Liz said, which is that we're the only ones responsible for caring for our own souls. Nobody else. It's on us. And if you feel as if your soul (or spirit or inner light or psyche or whatever you want to call it) is in some way hurting, then it's your duty to help it find the peace it's searching for. And it's your duty not only to yourself, but to the rest of this world which is hurting so much right now. We fix ourselves, we fix the rest. It's that simple. 

I'm not going to pretend that I'm going to fly through life on the back of a glittering pink pegasus forever (though that would be pretty bomb) but I do know I now have the right tools to continue the work. That I'm on the road I need to be on. And that I always have been.

Even if that road included a night where I shomitted. 

I'll close with the letter I wrote to my Enchantment– that part of all of us that loves music, dance, wonder, miniature ponies, goat yoga, etc.– it makes me smile to read it. 

Dear Susan,
I am your enchantment, and this is what I want to tell you.
Thank you for sitting under that tree yesterday, even though you sort of felt weird about it. You heard me when I told you that that tree had something to share about humility and beauty being one and the same.
You need to go swimming more. Stop being afraid of the first frigid dive into the water. That's how you wake your body up. That's how you wake me up and let me know you're ready to explore what it feels like to be weightless and be reminded that this place is where you came from.
Thank you for dancing. Every time you dance, you shake away the chains that fear tries to place on me. I don't really care how you dance or how you look dancing and you shouldn't either.
Remember how you thought you would be too chilly sitting on that hillside yesterday doing nothing? But then you did anyway and the sun warmed you in the right sports? Trust that. Trust that you will be cared for and that the music you heard in the wind really was music- the great breath of all of us– the trees, birds, bears, whales, humanity, flowers all of it carried in you and released out of you.
Just trust me.
Love, Your Enchantment
To Liz and Rayya, wherever you may be in space and time at this moment– thank you for the tremendous gift you shared with us: building the temple that brought so many full hearts together. Thank you too to all the women (and few brave men) who showed up to share in and witness the magic. 

Thank you Kripalu for all the wonderful food, your breakfast chai and something called Yoga Dance, which found me rubbing up against a complete stranger like a cat and dancing like some suburban hippy in the middle of a drum circle. That actually happened, and yes, it was awesome.

Thank you Brad for urging me to go, holding down Fort Jennings and making sure I didn't have to come home to laundry, grocery shopping or dinner making. You've outdone yourself in the Mother's Day department.

And thank you Kate, whose soul is among the purest I know.

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