6 March 2018.
So, where was I? My home, job and relationship had vanished overnight on 5 August 2016. After placing everything I owned into storage, at first I dragged myself and my big red suitcase to Devon, where I re-discovered that I had a list of dreams inside me, dusty and faint, nearly forgotten, but still there. Then I wandered to Kent, to visit the most unconditionally loving person I knew. After that, I made a little circuit of friends’ spare rooms for several weeks, and on the day we pick the story back up, it was mid-September, and I was sitting in a sun-drenched bedroom just north of the river in Cambridge, with the window open. I had my laptop open in front of me, and I was wondering what I should do with my life and where I should go next. I had a home arranged in England’s Lake District from November, but I needed to fill the time until then.
I was reflecting on how special it had been to visit Lyme Regis, in connection with my love for Jane Austen. I asked myself, ‘what is the next item on the list of things I have always wanted to do?’ The answer came immediately: ‘Hear Mooji teach in person’.
Mooji is a spiritual master in the Advaita Zen tradition, which is a contemplative branch of Hinduism. He is an older Jamaican man with long dreadlocks, a big Buddha belly, skin that shines like polished wood and a very merry soul. There is a treasure trove of video clips on YouTube of Mooji speaking about spirituality and awakening. During my years huddling in a quiet, stable, yet increasingly stagnant state in Cambridge, I had never thought it would be possible to meet Mooji in person. For a long time – too long – I viewed myself and the world through a warped lens of unworthiness, which somehow made all dreams appear out of reach.
Mooji teaches about something called the ‘Pure Self’, which he would describe as a unique piece of a divine consciousness that is lodged within each person. The ‘Pure Self’ is perfect, whole, loving, divine, immortal. He describes the human being as a combination of Pure Self and the egoic identity, which is the superficial information we know about ourselves, who we take ourselves to be: our self-concept, name, gender, nationality, body, job, personality. He asks over and over, ‘Who are you?’, ‘Who is speaking right now?’ ‘Are you speaking as the Pure Self, or your egoic identity?’ He describes awakening as recognising, being, and seeing from this divine, aware space inside yourself. I had been watching his videos for about four years, and his ideas were only occasional light touchstones for me. In the middle of a sleepless, anxious night, I would put on a recording of him speaking about peace and feel comforted, but I didn’t understand his teachings deeply or experientially at all at that point.
I typed ‘Mooji teaching’ into a search engine and was directed to his organisation’s website, where large letters announced on the home page that registration was now open for a seven-day silent meditation retreat with Mooji in Zmar, Portugal, in several weeks’ time. Perfect timing. I felt a rush of joy and again the sense that this was my path unfolding in front of me, another serendipity. I consulted my bank account, weighed this with the cost of the retreat and the clamouring of my soul, considered for a moment, and then used the money I had been saving in case I needed a rental deposit on a new room somewhere. I had a temporary work contract lined up which would shortly replenish any money I spent on the retreat. I signed up for a bunk bed in a room shared with other women. I remember that just before I pressed the ‘book’ button on the website, a swarm of bees passed by the window, buzzing loudly at second-storey height, where I was, and I thought of the Frenchman briefly, and then clicked ‘book’.
The Frenchman kept bees, you see. The Frenchman had changed his mind about us, and had been regularly in touch. I can hear the wise ones of you out there shouting, ‘No, Joy, no! You must never go back to him after what he did to you!’ And you are right. But I did.
I want to explain something about the Frenchman, who appears to be the villain of this story so far, and about myself. There is a tangle of various threads that needs to be smoothed out. When I was dating the Frenchman, and for all my life before that, I was really unconscious of the distortions on my perspective and behaviour in relationships as a result of pain. Eckhart Tolle, the spiritual teacher and author of The Power of Now, calls the manifestation of darkness in each person ‘the pain body’ and characterises it as an entity that takes us over, like a bad spell, or a monster living inside us. He says it wakes up periodically and desires to live and grow, which it does by experiencing pain and creating more pain, so it throws a dark, distorted filter over our thinking and behaviour, and then we see everything around us through a cloud of hurt, fear, anger, sadness or unworthiness.
I suppose this is true of every pain monster, but mine is the only one I know intimately, and she is truly monstrous. She is angry, sometimes abusively so, fearful, critical, obsessive and immature. In the short time I had dated the Frenchman, our two pain monsters had tangled incessantly in a dark dance, and by the time he ended things so dramatically, we had fired about equal rounds of unconscious bullets at each other, and we were both bleeding inwardly. Stepping over a threshold into new love had woken up this dark side of me, and I became fearful and upset over everything, with my dark cloud of fear ballooning around me at the slightest provocation from him. The way he acted at the end, dropping me after I had already given up my job and house to go live with him, was nuclear…but it was a part of an ongoing war in which I played my part. It was also, as I sensed deeply at the time and firmly believe now, part of a larger story that God was writing upon my life, a strong, necessary and right story, although cataclysmic and painful to experience.
So around the time I was preparing for my trip to see Mooji in Portugal, the Frenchman and I were still connected and circling each other, and I decided to go see him in France after Mooji’s retreat. I know, I know…it was a bad idea – but it was also, strangely, the right thing to do. I think that is because the rhythm of growth proceeds according to a music in which a certain amount of tension and darkness is necessary to create enough force in the compulsion to evolve. The timings and character of this music, I imagine, are unique to every person.
There was also an administrative snafu in my temp agency’s office at this time, which delayed the start of the temporary contract I had been offered while we awaited the arrival of a form confirming my right to work in the UK, a technicality. The amount of pay I lost as a result of this was exactly the same amount I had kept saved for a rental deposit and exactly the same cost of the Mooji retreat. I found this interesting, though it was extremely frustrating. I couldn’t help but see it in a spiritual light, ultimately…it was as if God kept emptying me of everything I had been holding onto in life, my cords to safety, my attachments to stable structures like money, house, job, city, relationship. I was growing increasingly pliable, moistened by tears and in constant flux.
Since I was already flying to Portugal to see Mooji, I decided to go a week early and spend time visiting the beaches of the Algarve before traveling inland to the mountains for the retreat at Zmar. I booked a private room in a youth hostel on a provincial highway in the middle of nowhere. It was cheap because of its undesirable location, but it was perfect for me, because it was within walking distance of a coastal path that led to many quiet and beautiful beaches.
Staying in a private room for a whole week after enduring a ragged spirit in other people’s living spaces for two months was indescribably blissful. As much as I love the friends I stayed with and appreciated the many gifts of beds and rooms, those temporary resting places never really felt like my own space. That private room was mine in some deeply important way which I badly needed at that moment. The days I spent hiking the coastal path and stopping at new beaches to swim and sunbathe were some of the best in my entire life. It was like a gift I had given to myself. I was alone, in peace, with the freedom to think, pray, cry and rest when I needed.
Every morning I would eat muesli, fruit and yoghurt for breakfast in the hostel’s little kitchen, and then prepare a vegetable and pasta salad. I would pack this with some fruit and water into my little blue backpack, and start the two-mile walk to the coast path. On the second day, I noticed a small blue tile with a yellow scallop shell symbol painted on it nailed to a concrete wall next to the arterial highway where my hostel was situated. My walk to the ocean every day happened along a Portuguese stretch of a pilgrimage trail.
Beholding the Algarve beaches produced a continuous state of awe and wonder in me for the beauty of nature; these Algarve beaches were the most like paradise that I had ever seen in my life. Swimming was like being miraculously suspended in a cool, blue, liquid crystal, other world. The sandy walking path was lined with temperate maritime plants, succulents, scrubby low bushes, and Mediterranean pine trees bent into interesting shapes by the wind. These sights were, of course, backdropped by ocean vistas in both directions, as the path, for the most part, wound along high clifftops. There were grand, strange, dark brown rock formations, and places where the rocky coast folded in upon itself to make secret halls of rock and sand, with the ocean swirling into these through caves and crevasses. It was late October, and it was baking hot, the last week of the autumn to be so before the weather turned.
On the day I travelled to Zmar for the retreat, I kept seeing butterflies everywhere, the symbol of transformation. There was one printed on the doormat as I walked into the train station café and one printed on my cardboard coffee cup. A real butterfly, bright blue, drifted past me while I waited for the train, and then after I boarded, there was one tattooed on the arm of a woman sleeping across the aisle. I guessed that she was going to Zmar, too. A few days before, my friend Rafa had sent me a quote by Maya Angelou: ‘We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty’. I think that the days of lying in the hot Portugal sun before the retreat were the final melting of an old version of me as I was entering chrysalis. It was peaceful, loving, a gift from God.
The seven-day silent meditation retreat with Mooji was held on a large eco resort called Zmar, which is inland, just north of the Algarve beaches where I had been. It is a large, green, dusty site atop a sparsely forested foothill, with little villages of wooden cabins arranged around a central communal area holding structures for gathering, eating, swimming and relaxing. There was one massive, white, elegant, auditorium-sized tent where the 700 of us attending the retreat would go to hear Mooji speak twice a day. We, however, would not speak, make eye contact with each other, read books, listen to music, use mobile phones or contact the outside world for a full week. The point of this was to immerse our attention fully in the Pure Self. There was another smaller white tent made into a meditation and yoga space, scattered with mats, cushions, blankets and sofas.
There had been a large, disastrous fire at Zmar several weeks before the retreat, and it had been touch-and-go whether the retreat would go ahead. The usual dining hall, administrative offices, therapy rooms and swimming pool were charred, black and roped-off. There was water in the swimming pool, but it was the wrong colour, green with unhealthy yellow clouds. It was fascinating to observe the deconstructed buildings – to see rubble, fallen walls and the toxic substances released into the pool, while I was experiencing the deconstruction of my own material world and beginning to melt into a chrysalis state internally.
I found it interesting that I didn’t mind about not being able to speak, swim or read, etc. at all, because hearing Mooji speak in person was like swimming in a stream of pure love for about five to six hours a day (one two or three-hour session in the morning, and another in the evening). His words felt like pure love, and they called out to the part of myself that is also that, and during the week, I slowly began to discover and understand this space inside of me…as the real me.
As the Pure Love rose in me, I think it began a slow deconstruction of the false parts of me, in a process that has felt driven by grace, by serendipity. As I look back at that last sentence, I realise it is quite a gentle summary of what has actually been a long, hard, painful process that only had its very first beginnings at Zmar and which is still continuing now. During this process, the false and dark parts of myself have repeatedly engulfed me, and my work has been to observe what is happening and take my attention again and again to the space of Pure Love inside myself, and hold a steady focus, while feeling the strange, confusing, often agonising pains of a false self burning away in the presence of divine love. During these moments, I have cried and cried with grief, and felt like life wasn’t worth living, and felt more alone than I thought possible, and felt weak, crazy, confused, worthless. But the practice of meditation and self-enquiry came to me at exactly the right moment for me to handle these dark tides. I discovered the light of Pure Love inside myself well enough to hold onto it and trust it to guide me through the darkness every time.
Mooji lovingly explained to us that the ego doesn’t want to lose its power over us, so it puts up a fight when the Pure Self shows up. I have always been spit out the other side of these showdowns with less darkness and more light in my being, and afterwards I feel a glorious sense of peace, love and clarity. It feels like a shifting of balance, or ascendancy, inside my being, from darkness to light. I think that this has always been taking place inside me in gradual steps, but it feels like my week with Mooji accelerated my personal process. Mooji continually pointed out the nature of the ego – its tricks, bad smells and ugly feelings. He worked tirelessly to guide us out of the deceptions of the egoic mind into the space of Pure Love inside ourselves.
There were two or three times when this shift in perception happened for me during the first five days of the retreat, but that was all, just two or three brief glimpses. However, the teaching sessions, called satsangs, were structured in a question and answer format, so after Mooji entered and was seated on the stage of the hall, everyone would raise their hands, then he would choose someone, and they would come to speak into one of the microphones set up in the aisles between chairs. The person would ask Mooji a question about the spiritual path, and he would respond. He always took this opportunity to attempt to guide the questioner, and the rest of us, to experience the space of Pure Love inside ourselves, so I was continually hearing Mooji and the people he worked with describe this space, what it felt like, and what they saw. They almost always mentioned that they saw everything and everyone in the world as oneness, connected, a whole, and that the substance of everything tangible in the world was actually love. This resonated on a deep level with me every time I heard it, although I did not have a significant experience of it.
On the last day of the retreat, I had the opportunity to be one of the people who speaks directly to Mooji. I had noticed that whenever Mooji held these conversations, he unearthed something unconscious to the questioner, and spun the exposed darkness back into light for them, in exactly the way that they needed. I investigated my own inner world ceaselessly, mentally, egoically, and I was burning with curiosity about what Mooji would find in me that I couldn’t see.
I felt pulled along very powerfully by the forces of serendipity on the last day: to skip early morning yoga and sit in meditation instead, to go to breakfast at a certain time, to skip going back to my cabin for a shower and instead line up early at a certain entrance to the teaching hall before the morning session. When the time came to file into the big, white tent, I found a seat only a few rows back from Mooji’s chair on the stage, by far the closest I had been to him all week. At a certain point early in the session that day, my hand raised as if of its own volition, and Mooji called me up to the microphone, and we spoke.
I was horrified to hear the worst parts I knew of myself show up, and other previously unconscious worst parts, all stumblingly spoken and amplified by sound equipment in front of Mooji and 700 people, and with cameras trained upon me, transmitting to thousands of people watching live online, and unable to control what spilled out of my mouth. I saw childishness, manipulative flattery, arrogance and unworthiness, pretension, competitiveness. It was also mixed with my good stuff, but it was a hard and embarrassing moment.
Mooji began responding to me, and actually, I couldn’t take in what he was saying. It was like my ears were stuffed with wool. I closed my eyes, and then my shame and self-criticism, which felt fiery, gradually began burning…away. It didn’t matter that these dark parts of me existed. They exist for everybody, in different forms. I felt, more strongly than I have ever felt before, the part of me that is a piece of God. This part of me is always there. It looks calmly, lovingly and non-judgmentally on the whole of me and everything and everyone else in life. This part of me knew in that moment that Mooji, the people watching in the hall, and the thousands of people watching the retreat online, were all ME, the real ME. Separation isn’t real.
My eyes opened and my ears un-stuffed to hear the most important thing Mooji said to me, my medicine to take away: ‘The grip of egoic identity is slipping, like a piece of ice in a bowl of warm water. A melting is taking place automatically. The ice doesn’t have to think about it. It doesn’t have to say, ‘melt, melt, melt’. It is happening anyway.’
This released me at once from the fierce and unhelpful mental churning I had been applying to ideas all week, and all my life, really, and I realised I could surrender to a process of grace. I would still need to learn how to direct my attention, but this was a different thing than using my egoic mind to try to force itself to melt. I felt such a sweet sense of relief.
And then the nicest thing happened. He finished speaking after this and smiled at me, and then I asked him if I could come up on stage and get a hug. All week, the questioners had been getting hugs. He gestured me up, and I went up the steps to the stage and over to his chair, and I remember the way he threw his arms wide with a huge smile, still sitting in his chair, and I leaned down to hug him. It felt like all the love in the universe, embodied, hugging me. He smelled wonderful, of incense and cologne, healthy and fresh, and I realised he was beautifully groomed. A small part of me realised I had been associating the walking of my spiritual path lately with a departure from all the conventional norms of society, and I realised, laughing at myself a bit, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to groom, Joy; and I saw that I was this unwashed, dishevelled woman in ragged clothes…but it was okay. It was funny. Mooji was hugging and shaking me, saying ‘wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful’, and I said, ‘I love you, Mooji. Thank you so much for answering my question’. He replied, still hugging me, ‘Oh, pure love, my darling, pure love, my darling, pure love.’
I had my eyes closed, and an image entered my mind at that point of a blue line of light, which traced a new border between my Pure Self and ego. They were still fused together, but now I could see which was which. It was extraordinary. I went back to my seat and stayed in a state of profound peace, love and clarity for the rest of the day, wandering around the site, looking at trees. My embarrassment came back periodically, but then kept burning away again, as soon as I recognised that it was on the other side of the glowing blue line.
The next day I got up before dawn to travel to the airport, to go see the Frenchman. I caught a flight from Lisbon to Bordeaux. I remember that the last teaching Mooji gave us was to hang on to everything we had learned, and I remember a very insistent thought tugging at my awareness: that my desire to see the Frenchman was somehow at odds with what I had been learning from Mooji all week. I can put that clearly into words in hindsight, but at the time, this was just an uncomfortable blot, a suppression, a not-wanting-to-see feeling floating around inside myself. I was compulsively, blindly still acting on old programming.
It was delicious to see the Frenchman again, like being presented with something that you love to eat that is really, really bad for you. Chocolate cake to a diabetic. I was immediately whisked out of my meditative clarity into a heavy appetite for romantic entangling, sex, him. We went camping for a week in Menigoute, France to attend the nature documentary film festival there. Serendipitously, it was the perfect environment for me to transition out of a week in silence, because we were either in a beautiful, ancient French forest with a lake, mossy trees and giant boulders, or in a dark auditorium in comfortable seats, watching films exquisitely capturing the natural world, for the most part in French. I have only about 20% comprehension of French, so I interacted with the films mainly as images, and it was extremely peaceful hearing the soothing, rolling commentaries in a different language.
Although I was swamped by a matrix of false attachment and sensual blindness at the beginning, the old problems still existed between us, and I saw that the Frenchman’s behaviour triggered my insecurities and pain again and again. My new awareness told me, ‘it’s not him, it’s you…that is your trigger…this isn’t his fault, he is just being himself’. My new awareness helped me understand that it was best to take my burning, confused, triggered self away from the field of combat and sit quietly alone until I felt peaceful again. I saw the perfection of the situation, that I had been given the most perfect practice conditions possible for my new lessons, including rich exercise material.
This was a painful week of spiritual practice, not a week of sweet new love being born. Nothing worked. He saw it before I did…my attachment to the dream of being with him was still too strong, and I still hoped. I had one big outpouring in the car as he drove me back to the airport at the end of my visit, where I broke down and sobbed out my grief and sadness at the way he had broken up with me and how it had felt to lose all the structures in my life overnight. I felt him truly see it, and he responded with deep compassion and regret, and we hugged goodbye in a genuine moment of connection at the airport.
Reader, he is not the villain of this story. The space of Pure Love inside me that I have begun to learn to inhabit is overwhelmingly tranquil. When I am successful in focusing into this Pure Awareness within myself, it looks at the messy, confused, dark parts of the Frenchman, and me, and the events that happened between us, with tranquillity, acceptance and love. Everything that happened between us…was okay. It was a piece of divine music, a story, where darkness and tension happened and turned into light…eventually…just the way it was supposed to.
The spiritual path is full of paradox, and unconditional love is not the same thing as allowing dark behaviour from people in your life. People are mixes of light and dark, and sometimes dark prevails, and we shouldn’t stay to be hurt under a banner of ‘unconditional love’. But I am beginning to understand now that the Frenchman and I were a harmonic match. Our combinations of light and dark matched, for a while, and we mutually attracted each other, to learn some deep lessons.
The stuff of my being has been consistently changing from dark to light in a dynamic process since my experience with Mooji…and although I am a work-in-progress, I am much lighter now. I have a much more conscious relationship with my own darkness, and I feel that when it is time, the Universe will bring me a new relationship that is a reflection of the changes I have gone through. I feel that I will be with someone lighter, brighter and more conscious, and we will have a different kind of relationship…a loving and happy one.
As a parting thought, let me tell you something nice about the Frenchman. He is totally enchanted by flowers. I took him to the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens once, and he was absolutely transported. I have a collection of photographs from that day depicting the same sweet scene: the Frenchman leaning down, closely examining a flower, transfixed. The only variations in each photo are the type of flower and the changeful English sky behind him. The Frenchman has a space of Pure Love inside himself, too, which shines out into the world, occasionally clouded by darkness sometimes, but always there…just the same as the rest of us.
Serendipity Story #5 coming soon…
The featured image is ‘Butterfly Mother in a Book’ by Vladimir Kush.
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