Structured religion has never spoken to me. I have experimented and dabbled throughout my life, always with the same ultimate outcome…a feeling that it just doesn’t fit. Living a moral, caring, sharing and loving life has become what I try to achieve.
As I delve into my forties though, the question is raised – can I follow my own moral compass, have a higher purpose, feel enlightenment and grow as a human being without sitting on a pew on Sunday mornings? I have read dozens of books that say it is possible, yet after the inspiration of the read fades and the attempts to consistently apply the methods have failed, my search would begin again. I have traveled the world and found myself enchanted with the peacefulness of the Hindus in Bali, the Buddhists in Thailand, and appreciate aspects of Christianity practiced in so may countries around the globe. Can elements of these, and something entirely different be combined to create a customized path that I can follow?
It wasn’t a coincidence that I was sent on assignment to cover Lee McCormick’s Spirit Recovery weekend in New York City. Although I didn’t have a clue what to expect, my mind and heart were open to the possibilities ahead.
Twenty participants gathered in a dance studio on the fourth floor of a downtown high rise. The hustle and bustle of the city seemed in contrast to where I felt my mind needed to be for spiritual enlightenment, but I was going to leave my preconditions behind and let it unfold as it may. I was just happy that no one was wearing a purple jogging suit and KoolAid was not available on the refreshment table. We all took off our shoes and set up chairs in a circle in the middle of the room. Many people knew each other from previous retreats. For me, this was a testament to what the experience had to offer.
The first half of the day was spent in our circle with Lee guiding us through the Toltec philosophy and how we can apply it to our lives. Don Miguel Ruiz’s Toltec wisdom book, The Four Agreements, was referred to many times. The agreements are:
1. Be impeccable with your word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.
2. Don’t take anything personally: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
3. Don’t make assumptions: Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
4. Always do your best: Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.
Lee explained that in the Toltec teachings we are born unconditionally loving beings, and then we inherit our legacy of judgment. Every human being is unique with their own experiences, emotional triggers, patterns of responses, etc. We could all be listening to the same conversation and each of us would interpret it differently. We only hear what we choose to hear and then we let the voices in our head take over. But, we are not the voices in our head; we are simply the one listening. Our minds can turn a simple statement into a miniseries. But, if we stop, feel the emotion, whether it is pain or anger, then ask ourselves, “Is that the truth, or is it a lie?” If it’s a lie, move on.
In turn, we are completely responsible for how we deliver our message, but we are not responsible for what others hear. With awareness, we can take responsibility for our thoughts and actions. The bad agreements we make with ourselves make us miserable. If we don’t like where our life is going we should let go of old knowledge and bring in new knowledge. Reprogram and change our story. Instead of creating a novel too heavy to lift, filled with drama, and tales of how we have been victimized; we can write a beautiful story that everyone wants to have a chapter in. Free will gives us the power to recreate our reality. We can make our lives something that we are happy to show up for.
I then nervously raised my hand and asked the question, “What if your story isn’t something that is easily changed? What if your father has disowned you and your whole family is suffering because of it?” Lee said, “That is a perfect question for what we have in store after lunch.”….”Ugh!!”
After lunch Tian Dayton, who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and an MA in educational psychology, joined us. She is a therapist in private practice in New York City. Tian’s warmth was felt immediately. She explained that we would be doing a pyschodrama. The purpose of psychodramatic role plays is to resolve through action insight rather than talk alone. Through role play, thinking, feeling and behavior emerge simultaneously to allow for a fuller picture of what is being carried in the psyche to come into view. “Role reversal” allows the protagonist to actually stand in the shoes of other persons in the role play in order to see the self from the position of the other and to actually experience being “in the skin” someone else. I was asked if I would be willing to be the protagonist with my situation. With heart racing and palms sweating, I agreed.
Tian asked me to choose people from the group to play my family members involved. I chose someone to play my mom, my dad, both of my sons, and my ex-husband. My cast family and I all gathered in the center of the circle. I began by speaking to my mom. I faced her and held her hands. The tears flowed. I said, “I wish that you and dad could have found a way to communicate with each other about your problems and your issues. I think it would have saved us all from some of the suffering we are going through now with your divorce.” Then I switched roles and stood in my mother’s place. I responded as my mom, “I wish that we could have done that too honey. I can’t change the past though. I can only do my best now.” I then stood in front of my father. I swallowed deeply and through my gasps from crying said, “How could you disown me? What is wrong with you? Don’t you have a heart? I have children and I can’t imagine my life without them? I know that this is the worst time in your life and I want to help you through it, but you won’t let me in. You hold on to your anger like an appendage. Is this working for you somehow? You disowned your mother and your brother fifteen years ago and you didn’t look back. How can you be so cold?” I then switched roles and had to stand in my father’s place. I responded as him, “You just don’t get it. I’m done with you people.”
This went on, back and forth for about 45 minutes. It was gut wrenching, but with Tian’s guidance and the help of the brave people playing my family members, I got through it. In the end, I felt sympathy for my father and I knew that I could have a happy life, with or without him. I resigned the idea of being able to control anyone, but me. Tian had me assign an angel to look after my dad. And Lee gave me an amazing gift. He told me that the next time I see my dad, go up to him and simply say, “I’m going to love you whether you love me or not.” I resisted the idea at first, but the more I let it sink in, the more I knew it was exactly what I needed to do. It was time for me to take responsibility for my own emotions and actions. My father’s response doesn’t matter.
After more than an hour of playing out my psychodrama, I was beginning to feel guilty that I was taking up too much of the group’s time with my problems. When we were done, Tian asked each person in the group to tell me what they thought and how they could relate it to their own lives.
What happened next has changed my life forever. I was overwhelmed to discover that each person witnessing this painful exercise was able to apply it to their own lives and their own story. Some had gone through a similar scenario and identified with me, while others related to my sons or my mother. It was amazing. And honestly, I really feel like I’m done with it. I can move on. Whether acting out the drama or bearing witness to it, this is an incredibly powerful way of resolving painful relationship issues and connecting people together. The love in the room was palpable.
More members of the group opened up and freed themselves from the part of their story that wasn’t serving them anymore. One grieved over the love that she never received from her mother. Another woman showed us the pain that she feels being a black woman in a society that sees beauty as blonde haired and blue eyed. And someone else worked through her horrific childhood filled with abuse. Our stories were different, yet our pain the same. Saturday felt like a reunion of twenty best friends. Lee continued his teachings and we absorbed his words like a bunch of sponges. We walked along the river through the city with our minds and hearts open. We visited The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, an incredible gallery of work by Alex Grey where a series of paintings allowed us to see ourselves and each other as reflections of the divine.
At night we met in Time Square for the spectacular theatre production of The Lion King. We had dinner at midnight at a New York style deli. Getting to know each other and ourselves.
Sunday, our last day, was met with mixed feelings of being elated from the experience and the connections, but also a real sense of knowing that it was about to end and it would be up to each of us to continue the practice.
We gathered in the morning, getting ready to walk to Wall Street. Lee asked us to keep our minds clear and focused on the answer, whatever that meant to each of us. He asked us to look for something that was symbolic of the answer as we walked. The group divided into small groups and talked and laughed, like close friends do. I walked alone for a bit and I took in the beauty. The fall leaves covered the streets and sidewalks with a blanket of gold, amber and ruby. I picked up a perfect bright leaf and decided that this was my answer. A leaf holds tight to the tree until it can no longer hold on, eventually it has no choice but to let go, the cool breeze picks it up and carries it away from the only place it has ever known, but the leaf knows it is time to fly and land where it may. I place the leaf in my pocket.
We arrive on Wall Street and the mood changes. Lee asked us to gather close, to close our eyes and feel the fear that is encompassed in this space. Then he told us to turn to see Trinity Church at the end of the street. It was glowing in the sunlight and wrapped in shadow; a magical sight. The bells were ringing as if to say, “I’m here. Don’t forget what is important.” We walk to the church and enter. The energy inside was in startling contrast to the outside. There was such peace in this sanctuary. We allowed it to sink in. Lee then led us out the back door of the church into a beautiful old cemetery. We gathered again and closed our eyes. Lee asked us to think of it as a place of change. He said, “Pick up a leaf and walk alone in silence, contemplating what the leaf signifies to you. Hold on to it or let it go. It is up to you.” With my hand in my coat pocket I touch the leaf that I picked up earlier and thought, “Was that a coincidence?” I told myself to not over think it. Pulling the leaf from my pocket, I held it gently in my fingers. I slowly strolled along the cemetery path. After a bit I stopped in front of a beautiful group of tombstones and I released the leaf, watching it fall…letting go, letting go, letting go.
To say that I am grateful for this experience would be a vast understatement. I have made genuine connections with the most warm-hearted, loving people. I have a new view of myself and what is possible. I am excited for the journey ahead. My new question is, “What would LOVE do?” I like it. It fits.