I Hung My Cynicism Up and Went on a Women's Retreat: Here's What I Learned
Huddling away for an entire week with twelve women up in the Spanish mountains of Gaucin might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea. I confess, as an introvert and someone who gets my energy from being alone, there was some trepidation of what I might have to say to these very different women, in different stages of their lives, living in different parts of the world and indeed, who may have come to the retreat for very different reasons. And yet, much like the women’s circles that are run by the same psychotherapist and healer, Fiona Arrigo, there was a synchronicity and a connection which was profoundly moving. Before I go any further, I’d like to bring to the fore that it’s assuredly excruciating to write this piece without at least a sprinkling of cynicism, a peppering of satire or just a light dab of dark humour. But I feel I can only write in sincerity if I am going to describe what happened up on those mountains where my heart was completely, and ever so tenderly, blown open.
There is a hardness that women have had to cultivate to exist and survive within a patriarchy. We wear thick armour, are made to feel as though there is a limited amount of space available for us and that we must achieve certain material accolades to be deserving of that space, leading to a malaise of competition with other women. We are compressed so tightly in a cycle of pressure and stress, pressure and stress; it grinds us down to a capitalist wet dream as we strive to be happier, cleverer, thinner, wittier, better than, more than. And that’s all before we even consider that a woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK alone, meaning we live in a state of unconscious alert for our safety. The hardness makes sense to me, all things considered. But it is a heavy burden, one we not only construct, but need to maintain and carry – it’s a capitalistic programme coded into us. In our modern lives there is so much noise, false information, fabricated competitiveness and we get so lost in it all, tangled up, distracted from ourselves and our intention, often existing in a scarcity mindset.
My system has been so clogged up from colluding with that which doesn’t align with my value system. This spell of fear and unworthiness has been cast over so many of us and is so deep, we prioritise wanting to achieve and climbing the ladder over our wellbeing and happiness. Sold this message that keeping up, fixing things, keeping going, pushing harder and doing better is all that matters, but perhaps it’s time we reclaimed our own thoughts. As Fiona eloquently put it: ‘Getting it right is not appealing to me. Perfection is a patriarchal disease; its anti-life and its cousin is control.’ Many of us are shackled to patriarchal stories that dehumanise us – stories that guilt us for even desiring the apple, when in fact we should be taking a large fucking bite and establishing our own truths. We all have contracts with the world and this retreat enabled me to consider what I’m in bidding agreements with and whether the terms still serve me.
My intention in hanging up my cynicism was to reconnect with my spirituality. I had, what was for me, a significant spiritual awakening several years ago which was followed by a sacred practise to honour that. But over the years it’s faded. I met someone, fell in love, bought a flat and my whole self has been very much tied up in the material world and ways of being. I’d forgotten to honour, to hold sacred, to look inwards and I was beginning to lose touch with any sense of my higher self. We discussed our human tendency to corrupt and engineer spirituality which is something I also think about a lot and that makes me hesitant to align myself… yogi bunnies, green juices, self-preoccupied manifestation, charlatan healers and so on. This is something I explored in my novel, What a Shame.
What I was craving was the opportunity to deepen into myself which demanded heart opening, vulnerability, discomfort and a conscious reflection and confronting of the way I’ve been living. It required me to look at the toxicity of the world and the role I play in it: how might I be toxic? I wanted to connect with the softness of what life has to offer, to reconnect with myself as a living breathing organism through meditation, ceremony, group work and breath work (which if you’ve never tried before was mind blowing). Up in those mountains we cultivated a medicine basket together, one of softness, sensuality and breath, a feminine consciousness that we can reach for and use in life. I pondered how receiving I can be, how allowing I can be and how tender I can be. I reminded myself that everything doesn’t have to be an effort, or achieved through strife. Some things arrive with ease when you – as one woman beautifully put it – ‘invite grace to the table’.
We forget that it is possible to exist outside of the matrix and live in more harmony with ourselves, abundantly in our own rhythm and time. And to re-remember we need to ask ourselves this question: what are the master agents of fear that stop me from thriving? It’s about understanding the systems we’ve given away our power to, systems that offer to feed us and yet keep us perpetually hungry. Fiona thinks this hunger comes from a lack of holiness inside and that one of the first things that is taken from our psychic gut is trust. She asked me to look at the patterns I’ve relied on to give me security and stability. Were they real? Did they serve me anymore? Or were they prohibiting me from tapping into something that I know is deeper than what I’ve been taught. I was offered the occasion to pause and look.
I had the opportunity to journey within myself and it was a transformative experience - and I don’t use that word lightly - I’ve returned home with tools and wisdom that are making my day-to-day life better. It’s enabled me to reclaim a new way of being. It allowed my nervous system to reset and recalibrate before going back into the reality of my own life. There is no such thing as the pill of immediate change; real change requires taking small and consistent steps forward each day. But I’ve rekindled greater self-awareness and self-honouring. This retreat was about climbing out of the box of what we’ve been told and not expecting anything to be true unless we’ve examined it to make it our own truth first.
It was a week of making new friends, meditation, yoga, hiking, delicious food, massage, craniosacral therapy, reconnecting with nature, cacao ceremony, conscious cinema, quantum energy healing, acupuncture and so much more. I feel truly grateful for the experience and am determined to integrate it.
I have to credit this entire piece to Fiona, it’s made up of her teachings and I’d like to share three of her ‘Grandmother Wisdoms’ because I think they’re useful to reflect on:
1. Everything Changes and Everything Ends
We need to learn to stop clinging, to stop holding on. We need to get more comfortable with letting go otherwise we live in fear of endings. Everything has a cycle, just as nature has her seasons, we too will have winters and summers in our lives and we need allow them and be accepting. From an end springs a new beginning, whether I like it or not.
2. Life Doesn’t Owe You Comfort
Under the spell of modern life we freak out when things don’t go how we want them to. We can be brittle and tense. But we need to move away from this auto response of dissatisfaction. Things don’t always go our way. Life isn’t always fair. Pain is part of it, and it’s how we grow. I need to acquaint myself with discomfort and let go of my entitlement.
3. Romantic Love Might Not Be What You Expect
We give our energy to old notions of romantic love. The idea of a soul mate has been so brutally miss sold to us. You aren’t going to meet the exact man or woman to take all your troubles away. You are going to meet the exact man or woman to mirror some ancestral energy that hasn’t been cleared. You are going to meet the exact man or woman to play out your karma. My partner Mark is the exact person to help me break down my ego – the narrative of prince charming is a myth; he is a unicorn.
I also wanted to share some journaling questions which I’m currently working through myself:
1. How much do you savour life?
2. Why do you think you are here?
3. How kind are you to yourself?
4. Where do you not treat yourself well?
5. What are the master agents of fear that stop you from thriving?
6. What story is running you and what are you giving your power to?
7. Who would you be if you didn’t have to achieve?
If you’re interested, here’s some more info about the retreat I went on:
If there are things that resonate with you in this piece, I’d really like to ask that you share it with just one other person. And I’d love you to leave a comment with your thoughts. I suppose it feels quite vulnerable talking about my spirituality in this space but I really feel something powerful can shift when we come together and reflect.
Lastly but certainly not least, I want to thank and honour the women who participated in the retreat with me. For your fierce rooting, your deep wisdom, your boundless vulnerability and the power in your softness. Thank you for being on the other side of that door. Thank you for the holding. Thank you for making it safe. You all hold a special place in my heart and have paved a way for the sort of connection I’d usually shy away from or grunt at. I am (even in spite of my more cynical self), ever so truly and sincerely grateful.
YES to everything you just wrote. It is all so relatable as I was on my first women's retreat this summer in Cornwall and it felt so magical. But equally, I think we need to open the discussion in terms of accessibility and how these retreats are, most of the time, a massive budget financially. I know it's a vicious circle cos we need to make it sustainable for the person organising etc, but ultimately, we tend to always see the same kind of people attending: cis, middle-class (or somehow privileged), able-bodied white women... How do we find solutions to this issue in the capitalist world we live in? Cos I love being surrounded by women and doing the work together, but I also think I won't be able to grow if I see the same type of people in these (supposedly) unlearning/shedding layers/growth spaces. Sorry for the little rant, just wanted to share!
Shit yes! It seems to be the time to be going exploring, opening up those old wounds and looking around inside for any pus that remains. I also finished up a 10 day vipassana a week ago and this theme of breaking the ego down was central. I celebrated my birthday in silence and thought of all the ways I could draw attention to the fact that it was my birthday, and simply observed this peacock in me that sometimes wants to fluff it's feathers. I returned to 'real life' a week ago and the reintegration has been very tough, seeing all the pus dissolve and move through the system, but knowing that it is moving and leaving is the point of importance. This first point you highlight from Fiona is the fundamental inherent wisdom from the vipassana: the reality of impermanence. It's high time we all sat with it, in pain and in pleasure, and realised that everything is changing and we shouldn't cling to or run from things simply because our ancient habit patterns demand it. I wish you all the best in your spiritual journey, one day at a time :)