About 11 years ago I attended a class at the Ghost Ranch Conference Center in Northern New Mexico for the first time and fell head over heels in love. With the landscape, the culture, the history, the big sky, the silent open spaces. It felt like a homecoming of major proportions and I couldn't wait to return. It was also a fabulous place to hold an expressive arts intuitive painting workshop so I set about to create my first week long Painting From The Wild Heart retreat in the year 2000. I just returned from facilitating my 10th workshop in that aptly named land of enchantment and am amazed, as always, by the power of the experience.
I can't get enough of being at Ghost Ranch for so many reasons not least of which is that it is home to some of the most amazingly beautiful, red rock, high desert on the planet. And it is also one of those places where the land itself is very much alive. As soon as you step on the ground there you feel the energy zinging through you. And I don't think that it's just the altitude.
Who needs the Holiday Inn when you can have coyotes?
But the thing I love almost more than anything is something that at first glance looks like a major drawback. The accommodations at Ghost Ranch are rustic. And I mean extremely rustic. Where we stay as a group is in little adobe cabins that GR calls casitas ( and as one of my students so aptly put it, it makes them sound much more romantic than they really are). The casitas are incredibly spare- like monk's cells- and although they do have electricity so you can read by lamplight before you go to sleep at night- there are no phones in the rooms, no cell phone reception and the bathrooms are communal camp affairs that are 100 yards away from the casitas themselves.
But when you step outside in the middle of the night the sky is vast and filled with stars and the coyotes are often howling. And the first thing you see when you stumble out of bed in the morning is the flat topped Pedernal Mountain ( that Georgia O'Keefe painted so often she thought God should give it to her) to your right, and a gorgeous red rock mesa facing you and filling the vista directly in front of you.
Deep down we are pretty simple critters.
Everything is stripped down to what is essential. We eat, we sleep, we paint, we commune with the land, we open to each other. And then we do it again the next day. We meet every morning to move and breathe and dance and to convene in a sacred circle where we get to witness each others process with compassion and no commentary. A space is created where we just get to be seen and heard without judgment. No matter what it is, all is held as holy in the circle.
One person will be joyfully describing the beauty she encountered on her early morning hike and then the next person will be sobbing in grief over a painful childhood memory that has shown up in her painting. Or whining loudly about trouble sleeping or the sometimes less than stellar GR menu choices. Or getting in touch with some powerful aspect of who she is that she is now courageous enough to share with the group. Or just being her sweet and simple goofball self.
There's a reason why mystics and spiritual questers have often gone to the desert to regain their connection with their source. Because it is so wild and elemental it is a place where we have no choice but to tell the truth. It takes us directly to the core of our experience. And because we are so stripped down it allows the light of our essential self to shine through.
Over the years so many of my students have told me that when they first encountered the rusticness they wanted to turn around and leave. In fact I had two women who attended last year and who made a pact with each other that they would never return. But of course, the call of the desert, the call of the circle of honest and powerful women, and the call of their deep creative self was just too strong and they found themselves signing up again for a second time.
Who is that mysterious wise woman and why is she talking in my voice?
As I sit in the circle each morning and we take turns speaking of what's most real for us in that moment I am literally stunned by the beauty and wisdom that comes out of each person's mouth. Each woman is a gift. Each woman is exquisitely attuned to her muse, to the way that the divine is choosing to come through her. They don't hold back. They are able to trust what is being given with humility and grace. And in turn they offer each other their stories and experiences in a spirit of generosity and compassion for themselves and for their shared humanness.
We become a sisterhood of truth tellers and seekers of authenticity. It's not a time for hiding out or second guessing our natural and spontaneous feelings, wishes, needs and desires. It's an opportunity to practice faith that whatever is being expressed through each person at that moment is supported and needed by the great communal heart.
These are the joys of being on retreat. It is designed to give you the time and space for relationship with yourself and your divine inner rumblings. You are supported by the retreat environment to place your attention and focus on what is most vital and fundamental to your true well-being front and center for a while. It's a way for you to remember who you really are and why you are here.
Being on retreat in the desert without all my material stuff reminds me of how little I really need to make me happy. It is delicious. It fills me with myself. I feel cleansed and connected to what is most important. Being Real. Love. Creativity. Community. Compassion. Coyotes.
Yes my life is busy, but breathing is actually pretty darn important.
But the question I am faced with when I return is how can I have that same sense of deep connection with my essential nature in the MIDDLE of my busy life.
Our lives are by necessity filled with distractions. Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the dentist, today the car needs brakes, I have client calls to return and need to find a time to celebrate my mother in laws birthday. And I am on my own with feeding myself, because as mysterious and questionable as camp fare can be at times at least I don't have to plan a menu, cook.... or clean up.
One of the things we did at the workshop was to start each day with simply sensing where we were in that moment. We would close our eyes and breathe with each other, practicing being present to whatever was showing up. And then we would bring that sense of presence to our painting and our contact with each other throughout the day.
When I'm in the desert and held in the container of soulful, creative women that connection to source goes deeper in and is easier to make somehow. But this time, since I've been home, I find that now I have a groove for it. I have a strong sense memory of what it feels like to simply be. It's something that I can draw on. The remembrance is strong, the circle is in my heart, the voices of my wild heart sisters still resonating and resounding in my body and my soul.
The retreat is alive in me. And continues to remind me that I am more than my distractions. I am more, much more, than my lists and my anxieties, my aching teeth and my hopes and plans for the future. I am able to remember that my essence is always available for me to tap into, no matter what is happening around me.
I gratefully acknowledge that this time I have somehow managed to bring the magic of the desert and the felt sense of creative community home with me. I just hope that it's a permanent installation.
I don't have any more desert extravaganzas planned for the rest of this year but I do have a Painting From The Wild Heart weekend retreat scheduled at my fun and funky art studio in Oakland on November 13-15 that can give you that same feeling of coming home to yourself through your creative process and the joy of being witnessed and supported by a strong creative community. You can find out more info about that workshop by clicking here.