Saturday, May 3, 2014

Retreating in order to Re-Emerge

I had the opportunity to attend a retreat in New Zealand this Easter, where the leader was a spiritual and relationship guru by the name of Stephanie Dowrick.  As a self-confessed self-help book junky, I have followed Stephanie’s work for over a decade (with special thanks to Jodie Webster who has provided me with a number of books from her publishing house –, and have been longing to attend the retreat at Mana for the past five years.  So I prepared diligently for the experience by spending some time in contemplation before I left and taking some areas for personal development with me that I wanted to address.  And I was not disappointed.

Stephanie’s greatest contributions to the discourse about relationships have been in emphasising kindness and the importance of choosing happiness (see ‘Kndness and other acts of love’ and ‘The Universal Heart’ at ).  This intersects with her inter-faith spirituality, which focuses clearly on love and compassion as the necessary characteristics for an evolving world (see ‘Seeking the Sacred’ and ‘Heaven on Earth’).  And it was precisely in the intersection of relationships and spiritual abundance that I found what I was looking for.

As a survivor of a failed marriage, I feel that I have journeyed deep into the terrain of interpersonal relationships within my own life, as well as exploring it to better my practice as a music therapist. Personally, I explored the self-help literature with the intention of saving my relationship, and then later, with the intention of exiting it in the most positive way.  I have sought teachings from a range of sources, including the very beautiful Conscious Uncoupling process that Gwyneth and Chris recently invoked in the ending of their own relationship (  And importantly, my work with the related Feminine Power group ( helped me to develop the personal strength I needed to respond to my circumstances with vision and inspiration, rather than feeling defeated.

What Stephanie Dowrick reminded me of this Easter was my need to return home with a renewed commitment to compassion.  Given my personal history, as well as my work as a therapist with an increasing interest in manifesting greater equity and justice in the word, I was particularly moved by her reflections on how to integrate compassion into situations that lack harmony.  She responded to our deep need for insights on how to deal with conflict by asking us to consider the following. 
When the bell of disharmony rings loudly, it asks ‘what can I learn here?’ and also, ‘what is disrupting the harmony on the other side?’. 
Instead of reacting in a defensive, or an offended way to conflict, she asked us to bring our willingness to learn something to the encounter.  Instead of focusing on our own hurt, or blaming the other person, she asked us to look deep within ourselves to find a response that combines love with an intelligent curiosity.

Whereas I had previously wondered if Stephanie was just a bit too positive, the Easter retreat revealed that this was an incorrect perception.  She was well able to understand the need to make choices and take actions to move out of situations where mutual respect is not possible.  She did not suggest avoiding conflict, but rather that we need to move gently into the territory where conflict exists in order to discern whether it is possible to bring a mutual sense of ownership to the situation.  She spoke about the ways that moving beyond defensive reactions can increase intimacy, particularly when we bring a willingness to understand the needs of the other in equal measure with our own needs.  And she emphasised the importance of honouring our own boundaries when the other/s is not ready for mutuality.  She asked us to notice when the situation was more than we can bear, and to be kind to ourselves by moving away from those conditions where moving towards has not resulted in a change.

There were bounteous spiritual references throughout the weekend, and Stephanie repeatedly shared the teachings of Thích Nhất Hạnh and Jesus, as well as the music of Krishna Das and her own colleague, Kim Cunio.  We meditated often, spent much time in silence, and I personally trekked up the mountain on a daily basis to spend time in contemplation of the gorgeous west coast of the North Island in New Zealand.   I am pleased to report that my commitment to compassion has not reduced since my return, and I have chosen to bring it to my workplace as I communicate with students and negotiate the politics of leadership in the university sector. 

It is always much easier to hold on to such loving feelings when surrounded by others who are similarly determined, as we were on the retreat, but I do believe that it is the way I grapple with the real life challenges of being in relationship with others that truly defines who I am.  It is true that I have struggled and not always succeeded, but this does not deter me from my trying. For me, spiritual faith allows me to remember that I am only human, and that it is not expected that I should be perfect – that is the terrain of the Gods.  So I go imperfectly forward with less defence than ever; knowing that I have the inner strength to handle pain, rejection and failure when it comes and that I do not need to live in fear of it by trying to avoid it.  Instead, I go forward with love and compassion.

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