Re-Membering in the Web of Life and Awakening Authentic Spirituality in the Mystical Mountains of Bulgaria

Gudevitsa-Bulgaria-View-of-Mountains - The Gift Of Remembering

Sometimes, when a bird cries out,
Or the wind sweeps through a tree,
Or a dog howls in a far off farm,
I hold still and listen a long time.
My soul turns and goes back to the place
Where, a thousand forgotten years ago,
The bird and the blowing wind
Were like me, and were my brothers.
My soul turns into a tree,
And an animal, and a cloud bank.
Then changed and odd it comes home
And asks me questions. What should I reply?

Sometimes – Herman Hesse

The bus stopped and we disembarked. As I looked around, I knew we had arrived. The fresh clean mountain air and the energy of pristine wilderness surrounded us, as a few individuals, a man and several women, approached us with knowing smiles and a warm embrace. It was them that would be our guides in the journey that followed.

I was in Gudevitsa, a small and remote village in the Rhodope mountains in Bulgaria, near the border with Greece. It was a place where I and all those around me would embark on a profound 10 day long experience in the wilderness in order to remember who we were, why we were here and find the meaning of true connection and authentic spirituality.

Before It All Began: Salto Youth and the EU Funded Training Programs

But how did I end up here? Half a year ago, when summer was in full bloom, I was looking for an experience that combined travel, adventure and deep inner transformation. It was then that I remembered the stories of two friends somewhere in the back of my mind. These were stories that seemed too good to be true, all from so-called training programs, courses financed by the EU as a part of the Salto Youth initiative, all under the umbrella of Erasmus+.

I was skeptical at first, but the more I was exposed to their tales, which were fraught with adventures that I would have never expected from EU funded training courses, the more my perspective started to shift. What they were talking about were full fledged transformational experiences  with an emphasis on changing society through the transformation of the individual, while engaging in a tight knit community, often in remote and scenic locations. All of these being available basically for free, with expenses for travel, lodging and food covered by the hosting organization (and ultimately, by Salto Youth and the EU). A whole network of events and activities that most people, including me, had no clue existed, all primarily geared towards youth workers, but not limited to them. It was available to anyone working or generally being active in the area of personal and social transformation – but especially those that primarily worked with the younger generation.

Was this legitimate? There was only one way to find out. I applied to the first program that sparked my interest – a training course in the mountains of Bulgaria, where the participants would be engaging in a transformational experience that connected them to themselves and the natural world around them. It was dubbed – The Gift of Re-membering: Awakening Ecological Consciousnesses, from the Learning for Change organization.

The catch was, of course, that I needed to be accepted first.
So I put together the best application form I could muster, answering all the required questions in great detail, based on my inner inspiration at the time, as well as including all my references related to my work with people one on one and the emotional healing workshops conducted through the organization I’ve created with two friends. A part of me felt that it would work, but I was of course still skeptical of the end result. After getting through the first round of selections and sending another video as an additional application requirement, I received the final e-mail:
I was accepted.

Immersion, Rediscovering Oneness and Opening Up to Vulnerability

Coming together in Mystery, beginning - Gudevitsa Bulgaria - The Gift Of Remembering

Three months later and here I was, carrying way too much luggage 500m up a hill on a cobbled street, with the many individuals I’ve just met for the first time in my life walking beside me. We slowly arrived to the two houses that would be our home for the next two days, all surrounded with incredible views of the forest riddled mountains, in a remote village with less than 20 permanent inhabitants.

My intention for the week was to challenge myself, connect with people around me and rediscover what true spirituality meant for me. In the past, I’ve often thought of spirituality and every-day life to be separate, for transcending this world to be the key in freeing myself – and despite understanding more and more over the years that this was far from the case, that belief still resided in the back of my mind. I felt this experience was another prod from the Cosmos to help me shed more of that ingrained illusion and regain this knowledge in my life – that spirituality is in no way separate from the reality I live in. Truly freeing myself and being in touch with the deepest Source of life meant recognizing myself in all things, opening my heart to the joy and sorrow of all life, while realizing that all of those things are me in essence – and I cannot idly stand by as they are destroyed by an unconscious human society that is completely disconnected from this inherent reality.

It was clear this was one of the main intentions of the program as well, since everything we did was aimed at reconnecting us with the natural world all around us and helping us remember ourselves as a part of it. In essence – rediscovering our oneness with all life in the most visceral and grounded way possible.

The first few days were like an immersion into a different dimension. We formed a community, presented ourselves to the land and forest, dubbed new and unique names that truly represented us, closed our phones and disconnected from the mad society we had just left behind.

We connected deeply with each other and it was here that I once again discovered the incredible value of being vulnerable and authentically who I am. A powerful practice was invoked the very first evening, where we formed a circle, while each of us shared what in this moment wanted to be expressed from their heart. Even though it was only the first day, the energy of the room brought such deep emotions to the surface that I never could have expected it. People expressed intimate parts of themselves in front of complete strangers and often cried in doing so. I did not even expect it myself, but as it was my turn to share, I too was holding back tears as I expressed both the joy in my heart, as well as some of the deep pain I went through in the many years past. It was both shocking and relieving to be so vulnerable in front of people I barely knew – but I felt this was a crucial catalyst on my own healing journey.

Wandering Into The Heart of Nature

Going on a wander - Gudevitsa Bulgaria - The Gift Of Remembering

Much of the course was based on a brilliant man that, prior to the course, I had never heard about: Bill Plotkin, a depth psychologist turned spiritual teacher and mystic. But unlike many others of the kind, Plotkin developed his own detailed model of human personal and spiritual development, mapping out the stages and areas of development and learning in an extremely in-depth and rigorous manner. One of his core teachings revolves around reconnecting humans to the natural world around them and helping us see the inherent connections between our psyche and the environment all around us. One of the ways in which he employed this psycho-spiritual healing was through so called “wanders” in nature, a grounded experience of remembering our place in the web of life.

During wanders we set out to explore the wilderness around us with the purpose of experientially realizing this connection, witnessing the aliveness of nature, seeking answers and clarity through the subtle metaphors the environment around us gave us, speaking and connecting to trees, playing in the grass like a child or creating magic portals with twigs and leaves.

Before each wander, it was advisable to set an intention and cross an imagined threshold, after which the experience began. Though we gathered together in the beginning circle, each wander was ultimately a personal experience, each person going alone to wherever they were pulled towards. Thus, there was supposed to be no contact with others, no food, technology or other distractions – just us, our pens and notebooks, our inherent curiosity and open minds.
We were in deep wilderness, in an area with one of the highest brown bear populations in Europe (as well as numerous other wild animals), so certain precautions need to be made, as we learned in our first debriefing. We were advised how to act in animal encounters and there were limits to how far we were allowed to go (all of which were quite often broken by our own foolishness and desire for adventure), while we were equipped with whistles to signal to others if we were lost or in danger.

I love nature myself and enjoy spending time in the forest, near a lake, or hiking up a mountain, but this was something different entirely. What we were doing here was truly seeing nature as an extension of who we were, as well as a canvas for meeting a variety of needs, invoking clarity, finding peace and wholeness, seeing our reflections within it and ultimately just being human in what is our natural environment. It was an experience of re-wilding ourselves, remembering and truly experiencing that the environment around us is not just beautiful, it is alive. All the while knowing that we are its extensions, yet also those that need to become its guardians and protectors.

All of which prepared us for the program’s peak – a whole day wander in nature, a vision quest, dubbed The Solo.

The Solo – A Journey of One to Remember Its Place in the Many

Going on the Solo Gudevitsa Bulgaria - The Gift Of Remembering 2

We woke up before dawn, showered, packed our backpacks in silence and went to the fireplace in front of the church. We sat beside the flickering flame and took turns stating our intentions for the day ahead, while the Sun slowly rose from behind the mountains and illuminated the valley.

In ceremonial fashion, with the beating of drums and reading of poetry, we were set off on our quest – a wander in the wilderness from dusk till dawn, with no other nourishment than the water in our packs, the Sun and the natural world around us. It was a full day wander in a fasted state, meant to help bring up and let go of any limitation hiding in our subconscious, fulfill our intentions and bring us closer to the visions being born within us. Thus, this was the day of the vision quest, or The Solo.

One of my main intentions for the day was to let go of the limitations, sadness and heartbreak in connection to relationships. I wanted the day to be a catalyst that would help me recognize and let go of the patterns that have kept me in place in this area of my life. Beyond that, I desired to understand my path forward in life, know and follow my passion and purpose with more resolve and use my talents and abilities to truly make a difference in the world. Whatever other lessons dawned on me during the day or limitations that I needed to let go of – were welcome to arrive as well.

We were each supposed to pick out an area in the wilderness where we would wander (which at least in part, was again a safety precaution). Though most people already had their areas picked out from the explorations of previous days, mine was still unknown to me. The one place where I wanted to go (where I’ve gone a day prior) was, as I was told, not recommended, as it was both way too far from our main location, as well as guarded by a vicious herding dog that would have no qualms in attacking me during the times of day it was let off its leash.

Despite wanting to obey the safety rules, I was intuitively led just beyond the creek where the limits of our wandering surface resided. I rested there as the Sun slowly continued its ascent. I felt an inner urge to write in my notebook – and so I did, continuing to do so for a long time, raising questions and problems in my mind, then silently waiting to scribble down the stream of limiting thought and the clarity of solutions that waited for me on the other end. I briefly fell asleep under the Sun, woke up again, then continued my writing.

Amidst the deer pelting across the horizon and the birds passing by, one could often hear the voices of the other wanderers in the distance. The sound of laughter, crying, singing, screaming and shouting reverberated in the wilderness ever so often, reminding me that everyone was going through their own unique and crazy journey of letting go.

The Solo – Collecting Gifts And Realizations

Collecting GIfts

There were many things that I was able to realize and let go of during my time alone in the wilderness.

One was certainly that seeking oneself in any relationship is a disaster waiting to happen. We often do this, most often in romantic relationships, but not merely in those – we believe the other person can bring us happiness, joy, give us love and endow us with an inner contentment that we lack ourselves. Yet we forget that pretty much everyone else feels the exact same way! So two people come together with the idea of finding fulfillment in the other, causing painful emotional attachment, jealousy, fear of rejection and abandonment. This is often what falling in love is dubbed as in our society – the creation of a false, projected image of the other that will bring us fulfillment, then expecting the other to act in a way that we believe they should act in order to make us happy.

It does not seem difficult to see how much pain something like this can bring. Despite this, it is commonplace in our society and often idolized in novels and Hollywood movies. It was clear to me how often I had done this in my life, despite subconsciously being aware of the opposite – and the time of this illusion needed to come to an end now.
The more we can find fulfillment within and not expect the other to fill our cup, the more we can avoid painful attachment, fear and anger, while actually living lives and having healthy and fulfilling relationships.

One way in which to do so is certainly the art of following our purpose and passion. That vision inside of us that comes up in moments of silence or great presence, that wave of joyful energy that we can ride into our deepest Self, bringing forth the reality for us and the world that we are meant to create. It is indeed this that is one of the central tenets from the work of Bill Plotkin – meeting one’s needs in early developmental stages, whatever those may be (in whatever way we can), then moving into what he calls adulthood. For Plotkin, adulthood is indeed an exceedingly rare occurrence in our modern society, as most are stuck in what he would dub “adolescence”. Being a true adult comes with a vision that is both personal and collective, that improves our lives and the lives of all beings on the planet. It can come up in our everyday life, during contemplation, meditation, while wandering the wilderness, or indeed during dreams.

For me, an important realization that my solo vision quest brought to me, was this understanding that my fear, where I need to know everything before I move forward with my life purpose (which for me is, to put it quite simply – communicating my own realizations to the world, through many avenues, but mainly through writing), was merely an illusion. It happened as I continued my wander after writing for what seemed like ages – and happened upon a road in the wild that I intuitively felt I should tread on. I felt certain that road would bring me far away from where I wanted to arrive (and far out of bounds from where I was supposed to be), but I trusted my inner sense and followed it anyway. Amazingly, it soon brought me to a very familiar road I had already been on and created a circular path for me to walk on. I felt this was the metaphorical message from the wild that whatever path I am to tread on, as long as it feels right within me, will lead me to the same main life path that will help me fulfill my vision.

Indeed all of this made me realize the importance of trusting the Mystery”, as expressed by one of our wonderful guides of wisdom, Ognian. It was many times throughout my wanders and The Solo, that I was intuitively drawn to go somewhere – and were I to resist this impulse, I would have missed out on some amazing sights, landscapes, creeks and trees with magical energies, as well as the realizations that came from them. Many times I was simply drawn to an area with plastic bottles or trash strewn across it, which was something I was now able to at least somewhat clean up with the garbage bags I carried in my backpack for such an eventuality. Thus I would have missed out giving back to nature in the most basic yet crucial way – keeping it clean and pristine.

In the same way it is true in life – and while it is true that sometimes we may be drawn to something unfortunate and painful due to our inner wounds, such a thing is not a mistake, but the ability to integrate that precise wounding now mirrored in external reality. And besides, if we allow ourselves to feel for more than just a moment, we can deepen the knowing of our intuition and follow something that comes from the depths, not merely the surface of our awareness.

The Sacred Circle of Integration, The Many Faces of Togetherness and Healing

collecting gifts realizations - Gudevitsa Bulgaria - The Gift Of Remembering 2

The Sun had set and drums were beating in the distance, calling us back to the campfire in conclusion of our journey. I slowly descended from a nearby hill, moving through thick high grass and found the road to the house. Screaming out of joy from a wonderful day, I heard similar screams echoing back at me from the distance. The time had come to eat dinner in silence and wake up the next morning to share our realizations.

Indeed, the next day was that of integrating our experience and sharing the inner gifts we’ve collected in the sacred circle. It was fascinating to hear the stories from the various questers, their intentions (which ranged from re-experiencing nature as a child, connecting to their inner playfulness, to healing from pain and illness and discovering their deeper purpose) and their realizations. All of which was spurred on by the guides inviting us to see that it is the very land that wishes to hear the stories we’ve experienced. For who can express stories in a similar way as humans? It is a gift that we need to be aware of, utilizing it with care and prudence.

It was at the end of this ceremony that I knew the training course was sadly coming to a close and that soon we will all be home, reminiscing about what we’ve experienced in these wild 10 days.

community 2

So many things had happened already – collectively we learned to live as a community and helped with communal tasks, we danced, spent time around the fire, connected with each other, were read poetry from mystics such as Rumi and Kabir (as well as passages from books from authors such as Joanna Macy) and even created a group poem of our own. We welcomed a quester into the village that had been on a 4 day vision fast in the wilderness in our vicinity – and opened up to her tales. We walked in complete silence and darkness under the full Moon and crossed a portal deep in the forest. We channeled animals, plants and spirits of nature, while creating masks representing them and speaking in a sacred circle dubbed The Council of All Beings. We learned and practically experienced the holistic science of systems theory and realized how much our every action can both positively and negatively impact every single node in the world around us. We wrote sacred invitations to each other and placed them in envelopes in order for these to revealed as we arrived back into our homes. We laughed, we cried and discovered ourselves and our relationship to the world around us more deeply. Truly there are too many things that happened for me to list here, but may this be a taste of what was an exceptional journey of Mystery.

Spreading the Seeds of Change and Rejoicing in Community

Being in Community - Gudevitsa Bulgaria - The Gift Of Remembering

It was with hearts of joy for what we’ve experienced, as well as sorrow for what we will now be leaving behind, that we sat at the final sacred circle. We each shared that which was in our inner-most hearts, what touched us the most and what needed to be expressed before we all went back home. It was another very emotional circle, yet the sadness was broken by the wisdom that what we’ve experienced here must be sent off towards different and far-away lands, so that the seeds we have planted here will germinate not merely in a secluded village in the Rhodope Mountains, but throughout society at large. So we again both cried and rejoiced, echoing the land that greeted us and accepted us among its midst.

One of the main aspects of this experience that fascinated me was how quickly a group of individuals, brought together in a community, isolated from the rest of the world, connects with each other. In the beginning, most of us were total strangers – by the end, it felt like we’ve known each other for years. What was created was the emotional and physical intimacy of a tribe of old, a glowing testament to how deeply tribal the roots of humanity are and how much this aspect of human nature is missed in our disconnected society.

Rejoicing in Community

It was a few weeks after I came home that I synchronistically found myself in the company of the group from another, very similar training course. I was there with the group as they were saying goodbye in the end of their own adventure and what I saw deeply mirrored what happened with us as well. It was as if they were best friends, a soul family, now parting ways. As one woman said: ”I do not even know what you do for a living, yet I know you all on the level of the Soul”.

The whole adventure felt like it lasted both a few days and many months, yet felt too short regardless, it was as if time was dilated in a way that signified the intensity of the experience itself.

Don’t Go Back To Sleep

sunset-don't-go-back-to-sleep Gudevitsa Bulgaria - The Gift Of Remembering 2

It was the final ceremony though, that will leave its mark on my mind and soul for as long as I exist. To the beat of drums, we said our goodbyes to the land and faced each cardinal direction, every one representing a particular part of the human psyche and experience. After this we faced outwards from the closed circle and were told that, when we were ready, we could take a step forward that would ceremonially lead us back to the “real” world.

As each of us waited, filled with emotion, we knew that upon making that step forward, the journey will end – and what happens afterward will be entirely up to us. Do we trust ourselves enough to make the leap?

Our guides walked behind us, around the inner circle and silently whispered into our ears a poem from Rumi that still brings tears to me eyes and will be etched into my consciousness for all of eternity:

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

With open hearts and minds, trusting in Mystery… we took the step.

There Are No Failures, Only Setbacks from the Inevitable

plane-gudevitsa-back-home

After I arrived home, that which me and many others feared would happen to themselves, indeed occurred: I gradually fell back into my routine and comfort zone and, despite having the realizations and lessons in the back of my mind, I succumbed to the energies that I internally resisted within me. It was not that the course hadn’t changed me and brought me incredible new realizations and wisdom, and it was not as if I was doing nothing to continue my journey – it was that I still expected so much more from myself. To take more time in implementing my vision and following my passion and purpose, as well as to never forget the web of life I was always a part of. True, I had excuses – I was busy, while also silently waiting for our organization to gain funding from the EU Solidarity Corps (which I was hoping to propel us forward in disseminating work like this), all the while having to deal with certain internal issues of my own.

However, as with all seeds planted in the psyche, their sprouting eventually becomes inevitable. It was so that after about 2 months of germination, coupled with our EU funding application being rejected due to missing one point, that I decided to commit more fully to my vision and to sharing what I’ve experienced and what I know to be true in my life, regardless of external circumstances. It is the construction of this memoir that I consider a starting point to that vision.

In the end, we are the ones that decide when change will happen, even as we are helped out and spurred on ever more  by the sprouting of inner seeds and the continuous flow of Life that keeps knocking on our front door. Regardless how wonderful or terrible the external experiences we may face are, regardless what we see or witness, what kind of mystical experiences we may have had, whatever retreat we may have visited, it is we that choose whether we will tread the easy path of comfort, or the more fulfilling path that our souls desire, so often riddled with internal resistance and challenges. And it is often that we only choose the second path, after having been thoroughly disillusioned by the first.

Which path will you choose?

If you’re going to try, go all the way.
Otherwise, don’t even start.
If you’re going to try, go all the way.
This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives, jobs and maybe even your mind.
It could mean not eating for three or four days.
It could mean freezing on a park bench.
It could mean jail.
It could mean derision, mockery, isolation.
Isolation is the gift.
All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it.
And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds.
And it will be better than anything else you can imagine.
If you’re going to try, go all the way.
There is no other feeling like that.
You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire.
DO IT. DO IT. DO IT. All the way
You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.

Going all the way – Charles Bukowski

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