In which I am smudged

So, this week I am back at a cancer retreat with my friends Ms Marsden and Mrs Ure. We met here in the first place but have carried our friendships over and it’s the kind of place where  you do meet soulmates or just really good friends and keep them. This retreat is all about nature and ‘Giving it back to the land’ which I must admit is a phrase which is still defeating me. However, the 3 of us are pitched in with another 8 people plus 2 facilitators and off we jolly well go, as Jimmy Young used to say. The buildings and grounds are beautiful and it’s a bit like staying at a pretty good hotel which also does lovely organic food. We do not have to lift a finger except to serve ourselves breakfast and make the odd cup of tea. Speaking of tea, there are many varieties on offer but the nearest thing to builder’s tea is Assam or Earl Grey. And absolutely no coffee although rumour has it several members have smuggled some in for their private consumption. I myself bring organic decaff which doesn’t count as coffee in many people’s books. The rooms are clean and comfortable and the staff really cannot do too much for us, including giving one sturdy member a yoga mat so he can sleep outside at night. Nothing is too much trouble.

As usual I have not found time to do any of the pre-course reading and was hoping Mrs Ure, who has been an absolute swot, would bring me a crib sheet but she didn’t although she did tell me which of the books was most readable which was at least a help. Our facilitators are 2 lovely women who are kind and smiley and issue invitations all over the place to experience this or try that. In counselling speak, inviting someone is a way of pointing them in a direction and saying “You could go over there if you wanted to. But only if YOU wanted to. And if you don’t want to go there, where would you like to go? It’s completely up to you ” and then walking off, whistling. It allows people to make their own choices about things without the risk of them storming back and saying “You told me to do it!” and a very sensible thing it is, too.

Our retreat is a week long and very intense. We begin with our intentions; that is to say, what we are hoping to achieve at the retreat. It is not the kind of place that lets you go about with your hands in your trouser pockets kicking idly at daisies. There is a certain structure to each day with some fluidity in it. We have all been to the Centre before so we are at least familiar with the concept of mindfulness even if we are not adept. Since undertaking the mindfulness course with Mr Mason some times ago, I have been practising it fairly regularly, even if it is just to remind myself where I am and what I am doing. It is lovely to take a mindful walk in the gardens which are beautiful with sections of meadow and seats creatively made in all sorts of places. I have a favourite seat under a tree and when sitting on it, you are completely hidden from the outside world, so low do the branches hang. They have also installed a fabulous swing and we all have our eyes on that. The real breakthrough comes on the second day when we are having our first Council of the Heart. You really have to suspend disbelief at this point and just go with it. Even though it has a slightly strange name, the sessions are actually moving and full of emotion. People talk about themselves, their partners, how they feel, how they are unable to feel, what they want to achieve and what they think is holding them back. There are no holds barred and the only rule is that we pass round what looks like the end of a pine cone so that the person holding it is the only one who can speak and we also say some words which I will not repeat here as they may be taken out of context and that’s not a good thing. I do not want people to make fun of this as it’s serious stuff. It is not difficult to listen to other people’s stories but it can feel quite hard when you can empathise with what they are saying. There is a lot of pain and grief around, some anger, some rage and fury, a bit of swearing and lots of tears. To acknowledge that it is a hard day, we are all given appointments with bodywork therapists in the afternoon, either Shiatsu or massage. I have a massage but Ms Marsden is having Shiatsu and she thinks I am teasing her when I tell her it is done on a big soft mat or futon on the floor.

In our retreat, we are following a hero’s journey which will involve us crossing the threshold into the underworld. When we come back after lunch today, the threshold is ready. There is a lot of symbolism and ritual and the threshold has been dressed with floaty curtains, branches and flowers. We are told we can cross over if we want to but there is no pressure if we are not ready. We are also told we will be smudged which means burning bundles of white sage will be passed over and around us in a cleansing ritual and we can then go through the threshold. Smudging seems to have its roots in Native American culture and has been appropriated by others. I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing as cultures cross-pollinate all the time. It’s not something I am used to, however, and I do feel a little strange waiting for my turn. I am duly smudged and then cross through the curtains into the garden. There is a lot of emphasis on taking time outside on this retreat. Sitting in the garden, listening to the birds and inhaling lungs full of the scent of spring flowers and grass is joyous. After the trauma of the last couple of years, this does have healing qualities, despite what my cynical side tells me and this is what I need to get back in touch with. We still have 2 more days on the retreat and apart from a scheduled spell of dancing tomorrow evening, I am looking forward to the rest of it. After the Biodanza episode last time, I am hoping no-one will notice if I quietly slope off.

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