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East to West: Heaven on Earth

November 20, 2012

By Angela Jeffs

October 2012

A month or so after making the decision to leave Japan for at least one year, I was reviewing a telecast of the Australian-born teacher/mystic/healer Leonard Jacobson talking about his book, Journey Into Now, when details of a related retreat came into focus. 

To be held for a week in Provence, France, Heaven on Earth seemed to offer a bridge between East and West –  a period of self-reflection in a beautiful place – around the dates we had been thinking to make the move to Scotland. Without so much as a second thought, I booked a place and then more or less forgot about it until October came around.

With my husband embroiled in visa problems, moving plans were on hold. But my aunt was not getting any younger. Also I had paid the deposit on the retreat. So it was decided; I would go on ahead.

Traveling from Tokyo to London to Paris to Avignon and beyond was demanding but by breaking the journey into steps, perfectly manageable. Being flung amongst 65 plus strangers felt initially much less so, and well out my comfort zone. But curiosity has always been a good friend (except when it has got me into trouble, and that was not curiosity’s fault, but rather unresolved aspects of my personality); in this case it served me well.

Residences Les Belle Heures is a complex of holiday houses, gardens and pools clustered around an old vineyard in the tiny village of Roaix, with everything required for a quiet, simple and peaceful life:  lovely walks, good restaurants, excellent boulangerie and charcuterie, etc.

I shared with a social worker from California and a couple from Finland, with everyone (and I include myself here) presenting their own challenges. Andrea was quiet and intense; Jukka and Sinikka were friendly but (as couples often do) had their own ways of doing things. Lessons in tolerance and acceptance, of course, reminding us all to stay in the present and not get caught up in our stories of anger, resentment, envy, blame, guilt, and so on.

This was very much the theme of the retreat: that only in the present moment do we have heaven on earth. To live in the past is a waste of time and energy because it is gone, vanished, irrelevant; ditto the future unknown. Only in presence do we experience peace, compassion, perfection.

The first evening, gathering on the first floor of the Maire in the centre of the village, Leonard introduced the work ahead. Being based in California, it was natural enough that 50 per cent of those attending were American, many of whom had worked with him before. The rest were mainly European – Dutch, Croation, German, Swedish, Danish, Swiss – but also Israeli, Venezuelan, Canadian, and Japanese.

When people spoke, they began with their name and where they were from. When it came to my turn, I said “Angela, from here” which was not trying to be clever but true: I had left Japan and I had not yet arrived in Scotland. I had stepped out my old life onto a bridge between past and future. I was neither in one or the other. I truly was in the present.

On the first full day of the retreat, Leonard explained over the three sessions (morning, afternoon and evening) what he terms in his book, “the two step dance of awakening”. The first was to choose the present moment as the only truth of life. The second step led to mastery… mastery of what distracts us from presence: the emotions that arise from the old stories of who we are, thought and ego.

His teachings were punctuated with question and answer sessions, and powerful sharings that more often than not resulted in awakenings and healings.

Monday’s morning session spent some time discussing a participant who had clashed with Leonard the previous day and chosen not to attend. A few felt Leonard had been too tough; many felt relieved the man had gone; others simply accepted choices made.

The afternoon offered up more sharings and the consideration that anger against self is the most unhealthy and unconstructive of such emotional directives. That evening, Leonard worked with the first two of five groups of 12. Anyone else could meet for a meditation session, or take time off.

We could swim, walk, socialise or just sit in the sunshine and watch leaves turn russet and grapes concentrate their sweetness on the vines. Described from the start as a Retreat-Vacation, our stay proved to be a masterfully organised week of work and relaxation. Tuesday morning we hung out in Vaison-la-Romaine, whose morning market dates back to the 16th century. Thursday we spent most of the day exploring medieval hilltop villages, with amazing vistas of the vineyards of the Cote de Rhone and lavender-coloured mountain ranges.

After months of sorting and clearing at the house in Zushi, and the intensely emotional partings and leave-takings of the final weeks and days, such space and quietude could have proved a shocking contrast. Instead I sank into it with relief and gratitude, wishing only that Akii was there also, he being in far greater need of relief and relaxation than me.

Me? I felt calm. Grounded. Neither lost nor found. As I said to Leonard one afternoon: “I am standing on the bridge watching the water carrying the past into the future.” Amazingly it had nothing to do with me. Only the now had any meaning, and it really was perfect.

Perfect until, that is, I was identified as being spiritually complacent. This was very shocking to me. I thought I had been on the alert – aware of the dangers of spiritual egoism, especially among those presuming to teach and facilitate. I had witnessed it in a counsellor who spent much of his time telling his elaborate and long-winded story to explain how deeply special he was: chosen. I had also seen it in teachers who regarded themselves beyond politics and the everyday: superior.

I could not sleep that night. I was worrying about what I said in the group the previous evening, which was so inconsequential. Why did I bother? Leonard had said several times that it was fine to remain silent as long as we remained in presence. And I believed much of the time I was. But as I stood midweek on the top of the bridge and began to move down towards the other side, back onto land, I could feel my story waiting for me and ego craving to take me over and back into it.

Although I had faith and very much believed in the Zen adage, Leap and the net will catch you, anxieties were beginning to manifest: how to make a living, how to translate my full and active and useful life into one that would work in Scotland, how to be seen and acknowledged.

Rightly or wrongly, as a foreigner in Japan I had always felt very visible and special. Among the largely Caucasian group on retreat, I felt the opposite. This feeling was sure to become even more pronounced in the world outside, where I would simply be another aging grey-haired European woman. In Japan I always felt young and vibrant; it offered me all the recognition and appreciation I had lacked as a child. I know it sounds vain and pathetic, and presence is the answer, but by Wednesday midnight I felt vain and pathetic. And by Thursday, lost in of old hurt and shame.

That night, sitting on the toilet and struggling with the constipational effects of extreme dietary changes, I heard myself groan Oh, it’s so painful.

What is, I queried.

Letting go of shit! I heard my self groan in reply.

I asked Leonard the next morning how to get out of my spiritual trap (and let go of all the shit).

He advised me to stay out of judgement and have some fun doing so. I said I thought I didn’t know how to have fun. This had resurfaced during an exercise with David, when he asked me a) who I am in my story & b) who I am without my story. I realised even more strongly that when my father told me at age three to look after everyone, I not only put away all childish things, but also the ability to lighten up. Interesting then to choose to live in Japan for so long, a country of such extremes – serious to the point of making suicide an art form.

I realised also that I had learned something very important - made a profound leap in consciousness – but missed the opportunity for processing and clarification. Leaving the retreat was therefore painful and difficult: more a journey into sudden and unexpected rocked uncertainty than a journey into the power of now.

Yet after a bomb scare in Paris that emptied Gare du Nord in minutes – a WW2 shell bought as a souvenir and packed in luggage – the journey by Eurostar was intense, with landscape and skyscape exhilarating on every level. It had been an amazing week, a truly life-changing experience for all concerned.

Arriving at St Pancras Station in central London, however, brought me down to earth with a bump. Struggling to be present with the bulky complexities of my luggage, I fell off the train into the future.

Leonard’s website: www.leonardjacobson.com/

 

About the author: After training in theatre and Laban dance, Angela Jeffs stepped sideways into London publishing. She worked freelance as an editor from 1973, then reinvented herself in Japan as a journalist and writer from 1986. She was a weekly columnist for The Japan Times for 22 years, and Japan Correspondent for Asia Magazine in Hong Kong from 1989-1996. Her book Insider's Tokyo, commissioned from Singapore, was published in 2001. Since 2005 she has been developing and facilitating a programme of therapeutic creative writing under the title Drawing on The Writer Within (www.thewriterwithin.net/). Her first eBook, Chasing Shooting Stars, will be published this autumn.
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