gifts and pieces: a retreat to freedom

 taya lynn photography @tayaphotography

taya lynn photography @tayaphotography

In January 2016, I dove head-on into the adventure of overhaul and renewal I knew only as both crisis and opportunity banging down my door simultaneously. A rollercoaster of a long-term long-distance relationship ended, however unceremoniously in the unspoken resignation of shared unwillingness to meet halfway or hold one another in the healing we both needed. I had recently been fired from my dream job and had a half-written PhD awaiting any glimpse of motivation in me, while months passed in the paralysis of whether research actually held worth to anyone other than me. A new love greeted me front-and-center in the complicated uncertainty of a man leaving his marriage to chart a fresh journey, despite the delusion and shame I should have felt surrounding our less-than-unadulterous beginnings. Blog posts and book pages went unwritten between waves ridden and trips taken instead. Certain things moved. Others stood still. Life was good and bad and fabulous and mediocre in all the ways I felt powerless over.

With no paycheck to look forward to, a healing heart in the throes of a romance bright in all the places it escaped its own shadow, and a life's work in need of rejection or rejuvenation, I was at a crossroads seeking direction on where to go from here. My inner flame burned hot but low, fiery embers awaiting the fuel of inspiration. Halfway-in wasn't halfway working anymore. I was ready to commit. To throw all my energy behind something to care about. Something that mattered. But what exactly? That simple, steady question plagued my headspace. Needless to say, something had to give.  

In January 2016, my moment of existential inertia drank the nectar of a divinely concocted brew in the wonder of not-knowing why and surrendering myself anyway to a six-day immersion retreat - Leveraging Your Influence, facilitated by Dr. Miki Kashtan of Bay NVC, and hosted under the auspices of ConversABLE and their founding director, Christine Raine. LYI was an experience designed with the principles of Non Violent Communication to catalyze self and social transformation. It was the 'okay, so now what?' part of the finding yourself journey I often found lacking in new age rituals of self-discovery and spiritual enlightenment. Attaining individual wellbeing and strengthening our own personal power never felt like enough to me, because who did it serve to keep the power we hold within us, all to ourselves?

LYI was about turning passion and vision into action toward purpose. Developing our personal power for a reason, and leveraging it ideally for the collective benefit of all. It was the place where authenticity conspired with integrity to shift us from thinking and believing, into being, becoming and doing; in Gandhi's vision, clearing the path for living the change we wish to see in the world. Well enough. That was a meaningful sort of intention I could vibe with. And in the impeccable nature of hindsight, I know now that LYI was exactly what I needed to move from where I was to where I wanted to be. Yet all I knew when I signed up, was that I needed to be there, no matter what.


"Am I scared?" I asked my heart in trembling silence, fingers fumbling with the touchscreen page I held at my lap, empty save the impossible words I had written, and now intended to share with a living room full of friends and strangers; the moment heavy in anticipation. 

"Terrified," my head responded, mocking the bubbling obvious in my belly. Thirty-three pairs of eyes sat watching, waiting, undoubtedly wondering what the hell was going through me and why I couldn't just cough it up already.

"Can I do this?" I dropped my head, staring at the screen in my hands. A few tear drops loosened from my lashes, polka-dotting my leggings before seeping through to my skin.

I really wasn't sure I had it in me. I contemplated getting up and walking away. And that would have been okay. This audience wouldn't have minded, I told myself. It's okay to walk away.

Someone offered to read it for me. I shook my head, grateful, but no.

If I was going to do this, it was going to be me doing this.

Because these words, ten short lines on an otherwise blank electronic page, were my ticket to freedom from a past that held me captive in all the ways I let it. I'd be damned if I walked away from an opportunity like that.

Pride and caution to the wind, I opened my eyes, preparing my mouth and voice to speak the words I barely believed I was actually sharing with anyone other than my shaky little soul. For years, I had hidden them even from her.

I read. My hands shook. I paused. I cried. I read some more.

I finished. People clapped. I stood up. I walked back to my spot among the crowd. I sat on the rug and hugged knees to chest.

A girlfriend offered her hand in the gentle empathy she knew I needed.

I did it. It was impossible. And I did it.

And who would have thought that reading a stupid little poem at the 'No-Talent Show' on the last night of a week-long retreat would be the moment I set myself free.


Leveraging Your Influence was a week of emotional struggle, and I offered myself to the process as a warrior of vulnerability. If I was to reap the benefits of this experience, I knew I was going to have to do the work. And that meant stepping out of my comfort zone into the realm of a strategic discomfort that might, eventually, make previously impossible things somehow that much closer to reach. Impossible things like imagining life without my ex, whose shifting whims had somehow come to define parts of me I wasn't sure I was ready to give up. Impossible things like finding empathy for the ex-wife of a man I was learning to love, whose rightful anger threatened to eat me right up. Like mustering the courage I would need to actually put my life plans into action, to spite the crippling fear that kept me from taking those vital steps forward. Like this cough I couldn't quit for weeks - the sticky remnants, I realized, of my past relationship mixed with the dusty beginnings of this new life I wanted but wasn't sure I was strong enough to live - the heavines of both realities congealed deep within my chest. My journey had reached that critical point of moving on, where any other path was no longer an option. Miki Kashtan, ConversABLE and the community of people there, doing the work together, held me in a space of trust to explore the places in me that needed shifting. At the end of the week, I felt somehow lighter. And the dusty-sticky cough I couldn't quit for nearly a month before, had all but completely disappeared.

The seeds of transformation I carry with me from that week continue to unfold in meaningful, often mysterious ways, thanks to the lessons I'm learning to integrate, and those I still struggle to settle into. To begin with, I´m learning to mourn the paralyzing guilt I feel about the injustice of social privilege, as the first step toward acknowledging my own gifts and resources as power, and using them as leverage to contribute to positive social change.

I´ve begun to unravel the stories and constructed social norms we hold as truth that keep us from honoring our shared humanity, and exploring instead the concept of willingness as an organizational principle for decision-making, praxis and relationship: moving from 'I should...' to 'I'm willing to...', 'I can...' and 'I want to...'

I´m learning to come to terms with my own social conditioning into a mindset of scarcity, in order to shift from fear-based living into a recognition that all of our needs matter and can all be held and honored simultaneously if we're willing to connect at that level and expand our circle of care.

I am beginning to truly believe that my enemies, in the words of Gene Knudsen Hoffman, are simply those people whose stories I haven't yet heard.

And I am coming to understand the essence of non-violence as the courage to live our truth with love.

These are the lessons of LYI. These lessons are subtle. They are powerful. And if lived and learned with the consciousness and diligence they deserve, they are indeed revolutionary.


It's been six weeks since I sat with thirty-three incredible souls at the LYI retreat in Orosi, Costa Rica. Six weeks since I faced my demons in all of their intrepid glory, my spirit determined to do and be differently from that moment on. It was work then, and it's work now. Pieces of a lifelong project, perhaps, my puzzle far from complete. But it's work I'm willing to do if I want to live my life from a place of integrity. If I want to love, even my enemies, with the entire strength of my wild, impossible heart. If I want to recognize the gifts I've been given, figure out who to give them to and how. If I want to step boldly into the vision I have for aligning passion and privilege with purpose, to benefit as many beings as possible along the journey. If I want to be free, this is my path, I know that now. And thanks to Dr. Miki Kashtan, ConversABLE and Leveraging Your Influence, there's a little more light along the way.

*published originally for ConversABLE - March 10, 2016