Sometimes I wonder if the things that barely come together are the things that are most meant to be, as if unseen forces are pulling the strings and pushing the levers that are beyond our reach.
Last summer a woman from China named Lily came to a 5-day training in North Vancouver, BC, that I co-led with Sarah Peyton . Lily had come to Vancouver for work and had an extra five days of free time before returning to China. Feeling exhausted from her travel and hectic schedule, Lily decided to take a short vacation. She searched for something that would revitalize her, like a cruise or a retreat, but nothing she found fit her schedule. After almost giving up but then taking one more look online, Lily found our Restoring the Heart 5-day retreat and decided to go for it. (I’ve come to learn that Lily is a woman who likes to “go for it.”)
The bus brought her over to North Vancouver, but she didn’t know how to get to the retreat from the bus stop. The first inklings of doubt about attending our retreat crept in, and Lily considered taking the next bus back. Not one to give up easily, she asked a woman who had also exited the bus (and looked very much like Lily’s youngest sister) if she knew the location of the retreat. As luck would have it, the woman was also on her way there and, after some quick reconnaissance, found which road to take. She took Lily’s suitcase and off they went.
Due to some last minute challenges with our retreat preparations, there was no one at the front door to great Lily and her companion when they arrived. More doubt for Lily who wondered if this was another sign that she wasn’t meant to attend. Another participant told them where to find our coordinator, who welcomed Lily and took her to her room. Unfortunately, she discovered a problem with her room that could not be resolved. This seemed like the last straw, and now Lily was ready to give up. Then she “saw an angel”, Darilyn, one of our assistants, and a she felt a spark of hope. Not only was Darilyn able to reassure Lily, she also had a spare room at her nearby home.
The experience was nothing like Lily expected, and nothing like a cruise or anything she’d ever done before. It was inspiring, moving, not easy, but very rewarding, she said. In the closing round she summed up her experience with two words: shocked (at how different it was from what she’d expected) and grateful (for how much she’d learned and experienced.)
Once back in China, Lily told friends about her experience and how powerful it had been for her. That is to say, she tried to tell them about the retreat but struggled to describe how and why it had been so moving for her. Lily writes books and gives lectures on emotional intelligence, so her friends were extra curious to know what it was about our retreat that had so affected her. She suggested that they bring me to China and find out for themselves, which is how, six weeks later, I ended up with an email asking me if I’d like to come and give a retreat in China.
I set myself to the task of preparing to give my first retreat through translation. With a great deal of help, on both sides of the Pacific, from many supportive friends, the retreat took shape. Wanting to ensure that the retreat would go as well as possible, I decided to bring an assistant. To my great delight, Darilyn was available and excited to join me.
Despite all the preparation, more than I’d ever done for a retreat, course or workshop, I was still anxious about how it would go. Part of me was dead certain that the participants would not be open to the material and processes. I had images of participants sitting with arms crossed, jaws set, and brows furrowed, doubting that someone from another culture could tell them anything valuable about relationships and emotions.
I called on my empathy buddies for extra support, and did some beautiful work on my implicit fears. Two days before leaving an empathy buddy did a role play with me in which I played the resistant participant—arms crossed, jaw set, brow furrowed—and my empathy buddy gave me empathy, empathy, empathy. After that roleplay, something relaxed in me. I was ready to go.
To my relief, there were no crossed arms, rigid jaws, furrowed brows, or other signs of resistance from the participants, who came from six different cities in China. In fact, I’ve rarely had a group of participants so open to learning and exploring and practising, not to mention so incredibly hospitable, caring, and nurturing. They prepared beautiful and delicious meals together. And the comedy! I was often laughing before any translation (and the translators were often laughing too hard to translate), just from the delivery and the reactions. And the enthusiasm! I’ve never had participants play with such gusto, somehow balancing fierce competitiveness with friendliness and laughter.
What was most inspiring to me was their response to empathy and how they helped each other open up to sadness, fear, anger, and other strong emotions through the practice of empathy (they named the venue the Empathy Villa and our community the Empathy Village). Furthermore, Darilyn and I were deeply grateful and inspired by how they allowed us to guide them into the implicit through depth empathy processes. Of course, just like anyone else, they had their limits, their windows of tolerance, their edges of comfort, and their impulses to offer advice or bypass emotions in other ways. But my fears about resistance were never born out.
So, here’s to my new friends in China who received what we brought with such willingness and courage, venturing to the edges of their vulnerabilities as they faced fears, grief, anger and the painful parts of relationships. And here’s to healing with laughter and creative expression, including our final-night talent show that was filled with singing, poetry, skits, rap, duets, and dancing, and preceded by homemade dumplings that were surely the best I’ll ever have.