By Emma McGill ♀
I just got back from a 5 night Soul Vacation at the Pachamama Retreat in Todos Santos, Mexico. To say I learned a few things is the understatement of my year. It flipped my world upside down. Sometimes the veil is lifted and the universe reveals its magic to us. Sometimes it’s subtle, a fleeting moment, barely even noticed. What I experienced in Mexico was none of those gentle glimpses. The Universe grabbed me by the shoulders and told me it was time to grow. I was in a state of bliss, I felt the pain and clarity of undistracted presence, and I began some sort of transformation, which may be midlife, but feels like death and looks like rebirth (for reasons I’ll soon explain.)
MIDLIFE: WHEN THE UNIVERSE GRABS YOUR SHOULDERS AND TELLS YOU
‘I’M NOT FUCKING AROUND, USE THE GIFTS YOU WERE GIVEN.’
Let me back up a minute and explain. I had booked this retreat at a time when the promise of sun and sand was what got me through the endless hours of work that paved my path. For months, it was a beacon of hope, but as the day of departure neared, I started to dread the trip. I condemned myself for the irresponsible waste of money and stressed about losing a week of progress on time-sensitive goals. I had also injured my lower back a couple weeks prior and, despite my desperate efforts to be fixed (five chiropractic adjustments, two massages, therapeutic yoga, a foam roller and a tennis ball) the pain kept getting worse. I couldn’t comfortably sit in child’s pose, my back muscles were so tight. I was indignant; apparently I wouldn’t be doing yoga on the yoga retreat I’d anticipated for 6 months…. Poor me.
But I pushed through the pain and kept pace to meet the constant demands of my life. Work, child, dinner, blog, pain management, marriage, friends calling, family calling, bills, emails, chores, future planning, obligations, obligations, obligations! Everything felt like an imposition. Even sweet texts from friends provoked an irrational reaction in me. How dare they! I don’t have time for this. I’m in the middle of my work day! I was trying to keep so many balls in the air, they barely touched my hands before they were back up, gaining momentum. I was aware of this manic state, but felt powerless to make it stop. So I kept juggling, faster and faster, hyper-focussed on not letting a single ball drop.
The day came to travel and I got on the plane. For the first time in ten years, I left the country without my computer.
I turned off my cellular data. I disconnected. The twelve hours between my front steps and Pachamama was exactly the amount of time I needed to pack away all the balls, let go of my agenda, and make myself available to receive whatever was in the empty space.
I shared the next few days with a magnificent group of courageous, authentic women (and man). We connected right away and I knew I was surrounded by trusted allies. We engaged in rare forms of interaction: we sat together, looked in each other’s eyes, and we listened. We played, we sang, we shared stories and silence. We laughed, we wept, we supported and we accepted.
The morning after I arrived, we were guided through a sensory exploration of our bodies. It only lasted a couple minutes. We were asked to describe the sensations we discovered without assigning judgement – so it couldn’t be good or bad, painful or pleasurable. In this short exercise, the throbbing pain in my lower back transformed into something more like the sun – hot, powerful and radiant. The sensation wasn’t gone, but I no longer identified it as pain. In a moment, I was free of the trigger. It was crazy. Almost instantly, the thing that had caused so much suffering for weeks was gone. And I was left to consider how much of the suffering was directly caused by the pain and how much was related to my inability to accept it.
That day we got our bearings and explored the quaint town of Todos Santos. Todos Santos means “All Saints” and they call it el Pueblo Mágico– the Magic Town. There’s a healthy mix of locals, expats, artists and seaside culture that all contribute to the laid-back vibe. It was lovely, easy strolling along the old brick roads, where bright pink bougainvillea lined the entrances of historic buildings. We popped into lots of shops and galleries with offerings running the gamut from exquisitely hand-made to tacky and mass-produced. Part of the magic of this town for me was unlocking a latent part of myself who used to speak Spanish fluently and now goes months without an opportunity to practice. When you speak another language, you get to be a slightly different version of yourself. Spanish-speaking Emma feels just a little more easygoing, friendly, and open to adventure.
On Day 3, we travelled several hours up the coast, by van and boat, to a small rock island on the Sea of Cortez where hundreds of sea lions lazed around, barking and burping and basking in carefreedom. Every now and then, one would inch his blubbery body to the edge of his perch until gravity dropped him down in the cool water. That’s where they would dine on a feast of fish and play, like underwater puppies, until they tired out. Then it was back to the business of sunbathing and slowly digesting their fresh catch. That’s their life – Eat, Play, Relax. True role models in the animal kingdom. Thanks to our wetsuits and snorkel gear, we got to witness their world from above water and below.
After our swim, we boated to another island for lunch; white sand beach and clear, blue water. I figured we’d sit on the sand and nibble on whatever picnic fare you can brown bag on a boat in Mexico. But, as we moved closer, we noticed the shore was dotted with what turned out to be luxury tents for sleeping overnight, and one large tent with a long table and chairs, set for our lunch. We were greeted by a hospitable crew who’d prepared beef stew with beans and rice. And we washed it all down with fresh squeezed juices of papaya and pineapple.
With all the activities available to us- horseback riding, surfing lessons, massage and a Temescal – I spent a lot of time in Mexico just lying on a hammock. This is the kind of thing I would normally never get around to doing. Normally, I would research and compare the best hammocks available. I would buy one and string it up in the perfect spot. I would work to get everything done that needs to be done so I can go lie on the hammock.
But I would never get around to lying on the hammock. I would be pulled into one more task, one more priority, one more obligation until time is up and the opportunity is gone. But this week, I relaxed. I didn’t have to cook, or take care of anyone, which helped. I couldn’t distract myself with social media and I had no emails or texts demanding my attention. I didn’t even have to figure out what to do with my time, because that was already planned for me.
The culmination of my trip was a three-hour Vision Quest – a silent, solitary mission in nature, with no distractions (no phone, no book, no journal) in which you are to remain inside a 10-foot perimeter of your own choosing, and stay there. We were given the parameters of this exercise the night before, and began our silence then, as we parted ways for bedtime. The next morning we gathered in the yoga room, where we were led through a guided meditation. Then we headed out, to find the spot we’d settle into for the next several hours.
I began to walk, very slowly, with no destination in mind, just one foot in front of the other. I made my way down a cactus-laden hill, across a dried-out river bed and over a sand dune to a little cove between two dunes, right on the Pacific shoreline. If I’d kept going 10 more feet, I’d have had a perfect view of the ocean, but this was my spot, so I drew a circle in the sand and began to settle in. I tidied up the debris inside my circle, laid out a blanket and took a seat. It was overcast and chilly and the only discernible sound was the crashing waves. I knew I’d be here a while, so I just sat and waited. That’s all. I didn’t try to clear my head of thoughts or pass the time with thoughts. I just waited for whatever came to me and I accepted it. That’s it.
(Side note: I have NEVER been this zen in my life. When I’ve tried meditation in the past – no more than 15 minute sessions – it’s usually an exercise in failure. I put so much effort into trying to breathe slowly, relax my body or clear my mind, that it’s impossible for any of these things to actually happen.)
But, back to the beach. Unlike my previous experiences, sitting here, waiting in my circle was easy and comfortable. I laid back and noticed patches of blue sky breaking through the flat gray. Clouds began to take shape and I watched them as they formed, dissipated and reformed in new configurations. There were so many faces in the clouds! They looked like characters in a Guillermo del Toro film and greek gods. This went on for a while. At some point, while watching these clouds, I was struck with what felt like a profound realization: that all of this – the lightness and the darkness, the beauty and the pain, everything that we see and experience is part of a PERFECT DESIGN.
This wasn’t necessarily a thought that came to me, it was a momentary recognition of Truth. As it washed through me – this experience of knowing – my body wept.
Soon I felt the urge to stand, so I did. I picked up a long stick and dragged it along the inside of my circle, forming a labyrinth three levels deep. I had learned about the symbolism of a labyrinth two years ago, in birthing class, while pregnant with my son. It represents the journey of life, with all its twists and turns, at the center of which is You. Unlike a maze, the walk of a labyrinth is purposeful and you can’t get lost. The birth of my son was an intense and spiritual walk to the center of my labyrinth – a stripping away of my sense of self. But the thing is – the center is not the end point – eventually, you have to make your way back out.
You have changed and you must emerge to claim this new self. It wasn’t until I was walking the path of this sand labyrinth that I realized something had kept me from fully making my way back out. The realization wasn’t intellectual, it was more like a glimpse of the cosmic symmetry that connected my labor and birth nearly two years prior to this moment. And all I knew is I had to walk.
So I walked.
This day, on the beach, I put one foot in front of the other, very, very slowly. The sand was soft and deep, and I had to let one foot settle completely, before lifting the other to transfer my weight. Waves of hot energy came through me, and I wept. To the center of the labyrinth and back I moved, ever so slowly, weeping and breathing, for probably two hours. I’m not exactly sure what it was, but I know that through this experience, something was released that was holding me back. When it was over, with clarity and grace, I made my claim. I am a mother.
Some lessons hit us like revelations; others you have to learn over and over. Maybe we’re too stubborn to hear them the first time, so the Universe keeps giving us opportunities to learn again and again… and again and again.
Here are the lessons I learned (or re-learned) in Mexico:
It is a worthy use of our precious time.
Sometimes acceptance, not force of will, is the path to change. Acceptance doesn’t mean giving up. Acceptance acknowledges that there are greater forces at work beyond our own limited perception.
3. MINIMIZE DISTRACTIONS.
You don’t have to do everything at once. You actually can’t do everything at once. But you can do one thing at a time. And you will do it better if you give it your full attention.
4. DAWDLE, WAIT, RECEIVE.
I am goal-oriented and task-driven. It’s my nature to solve problems, check items off a to-do list, take care of business. These qualities can be helpful and bring a certain kind of satisfaction, but overdoing leads to big stress. A little more aimlessness, a little more curiosity, a little more patience and a little more trust in others reminds me that I’m not actually in charge, and frees me to focus on just doing my part.
5. SPEND TIME IN NATURE.
It is therapy for the senses.
6. EAT, PLAY, AND RELAX.
Be like the Sea Lions: eat, play, and relax.
Do any of these lessons resonate with you? We all need different things at different times to grow. What lessons are you currently learning or re-learning?
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Psst…Gratitude to our amazing adventure + travel retreat photographer.