This yearly assessment reflects on a year-end retreat, connecting what happened there with the year itself. It has been a relatively quiet year, and yet there have been three major events which together have helped to underpin a more assured and peaceful existence – a feeling of being more comfortable in and with myself, with my life, and possibly with my world.
The year’s main focus was the 3-month family trip around Europe in a caravan. Three months somehow squeezed into a 2-month window, during which Covid restrictions eased sufficiently for us to enjoy the privilege of movement, freedom, and the feeling that time may not actually have existed for a short while, before closing back around us as we made our way home.
Even there, in that short description of a precious adventure with the two most important people in my life, the connections are present with the 2-day retreat: a short window, during which five of us gathered together to share and explore; to move and be free; and to inhabit our own distinct, self-created moment.
All professionals with retreat experience, we facilitated each other in our respective fields. I brought written reflection and an intention to connect, whilst others brought dance, song, expansion & contraction, and prayer.
For the first exercise, I asked everyone to choose a random Tile from the nine available, and to connect with the words they read. Each person seemed to identify easily and deeply with the tile they held, offering appreciation for the tactile nature of the object, the way the words spoke directly to where they were, and the encouragement, reassurance and courage they triggered.
The tiles themselves are a summary of my work – a distillation from a wealth of written work, conscious experience and personal development. Their satisfying completion this year from the original idea three years ago, is perhaps one of the reasons for the peace I feel.
I picked Tile 9, which made me smile when I turned it over because with words like silence, emptiness and tranquillity, it felt like the tile itself was a gratifying depiction of where I currently stand.
I am ending the year in a very good place – one of almost daily gratitude for who I am, where I am, and the people close me. It has been a long road and decades of work to get here, but I feel a level of long-lasting appreciation I have not had before.
The main exercise of the morning – the one I was most nervous about – was dancing. Even though I am aware that we can do ourselves a huge favour by dancing more and singing more, I knew I would have to overcome myself to do so. (I also knew that I would succeed in doing so.)
As with the nature of the new opportunity in my life, which arose during the second half of the year, I was being asked to leave my comfort zone. That opportunity – to work together with a company whose hallmark is challenging people’s sense of their own sanctuary – is another reason for the internal quietness. It feels like an arrival (and also, simultaneously, a beginning).
For the dancing, we were encouraged to move however our bodies wanted to. By repeatedly returning to the desire the body has to express itself, and ignoring the persuasive prospect of embarrassment offered up by the mind, a freedom arose in my movement. Gradually letting go of inhibitions introduced a greater sense of flow, as well as a feeling that the mind might even be giving in and enjoying the experience. It’s possible that the two of them – body and mind – found a deeper friendship with each other than either of them knew existed.
There was friendship in the caravan, too, except that we weren’t surprised by its deepening. We knew we would enjoy the shared experience, but we didn’t know we would have such a good time. The friendship is there with myself, as well: a more relaxed version of me has appeared this year.
It is also worth mentioning that the focus on the body is something else which has gained prominence over the last few years. So to have that so obviously present at the end of this year, and in such a liberating exercise, adds emphasis to an ongoing understanding of the importance of the physical (over the mental).
After the dancing came the singing. The songs themselves were mantras of gratitude, yet once again my mind felt the need to intervene, to save me from myself, to protect me… or maybe to protect itself?
Spurred on by the dance experience, however, and invited by the voice closest to me as it soared, I sang. I sang deeper than I thought I might, and when I tried a higher range, it didn’t feel (or sound) quite right. Returning to the deeper notes, I felt a solidity there, realising that this is who I am. There is depth and solidity to me, and it is from that place that I am best able to offer what I have. It felt reassuring to hear and feel all this in music.
It was confirmation of what Karaj had challenged me to see last year, the fruits of which I have enjoyed more and more this year: that there is no need to prove who I am. Just dance. Just sing. Just connect. Just be.
I still feel a pull to prove myself sometimes, but this year has provided more than enough evidence of what’s possible and what’s available. Moreover, I have been shown that there will always be occasions when I shine, so there is no need to force anything.
During the first afternoon we were prompted to contemplate expansion and contraction. Even though I instinctively went towards the expansion option, in the pairs exercise that followed, I felt the importance of contraction – seeking to look after myself and allow myself to indulge in my own experience whilst trusting that my partner can do the same. As the facilitator would later remind me, between expansion and contraction are the connections.
Sure enough, from that contracted place, safe in the knowledge that the other person was doing the same, we were able to meet in the middle and play. What a metaphor for life – each person taking responsibility for the their own well-being, such that when the connection is there it can be a playful one because neither is wasting time nor energy worrying about the other.
I had felt immediately drawn to the expansion because this year has seen more of that for me than contraction, even though there has been a fair amount of contraction in the form of covid-induced withdrawal, and also the exclusive time spent in the caravan, which left me with a slight yearning for solitude for a while afterwards.
In the pieces I wrote at the beginning of the year I was addressing the final challenges from Karaj. In my writing I questioned whether he and I would have contact again. So far we haven’t, and when I consider the opportunity which has arisen with MWP, I am left thinking that the opening of that door, may well have been eased by the closing of another one. Expansion and contraction – a never-ending cycle in which the two extremes induce each other, whilst always connected.
Day one ended triumphantly with two clapping arrangements differing by a single beat. When performed side by side, there was an immediate and increasing chaos, which at its peak made me think I had lost whatever rhythm I thought I had. I had to close my eyes – contract again – focus on my own rhythm and trust that the others in my team were doing the same.
As the chaos continued, all I could really hope for was that at least my team was clapping together. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, there was unison: both teams, both rhythms reconnecting for the final few beats. We all ceased together, and the sound of clapping was immediately replaced with yelps of delight.
In that overwhelming energy of success and harmony, I felt unexpectedly jubilant. Another metaphor for those long periods in life when it feels like such a hard slog over many years, thinking you might not be getting anywhere, that things might even be getting worse, and then suddenly there it is: a joyous and unexpected breakthrough.
As I would write the following afternoon, the unison resonates in me too – an eventual coming together of disparate rhythms to form a more harmonious whole. There is certainly celebration there, too, but in service to the years of work necessary to get here, there is also a peaceful appreciation.
The highlight of day two was the reading of a prayer – Psalm 131 – and the instruction to notice which word (or words) we connected with most. It was read in Dutch and to begin with I wasn’t sure I understood what it was about, but then the word verstillen appeared, and that was all I needed. It means to be or become still.
As I write, I can feel the quiet which Karaj was always pointing me towards, and which this year has begun to settle into my being with a greater authority than ever before. In February 2014 I wrote this about what he told me:
‘Yesterday he informed me that the quieter I become, the more insight I will have. And today he added that quietness is where my commitment needs to be.’
This has been aided by not seeking to prove myself, because when you are not expending anxious energy trying to convince the world of something, a deeper quietness descends.
In pairs we were encouraged to offer our words to each other, and state what we will do with them in the coming year. We shared, listened, repeated and honed our intentions with one another. Eventually, the simple conclusion for me was that all I need to do is remember the quiet because it is always there.
That is where I find myself as the year draws to a close: in the quiet which is always present, always available, but which paradoxically can seem so elusive.
There was just time to sing together one more time. Another opportunity to leave my comfort zone (even more reluctantly than with the dancing) and sing a solo as loudly as I could about standing here, being seen, and being heard.
I surprised myself a little, but that also had to do with the support I felt from those around me who were a) similarly willingly to bare themselves, and b) ready to support each other in turn by seeing, hearing and embracing who we are. I was grateful for the encouragement and their non-judgemental presence.
And so the year (and maybe this entire blog) ends with gratitude. It is a quality we are encouraged to foster, and I have certainly tried. Three years ago I made an attempt and was moderately successful for the briefest of periods. Now, however, there seems to be a pervasive, enduring quality to it. My wife and I regularly share our gratitude with each other for the lives we live, the fortune we have, and the love and togetherness we experience.
The pandemic has certainly helped to focus my attention on what I have and how lucky I am, but the three events outlined here – the closing of one door, the opening of another, and the beauty of that caravantastic holiday – have themselves brought a greater level of emphasis to who I am, where I live, how I live, and what I have to offer to a world which for so many years seemed a little alien to me.
Indeed, at a time when things appear to be getting increasingly worse, I am more grateful than ever that I have at least found some peace and gratitude, because they undoubtedly will serve me well in the months and years ahead.