Life is getting more changeable for most of us. Many of us these days have to face mortality more directly: perhaps because of our own health, or the passing of a friend or family member. Sufi teachings and other traditions urge us to face our dying to enrich our living: by getting through fears and denial, we can reach a view of death as a positive transition, and our soul can help us in this process. Exploring the soul’s journey was a weekend retreat on these themes, which I co-led with Jilani Cordelia Prescott in 2015.
One of our reasons for organising this event was a hunch that exploring these topics would be helped by the collective concentration and support of a group, and by having a whole weekend to explore deeply, with a mix of group and solo time, and two nights to sleep and dream.
It can be illuminating to imagine that we have a soul which exists before us and chooses this human lifetime, and the family we’re born into, to provide experiences and learning which it needs. Believing that the challenges in our life have a positive purpose has helped me hugely, and stops me feeling like a victim of circumstances. However, finding the positive aspect can be tricky! The retreat offered various ways to help us to listen to our soul, and seek its guidance on questions about our life, death and beyond.
Before the weekend, we shared a number of questions we hoped to explore, so that the soul and intuition would already be engaged with them. Does some part of us have a life of its own, before and after our time in a human body? If we call this our soul, why did it choose to experience life through us? Can it give us some guidance, for this life and beyond? How can we hear its voice? Our aim was not to prescribe answers, nor to assume we all shared the same beliefs, but to share teachings and processes, and create a safe space for each person to explore their own answers.
One of our main sources for this weekend was the book ‘The Soul’s Journey’ by Hazrat Inayat Khan, a leading Sufi teacher in the early twentieth century. He believes that each soul chooses its human life, and is guided by departed souls and angels. He says that “ignorance of the self gives the fear of death”, and the antidote is to identify more with the soul than the body. One benefit of drawing on Sufi teachings is that they are un-dogmatic, centred on open-heartedness and a sense of divine unity in all life: so they can fit alongside many other spiritual teachings.
Another main source was the work of Neil Douglas Klotz, who has explored the deeper truth of Christian and other teachings by re-translating them from the original languages. This often adds great depth of meaning compared to traditional translations. See more at www.abwoon.org.
Here’s an example of Jesus’s teachings on this topic: “unless a human being returns to that sameness with the cosmos that feels like death – the dark, moist place of birthing, the place where only flow and animating spirit, only water and breathing, exist – that person cannot enter the reign of unity, the “I can” of the cosmos…” This is Neil’s rendering of John 3:15, in the King James ‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God”.
The retreat proved to be a powerful, illuminating experience for all of us, with a lot of depth and tenderness. This was partly because mortality was a live, current issue for most of those who came: several had recently been closely involved in supporting a parent or friend who had died, and others were facing that situation in the near future. The level of trust and mutual care which evolved in the group from early on was remarkable, and there was a strong sense of collective wisdom, where we learned from each other, and the atmosphere in the group took us further.