Surviving lock-down by treating it as a retreat
When I first moved to Wales, I left behind a lovely therapist in Kent. Before I left her, she recommended a place in London called CCPE where I could learn more. Once in Wales, I came to London to do a weekend at CCPE and catch up with southern friends. The weekend was called ‘Alchemy, Archetypes and the Unconscious’ .I loved the course and so asked if they had any therapists near my new home. They picked up a card file (remember those) which was full of therapists. They pulled out only one card which covered the regions of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. On that one card, was one name, of one therapist, who turned out to live over the hill from me.
And so I met Michael Sclater who was my therapist for a number of years, then spiritual teacher and now all of that and friend. When he sends me information and says; ‘This might be useful’, I listen. Here’s what he sent:
Covid as a collective retreat
At this time, find things to do, keep in touch with friends and (if you can) run or take some other form of vigorous exercise. Exercise is the best thing anyone can do for mental health.
But it could be that, as time in isolation goes on, you find that deep stuff starts coming up. Maybe old memories and traumas surface. Maybe profound dreams. Difficult questions about your life. Maybe more of the full experience of being a human surfaces into consciousness.
If this happens, you are doing what normally through history only a tiny minority of people have done, which is to go on retreat. Here are some notes, therefore, that may help you not only survive but to enjoy a possibly life changing and life enhancing adventure.
What is a retreat ?
Historically, ‘retreat’ does not mean a nice weekend away somewhere peaceful. It means turning your attention inwards to explore what it is like to be a human being. Since you are one, you don’t need to study anyone else.
‘Retreat’ is actually a misleading word. For millennia periods on retreat (days, weeks or even years) have been used by a tiny minority of people to find more in the way of happiness, peace and strength and subsequently contribute much more in the busy world. Perhaps a retreat should really be called an ‘Advance’.
Who knows about retreats?
What follows is classical Indian psychology. That is to say, it is not psychology as practiced on a small island off the West coast of Europe. It’s also from my experience of numerous intensive retreats.
First thing to do – build a secure foundation
To survive whatever you might experience on a retreat (feelings, traumas, questions, re-evaluations etc) build a rock in the centre of your psyche. Here is how to do it:
Sit down somewhere quiet, on your own, with your spine straight if possible. Close your eyes. Just sit still for a bit and relax. Now ask yourself a series of questions, slowly and with deep reflection. ‘When I see, who notices what I see?’ Search for an answer. Then ‘Who notices what I smell?’ ‘Who notices what I taste?’ ‘Who notices what I feel?’ ‘Who notices my feelings and emotions?’ ‘Who notices my thoughts?’ ‘Who notices all the other stuff that turns up in my awareness?’
The answer, of course, is you. You are consciousness. Enjoy just experiencing consciousness. That’s who you are. All that other stuff, that you are normally probably so caught up with, is just stuff. Respect it but don’t take it too seriously and try not to get caught up in it.
You can’t observe consciousness (obviously, because consciousness is the observer). But you can experience it. Just be it. Feel at home. You will notice that it is stable. Never changes.
Naturally every few seconds, or minutes, or hours if you are expert, some kind of mental riot will start up (thoughts, plans, ideas, worries, memories etc). As soon as you notice a riot, dismiss it and return to consciousness. With practice, you can notice stuff just as it begins to arise and say ‘No thanks, not just now’.
As soon as you can do this, even for a few minutes, you can survive even quite extreme circumstances with a degree of stability. Thoughts are just thoughts, memories are just stored information and feelings are just our inherited human software. They are not who you are. You don’t need to take them too seriously. You become more resilient.
Any time you feel stressed or about to crack up, go back to this stable place.
You may find that chanting and spiritual music will help you into stillness, there’s lots on YouTube.
You can have fun trying to find out where the consciousness that is you is. In the head? The heart? Everywhere? Is it yours or is it everyone’s?
Notice what consciousness feels like. In India its characteristics are described as Sat, Chit and Ananda. That’s knowledge, consciousness and bliss. Let’s forget the first two for now because they are rather a challenge to Western science. ‘Bliss’ includes a combination of happiness and peace. Consciousness is inherently blissful. If you observe a cat on the sofa on a sunny day, you can confirm this scientific fact. Happiness is the default setting of consciousness.
Allow stuff into awareness
OK so now you are as strong as a lion. Cut off from other people and without shopping, parties, sport, work etc to distract you, stuff comes up. You wonder who you are, what you are supposed to be doing, what the point of it all is. Old memories surface. Maybe you relive ancient trauma. You feel bored. You get depressed. You experience despair. Then unexpected moments of ecstasy. And so on.
Just notice it. Remember, as Buddha said, it changes. It will be different in the morning. Pay loving attention to whatever arises. When you do this, it gets processed and loses its hold over you. Never judge anything that arises as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This is like meditation.
Now go back to your rock. One of the potential disasters of Western psychotherapy is that people contact painful stuff and then get stuck in it. Instruct your mind (a good servant but terrible master) not to. Like reading an e mail, when you’ve read it – bin it.
Allow more stuff into awareness
As you strengthen the rock of your consciousness by a few minutes (or hours) of reflection, it will tend to release more and more of the real experience of being a human being into awareness. Because you are now strong enough to survive it.
This process is often likened to the situation on the surface of a beautiful, calm blissful ocean. Every now and then bubbles rise from the depths and ripple the surface (to be honest, those bubbles are sometimes more like depth charges.) But they pass and the ocean returns to calm and bliss.
In time, you will experience more and more of being human and, more specifically, you. This includes all the stuff that you don’t like and may have comfortably thought only belonged to others. Never judge. Accept everything. Even very dark aspects of humanity such as violence, sadism, control, cruelty, envy, murderousness, tribalism, racism and so on lose their hold when you allow them fully into consciousness. All of these are only dangerous when unconscious and repressed – because then they can explode out in an uncontrolled fashion. That’s when catastrophes like genocide and ecocide happen.
If you notice that some absolutely awful aspect of humanity is part of you (which it will be) you will be becoming a much more peaceful and loving person. This is why Rumi wrote the well known lines ‘The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing. They may be clearing you out for some new delight’.
But be careful who you talk to. You’ll get scapegoated.
Benefits of opening to everything
Peace. You can spend more time in the bliss of pure consciousness. All that stuff doesn’t bother you so much anymore.
You can be more loving and harmless.
If you do need one of the more disreputable aspects of humanity (eg violence, ruthlessness) it will still be there. Just under your control.
Vitality. Repression is exhausting. So is ‘being good’ and ‘being nice’. Be riotously loving and creative instead.
Fears are better in awareness than repressed e.g. fear of death.
You no longer need to project parts of yourself you don’t like or don’t know about on to others. I remember, on silent group retreats, finding myself liking some people and disliking others. Since I knew nothing about any of them, I eventually realised I was not seeing them but bits of my own psychology. The number one scapegoat on the planet at present is Donald Trump. If you energetically hate him or anyone else you’re just seeing bits of yourself you don’t like. Hold him and everyone in your heart instead.
Independence and courage. These come naturally when you realise that you don’t need strokes from anyone else to be basically OK. This does not mean you become a loner. On the contrary, you can risk greater intimacy. And you can maintain your integrity in life.
You can have fun fixing any problems in your relationship. Relationships are like 19th century machines with cogs. If you change the cog that is you, the whole machine has to work differently.
You may find that your consciousness tunes (like a radio) to different wavelengths which you are not so used to. The predominant attunement on the planet at present is to cognition (thinking, information gathering and processing). That’s why people are fascinated by the internet – so they can do more of it. Cognition is exhausting and mostly pointless. Never delivers meaning or joy. Enjoy it if you suddenly find yourself attuned to love, the sacred, idealism, God or digging the garden.
Sitting in the fire
It has to be said that some unpleasant aspects of the human condition can take time to get rid of. Especially rage. So much rage is buried in the human psyche.
If it arises in you, congratulate yourself on allowing it into awareness. Fully experience it. I think it was Rumi who likened getting rid of rage to burning camphor. When it is set alight you just have to wait until it burns itself out. Daniel survived the fiery furnace. I remember interviewing the abbot of a Buddhist monastery for a TV programme. He was just like an abbot should be – serene, wise, loving, peaceful etc. He described how as a trainee monk he kept agitating to go on retreat alone in the jungle. There he would find peace, bliss and God. Eventually they let him. Every time he came out of meditation he found his fists were clenched, he was running with sweat and consumed with fury. That may have been his most productive retreat. My experience is similar. Now the rage is mostly gone – but still there if needed.
You may find that powerful memories from the past arise. These can carry with them intense shame and guilt – about times you messed up or did something awful. You have to forgive yourself (forgiving others is relatively easy). You were just doing whatever you were capable of at the time. There is a wonderful Christian forgiveness practice that the Sufis use which I can give you if you need it.
There are practices that can enable you to turn even further within. They are not secret, but you don’t want to do them unless you are in touch with someone who knows the territory. Just phone if you want them.
People can have odd experiences in meditation (or for that matter any time). They can include experiences of your essential nature, of cosmic consciousness etc. Possibly useful. But never strive for them. Just relax in Ananda. Lots is happening deep, deep in your psyche.
Since the 1960s New Age spiritual teachers have been offering products such as ‘enlightenment’, ‘illumination’ or ‘non duality’. Here’s a question to reflect on. Is that what you want? Or is the Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic etc goal of loving usefulness in the world more relevant just now?
Imagine the future
Now an important bit. Just about everyone agrees that humanity is heading for disaster; the wildlife, the planet, the climate, then maybe itself. No point in complaining. The real fun now is to imagine how we would like things to be. That’s how change begins.
Any time you want to share or ask for support, feel very free to email at email@example.com.
Coming out of retreat
You may encounter considerable reluctance. Liking climbing a mountain, there can be great reluctance to return to the mundane world down there and engage in it. So – just do it.
Michael Sclater is a psychotherapist, trained at CCPE in London and also in Indian Sufism and Vedanta. He grew up mostly in the Norwegian mountains, got a degree in Law from Cambridge and then spent 20 years making documentary films. Now aged 75 he lives with his wife Pat, largely self sufficient on a Welsh mountain and plays tennis for the county. He is currently developing a new approach to treating depression which will be published shortly.
Remember, fear, sadness and anger are normal at this time and if you need help with your emotions you can sign up to the free course I made with Psychologies Magazine by scrolling down or looking to the side of this blog. Also, hop over this page for links to live meditations or if you miss them, the recordings are on the video/podcast page for free .
Please pass this information on to anyone you think would benefit from it.