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Lessons Learned on a Spiritual Retreat

I recently completed a month long spiritual retreat in Cambodia, in which I learned how to slow down. As I have progressed on my path, I have accomplished many goals. I have gotten out of debt, sold a large home, prepared for a major career change, navigated a painful divorce, moved several times, etc. All in all my circumstances have improved. Despite this, I have had a hard to shifting gears and slowing down, now that it is an option. Doing this was the biggest overall lessons I learned on the spiritual retreat. To achieve this, I had to face a variety of fears and desires that persistently popped up and disturbed my kriya yoga. I was successful at doing this. This was not just a matter of long hours of meditation. Having completed the many worldly goals I mentioned certainly made it easier for to do this. It’s easier to let go of fears of failure, if you have already succeeded on many of your goals. It would have been impossible for me to let go of these fears, earlier in my path when I had many uncompleted goals and no idea how I would tackle them. Anyone considering an extended spiritual retreat like this, should do their best to get their life in order first.

If you are interested in many of the details of the retreat, such as how I spent my time there, where I was and some other general facts, please read my article “A Spiritual Retreat Benefits All“. I will not repeat those points here, instead I will go straight into describing the exact fears and desires that threatened my success at shifting gears to slow down and focus more inwardly. I will start with my fears.

Fears:

1. Insecurities and doubts about the validity of my spiritual path. These were the first to pop up. They were not new, I have noticed them just below the surface before, and they typically become amplified when I am visiting my Guru. This occurs because I have had expectations that he will make my life easier. If things aren’t happening as I had hoped, then I feel frustrated and doubtful. What is amazing is that I don’t even know I have these expectations, until something I had hidden hopes for doesn’t happen. The more burden I try to put on him, the more anger I feel and the more doubt I am flooded by at these times. This same pattern of expectations and feeling let down has happened with the first two times I visited him. With each visit, the doubts are less intense and less believable. This time, I quickly noticed what was happening, and found these fears melted in the spiritual presence that has been growing inside me.

2. Fear of letting go of my past lifestyle. This retreat marked a transitional time in my life. I had just let go of a lucrative, yet hectic job and the second apartment associated with it before the retreat. I was preparing to start a more spiritual, home-based job upon my return home. There were fears about whether I would have enough patients to feel useful about my work or whether I would be good enough to attract new patients. Fortunately I had been through a similar experience before. I have learned that if I work hard at being useful, and the create space in my life to be available, that space always gets filled in. This fear, also was easy to let go of.

3. Fear of rejection. My long time weakness has been that I am a people pleaser. I would always prefer to say something nice to someone and avoid a conflict, than say the truth. My spiritual path has brought this to the surface many times. I’ve improved substantially, but when a conflict causes a lot aggression inside of me, I usually fall back to people pleasing or just being silent. I know that if I speak up, there is a real risk I will become passive aggressive and react out on my inner aggression. Recently, however I have been able to sit with that aggression without letting it control my reactions. There has been an increased spiritual presence that helps me see through it all. Hans challenged my people pleasing weakness. I realized he was right, I was developing more clarity, so that even when I am triggered, I can see a neutral, truthful way to respond. It isn’t what people initially want to hear, but as I am getting better at delivering the message, I can see it gains me respect. This fear took me awhile to face. It came up during multiple days of meditation, but eventually it fell away and one day I could see it was totally irrational. I was ready to face it and now that I am, it has been liberating.

Desires:

1. Small worldly distractions. I had many desires pop up when I entered the more intense phases of meditation during this spiritual retreat. My mind wanted to obsess about food, socializing, exploring the island, working on the computer, unsolved work at home, etc. When this got out of hand, my Guru somehow could tell. Twice during the retreat he confronted me about not taking things seriously. I have never seen him preform any spiritual tricks, but with these confrontations, it was clear that he knew exactly what was on my mind, without me having given a single outward clue. His firm demeanor did the trick both times. My mind quickly went silent and I found myself easily maintaining hours of kriya yoga.

2. Desire for a female partner. This was a big one. Although I have always had a healthy attraction towards women, this desire had not been active much until lately. I suspect I have been overwhelmed with so many other drastic changes, that women were not on my mind. I also had a platonic female friend until about 6 months ago. I am sure that friendship fulfilled much of my need for a partner. Now that things have changed, my mind started to shift gears. I noticed this mainly near the end of the retreat. My mind had passed through all the fears and desires mentioned above, before it came to this last big one. It became clear to me that one of the major reasons I still felt a need to rush, was that I wanted to make sure I was spiritually mature enough, so as to be ready to recognize my soul mate if the chance to connect presented itself. Such a meeting is a once in a life time opportunity and it was a major reason for my intense efforts. I realized however, that many never meet their soul mate during lifetime, and there was no guarantee that was part of my God given path. I sat there in meditation pondering, could I still be happy if I never have a partner in this lifetime. Tension started to build. I started to feel frustration and anger towards God, Hans, myself and just about everything. I was having a mini-crisis. I knew I needed to forgive all, and I did so with a spiritual bowing practice. As I bowed, I felt a silent crying inside. Eventually there was a break in the tension, and I felt God’s presence. I laughed, because I could see that as long as God was present in my life, the details just didn’t matter. I still hope to qualify for a loving female partner, when I am fully free and grounded in God, but I also trust that God has got my back. If its not in the cards for me, I know he will provide me a meaningful life. At that moment, my commitment towards God Union was tested and proven. I could sincerely say, yes I work for God as my source of happiness first. I care for the rest of this physical world, but it always comes second to God.

When I completed the retreat, a burden had been released. In the past, whenever I would think of the list of things to do at home, a sense of urgency would come up. Now I was able to accept the thought of a whole lifetime of work and my mind body spirit all felt totally at ease. I noticed my attention now turned inward much easier than it ever had before. It didn’t come easily, but there was a surrendering of my worldly goals. Now I often feel that I have all the time in the world. My attention is turned inwards, not because it is lost and searching, but because there is a living, spiritual energy coming alive inside. My attention is finding something valuable, hidden deep inside. I am thankful for the lessons learned on this intense spiritual retreat in Cambodia.

God Bless

Cambodian Beach

Cambodian Beach

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Spiritual Retreat in Cambodia

Although I call this a “retreat”, the trip turned out to be more intense then my usually daily life. It started with serendipity. One day, I received an email from Hans, inviting me to come visit him in Cambodia. It happened to be that same day, that I paid off my last debt. It had taken four years of simple living and hard work to accomplish this task. Being debt free was crucial for a successful retreat and was a requirement to visit Hans. He somehow knew the time was right without me telling him.

When I announced that I would be taking this three week retreat in November, I received my first spiritual test. Some of my friends and family expressed intense disapproval. Was this retreat worth the pain it was causing? Based on my experiences of spiritual love and the lack of it in this world, the answer was a solid; yes.

The goal of this trip was simple; to share holistically with the poor and needy. I anticipated this would be a very enjoyable experience. What could be more fulfilling than personally finding and helping those in need? It turned out there were two challenges to this task. One challenge was the logistical part of the sharing (where, when, how and with whom) in a highly populated, poor city. That part was easier for me to tackle after receiving some advice from Hans. The other challenge was the inner resistance that bubbled up when I went about this task. I experienced this resistance mentally, emotionally and physically. This part was very challenging. The intensity of mental disturbances, emotions and even physical tension was at times overwhelming. I recognized this extreme discomfort as my ego coming to the surface to be “let go”. However the mental disturbance was so strong that it consumed my attention, preventing me from connecting with surroundings effectively, which is crucial for discovering those in need of help. The underlying belief was that “I was doing this wrong”, a fear of failure. As I continued to push through the resistance, I was able to fully enjoy the sharing. Here are some of the details of how I worked through it:

There were two major “arenas” that I learned to share in. The first was the situations that popped up as I went about my daily duties (eating, shopping, traveling, etc.). At these times I shared either by paying honest salary for the services I received, or I would notice people in the streets who were in need of help. The second was the nighttime “missions” I went on. I walked the streets of Phnom Penh specifically searching for hardworking people in need, usually between 10pm and 2am. This was trickier then I first thought, because these people didn’t declare themselves readily. The goal was to find the right person at the right time, so that the help given, created the biggest possible life improvement. Specifically, I hoped to find those who wanted to work hard, but were trapped by debt or other life circumstances. There are many such people, who work more than 12 hours a day, everyday and yet still have to sleep on the streets. They only have enough money for the bare essentials, such as food and the clothes on their back. In Cambodia, $300-500 is enough money to change the life of an entire family. With that money someone can start a small street vending business. This can take them from living day to day, to having extra money for an apartment and their family. The challenge is that these people are the last ones to be outside begging. To identify them, I had to be very observant. I had to have a quiet mind.

Cambodian Street VendorWatermelon Vendor

                                                          Cambodian Street Vendors

At first I was a little overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of needy people and how to decide who to share with. During the first couple days, there seemed to be no one who really stood out. I was worried that I would not succeed. I prayed for God to bring me someone who demonstrated “mastery” of their job. That night, as I walked the streets at about 4am, I came upon a man about 70 years old who was polishing the fenders of his cyclo. A cyclo is a three wheeled bicycle with a seat, that is used for transport. Cyclo drivers are some of the hardest working Cambodians and I was touched by this one, who was awake and preparing for the day, hours before the rest.

DSCF0864

A Cyclo Driver

I immediately recognized the opportunity. I asked for a ride to the Royal Palace, which was about 10 minutes away. When it was time to pay, I handed the man a $300 bundle of cash, which was wrapped in smaller bills. He was very thankful and in that moment of sharing, as I looked into his eyes, I sensed a stillness in my heart. My inner resistance had melted away and there was peace. It was clear that this sense of peace was shared between the two of us. In that moment, I watched his entire body language soften up. As I walked away, the man started opening the bundle of cash and I heard him express excitement as he realized how much money he had just received. That experience helped me break the barrier of giving. After going out of my way for that event, I found that many other events started to present themselves to me, seemingly without much work on my part. All I did was make myself available in the streets, have cash on hand and keep my senses open to my surroundings. Often one thing would lead to another. For example, I purchased lotus flowers to give to some of the street kids one night. They, however, were not around. I ended up connecting with a young woman, who I could see needed them and gave them to her instead, she was touched. As I walked away from her, I saw a middle aged woman walking through the park with her two sons. They were quietly collecting bottles for recycling. They were clearly good at the task, because they all had full bags. I knew immediately that she would be an excellent person to give a large amount to. She was teaching her kids to work hard, but was stuck in one of the lowest paying jobs. I walked over and handed her $300, also hidden in a bundle of smaller bills. In that moment, I felt the stillness and the opening of both our hearts. Opportunities like these were unpredictable, some days nothing would happen, but other days many would pop up. Here are some other examples:

  • $400 was donated to a teenage girl to complete her beauty school training. She had started training, but didn’t have enough money to complete it. I noticed how much she enjoyed helping at the hair saloon one night, when she was there with a friend and hence learned of her situation.

  • $700 was given to pay for a hospital bill of a young man, who had gotten into a motorcycle accident. It would have taken him years to pay the debt, living on bare essentials.

  • Multiple $20-60 gifts were given to all sorts of people. A pregnant woman picking through trash in the street, a hardworking family living on the sidewalk, bottle collectors demonstrating mastery and tuk, tuk drivers.

With the completion of each sharing experience, I felt the resistance inside me melt a little more. However the most intense sharing experiences, were those that required my personal presence for long periods of time. For example, buying food or clothing for the street kids. I noticed a mild inner objection and awkwardness when just a couple kids were present, but it would become overwhelming whenever the number of kids multiplied. And they always did. They seemed to have a radar device to track me down! Within minutes the group would grow from 2-3 kids to a dozen. Every time a new child would ask for food or clothes, I would say YES with my words, but my entire body was saying NO. I was experiencing a fear of being exploited. My mind was finding all sorts of reasons why I shouldn’t share; “These kids cannot get used to having whatever they want”, “They are just being tricky to get money from me”, “Tomorrow they will want more”, etc. Although some of the kids were being tricky, the reality was they had come to this behavior because of their desperate living situation. I had plenty of money and using it to buy food and clothing was the best thing I could do. I could see that my thoughts were irrational, yet I could not let go of the fear. I felt very insecure and un-natural as I walked around the city streets followed by the small troop of kids.

To add to this insecurity was the threat of being targeted as a “child predator”. Cambodia has a ongoing child molestation problem. There was a public awareness effort going on while I visited. As I shared generously with the street kids, I realized that some people might question my motives. Fears of being accused of child molestation surfaced in me, at a time when I was already consumed with fears of being exploited. About four days into my trip, this inner conflict reached its maximum and manifested externally as an experience in which I felt an extreme fear. It was about 11pm and I had finished my biggest day of sharing with the kids. After feeding all the kids dinner, I wanted to go home and rest. However, the kids were not done with me! They followed me through the streets. The next thing I knew I was being approached by a Cambodian policeman. This triggered intense fear in me. I thought he was coming to interrogate me. It turned out he was begging for money too. I shared with him and moved on, but was still saturated with fear. I decided to sit in the park. I figured the kids would gradually disperse when they saw I was done spending money. At the moment I sat down, about five Australian tourists, all middle aged women, came over and stood about six feet from me, staring at me and the troop of kids that were creating commotion around me. Again this triggered fear in me. I was being investigated. I felt so shaky and insecure, that I couldn’t look them in the eye. I knew I couldn’t explain what I was doing, without my body language saying “I’ve done something wrong”. I was stuck! I wanted to get up and run away from the situation, but that would only make me look more guilty. I needed to face this fear. As I did this, I got my break. Suddenly one of the kids began creating a major scene. She saw a man that had taken money from her mother. She started yelling and calling him names and the tourists became distracted trying to calm her down. At that moment, I got up and walked away.

However the drama wasn’t over yet. That night, I had purchased new clothes for all the kids, except three girls. There were several reasons I excluded them. They had shown up after we had left the clothing store. I had seen them before in the streets.  They were professional beggars, never working. When they started “demanding” I purchase them clothes too, I decided not to reward that behavior. I treated them to dinner that night, but they were still dissatisfied with me. After exiting the last drama, I realized the three girls, were chasing after me. I had to quickly hop into a tuk tuk and drive off, with the kids swearing and shouting at me from behind, chasing us down the street. My body shook with fear.

After that experience, I was scared to share with the kids. I felt stuck and wasn’t sure how to proceed. To enjoy sharing, I knew I had to take more control over the situation. I felt bad excluding some of the kids, even if they were bad players. It just caused too much tension. As I was strategizing how to adjust, Hans requested a meeting with me. He had not been with me on these “sharing missions”, yet the first thing he pointed out to me, was that I had a fear of exploitation. He reminded me that I had plenty of money. I explained that this fear of exploitation was difficult to let go, because of my attempts to be “smart with the money”. We decided it was best for me to include all kids. In that way, my mind would have no excuse to over-analyze each situation. When it came to sharing food and clothing, I could only do good. A huge burden was lifted from my shoulders.

The next day, I purchased more food and clothing for the kids. The fear surfaced again, but this time my body was able to relax a little, and I could tell I was through the worst of my inner turmoil. When I concluded that evening, it was a whole different experience. The kids were satisfied and I walked back to the hotel in relief. During that walk, I noticed water had been poured on the dirty street in the shape of a heart. I stopped and knew it was for me. I had overcome both the outer and inner challenges of sharing, and this heart confirmed my success.

Street Heart

The Street Heart

Even though I could finally relax a bit, there was a lot of residual fear in my body. I was about half way through the three week trip. At this time, Hans suggested I go visit Seim Reap on my own for several days. It was a just what I needed. I was craving some alone time in nature. I spent four days there. On the first night, I enjoyed a two hour tuk tuk ride through the jungle at dusk around the ancient temple, Angkor Wat. The crickets sung to me the whole way, relaxing my mind body and spirit deeply. The next day I visited a large waterfall and spent almost two hours in the natural swimming pool at the bottom. The last of my body’s fears were washed away in that pool. During this trip, I had multiple sharing opportunities. I gave money to the kids living near the waterfall. I gave my tuk tuk drivers large tips. I purchased the waitresses breakfast from their own restaurant. A luxury they had never enjoyed. I invited a disabled book salesman to join me for a meal and gave him $100 as we went separate ways.

Phnom Kulen Waterfall

Phnom Kulen Waterfall

Diving at Phnom Kulen Waterfall

Diving in the Waterfall Pool

When I returned to Phnom Penh, I was fully refreshed. I was excited to start a new form of sharing, one which required even longer periods of my direct presence. I purchased make-overs for some of the street girls. I took them to get their hair washed, cut and styled and a couple new outfits with a matching purse. These girls had never been treated to such a luxury. They wore the same dirty clothes everyday. Their hair was so tangled, that they couldn’t get a brush through it. I’m sure they had never enjoyed the feeling of being cared for by a hairdresser. I could see that this made them feel pretty inside. As I sat with them through the make-over, I noticed there was still some of the inner resistance inside me, but it was milder. I could allow it to be there and still enjoy the experience. I was finally able to say YES with my words and YES with my body! As my inner turmoil was melting away, I became more aware of how these random acts of kindness were deeply touching everyone. When I first met the kids they would fight each other for handouts. Once they realized I was including all of them, they relaxed. They started to have fun sharing stories with each other and by the end they were even sharing their meals. The store owners and many others, were also noticing the generosity. I realized that most tourists come to Cambodia, with a “take” mentality. They try to find the cheapest deals and spend primarily for themselves. I suspect that many Cambodians have never witnessed, the “give” mentality which I displayed. It was not just the giving of money. It was the fact that I recognized another person’s suffering and did my best to ease it. Witnessing that, opened their minds to a new possibility of human behavior. Witnessing that, also opened their own hearts and hopefully stirred up a desire to share themselves, because deep down that is our true nature.

Now that I have returned home to the United States, I am noticing a change. My mind is letting go of some of the compulsion to focus on problems. The desire to be aware of my surroundings and notice if there is a heart that needs touching, has grown. The fear of “what will people think” has shrunk. A light deep inside my being is starting to shine, just in time for Christmas. I wish a Christmas mentality to all, all year long. God Bless.

A Fancy Dinner with the kidsHappy Toddler

Happy Kid

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