A spiritual retreat actually transformed me

A spiritual retreat actually transformed me
Image: Courtesy of Antara, Chimera Singer
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A few days before I left for a healing retreat in Taos, New Mexico, I gave my editor a warning: “This is either going to be really good, or really bad.”

The place, I suspected, would be good. I had found Antara retreats through the seemingly well-adjusted and not-overtly-flaky owners of a boutique I love in Los Angeles. When I spoke with Jan Birchfield—the leadership coach, spiritual healer, and psychology PhD who runs the retreat center—she promised a participatory small-group experience focused more on addressing the present than deconstructing the past. “We may touch a little on [your] story,” she said. “But it’s not really where I’m working.”

Yet when it came time to fill out the retreat’s registration form, a prompt to share anything important “about my internal process” gave me pause. I noted that I was “working with a heavy heart,” a colossal understatement that belied the true state of things. In reality, I was going into three days of intimate exchanges with perfect strangers carrying a heart that felt like it had been butterflied, splayed, and exposed by recent life events both intensely painful and tragically commonplace. It was myself I was worried about.

Less than a week later, I found myself among 15 people I’d never met, sitting in our socks at the edges of a denim blue rug on the second floor of a stone-colored adobe house, surrounded by open sky. Our circle was anchored by Birchfield, who is youthful at 60 with bright blue eyes, straight birch-colored hair, and the patient vibe of a cool mom on a ski trip. She is an intense listener with a propensity for stating, somewhat solemnly, “wow.”

Jan Birchfield
Jan Birchfield
Image: Courtesy of Antara, Chimera Singer

I have been to yoga classes, wellness summits, and women’s circles where most of the attendees looked like me—this wasn’t one of those experiences. Participants included Maha, a 58-year-old Iraqi-American engineer and mother of two who came from Michigan after her daughter attended an Antara retreat in April; Daniel, a 34-year-old organic gardener who was raised Episcopalian and met Birchfield initially in her capacity as his neighbor and a therapist; and Betsy, a 34-year-old local emergency-room nurse who was attending on a partial scholarship (the three-day retreat, including meals but not housing, runs $950). Their reasons for being there were deeply personal. Outside of reporting, so were mine.

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Ostensibly, I was at Antara to learn more about what’s known as the transformation economy, the latest stage in an economic progression that’s seen consumer dollars shift over centuries from commodities to goods, then services, then experiences—and now, finally, to personal transformations.

The concept was coined by management advisors B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore in their 1999 book The Experience Economy. When the US was founded, our most basic needs were satisfied with an agrarian economy. As our culture and technology have evolved, jobs have moved from farming and manufacturing to services and experiences. The culmination of this process, argue the authors, is the transformation economy: highly customized experiences that serve self-actualization, or the fulfillment of our highest potential.

In the transformation economy, a “company’s economic offering is neither the materials it uses nor the physical things it makes,” write Gilmore and Pine. “It’s neither the processes it executes nor the encounters it orchestrates. When a company guides transformations, the offering is the individual.” In other words, the product is a new and improved you.

Back in 1999, the idea of the transformation economy was more of a stretch. Today, we see it in the dollars spent on retreats, life coaches, trainers, gurus, and guides that promise a personal metamorphosis, whether physical, professional, mental, or spiritual—or all of the above. (Even coffee, in this brave new world, has transformative potential.)

“We are seeking out experiences that actually change us in some way, that help us achieve our aspirations,” Pine told me over the phone. “Consumers and even businesses increasingly go to companies and effectively say: Change me.”

Antara is one of countless facilities around the globe offering highly customized experiences to help seekers change themselves from within, whether aided by reiki, nature, meditation, yoga, silence, psychedelics, prayer, or something else.

When I started reporting on the transformation economy, I wasn’t yet thinking of my own. I was keen, of course, on the idea of participating gonzo-style in some sort of “transformative” experience, screaming in a hotel ballroom or soaking in a sulfuric tub at the Esalen Institute. But it hadn’t occurred to me that by the time I did find my experience, I would actually need it.

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It’s immediately clear upon entering Antara’s kitchen and being handed a mug of creamy, comforting chai that this family, operating at the heart of the transformation economy, is modeling self-actualization. Also, that chai is vegan.

Antara, which feels like a home, abuts the actual homes of Birchfield and her 30-year-old daughter and Antara cofounder, Dillon Tisdel. The family relocated to the property, which is bordered by Native American land and a Hindu ashram, from Princeton, New Jersey, in 2011. Birchfield says they came to grow food, meditate, and “support each other’s dharma, no matter what that was and what that looked like.” (Dharma, in this sense, essentially refers to a universe-guided path.)

What it looks like is Birchfield running healing retreats upstairs while downstairs her daughter prepares plant-based meals worthy of her 11,800 Instagram followers and Antara’s guests, often with a well-behaved elfin child on her hip or her breast. Birchfield’s son-in-law, Kyle Tisdel, an environmental lawyer running for Congress on a climate-change platform, is in and out of the kitchen. Birchfield’s husband and other cofounder, Finn Runyon, or Finney—a tall, sturdy guy with a kind smile and a graphite man-bun—often joins retreats as he did ours, bringing what his wife called “big heart energy.” (Birchfield and Runyon also have a son pursuing a music career in LA.)

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Image: Courtesy of Antara, Chimera Singer

Though Birchfield has been in the transformation business for 25 years, she has only been holding group retreats since 2017. Until recently, the bulk of her work was through her company, Contemplative Leadership Development, which provides executives with one-on-one coaching. Now she hosts individuals and couples for retreats that cost upwards of $5,000 for three days and four nights, with Dillon as a private chef. These help subsidize individual retreats she offers for clients in the community, which are $100 or by-donation for an evening and a full day’s work, with lunch. Birchfield also has a growing caseload of clients who want to sustain a working relationship by phone after visiting Antara in person.

Just shy of two years after the launch of Antara’s website, word is getting out. “The desire for transformation is so off the charts,” Birchfield says. “People are starving. In this last year, the pace at which we grew was startling, and I can feel it. We are not at the tipping point yet, but we’re going to be.” That tipping point, she says, will likely mean cutting back individual retreats in favor of groups, in order to serve more souls. Antara is in the midst of  expanding accordingly, adding more space and a courtyard downstairs and building a sweat lodge.

Still, Birchfield says she is guided by intuition, and chafes at predicting where her business is going. “There’s no business plan,” she says. “I’m not steering the ship. I’m literally living in the moment and in the unknowing, and waiting to see what’s arising. And then when something arises, I act.”

I guess I can relate. Just a few days after hearing about Antara, I was on the phone with Birchfield. She told me she worked at the intersection of psychology and spirituality, and defined the latter as “pulling attention from around the world around us and going within the self” to “find a substratum you might call pure awareness or pure consciousness.” I booked a flight.

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In my family, a “piece of work” is what we call someone who’s a pain in the ass. In Birchfield’s, it refers to a sort of customized healing exercise. During the retreat, our circle was “opened” every day with chanting accompanied by Birchfield playing a harmonium—a reed organ that, when played on one’s lap, looks like a cross between an accordion and Schroeder’s piano from “Peanuts.” The days were made up of many pieces of work, creating something like a quilt of human emotion stretched between our circle. These took varied forms throughout the weekend, but most often included someone in the group talking briefly about a feeling, thought, issue, or whim, followed by questions from Birchfield, maybe a little more talking, and then an invitation for the person to “drop in” to their body and “go toward” the feeling they’d described.

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Image: Courtesy of Antara, Chimera Singer

Among us were issues related to war trauma, sexual abuse, body image, loss of family members, unresolved past lives, breakups, grief, and good old-fashioned fears of intimacy and death. The related work also varied widely—from Andean shamanic rituals calling in spirits to guided meditations in which we concentrated our energy together to support the person who was working. Twice, we danced.

We chanted, meditated, and “worked” this way in roughly three-hour chunks each morning and afternoon, breaking for tea, fresh air, and meals, falling into a sort of time warp. It was at once exhausting and exhilarating, relaxing and stimulating. Although I spent a lot of time looking at my socks, I was never bored. It was like sitting in a nest of radical humanity, intimacy, and vulnerability. At night, I slept like a baby.

On the first morning of the retreat, after steaming bowls of brown rice congee in miso broth, we all filtered up the stairs, situating ourselves atop cushions and chairs around the blue rug. I found a space in front of the window, in a warm, bright spot of clear high-altitude sunshine. I closed my eyes and was immediately transported to another sunny spot, and felt a swelling in my chest. 

Five months earlier, on a Sunday morning in June, I had sat on the sunny steps leading to a patio off the bedroom I share with my husband, Corey. Clutched in my hands was a pregnancy test I hardly needed: I was five days late and my boobs were swollen and sore. 

Although Corey was away for the week, I peed on the stick, waited five minutes, and then, still in my pajamas, took it to the steps and sat down, heart pounding. I waited a few moments and took a deep breath, relishing the unknowing. Then, I looked at the test, which stated unequivocally: “Pregnant.”

I closed my eyes and tilted my face toward the summer sun. I took some very deep breaths, smiled a secret smile, and experienced a profound sense of holy shit coupled with the knowledge that everything was fine. The sun felt stronger, the colors more vivid, and the steps were warm beneath me. My heart was full and my head was light, even though I am not someone who has always wanted a baby, even though just a month or two earlier I’d said, sure we’ll give it a go, with something resembling ambivalence. In this brief moment, all that dissolved. The sun felt so, so good. 

This is where my head was when Birchfield pulled open the harmonium. A chord breathed to life, and I felt like air was being pushed into my chest. I closed my eyes, and she started a chant that was actually the chorus of Joe Cocker’s “Up Where We Belong.” Before I knew it, I was chanting along, eyes closed, tears streaming down my cheeks. 

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The benefits of meditation are well-documented: lower stress, better pain-management, and heightened senses of compassion, focus, and clarity. Despite knowing this, my dalliances have been limited to week-long stints over several years: 10-20 minutes per morning with the Headspace app, Tara Brach’s guided meditations, or Julia Cameron’s “morning pages.”

So it came as no surprise that, even sitting in silence at Antara, I struggled to turn off my brain. I was not well-practiced. Often, I was reliving memories, going places I hadn’t been in years. The big skies, evening light, and spindly branches outside the retreat center’s windows reminded me of walking my dog in our wooded St. Louis neighborhood after school as a kid—alone, except for a terrier and the stars flickering to life.

I also worried about how much I would share with the group. Historically, I might have simply said I was burned out, in a creative rut, or feeling stuck. Three different friends, when I told them how I’d been feeling, suggested I get away, go on “an inspiration trip,” or “go somewhere and go deep.” I imagined myself spending a week shopping, eating, and exploring art in Mexico City, only to return to the same restless feeling. I booked a campsite in Big Sur, but cancelled without protest when a work deadline landed in its midst.

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Image: Courtesy of Antara, Chimera Singer

Now, seated among strangers and barely holding myself together through opening meditation, the feeling was only more acute. At the end of day one, I told the group I felt like a wet noodle, which was true but didn’t beg further exploration. On day two I said I felt stuck and “search-y,” and conceded that the last time I felt differently was as a teenager, a period of feeling wildly free but also deeply connected within myself, and trusting of my path. Finally, I leveled with the group: Recently, a boulder had landed in my stream of consciousness.

In August, after 10 weeks of pregnancy, I had a miscarriage. This was harrowing and horrific in the ways you might expect: learning with my husband that there was no heartbeat, an unexpected mini-labor at home days later, telling my mom and sister the baby was gone. But the moment I returned to again and again—the one playing on a loop as I sobbed in bed, and now in this circle of near-strangers—wasn’t the sad moment, but the sublime one: that morning sitting on the steps holding the pregnancy test. How good it felt, sitting in the sun, full of possibility. This moment was the loss I was mourning. This moment was the one I tapped into sitting in my socks in New Mexico, where a patch of sunlight on a denim rug had started to make me feel like myself again. 

One might be tempted to attribute all this to hormones, but Birchfield did not. “She was never meant to stay,” Birchfield said, before catching herself and asking if we knew the gender of the baby. We did not, but I had done the same thing many times in my mind, always thinking of a girl. Birchfield said the baby was an ethereal being, a light that has always been with me—it was with me right now; she could see it in my field.

She asked about my relationship with spirituality. I said I didn’t feel very spiritual. When a hawk circled the house several times after a piece of work calling in someone’s deceased relative, my reaction was not that it was a spirit, but that it was hungry. Birchfield said I was meant to see the hawk, that it was a messenger, and this baby had been a messenger, too. She asked if I could tell what her message was.

I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, tears streaming down my cheeks. I tried, as we had been practicing, to “drop in.” To take deep breaths, to not think, and just be in my body for what seemed like a long time. I felt everyone around me in the circle, no longer strangers, doing the same thing, holding me safely there. I didn’t know if I knew what the message was, but just said what finally came to me.

“She just wanted to be in that sunbeam,” I said, near-sobbing, though I didn’t know if the message was that she wanted to be there, or that she wanted me to be there. Or if she actually was the sunbeam. It didn’t really matter. “Yes,” Birchfield replied. She said that my longing to be there too, perpetually in the sunbeam, was a spiritual one.

Birchfield defines spirituality as a connection deep within oneself, at a level she sees as connected with everything else, which she describes as “that which is beyond all knowing.” I have felt this connection in rare moments—usually in nature or on a road trip, once in awhile at a really, really good concert, or laughing uncontrollably with my dearest friends. Maybe a couple of times on mushrooms, if I’m being honest. And yes, come to think of it, I would very much like to experience this connection—and my own faith in it—a little more often. This ethereal being, Birchfield said, had briefly parted the curtains for me.

“I wish she could have just stayed,” I sobbed.

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I went to New Mexico to write an article about a burgeoning economy that’s serving consumers’ non-material aspirations. I hoped I might also find some path out of a creative rut, or perhaps some relief in the wake of a few recent blows; shortly after the miscarriage, in short succession, I lost two friends who were far too young. What I hadn’t expected was a diagnosis of spiritual longing—and even less so, one that felt accurate.

The day after the retreat ended, I sat across from Birchfield outside a café in Taos, while her daughter, grandkids, and a few friends who had been on retreat with us milled at a table nearby. She sipped a cup of hot chocolate and said my situation wasn’t atypical.

“For so many people, their spiritual longing—because there’s so little context and language around that—gets placed at the feet of work, family, child, husband,” she said, “someplace in the world where we hope that whatever this longing is, is going to be met.”

This feels right to me. (Though I should clarify, in case my mother-in-law reads this, that we still want kids.) It also feels like a gift, something akin to Luke Skywalker learning that the force is within him. He just has to practice accessing it.

For me, that means breathing deeply and meditating to quiet my mind, keeping the channels open and returning to places and practices where I do feel that connection. It means trusting my intuition. I still can’t hear it that clearly, but at least I know it’s there. “This deep inner knowing, will actually guide you directly into the unknown,” said Birchfield, “and pull you through the eye of the needle over and over and over again.”

At the end of interviews, I usually ask the subject if there’s anything I didn’t ask them that they wished I had, or anything they wanted to say and didn’t get the chance to. This time, there was something I couldn’t leave without asking. 

“This being, when you said that you saw her sort of in my field, and that she’s always been with me,” I said. “Is she okay?”

“Oh my god, yes,” Birchfield said.  “She’s worried about you not being okay.”

I am pretty sure, now, that I will be.