Spiritual Retreats & the White Latifa
A Few Words on Essential Will
As swimmers dare
to lie face to sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit's deep embrace
- Denise Levertov
Essential will--what some Sufis term “the white latifa”--has been spoken of as having two distinct qualities, which though distinct, are not really separate from each other. In fact, they are like the two wings of the same bird.
The first quality--its more “yin” aspect--has to do with a receptive willingness to embrace reality just the way it is, a radical allowing of its flow and direction as that flow enters our lives through the present moment. This may require that we turn our own willfulness down a notch; that we begin to let go, allow…
The energetic quality here can be like settling all the way back into a reclining chair, and allowing the inherent structure of the situation to support us. Like a swimmer floating on her back, or a hawk riding on the thermals. Someone had forgotten to tell us that we could relax. And that rather than having to do the Australian crawl through life—which is quite exhausting—we could lean back and float a bit, and begin to get a better sense of what might then uphold us. This, in fact, is one of essential will’s wonderful qualities—what we might term “buoyancy” or “support.”
The second feature of essential will is what we might think of as its more yang, or disciplined feature. This is a willingness to do whatever we can that supports our spiritual presence, our capacity for being—as well as the willingness and capacity to refrain from whatever it is that undermines or obscures our capacity for being.
Both features of essential will help regulate the amount of support and confidence we feel in our lives. We feel more confident when our awareness is resting upon what is actually unfolding, rather than resisting the unfoldment of reality, judging it, feeling that we have to control the uncontrollable, or basing our sense of well-being upon some other outcome than what is actually taking place. Similarly, we feel on more secure ground when we are taking good care of ourselves, and living in such a way that what we do supports and sustains our capacity for being. It has thus been said that whenever one is dealing with issues of support or issues of confidence, the will is at issue. So if we are feeling frustrated with what’s happening in our lives, if we feel out of control, or feel inadequately supported or lacking in confidence, something may need to be recalibrated in how we are manifesting our will.
The nature of essential will is a subtle phenomenon. Though it can be palpable, the Source of this buoyant flow is both invisible and mysterious. But perhaps I might better reflect essential will—especially its more “disciplined” aspect—in exploring how this facet manifests in spiritual retreats.
Spiritual retreats can be especially potent occasions for re-routing our prevailing form of “idiot’s momentum,” putting us on another trajectory. They seem to offer us special conditions that make more possible a shift in our assemblage point--a shift in the vantage through we experience our lives. The special conditions (or structures) of such a retreat support us in accessing our most innate and primordial awareness--which paradoxically, is completely structure-less and not dependent on any condition.
For Pure Awareness itself is, and has always been here, if commonly obscured by our ego structures. This undivided, non-dual awareness is innate and un-created--and the only thing that doesn't come and go. And so, what's really "special" about the conditions of a good spiritual retreat is that the disciplined aspect of the will is actually being employed in a more functional way. And it is this, in part, that helps give rise to the “shift” that transforms our perception, and heightens our capacity for a deeper form of being.
In Tibetan Buddhismit is said that in order to have a good spiritual retreat three things must be present. The first of these elements in itself consists of three elements. These are “the three solitudes”—the solitude of the body, the solitude of speech, and the solitude of the mind.
The solitude of the body means you have retreated from the physically appearing distractions in your life. You’ve left the television, the Internet, the six-pack of beer behind. You’ve altered something in your allegiance to your to-do list, and toward “the ten thousand things” in order to become more intimate with the One. In other words, this solitude of the body leaves you more alone in the space, with less there that might distract you, less there filling the space. It’s like “less is more”--because you’ve minimized external temptations that might seduce your attention. So this solitude is the most externalized of the three, but it nonetheless is a helpful support. Support—there’s that word again—for we seem to encounter it wherever we are dealing with the will.
Solitude of speech means you’re undertaking the discipline of giving up un-necessary talking, perhaps consenting to a period of Noble Silence, in which you are not talking at all. Or if you do talk, you only say what is needed, and nothing more, nothing that isn’t essential. Here we might recognize that much of what we normally say is often only feeding the ego—at the expense of essence. And so the “special condition” of solitude of speech is a support for not using speech in a way that could further obscure what we are on retreat in order to more fully discover and embody.
There is a spiritual principle here, one that was often reflected by Gurdjieff--namely, that in order for a transformation of consciousness to ensue, something (the ego) must be rendered passive so that something else (essence) might become active. By being disciplined in regards to speech, the energy that might be frittered away in gossip, drawing attention to the self, resisting one’s fear of alone-ness, or finding fault with others, is thus free to become more skillfully channeled.
Solitude of mind means that you are retreating from the tendency to become so involved with your own subconscious gossip, and in particular with grasping and aversion, with hope and fear. Hope and fear are like the arms and legs of "monkey mind," a mind that is always jumping around, a mind that is seldom fully present for what is actually unfolding. What we hope for or fear are seldom what’s actually happening now, not what Holy Will is actually sending our way. Hope and fear are largely projections onto the future--one is an idealized projection, the other is paranoid. But both of these tendencies can obscure the deeper reality—that which is actually unfolding right now.
Essential will –or “Holy Will” as it is sometimes called-- are terms that evoke both the Source and direction of this unfoldment through which the Infinite displays itself, and comes into form. The Source is invisible, the “display” is what we see, hear, feel, and so on. And part of the good news is that this Source flows through us too. The only “bad news” here is that this flow is not exactly recognized--let alone graciously received-- by monkey mind, which seems quite distracted from this flow by hallucinatory bananas in one form or another. So solitude of the mind means you are undertaking the discipline of not continuing the trajectory of monkey mind, the hallucinatory projections of the mind that obscure our deeper nature.
Aside from the matter of the three solitudes, it is said that if we are to have a good retreat we need to have a second element in place, and this is a practice “about which, one shouldn’t be confused.” No matter its form, the practice in itself is a form of discipline. It helps focus and lends clarity and sharpness to the mind--like a well-honed machete that can cut through whatever is obscuring our path.
Lastly, the final element said to be necessary in order to empower a good retreat is that we should put forward our best effort--yet not have too many expectations. The teaching to not have too many expectations is like preventive-medicine. It’s warning us beforehand that our expectations could get us into trouble. For these expectations can easily arise and become latched onto without our being fully aware of them. And in this way our expectations are an often unseen obscuration, for they set us up to look for something else, something other than what Holy Will might actually have in mind for now, something other than what is actually being sent our way.
Our expectations can thus blind us to what is, and thus prevent us from being able to merge with, or properly receive the infusing support of the invisible Source. For better or worse, our expectations are like the “coming attractions” as projected by the ego, what the ego thinks “ought” to be happening next, monkey mind’s version of Holy Will.
Without having internalized this preventive medicine, we might expect too much of ourselves, or perhaps, of the retreat leader--and then wind up being disappointed when either fails to live up to our ideal. This disappointment could color much of a retreat, a whole afternoon or evening—or a whole life for that matter. Or we might wind up having specific expectations for the retreat itself. Wow, this is going to be great, something truly transcendental, a first-hand experience of the Great Blah Blah.
Well, the truth is that we are having an experience of “the Great Blah Blah” all the time, but are often oblivious, or our expectations and fantasies of the Great Blah Blah often fail to match the actual experience. Here as Count Korzybski might say, “the map doesn’t fit the territory.” And so, when we have no expectations we have a better chance of receiving life straight-on, without something inside us that is filtering it, or clutching so tightly on a roller coaster of hope and disappointment.
It’s because we human beings often have so little faith in some rightfully unfolding force that is not of the ego, and because we have this bad mental habit of forming expectations about reality that often don’t match the reality itself, that teachers and retreat leaders are wise to give us this preventive medicine at the very beginning of a retreat. It’s a medicine for the future that will help us stay in the present. No expectations.
And this is good medicine that we might take at the beginning of each and every day, even when we’re not on retreat. In this way we might manage to stay right here with what is, might manage to have a more or less ongoing embrace of reality itself, might really marry the invisible beloved—or at least begin to date it-- by embracing the way it is presently displaying itself. Here we might take the discipline of holding to no expectations like a marriage vow--as in the one that newlyweds take to accept each other “for better and for worse.” (Now you’re sending me rain—great! Time to get wet. Love it. Now what? Oh wow, this—OK, I’m down for it.)
There’s a discipline in all of this-- a discipline in the service of our deeper nature--which is also a discipline of surrender, as in “Thy Will be done.” Remember, I said that the disciplined aspect of the will, and the surrendering part are really the yang and the yin of one phenomenon. And both aspects support a deeper capacity for optimizing our being-ness.
The logos here is really quite simple: we unseat our resistance to the unfoldment of reality, and cut out anything that does not support our capacity for being. We discipline our lives by committing to the practice(s) that draw us closer to our own innate depths and intelligence. In this way we wind up supporting our own true nature--by making ourselves more available to receive and embody essential will.
Though the logos here is really quite simple, I’d be even more of an imposter than I already am if I didn’t also confess how wayward I often am in better aligning with this simplicity. And when this is the case, I can feel a little bereft, a little frustrated or opposed by life, and as if something important is lacking, or not yet here.
Such nuances of deficiency are usually the case whenever any of the lataif--any of our essential facets--are being obscured, or not able to manifest. And besides essential will, there is essential strength (the red latifa), essential peace (the black latifa), essential compassion (the green latifa), and essential joy (the yellow latifa). We’ll speak about them later. But for now, let's return--and conclude--this brief discussion of essential will.
I have been writing about spiritual retreats because I love their capacity to help recalibrate the will, optimize being--and in so doing, bring us more intimately into a deeper experience of reality. And I am also writing about spiritual retreats because they offer us a better view of the disciplined aspect of essential will than we often see in American culture at large--so heavy is our bent for indulgences and distractions that feed the ego, while further obscuring the true “wish fulfilling gem” of our own deeper nature.
The discipline encountered in such retreats may seem as “special” as the gem that such disciplines help us to uncover. But the gem, the discipline--as well as whatever may be obscuring the gem-- are all ongoing features in our daily life as well. And so, the conditions for having a good retreat also turn out to be the conditions for having a good life--a life that has begun to become more congruent with essential will.
Learning how to receive or embody essential will may be far easier on a spiritual retreat than it is in our daily life. And this may be true even if the conditions of the retreat are quite Spartan, severe, or demanding. For the retreat itself will likely provide structure and support for practice. Like the Sabbath, it’s a time that’s been set aside to receive what is timeless. Due to any (or all) of the three solitudes, and due to the collective support of other retreatants, relatively optimal conditions may already be at hand.
The teacher or retreat leader may inspire, guide, reflect, or remind us of the wisdom which lives in us too. With all of these conditions in place, spiritual retreats often offer people a longer, more continuous experience of pure being or presence than they otherwise experience on their own. On a retreat we can thus become more “familiarized” with our deeper nature, and begin to identify more with that instead of some other way that we’ve recently been objectifying ourselves—those distracted and anxious sub-personalities who are often living our lives.
In all these ways, and for all these reasons, spiritual retreats can introduce us to a level of being that we are actually wired for, and capable of manifesting. But the truly challenging part of this equation is in learning how to more fully manifest what we have experienced on retreats in the context of our daily lives.
That’s where the rubber really meets the road. But if we have not begun to internalize the more disciplined part of the will, the lovely states of being and presence that we experienced on our retreat may just fade into a memory, instead of inspiring us to continue to practice and bring what we experienced on retreat into the rest of our lives.
Here we need to become our own teacher, our own sheikh, our own vajra or zen master. We need to be the one capable of turning off the television and opening to formlessness, deconstructing our own inner dramas. We need to be the one who can discipline our more unruly parts, and who can perk up our attention to what is presently unfolding--while having the humility to graciously receive it. We need to be capable of shifting our own assemblage point, rather than remaining totally dependent on someone else--or some special situation--to do this for us.
In other words, we need to be able to optimize and embody both the surrendered, as well as the disciplined aspects of essential will. Much of our capacity for future development will hinge upon this. For, until we have better internalized these features, we will remain as tourists to our own deeper nature.