I met my soul during the summer of 2014. The words seem ridiculous, but they are true. I suppose I knew I ‘had’ a soul, but soul was a concept, not an experience, and I was certainly not in a conscious relationship with mine.
That July, I participated in a SoulFire retreat, offered by spiritual activist and author Sera Beak. This retreat for women was intended to support us in deepening our relationships with our souls. I had read Sera’s spiritual memoir, Red Hot and Holy, the previous December, my first Christmas on my own, in a rented cottage on the Oregon coast. In between walks on the beach, cooking and eating my holiday dinner, and wandering through the coastal village, I read and wept and laughed out loud as I recognized parts of myself I didn’t even know I had. In contrast to my serious and idealized spiritual strivings, her story was filled with passion, humor and real humanity. I took her advice to dance a little more, meditate a little less, and have a glass of wine before reading a couple of particularly offbeat passages in the book. I began to realize something was missing in my earnest spiritual pursuit.
When I returned home from the ocean, I dove into Sera’s website for a little more of her refreshingly irreverent story. There, on her offerings page, was an invitation to her retreat. It was to be held in a location that had intrigued me for years and was all the more attractive because it was a short drive from the family cabin in Montana where I spent part of every summer. Moreover, the dates of her retreat overlapped with my planned Montana time. Without thinking about it too much, I signed up. The quote from my journal the following morning says, “Sometimes I am still amazed how loudly and clearly Life speaks to me”.
Months later, a couple of weeks before the event, I panicked. I had never been to a ‘women’s’ retreat, dismissing them as too frivolous. Now, anticipating my first, my mind filled with visions of a room full of perky 20- or 30-somethings dancing naked, and my 50+ self trying to be something I am not. I went so far as to check the possibilities of refunds and try to think of someone to take my place, but it was too late. I finally determined it was about time for me to stretch out a bit, and trust the initial urge to attend.
My fears were unfounded. The women ranged in age from 20-something to at least 60-something. Many of us had the same apprehension about being out of place, yet none of us were. There was dancing, but fully clothed, and besides being fun the movement helped us process and release the intense emotions that came up in our work. And the experience of sharing the parts of our journeys that are uniquely feminine had a healing power I had not imagined. The combination of retreat structure, Sera’s guidance, and the willingness of women to be open, vulnerable and supportive, encouraged real transformation.
During one exercise to clear a ‘soul block’, a story or memory that holds us back from fully expressing ourselves, I couldn’t shake a childhood memory. At some point in my miserable junior high school years, we were each asked to write a will for the class yearbook, filling in blanks to describe our states of mind and body, then bequeathing possessions. Being my literal-minded and serious self, I wrote on the form that I was of “pretty good” mind and body, or words to that effect. Nothing special but perfectly functional was my assessment of myself. When the yearbooks came out, my answers stood out to me as arrogant and unimaginative in the sea of sarcasm and self-effacement from my classmates. In the end result of this process, as I saw 40-plus years later, some hidden sense that it was not OK to be OK was reinforced. I had internalized that it was safer to downplay and minimize myself in order to fit in and not draw attention.
In my journal entry a couple of days later, I make the commitment to just be myself, to stop apologizing for being quiet, shy, liking solitude, loving nature. I also reclaim pleasure, telling myself it doesn’t have to be hard to count. My self-reclamation project was in evidence a few nights later when I overcame the critics in my head for my soul expression to the group, our last retreat assignment. Rather than forcing myself to dance or sing because others were planning to do so and I thought I should, I followed my inner guidance to choose silence. When my turn came, I asked the women to stand in a circle. I settled myself firmly into my body, and feeling 100 percent me, walked slowly around the circle holding each woman’s gaze for a moment as I passed. I stood in my own authority and sovereignty and silently invited each of my sister souls to do the same.
A few days after the soul retreat, I sat on the porch of our family cabin in the mountains repeating the simple soul retrieval meditation we had learned. As I sat quietly, I asked to be shown any part of me I may have lost in the past, either in this life or before. At the cabin, sitting quietly in the sunshine, surrounded by birds and breeze and creek, it registered how much of my voice I had restricted over the years. I was dismayed to remember how many times I had shut up (or down), deferring and holding back rather than sharing what I felt or knew. As someone whose public life had long involved speaking and writing, I saw how much I had shaped my words around how they would be received, rather than what was true. As I sat quietly with my eyes closed, I saw a soft, shimmering gold sphere floating in front of me. I knew it was my voice and welcomed it back. Only days later as I drove along the Yellowstone River, returning from a day in the park, it flashed on me I wanted to write. I began the process of putting my stories onto paper the next day.
Three years after SoulFire, life is irrevocably different. There is no going back to looking outside of myself for guidance and authority. Now I listen to my soul, whether through meditation or quiet walks in the wilderness. I live in the place where my soul has felt at home since I was a little girl. I have reinvented my work and career, leaving behind corporate communicator to become a natural healer, astrologer, writer, yoga teacher. The process has been scary and uncomfortable and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
In a post-retreat dream, a bottle of red wine in the back seat of my vehicle has leaked its red color all over the car: the red passion of soul I have kept bottled for so long is seeping into my body.