I recently returned from the best spiritual retreat of my life. It was the most absorbing, supportive and productive period of practice. The retreat was taught by Alan Chapman, my friend and erstwhile magickal cohort, but before anyone concludes that my assessment is therefore biased, consider the admission it requires on my part: that whereas I have ineffectually fannied around for the past five years, Alan has created a teaching and a vocation that presents a joyful, revolutionary challenge to the spiritual orthodoxy.
The guru, pictured snickering into his coffee after telling a knob joke.
Putting it frankly, Alan’s approach pisses all over Buddhism from a great height. My previous retreats were all Buddhist-based, with the attendant assumption that spiritual development demands confrontation with suffering, and that progress only occurs through intense effort. Alan’s teaching draws instead on Greek philosophy for its cosmology and methods. This is a genuine enlightenment tradition that originated in the West but, unfortunately, has not been properly understood or practised here in quite some time.
Here is how we practised it last week: we socialised; listened to Alan explain the teaching and its practice; took turns to engage in one-to-one Socratic dialogue with Alan; sat in formal practice approximately three times per day, for periods of up to 30 minutes; used a specific method for examining each other’s dreams, day-dreams and ‘random’ thoughts; ate nice food; went for relaxing walks and visited the pub.
By omitting the usual Buddhist lunacy of ‘noble silence’, last week acquired the flavour of a shared endeavour. I became absorbed not only in my own process, but also in the expression of that same process in my fellow retreatants. During the week people were indeed waking up.
Alan has formulated three classical stages of enlightenment. The first of these is awakening. This is the attainment of abiding non-dual awareness, a stage of insight sometimes described as ‘enlightenment’ by Buddhist teachers such as Daniel Ingram, or by Advaita teachers such as Tony Parsons. The second of Alan’s stages is liberation, which I will discuss in more detail later. The third is enlightenment, which Alan also refers to as ‘Returning to the Source’. There is a further refinement of understanding beyond this stage, but I do not currently have the personal experience to describe anything beyond liberation.
I will not be describing either Alan’s teachings or methods in any great detail. He is the one best-placed to do that. Instead, I will describe what happened to me during the week, the attitudes I adopted and the insights I received through exposure to the teaching.
I entered the retreat recognising that I was badly stuck. The last few years have been pretty tough. Yet on the basis of the weird and wonderful things that had happened during my magickal alliance with Alan, I was pretty confident that a breakthrough was likely.
As readers of this blog are aware, I love psychic and psychological stuff, and the breakthroughs expressed themselves primarily in these terms. This did not surprise me, but others were having very different experiences. Some were engaging with the process on an intellectual level, some on an emotional level. Others were having insights during the teaching, whilst they were fully conscious and awake. In my case, the insights arrived mostly when I was alone and asleep.
On the first night I dreamt:
I was at a magickal moot where a group of women were taking on possession by goddesses. The women were attractive, and in some cases not wearing many clothes. After the ritual, there were all these expressions of divine femininity with which we could converse. Some were so alluring, they were intimidating. A voice introduced each goddess and explained her nature. As the introductions proceeded, the images became more abstract and the explanations included unpronounceable languages, or featured terms that could not be translated. The images were no longer like women at all, but were abstract designs featuring lines, or rips made in sheets of paper.
The retreat was so informal that the closest thing to it I have experienced is a magickal moot. And Alan was making for the retreat the kind of outrageous claims he used to make back in our magick-wrangling days. (Not that they failed to bear fruit.)
The Platonic cosmology. You’ll have to come on a retreat to find out what it means…
Alan asserts that no effort is necessary for the process to advance. Paradoxically, the only thing to be done is to avoid the temptation to force or try to guide the process oneself, a sure-fire recipe for becoming stuck.
In the Platonic cosmology, the soul is in the process of perfecting itself and returning to its source in the One. During the retreat we were invited to explore what we really want. This exploration through questioning revealed how there are ultimate ideals for which everyone is longing, a longing that no one can remember ever being without. Our longing for goodness, wholeness and perfection entails that in some way we have known these already, and the soul is on a mission to return to them. In Western spiritual traditions, this longing, its source and its goal, is represented in the figure of ‘the Beloved’.
My dream on the first night seemed concerned with identifying the Beloved. At first, real women are assuming divine forms. But already there is progression into something new and unfamiliar: abstract forms and unfamiliar languages, which bypass the ‘allure’ and ‘intimidation’.
At home with Grimes
The next dream I recorded:
The singer Grimes is coming to the retreat centre. She will be staying in my room. We are a couple.
The Beloved is now a specific figure . We have an established relationship and her arrival is imminent. There is a confidence in this dream, which might be arrogance or psychotic pride, if it were not that the longing is reciprocated by the Beloved. The retreat was enabling me to understand how the longing always already is reciprocated.
If Alan’s first big claim was that no effort is necessary, and all we had to do was allow the transmission of the teacher’s enlightenment to work on us, then the second was this: that suffering is not a necessary part of the process.
This is so contrary to what I have read and experienced in the past that it seemed too good to be true. But it turned out that it is true. Last week was the only retreat on which I experienced virtually no discomfort or suffering, yet it was the only retreat during which I attained a classical stage of the process. So-called ‘Dark Nights of the Soul’ or periods of ‘contraction’ are not inevitable phases of spiritual progress. Alan convinced me that it really is possible to have only fun whilst on retreat.
There was a whole session exploring what the ‘shitty bits’ in spiritual practice actually are. I will not rehearse it here, except to say the realisation that nailed it for me is how the expression of longing for the Beloved, which is the focus of the practice Alan teaches, is not dissimilar from the longing to be free from the desolation of a Dark Night. To experience one is actually to experience both. In a flash of insight, I could not envisage ever being stranded in a Dark Night again.
To be in love is to long for someone, even in their presence. And to be loved is to be longed for in return. The longing of the soul is at once its love for the Beloved, and the longing of the Beloved for ourselves. The assurance in the dream that Grimes’s love was mine was an expression of this. Only a misguided assumption that the longing signifies a deficit, or that persuasion is required to win someone who already loves us, could spoil the imminent wedding.
Me and Dave
The relationship with the Beloved came into more detailed focus in the next dream:
David Bowie visited. He played the guitar part from his song Fashion. ‘That sounds amazing,’ I thought. ‘It just pours naturally from him.’ The problem was that Bowie could interact only with other celebrities. It felt a bit shitty, but I pretended to be the comedian Vic Reeves, interviewing Bowie, in order to spend time talking with him. I might also have to pretend to be Bob Mortimer for a while, after being Vic, but this was not a disaster: Bowie was happily talking. This was the only situation that Bowie could deal with, and I was creating that situation, making him comfortable.
Waking, there was a blissful sensation in my heart that I had never before experienced, as if my heart were open to the world and something were radiating outwards. It was neither overwhelming nor uncomfortable, but somehow like a quietly flickering flame.
Alan’s analysis of the ‘Bowie’ dream. Part of the technique includes drawing and writing out the dream.
The Beloved, effortlessly excellent, overflowing in the expression of Its goodness, appears in the guise of Bowie. The image of the Beloved seemed to be diversifying also in my co-retreatants’ dreams, encompassing hermaphrodites, transgendered individuals, and a septuagenarian in the costume of a sexy young woman.
Alan’s approach to dream divination is that the dream shows what is already the case. There is no guidance or instruction to be extracted from a dream. If we understand by means of the dream what is happening now, then that understanding takes effect. When Alan analysed my dream in the group, it became apparent how pretending to be a celebrity afforded the contact with Bowie. This might seem inauthentic, but rising up to Bowie’s level in the guise of Reeves was already proving successful. What the dream showed was that my assumption I would have to go on pretending was unfounded. It feels to me in the dream that I shall also have to pretend to be Bob Mortimer (Reeves’s comedy partner), yet this never actually happens. Instead I wake up to bliss.
Not my job
Understanding the dream did indeed appear to be enough to drop a false belief and allow the process to continue. The ‘Bowie’ dream came on Wednesday night, was analysed on Thursday, and the breakthrough into liberation had arrived when I woke on Friday. On the Thursday night I had two dreams, the first one before the breakthrough, the second after. The latter I shall perhaps save for a future article, but this was the former:
I was in a junior role at a fashion agency. The staff were giving cookery demonstrations and serving food to important customers. A young, gay guy, senior to me, was cooking. His boss, an immaculately coiffured black woman, looked on in controlled horror. ‘Who is coming to the next demonstration on Friday?’ someone asked. ‘Dior,’ said the woman. It was clear the young ‘chef’ would not be competent. I was so junior within the organisation that none of this had anything to do with me.
A fashion agency is certainly a place where I would be the least qualified to work. But within the agency, all the staff are incompetent at what they have chosen to pursue. This was not an anxiety dream, because of the pleasurable realisation at the end that none of it was my responsibility. Dior would come on Friday, regardless of anything I could do. Dior / Dios / Dieu / God is the One beside whom everyone is incompetent.
When I woke on Friday, for the first time in five years there was a change in the structure of consciousness. Before then, at the level of awakening, on looking into awareness there had been something that did not fit any category of the personal mind: it was not a thought, emotion, sensation or idea. Beside it, all categories and distinctions failed.
The problem I had struggled with for the past five years was how this ‘thing’, which was evidently what people have been describing for millennia as the experience of God, could have any relationship to me. The answer had seemed that our natures were distinct: God is ‘absolute’ (the same for all time, everywhere and to every being), whilst my awareness is ‘relative’ to this.
At awakening, God manifested as a radical nothingness transcending consciousness, on the threshold of which comprehension failed. But, last week, this changed in a totally unexpected way. What specifically had changed was the nature of my longing for God, the longing for the Beloved. Where, formerly, the sense of radical nothingness had appeared, as something impersonal and foreign from the nature of my being, in its place was now the longing. The longing itself had transformed into something impersonal and absolute. As such, there was no longer any distinction between my longing for God and God’s longing for me. This absolute love, a love in which loving is indistinguishable from being loved, meant that there were no longer two distinct natures. God and I were unified in a single awareness.
Selfie with the guru.
I could not have dreamt in a million years that this was remotely possible. In subjective terms, it feels like my heart has expanded infinitely. But this infinite heart is God’s as much as mine. My heart is encompassed within the heart of God, even as God raises mine to the dimensions of Its heart.
Why had it taken five crappy years to come home to this? Alan had guided me to a place where I could understand. Sick of the apparent disconnect between my nature and God’s, I had decided that the disconnect was not real and had come to regard the experience of God as an appearance only, as merely a sensation. This was in effect a denial of the Beloved, an attempt prematurely to terminate the disconnect, rather than entering more deeply into relationship and resolving the seeming problem through genuine understanding.
Alan’s retreat returned my practice to the longing for the Beloved. In other words, it put me in touch again with my soul.
At the moment, I am still on honeymoon with this new phase. Alan has briefed me on the next set of seeming problems, which I will perhaps discuss here if or when they arise. For now, I am still trying to express this new understanding as fully as I can, and to the Buddhist framework I have used in the past to describe these experiences, I think I must finally say goodbye.
 It is interesting how Grimes featured in a recent article on this blog, in connection with the figure of the Girl Genius. It looks to me now as if the appearance of the Girl Genius archetype foreshadowed the Beloved. The vision of the Girl Genius seems to describe the quest of the soul for the Beloved, and her relationship with duality now appears to be a naive description of liberation. Something seems to have been trying to help me out even further back than this. In August last year, an instruction arrived whilst meditating that I should dedicate myself to the goddess Psyche, who is – of course – a personification of the soul. My article ‘The Myth of Psyche and Eros’ was the result, but Apuleius’s allegory seems pretty trite alongside Plato.