Korma…Hot and Spicy Enlightenment

“We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.

Orson Welles

“Where is God? Any place you let him in.”

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk

Day one in Liphook at this Fertility Retreat started in a troublesome way. We were all handed… a large pebble and a marker pen. In a room alongside 17 delegates arranged in a tight semicircle I sat staring at my pebble. What does this rock have to do with this a course on Chinese Medicine in the treatment of fertility? Although I didn’t realise at this time, I could equally have asked what does Jessica Rabbit have to do with me and what connection is there between outer body, esoteric enlightenment and a fertility retreat in Champneys Liphook?

Instructions delivered in a thick American accent, were clear: ‘Now ladies, I want you to take your stone and with the marker write on it the wish you most want to come true. Don’t show anyone. When it is done, follow me to the lake and we will throw it in the lake and release our wish to the universe.’

At that moment I had a familiar feeling. The feeling I get when I answer a telesales call with the enthusiasm normally reserved for the best of my clients; my heart sinks and instinctively I plan a way to get off the phone. I don’t know if this reaction was my Britishness coming out, because when asked to take part in activities involving flamboyant theatrical public displays, swinging hope like a lasso around my head,  I‘d rather creep off and pretend I’m a passer by in the corridor who just accidently entered the wrong room. I feared an American style ‘you go girl’ punch the air theatre act would be required of me. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no objection to emotion in general, or even punching the air, which I can confess to have done a few times…in private…. when the occasion demanded it. But an open public display just because you are asked- well, that’s an altogether different matter. But, I recognised certain contradictions in me. Given my Eastern heritage and the fact prayers and communication with the Creator are not unfamiliar, in my defence, I can only say that human beings by nature are quite contradictory and I am no exception.

With great relief I am happy to say that things did not continue that way and after a review of the lecture programme and a brief look at the file of materials, the Retreat started in earnest when we sat on the floor in a circle to share our fertility stories. An amazing assortment of women with very different stories sat together and shared their lives.  It was so international that it could have been some sort of United Nations consortium. I didn’t realise I would be meeting people from Mexico, the USA, Italy, Switzerland, Canada, Nigeria, as well as London and the North of the UK to name just a few locations. Neither did I think amongst us there would be singles, a lesbian, women in their mid forties and those barely thirty. I came to know about the woman, now racked with guilt because she had an abortion as she felt the time was not right for a baby. Then just a couple of years later she was declared infertile. Then there was the petite pretty Swiss girl who had 7 miscarriages in a row; the tired woman worn down by endless IVF’s; a lesbian who had for many months been inseminating herself though the help of a friend who dropped off a monthly “sample”; the American who was ‘going to get pregnant dammit and nothing was going to get in her way’; and the heartbreaking story of a wealthy Nigerian woman who had no doubt paid a kings ransom to visit the top clinics in the USA and UK on numerous occasions for the most cutting edge procedures but all to no avail. I felt like a baby just beginning to walk amongst a troupe of long distance runners; the years these women had tried for a baby, the many and varied procedures, the unfortunate circumstances, the dire medical diagnosis, and the evident heartache of it all.

Relative to these women, my story seemed fairly tolerable though perhaps this was in part due to that double edged sword of ‘unexplained’ infertility which I instinctively allowed myself to interprete as ‘no real problem’ rather than the more unsettling ‘clearly a problem that the medics can’t identify’ possibility. But even with my damming diagnosis, I often told myself it was based on very little. Perhaps deep down I had thought that it was all a big mistake and really I was just fine…I both liked and detested the ‘unexplained’ of my ‘unexplained infertility’ in equal measure; liked- for the comfort of my personal positive interpretation, detested- because of that permanent dark cloud that hovered above potentially leading to some as yet unknown devastating news.

All of these stories of personal heartbreak highlighted a common connection between us, aside from our common desire for a child of our own and despite our evident differences; we were all suffering in a very real and deep way. Infertility produces it’s very own unique form of heartbreak or should I say heart ache. For something to break there has to be some sort of preceding impact or tension which then gives. But much like an elastic band being stretched to breaking point…and then left there, a fertility challenge creates a heightened state of tension which never actually releases itself. And as a result there is no breaking of the heart but just a deep unending ache. Something broken can be fixed, but what do you do with something held permanently at breaking point, neither releasing itself or moving on to break…

Over the next few days, things proceeded well as I learned about the philosophy behind Chinese medicine; the rational behind certain dietary suggestions; the chakra’s of the body; acupuncture; Chinese herbs and how it all interlinked. But there were other lessons I didn’t expect, such as a special massage to increase the blood flow to the ovaries and Qi Gong for fertility; a relaxing slow movement exercise involving deep breathing; and exercise which made me realise I spent much of my time not only taking shallow breaths but even at times holding it altogether unaware of the silent stress created within. And then there were fascinating visualization exercises.

In one such exercise we were asked to focus on the woman inside.  The idea was to simply allow your mind to wander and see where it takes you after 10 minutes or so. I closed my eyes and saw …Jessica Rabbit the Hollywood cartoon character of all things! She was rocking her hips and gyrating around and around and as she did she slowly morphed into a beautiful fairy with long dark hair and large iridescent wings. This day dream was a montage of ever young girl’s fairytale fantasy. The fairy stood by a river in a mountain valley; a place with fresh green grass beneath her bare feet, mountains in the background with cotton wool clouds in the sky. She had a centre parting and a beautiful face like the fairies I recall from skilfully illustrated childhood books. When she saw me, she beckoned me over. I walked up and stood opposite her with the river to my left and her right. She touched my arms and smiled but it was a wordless exchange…she never said a thing, communicating instead through facial expressions and gestures. She motioned with her arms for me to step into the river but I didn’t shaking my head and motioned ‘no’ with my hands. Next I found myself asking her about my problem, my fertility – another wordless exchange. She smiled a warm and loving smile and moving towards me, embraced me in a gentle affectionate and long hug. Then pointing with her whole right arm as she released me from her embrace, she directed my gaze over to her right above the river where there were some small mountains with rocky foothills. As her arm swept across my field of view, endless numbers of butterflies flew up into the air from hidden places on the rocks, invisible until this time. Then from behind the mountain a number of clouds slowly rose up and on each fluffy cotton wool cloud was a beautiful baby lying on its back.  Where did this vision come from? One of the girls said in a near whisper “I hope there were 17 babies, – one for each of us!”

The other visualisation was a request to close our eyes and see the child within us. This I thought would draw a blank. However I saw myself as a child in a picture I remembered. And I played with her – this child version of myself, rolling around on freshly cut grass in woodlands on a sunny day, which looked a lot like the ‘little trees’ and the ‘big trees’ I used to play in as a child. These were names given to several clusters of trees alongside farming fields. As a younger child the unspoken rule was you first played in the ‘little trees’ closer to the houses, but as you grew, you progressed to the ‘big trees’ which were indeed much bigger and further away. In my daydream as I rolled in the grass and lifted my head I found I had morphed into my beautiful titchen haired niece Yasmine. I felt a connection with her. At this point I didn’t realise this connection was mutual, to such an extent that, though impossible to explain, my experiences at this retreat would have an impact on Yasmine in the real rather than imaginary world – but mysterious and inexplicable though it is, that’s exactly what happened.

All of the women on this course were rejects of Western medical science and had effectively substituted belief in Eastern medicine for the faith lost in Western medicine. Being a little desperate as we all were, we were a demanding bunch. At one point in the middle of the week, we started to barrage the warm and undoubtedly gifted main lecturer and founder of organisation, Randine Lewis with such intense, pedantic and detailed questions; ‘can I eat sweets just once a month’, ‘what if I miss a day of herbs’, ‘when will I see results’ and then further onto ‘but can I eat mint, what about nettle tea’, ‘is red meat with vegetables once a week in the afternoon to be avoided’ and on and on and on as if were we to miss a single details, we would be cursed with a complete lack of hope and possibility. The questioning became increasingly urgent and frantic, the desperation normally hidden beginning to show itself. Unable to calm us down, this polite and softly spoken woman shook her head and abruptly shouted ‘stop it!’ with such force, there was for the first time total silence in the room. She explained (a little surprised herself at the force of her own voice) that this was not a matter of whether we should eat this or that or if we were allowed to do this or that –although it is all part of the jigsaw, but that there was a bigger picture involved, and this very behaviour was exactly contrary to the frame of mind we needed to develop. There was a pause as Randine wisely decided to call it a day with instructions to reconvene at 9am the following morning.

The torment of our predicament was clearly familiar to Randine and the following morning came a real gift of a lecture – one like no other that I had ever heard before or since. This session had me memorised and enthralled in a way similar to my ‘Gonzales’ moment.  And in a mysterious affirmation of Dr Gonzales words, Randine explained that in her many years of working with women cast away by Western medics; she knew as an absolute truth that she could not make us pregnant. There was a pause, the delegates momentarily and collectively in shock. She continued, she could not make us pregnant – just as no western medic could make us pregnant. We are so misguided, she said, in the belief that we can do anything and in our lives we forge ahead with our careers thinking we create them, we formulate our lives, our homes, find our partners, and all in the belief that we with our own two hands are making this all happen in our lives. And we bring this same attitude into the arena of fertility – demanding our bodies perform or expecting to be fixed by the doctors as if it is another thing we are doing in our lives. We are wrong and this approach, she had come to learn was all wrong! Like a giant deception we pace through life oblivious of the truth of our condition as human beings on earth.

What she went on to say resonated with everything I had understood through the battle between my Eastern and Western self leaving me at times agog. I had read these very traditions as I was growing up, though it’s fair to say I never really understood them. I had been told such things by my father, my grandmother and frequently my mother…but my response would always be ‘yeah yeah – very nice, very comforting’ but now I have to go and ‘do’, go and ‘make all these things I want happen’, ‘I need to stress, strain and push until I can’t anymore, then I have to wake up and do it all again the next day’ That to me was life- the way it was, the way it unfolded, an unassailable truth as I understood it to be. And now, I was being pointed back to the very roots of my Eastern thinking, my faith- by a Western woman, a trained Western and Chinese medical doctor! If I didn’t recognise this as the truth…the truth that was native to me, I would possibly have been highly confused by now…but there was no sense of confusion, just the knowledge of a homecoming,  the recognition of an eternal truth and that I was a member of her tribe.

She spoke of ego and the way it talks to us of who we think we are and what we think we deserve but that this isn’t who we really are. She raised the idea that everyone is endowed with a hidden heavenly purpose and that if we accept who we are at our core, we can use that to achieve our highest spiritual potential and that is the spark of the Divine which moves us forward and brings with it another human potential. The only thing that Chinese medicine does, she explained, is open us to be ready to accept because normally we just aren’t in that deeper place where life is allowed. She instructed us to step into a place of awe and reverence – saying to ourselves “when I am open to this, it will happen”. She spoke of utter surrender – realising we can’t do it anymore than she or the Western Medics can for us. It was a case of grasping that there is a deep and important difference in the concept of trying as against allowing. We should not be trying but allowing. But here’s the problem; – it is almost impossible to simply decide to do this; it has to be invited from an external place into us. She told us to accept that there is a good possibility we will never become mothers and that we needed to hold both possibilities concerning our future in the same space. I didn’t understand the gravitas of her statement or that I would soon understand it with a shattering clarity and fullness. She spoke of fear and will and the contrast of patience, constancy and surrender, words I could have quoted directly from the holy text of the Quran. She spoke of the emptiness we all feel and that not even children ultimately rid us of it.

Then I had a shiver. There are many shivers in life; the sort that tries to warm you when you’re cold; the shiver of revolt; the shiver that rises when you are moved by something like music; when that note is hit after the rise of a melody to a peak and release bringing a tear to the eye and shiver to the skin; and then there is what I call the ‘shiver of truth’. When I hear or read something profound, something so true that it resonates in my body, the skin responds with a shiver which makes the hairs on your body stand to attention. It is as if the skin in an expression of awe knows and responds to Truth…perhaps because it is ultimately native to us. I have had this shiver when reading certain books, when hearing certain speeches, when reading holy texts and I felt it then as I heard Randine speak. She said “you need to submit yourself to that greater power that makes all of this happen and realise, in your hearts, not just your minds, that the law of the universe requires our acceptance – a place of grace, the wearing of the world a little more loosely, the pursuit of a child a little more loosely”. “You may not know it but your infertility is a blessing. It is there for a reason and if you ask, “why is it happening to me”? Know that it is because you are up to the challenge”.

 

She said that we were actually special…chosen even…And then there was a final suggestion that we should reduce our grand illusions and beliefs and get it into our heads that ‘they’ cant make it happen, ‘you’ cant make it happen… My mind kept ringing with the words ‘lahuwla wala quata illa bilalhul halulazim’all power and ability is with God alone, a much quoted favourite expression of the prophet Muhammad and a famous tradition. And I knew that ultimately, with all our differences, with all our separateness, in the matter of Divine Truth, we were all just saying the same thing…

***

The final evening came upon me faster than I expected and I wanted to be sure to enjoy every course of the last few meals at Champneys which were fabulous. So you would understand my hesitation to attend a meeting we were called to attend before the end of our dinner – dessert was delayed. I did think of skipping this meeting in favour of the delights of something gooey and sinful -the food was that good… and I had taken an executive decision to relax that no sugar part of my dietary regime – just while at Champneys…which you would fully understand had you been there. We were urged however to press on with ‘the healing circle’ – despite no dessert! And so I gave in and attended.

On entering the conference room, everything had changed with all furniture pushed to one side. There was soft music playing in a darkened room lit just by candles with trailing flower displays around them. That familiar defensiveness lurched within me; a scepticism about what may be required of us in this session…Then with no announcement introduction or words we were all placed in a circle lying on the floor on our backs, pillows under our heads with our feet pointing to the centre in a circular formation. I remember noticing the words of the song… “How can anyone ever tell you that you’re anything less than beautiful” like a subtle subliminal message to open recesses of our heart- the hurt that’s locked away in a places we can’t even locate anymore. Acupuncture started, again without warning, which could have been quite a shock if we hadn’t all been seasoned recipients of the acupuncture needle. When the needles went in something began to stir within me; something I couldn’t explain…perhaps it was the absence of words…, perhaps the silence and darkness, perhaps it was a week of rest, or was it that we were all lying down relaxed in a room lit with candles. It was as if a different form of communication could make it’s voice heard through the absence of words, the absence of the endless distractions in normal life…a communication which is normally dampened – quieted by the endless noise in our life – including noises we all make- voicing words in the belief we are communicating. Or perhaps I was experiencing what Rumi meant when he said, “Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation”.

What happened next was quite literally out of this world. Why I wondered should I have experienced this in the rolling English countryside rather than the great and sacred mosque in Mecca, or the exotic shores of the Egyptian Nile. The experience was unexpected and left me disorientated…bewildered. Being that profound experiences are so out of the ordinary there is no common vocabulary, such as we would have for say eating or drinking, to easily describe it. An experience so intense that goes to the core of your being can only be described by analogy…

Suddenly, almost like the loneliness of birth and death, despite laying next to each other in this circle with people all around me, I felt the reality of how alone each of us are…as single souls we enter the world and as single souls we die and leave this world- and the realisation of this was powerful. We all think our lives are shared, being together, being part of one total whole, but in reality we are solitary beings with individual and unique experiences of life that – short of descriptions’ verbal or visual, no one else can ever feel or know in the way we feel or know them. No one can be what I am or experience what I feel except for me; that’s the lonely reality of our condition. We use words and images to describe our experience to others but remain alone in the experiences themselves. I felt an immense sense of awe and beauty. What we, each and every one of us experience in life is actually of such indescribable beauty–from the smallest pleasure to the grandest emotions. Though like parallel lines, never to cross, we exist alongside each other; each on a personal, lonely and unique journey in this life; alone in ourselves; alone in our experiences. We live alongside others but cannot merge always standing alone, separate, individual and that truth overwhelmed me as I lay alongside the others alone in the dark. I knew in those moments that being together, talking, sitting side by side and so on creates the temporary satisfying illusion that we are all together- all one with each other, but at our core, we are unique, lonely, individual souls – alone, totally alone -charged with the responsibility of making our personal journey entirely by ourselves. And death is the most powerful experience of this alone-ness, the epitome of being alone- our real state. We cannot experience death inside another person’s body or take anyone with us; it’s just us…individual and alone.

The power of that feeling was crushing – as if a curtain had been removed from between my normal daily life and a normally hidden profound reality. The truth was laid bare. And it was at that moment a thought occurred to me. I thought that in this lonely life could it be that the most precious gift we can be granted may not be granted to me. Perhaps I would remain childless and never fulfil my dream of having my own child. A deeply moving thought; a deeply moving feeling and one that despite all I had been through, I had never allowed myself to think, despite the fear of it like a ghostly companion hovered around me at all times.

We’ve all heard about the experiences of someone close to death or who actually dies but then somehow get’s revived and live to tells the story of their experience. Often a ‘near death’ incident such as this involves the experience of a person’s whole life flashing before their eyes. Mini movie’s of times in our lives, snapshots of the things we did, visions of the ones we love and major events in our lives… If that is a near death experience, then what I experienced next can only be described as a ‘near life’ experience. The life I saw flash before my eyes - my childless life absent the thing I most yearned took on an existence, a presence all of its own. And so my life going forward all the way to my death as it would unfurl without children flashed before my eyes… That’s right, I saw a life I hadn’t yet lived reel like a movie stuck in fast forward, intermittently interrupted by slow motion scenes and events all flashing before my very eyes right to the conclusion of my life when I momentarily saw myself as an old lady, grey and pinched without having raised a child of my own. It was as if I had been gifted with seeing eyes; that terrifying childless reality was, it seemed, to be my future. This was my ultimate fear and for reasons I cannot explain, this fear put on a performance, gyrating and pirouetting before my very eyes; playing out in front of me like some ghoulish horror show leaving no aspect of itself hidden. And I could do nothing to contain or control it. Blurred visions of family get togethers…discussion around the dinner table… friends all around me talking, conversing about their children’s progress through school, sport’s days…parties…all of these scenes, real, breathing, pulsating, alive appeared with such vivid clarity. I could hear the conversations, smell the sweat, taste the juice on the big dining table and I even took part in the discussions, except more accurately I was party to discussions mostly through an absence of comment – what could I add. I hadn’t had children so I was unable to share in any of these feelings, any of the warmth of parental love that lay tightly wrapped and hidden within these general exchanges, comments and banter about what this child did and another said. I was unable to comment, just supportive acknowledgements, nods and smiles. An outsider looking in… wondering…sad. A heart attempting to heal but gashed and still oozing. Wondering…how would it have been… I even saw the weddings of my nieces and nephews and the preparations for such events. The vacuous void more evident than ever as I shared in these experiences as a bystander; experiences of schooling, achievements, loves, learning, it all flashed before my eyes. And I saw the mountainous magnitude of beauty in the sum of these small things; the big in small things; things considered to those around me as nothing special at all. But I could see the truth of it, the magnificence and splendour in the minutia – I saw with seeing eyes and my vision was clear.

For the first time I came face to face with the fear; the fear I keep so tightly locked away. This fear of mine, like the genie of Aladdin’s lamp took on the smoky form of a being and stood before me brazenly staring me in the eyes– directly- and I for the first time was unable to avert my gaze from that living being, from that version of reality that could unfold itself as my life -‘what if I never have children’ there in front of me more real than my actual experience of life. The feeling of loss was immense, a deep abyss. It was a remorse …a grief like bereavement but somehow worse because a longing has no memory. A longing for experiences never to be had; kisses never to be given, arguments never to get flustered over; hugs never to be experienced and…not even a beautiful memory to be claimed, just deep dark loss. At that point and quite suddenly I welled up with tears, so intense they were unstoppable. Sobs, which shook my body rose from deep in the base of my stomach uncontrollably. I hadn’t cried in years and despite the acute embarrassment I feel at the thought of becoming emotional amongst others, unstoppable, hot, salty tears streamed down my face. 

I experienced such a depth of sadness – a sadness I hadn’t ever experienced before in my life such that in that instant I didn’t know how I would ever get past that moment; how I could live my life past this experience. I just didn’t have any tools or mechanisms. And I knew I had reached my limits, that hard cold grey rock down at that lowest place, rock bottom firmly pressed against my shuddering back. I could go no deeper into remorse; I had reached the end of that tunnel. Sobbing, shaking… lost.

Then from those dark merciless depths a withdrawal started to take place. And as it did a visual image formed while I railed around in those moments, moments which represented the deepest suffering I had ever known. But it wasn’t a vision I could see as such and there wasn’t actually an image before me. Above me was a circle of sorts- a large centred circular form of bright white light and behind me the world and all that I hold dear within it. Literally over my shoulder behind me I could sense the great green world, my husband, my family, my dream of children and my life past, present and future – everything in my world. Above me this circle of glowing light- a real presence. It was as if it emitted – no, not emitted, but was itself comfort, peace…love. I could sense an all embracing compassion… I was orientated towards the circle above at all times, facing it. So powerful was this warming, caring, loving sensation that it was impossible to even think of changing my orientation; the actual physical direction I faced. Thinking back, it is amusing that despite the fact all my dear ones, everything I knew – the entire world was behind me, I didn’t have the slightest desire to turn back and take a look. Through the intensity of my sorrow and sobs, I started repeating instinctively, mantra like ‘bring me closer to you… let me come closer to you, take me to you’ addressing the circle above. The intensity of the plea grew to equal the intensity of my sob’s  and seemed to come from the same place as them- deep at the base of my stomach.

It was then that I became overwhelmed by the realisation, whilst immersed in these feelings and emotions, that despite all my earthly yearnings, I didn’t need anything or even anyone – not even my husband. I had attached so much of myself to the world,- the existence which now lay behind me that I was confused at how everything worldly could so suddenly feel virtually meaningless in the presence of this…presence. In this place, I  recall feeling how strange it was to think that anything earthly had any significance at all – a charming quirky little humanoid quality.  How could something be so totally captivating, yet at the same time calm, quiet and tranquil – not a place of excitement, but an experience of deep love, a compassion that bears no earthly description? Why was I, in the space of minutes willing to abandon…life? And yet feel at the same time I was losing nothing – nothing at all. I gradually realised through the sadness I felt that nothing that lay behind me really mattered. It was true; unexpectedly nothing mattered any longer. It was as if some sort of gift was handed to me, a truth had struck me – an almost unearthly realisation that the only true source of peace, comfort and joy was with that which was above me –the circle of light. All the while I carried on pleading to be taken closer ‘bring me closer to you, take me to you’, ‘bring me to you, take me to you, bring me closer to you’ which is all that I wanted. It was all that I or anyone could possibly want in that presence. All else behind me was a diversion…an illusion even and that was the truth, the reality of how things were in those moments and in that experience. 

As I repeated my pleas, it was as if I were moving slowly and steadily towards that universal central presence and away from all earthly things behind me- literally, and that remained my only desire; to move closer to the light above me. Then in the midst of my pleas I suddenly became aware of something very different about my outlook …I realised at that moment that I wanted nothing else, just that. Everything that I yearned for and cherished was an insignificant nothingness. Then in the depth of the experience and in a flash, a deeply disturbing feeling overcame me. A feeling close to fear; fear not due to the experience  but fear about what all of this meant – could it mean,… is it possible…could it be… that all this pointed to the fact I wanted to die! Disturbing and unsettling as it was I fought it off…it just couldn’t be true –that wasn’t how it felt… but what about the light, the abandonment of all worldly desires, the intensity and so on…? Had I been broken down and was this a sign I wanted out of life, I wanted it all to end? Surely that couldn’t be right. But I hesitated and lacked confidence in my dismissal of that possibility… perhaps because I couldn’t make sense of all that was happening; perhaps because of the unlikely time and place for the occurrence of such a profound experience. I don’t know…but there was an overwhelming sense of some sort of passage, a transformation…and in that sense perhaps it was a death of sorts.

As soon as I entertained such thoughts, logical analytical thoughts, I began to tumble away from this realm back to an earthly reality, away from this place and sensation, and as if I really had left myself in some way, I slowly rediscovered my presence in this world, in my body, in that room, amongst all those women who were my companions at that time. My limbs were mine again, my hearing returning and eye gained focus. And that was how the experience ended. With me dazzled, confused and just a little bit afraid. I hesitate to say what this experience may have been, or may have meant. But for an all knowing Creator for whom ‘not a leaf falls but he knows it’, perhaps I can liken it to this; when you dip your finger into the ocean, you draw away a little water and perhaps by analogy I had dipped my finger into and drawn to me a drop of God’s endless oceanic compassion and love. Perhaps…

***

I remembered a famous tradition which refers to the need for us to ‘die before you die’; famous words mentioned by many a sage, the Prophet and many times over many centuries. Was this my experience of death before dying; the death of ego; the death of earthly desires. Could it be the things we hold most dear may not in the grand scheme of things really matter. Perhaps that’s the truth of life… that life is in some way upside down, and what we think matters doesn’t – minor irrelevancies carrying the illusion of significance. And perhaps what really matters are things we don’t realise matter. Perhaps that is the ultimate test.

Anyone who has read about the experiences of sages and seers in history, or indeed seen the Matrix and Lord of the Rings will know that other worldly experiences (fictional and real) are not as uncommon as you might think. And this experience called to mind a story of Prophet Muhammad’s of a mystical and miraculous trip to another realm, though I don’t seek to compare it by any means. It is said that the Angel Gabriel, who transmitted the Holy Quran to the prophet, came to him one night as the Prophet slept by the Kaaba. He woke him up and led him to a winged magical heavenly white animal called a Burak, which is said to be smaller than a mule but larger than a donkey. They mounted the animal who with every step reached as far as the eye could see. They passed over mountains and vast stretches of land and finally arrived in Jerusalem where prayers took place with prophets Abraham, Moses and Jesus. (Being that Jesus in Islam is believed to have been a prophet and not God, son of God, or one third of a trinity. That God is One, unique and sublime to whom nothing can compare is what fundamentally separates Christianity from Islam.) At the end of these prayers, and a little reminiscent of the Hollywood Blockbuster Matrix, the prophet was offered two goblets- one which contained wine and another milk. There was significance in the selection of milk made by the Prophet and Gabriel told him he had been rightly guided. Then back on the Burak then ascended to the heavens and as they progressed through the various levels of heaven, the Prophet met various prophets from previous times as well as angels, including the permanently sombre angel Malik – the Guardian of Hell. Then the Prophet was taken to the Lote tree of the furthest limit which was veiled in a veil of nameless splendour and there he was gifted with sight of some of the most profound of the Sustainers’ symbols…which remain unknown to us

.

The following morning we all met for a brief good bye before we departed and we shared our experiences of the night before. Randine was thrilled to hear of my experience “Oh my goodness Hina, don’t you know how even sages hope against hope to achieve an experience like this and so many compare what they do experience to a sort of death”. Still a little disturbed, I only knew that there was so much I didn’t understand but somewhere in it all I did know that things just aren’t the way we think they are…

In a final group activity we all joined hands in a big circle for a few silent minutes (I know I know –I didn’t even have a single cynical thought – how I’d changed!)– and then each of us filtered out and left for various airports, cars, taxi’s trains – to return to our homes in our very different worlds.

Of course my journey home was short especially compared to the women returning to Mexico, Nigeria, Switzerland, the USA to name a few… and so we stopped off at my brothers en route. As I entered the house and before I could even say anything my pretty titchen haired niece Yasmine grabbed my hand and called everyone in the house into the conservatory with absolute insistence instructed us to hold hands in one big circle –an exact mirror of the circle formed by the women at the Retreat a couple of hours earlier just before we left… She insisted we stand that way in silence for a few minutes before allowing the circle to break and normal conversation to resume. Of course I was stunned, overwhelmed but said nothing at that time. No one in my family even knew in much detail where we were or what we were doing, so where could she have got this mysterious instinct? I will never know – and I guess neither will she.

Even though the food at Champneys was great, there is nothing like coming back to a special meal and this is a dish of magic and mystery which pricked a few holes of light into life at that time. Chicken Korma can best be described as the pizza, pasta or meat and two veg of the spicy world of curries. This is a standard meal prepared on a regular basis, though don’t be fooled – this is good, wholesome, comforting and delicious food with a mysteriously calming effect as the rich deeply flavoursome and soothing spices course though the veins and arteries of your body, and at times I can honestly say it jostles for the position of ‘the most delicious thing you can imagine’ depending on your mood. It is a complete antidote to blandness- a total happy tummy experience and an absolute essential when you have been away from home eating mild, tasteless or even fresh delicious but spice less food for a period of time. It is a very typical and familiar rich meaty flavour and, it has to be said, quite unlike that of any alleged Chicken Korma that I have eaten at a restaurant or take away which frankly makes me wonder just how some restaurants prepare their food? I have heard from a reliable source that one such establishment, which I hope stands alone, intent on pleasing the Western tongue actually adds condensed milk and sugar to their dishes which in my view makes it neither an Eastern or Western dish, but perhaps a sad rootless dish pleasing to no one except those who have never experienced the delights of spice.

 

The preparation of Chicken Korma is easy. It involves the obligatory fried onion (one is fine) and garlic base – four or five cloves is fine. Then you put in the chopped chicken (three thighs and three leg’s equivalent) and throw in some ginger- a cube of the frozen stuff is fine or a thumb-sized chunk finely chopped of fresh will do, a quality powdered garam masala and chilli powder- one heaped teaspoon of each then (and this is key), two heaped teaspoons of coriander powder…which is the secret bullet in this dish. After a good ‘bune’ or loving fry, you add yoghurt – a good few dollops (two heaped tablespoons) and fry some more. Then in with some water, enough to part cover the chicken, salt to taste, and then put the lid on and cook…, When cooked drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil on top, stir, inhale, relax, serve…and express words of gratitude quietly within yourself as you dive into the sense of hope, promise… enlightenment even that it grants…

 

 

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