by David R. Bishop
Originally printed in the MAY-JUNE 2008 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Bishop, David R. "Sacred Sights on Santonni." Quest 96.3 (MAY-JUNE 2008):102-107.
EACH OF US HAVE PLACES ON EARTH we regard as special. Such places meet a more valuable criterion than the real estate rubric of "location, location, location." We may truly consider them sacred places because of the richer touchstone of "experience, experience, experience." Indeed, when the mix of time, place, and space is just right, the energies of such sacred sites work their transforming magic in us. There, we experience the feeling of wonder, a holy communion, as we become attuned to the reality of our deep connection with everything around us.
For many people, Greece is such a place. Throughout history thousands of students have traveled to the Greek Isles as part of their education. Other people have visited on holiday and have been enriched and enlivened. Still others have gone there to pray or to heal and have been, in some way, enlightened or transformed by their experience.
Whether a visitor or a native born Greek, each person comes to have a favorite island and probably a favorite location on that island. Although an extraordinary history and heritage pervades each, it is the experience that makes the place memorable. St. John, for example, is connected with the island of Patmos through his mystical experiences and his writings. Mykonos is loved by those who have enjoyed its night life and beaches. Delos, the legendary birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, has been a sacred pilgrimage site for centuries.
For many, the island of Santorini is that special place of relaxation, restoration, and renewal. Ia, on its northwest tip, is one of the loveliest portions of the island. There, the magic of the isles, about which many have spoken and written, can truly be felt. Such was my own experience there during a recent summer retreat. Those ten days provided the context for my spiritual exercises and experiences.
From my first step onto the island, the outer realities that greeted me were consistently amazing. First, of course, was the reality that it is an island. From previous visits I have made to Kauai, Molokai, Maui, St. Maartens, St. Thomas, Tobago, and Cuba, I know that I, like many others, easily connect with island energy. That energy can alter one's ordinary state of consciousness and create what some call "an island state of mind."
Likewise, the soothing daily routine of the retreat contributed to my shifting state of awareness. The regular order of a morning yoga session, a leisurely breakfast, a morning session of meditation or breath work, afternoons free for personal time (lunch, walkabouts, reading, swimming, private contemplation), an early evening session of meditation or group sharing, and the typical late evening dinner, supported the processes of transformation within me.
Of course, travel itself can have an altering effect on any person who genuinely lets go of accumulated stresses. Surrendering to the opportunity to relax in a new environment and live at a more leisured pace, one's relationship with time shifts. New or different modes of behavior follow: sleeping until a natural awakening, rather than reacting to an outer alarm clock; resting in bed, rather than immediately arising; taking a leisured walk before or after breakfast, rather than rushing off to be somewhere; eating when hungry and at an unhurried paceâ€”what some call "dining"; indulging in an afternoon nap, or a prolonged stay on the beach.
While out and about, interactions may now include: the relaxed "good morning" to the passer-by; returning the shopkeeper's welcoming smile and savoring the warm hospitality while perusing the contents of the shop, unhurriedly; listening more closely to the group's harmonious singing in a courtyard; stopping to look more carefully at the play of light and shadow on the building as the calico cat promenades along its tiled wall; enjoying the tour group enthusing in their experience in a foreign language; and, from the top of a hill, feeling the religious ambience of the town with church domes lifting towards the heavens in the near distance.
Add to the "on vacation" mindset the unique vibrations of an island, and you have the potential for even more alchemical magic. For, indeed, island energies can heal us with the womblike protection of their surrounding waters; continually massaging us with that "island time" state of mind which enables us to "hang loose," as they say in Hawaii, and live more consciously in choosing what we really want to do "now"; living more simply and honestly; spending quality time with ourselves in reflection and solitude; or quality time with others in the community of life in relaxation, conversation, or just sharing silence. Everything seems to work together to induce us to think, feel, and behave in ways which enable us to discover or reconnect with the deeper dimensions of reality.
Mystics refer to these dimensions as the field of greater (divine) energies that surround and influence us. These energy flows try to break into our awareness, invite connection and intimate communication with them, and offer their guidance in our lives. From Greek mythology we learned that our distant relatives even gave these energies names such as Zeus, Hera, Apollo, and Athena.
Santorini's enchantment, under the influence of the goddess Athena, is one such energy current that quietly works at soul level for those who let themselves experience it. For example, an important part of any island's identity is its unique separation from the outer mainland world. Each has had to creatively develop its own identity in the relationship between itself and the off-island world. I think especially of Tobago, which has changed hands over twenty times according to the terms of peace treaties which settled wars during Europe's era of empire building. As a contemporary example, our neighbor Cuba struggles to emerge from its tragic repressions arising from its identity and relationship with the western hemisphere and the entire world.
Guided and inspired by its unique identity, an island can be a blessed place for inner work, where the reflective visitor can explore and experience personal interior landscapes. There we can reconsider our personal history of choice making, our beliefs and values, and our ways of relating to ourselves and all our outer worlds. Do my choices and behaviors authentically represent and reflect who I am? Do I want to make some outer changes that reflect the inner changes being evoked in me? Can I return home and "go with the flow" of life more consciously because I have given myself the opportunity to practice that value during my "island time"?
That is always the challenge, isn't it? It is so easy to slip back into the ordinary state of mainland awareness and forget the spirit that moves in us and in all of creation. Our conditioning is reinforced by the pace and style of our daily lives which lulls us back to sleep. As spiritual teachers remind us, we look without seeing, listen without hearing, touch without feeling. It is so easy to revert to that conditioned consciousness in which we take in information and knowledge, but miss true understanding or wisdom.
A second current of reality that I encountered daily on the island of Santorini was the amazing sunlight. Dare I say that, somehow, the light of the god Apollo shines differently or is experienced differently there, with more sparkle, more radiance, more translucence. The journals of many past visitors to the Greek isles include accounts of being "irradiated with Greek light," and reflections on directly absorbing divine energies. Not only on Delphi or Delos, but also on Santorini, one lives with and feels this irradiation. Truly, the bright sunlight enlightens everything it touches.
In the bright morning light of my first full day, I felt the eye of my heart open, able to perceive with the eye of the divine. I noticed the light penetrating everything in such a way that the darkness within was transformed and the inner light in people, places, and things was more accessible to my consciousness. All my perceptions and experiences reconnected me with a truth that I know deep within, "Everything is beautiful, in its own way."
Such an experience invited me to quietly reflect on this energy's deeper reality. We know from astronomy and physics that the sun's radiation circulates throughout the entire solar system. Everything within it lives in the ebbing and flowing currents of the sun's heat and light. How does this light affect our seeing? Many contemporary pioneers in consciousness theory suggest that we do not really see what we think we see because our perception is the coming together of the reflected light of the environment and the light of consciousness. The Sufi mystic, Pir Zia Inayat Khan, believes that "human beings are miniature suns," by which he means that our bodies have a natural biological luminosity which manifests in our tissues producing waves of light that move through space to the core of the solar system.
Some questions from my journal include: Is everything in creation somehow, someway a miniature sun? Is the mystery of the sun, its light, and the art of seeing in this light, somehow, more available to conscious experience on sacred sites? When we see with the aid of the light are we the ones seeing, or is the sun seeing through our eyes, or. . . ? Having experienced seeing in this way, in the laboratory of the sacred site of Santorini, can the experience be replicated anywhere, everywhere else? These and similar reflections served as background to the foreground of the daily experiences of my retreat.
Living in the light of Santorini with as much conscious presence as I could bring to each moment, I attended to my own inner Being and its unity with the energy field that gives life to all existence. The graced ability to see afresh with this amazing light enabled me to connect deeply with the ancient currents of energy surrounding me. I recognized Mother Earth in a new way, as a living being and related to her more intimately. Through this bonding with the natural world, this feminine source of everything offered me new experiences of personal integration and transcendent wholeness. Whether in silence or in activity, I learned to cherish the intimate oneness with myself and with everything I encountered.
The details of every moment of every experience filled me with gratitude and awe. I came to know and love my soul through its connection with my body's experience of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling. Everyone and everything I experienced served as a mirror for my inner artist to reflect in and to experience and understand itself in a fresh way, as if creating a new awareness of myself.
In this work I can honestly say that I felt the guidance of Apollo and Athena. Their spirit was present in the bright clarity, artistic beauty, and simple wisdom all around me. Sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, I experienced the currents of their energy in the morning sun's inviting promise of a new day of beauty for every glance and a surprise for every sense. Apollo and Athena arrived at daybreak with a gentle breeze through an opened window or door, or in surprisingly intense gusts across the open air balcony during morning yoga. Later that same day, they may choose to meet you for lunch on the patio in a soothing, whispering breeze off the Aegean Sea.
They appeared in the heat of the hillside heights by day, and lighted coolness at evening; in the bright white and other colors of painted houses and churches; in the variety and enchanting fragrances of flowers and vegetation; in the steady footed mule, occasionally braying while carefully climbing up the hillside back from the sea; in the simple, yet elegant, symbiotic embrace of ancient and modern architectural designs and structures; in the authentic sounds of laughter of people in shops, restaurants, hotels, or at home; in the refreshing and healing Aegean waters during an afternoon swim; in the sun-drenched boat's bouncing ride across the water to ancient volcanic sites; in the fresh, warm aromas and luscious tastes of pastries and foods and spices; in the blue domed church's solitary bell eloquently ringing out the simple truth that every moment is holy, and, in the spectacular farewell of the day's light at sunset.
Perhaps most enchanting, however, was their surprise visit in the silences of the day, which beckoned me to the inner temple of my heart to ponder my experiences more deeply still; and to share with them an inner connection with divine reality and the ensuing quiet delight. The words of Einstein seemed to serve as the perfect "Amen" to my contemplations: "Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads." Leaving that quiet sanctuary, I looked forward to my next encounter with their divine energies.
In another journal entry I queried: Who does all of this surrounding light, beauty, and truth serve? Answers emerged each day in reminders from without and reckonings from within. It is meant to serve my continuing awakening in consciousness and integrity, in compassion and creativity, in courage and simplicity. It is meant to enable me to realize the One, that everything is a manifestation of that One. It is meant to evoke in me the understanding that everything belongs because it is a part of me, and that nothing is to be excluded. It is meant to give me the peace that casts out fear. It is meant to move me to serve the divine energies by rejoicing with them, in them, and through them with everyone and everything I meet. It is meant to show me that all of life is a celebratory worship of the conscious connection with this Reality. This humbling, tearful realization filled my heart with gratitude and awe. For me, it was a time of rebirthing a deeper dimension of divine consciousness within.
The daily routine of the retreat provided a wonderful cauldron of safety and privacy that supported my inner work. That regular regimen of daily exercises enhanced the careful attention I needed to pay to my breathing process of inhaling peace and exhaling any fear, whether in yoga, meditation, or breath work.
Meditation practices differ in their work with the breath. The practice of welcoming the breath is an essential part of doing yoga or breath work (which is sometimes called rebirthing). Both are processes of careful, attentive work that enable the practitioner to release physical, mental, and emotional blockages stored in various muscles or tissues of the body and feel the released energy. The unblocked energy can illuminate dark memories, feelings, attitudes, or ego bound beliefs, whether conscious or unconscious. These energies, which enlighten us, likewise shine out from our body as understanding deepens and realization clarifies. I believe that the glow of awareness resulting from these energy shifts is a manifestation of embodied divine light.
Other meditation practices that work with counting, extending, holding, or squaring the breath, also work with this light. Letting thoughts simply pass by the eye of the observer self, without any ego-need to grab onto any or all, is one way to clear the mind. Then the light in its non-ordinary dimensions can shine upon and within the person meditating. In other words, dissolving the vibrations of thoughts can allow for their replacement with the higher vibrations of the light of awareness, and the accompanying altered states of consciousness.
As in yoga and breath work, the subtleties of the darker contents of interior consciousness can be brought to light in meditation. You can begin to recognize ego-centered motives and behaviors. Shining light on the holding places of heavy and dense emotions such as fear, inadequacy, greed, jealousy, pride, and pessimism, or on ego serving behaviors such as wasting time and energy in gossip, distractions, and the pursuit of material rather than spiritual values, can bring release from the spell of ignorance of some of the misperceptions, misunderstandings, and misinterpretations which, though locked away deep inside, still influence behavior.
Embracing with compassion and forgiveness all these realizations is the work of and the experience in the contemplation that concludes these practices. The light of non-judging acceptance brings focus and clarity. This is the sun within, the divine presence itself, working toward our healing and wholeness. Staying focused on and connected to this "beloved of our heart" enables us to know truth and to experience the divine energies within us. The real connection between our outer world perceptions and our inner world truth is felt and understood more clearly. We perceive reality more authentically and our experience of peace is genuine. We can now share this with others and wish the same for them.
I normally use the daily practice of any spiritual exercise to help me stay connected to the awareness of who I truly am. So each day of my retreat, I practiced observing and dissolving the thought vibrations from my mind so the vibrations of the true light within could illuminate and heal my wounds, and inspire and guide my behavior. Living in each moment attentive to the energies within me and surrounding me, I was more able to lovingly and gratefully meet every person and every situation in my day just as they were. From a state of self-understanding I knew that "all is well," and that everything is unfolding as it is should.
Now, "off island," and "post retreat," I continue to practice. I often use the word "Santorini," like a mantra, to evoke in me a renewed attunement in my soul with the energies of truth and transformation I experienced in many waves and ways on that Greek island.
For me, as for many others, Santorini was a place of revelation and manifestation of the truth of a pervasive, deeper reality. Every ambience of the island seemed encoded with a consciousness that invited and supported a shift to a state of transcendent awareness. It will come as no surprise that I found Martin Buber's observation that "All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware," to be especially true of my own journey to that sacred site.
David R. Bishop is a professor of philosophy and religion at Pima College and the University of Phoenix, both in Tucson, Arizona. He has degrees in philosophy, theology, and transpersonal psychology. His interests are states and stages of consciousness, holistic health, astrology, and film.