The Universal Experience review | personal growth retreats, UK & Switzerland
Exploring the meaning of death with Alan Lowen
The quick read: The Universal Experience is about coming to terms with the great leveller – our own inevitable demise. Held at the EarthSpirit Centre in Glastonbury in the UK, where we tried it, and at a retreat in Switzerland, it’s run by Alan Lowen, a tantra expert and leading light in personal growth and spiritual development who runs The Art of Being. He’s got the warmth and compassion you really want in a workshop of this kind where emotions can, and often do, run high. For that reason, this three-day residential retreat may be challenging, but it’s also deeply moving, enlightening and liberating – an experience that can help you put life in perspective and focus on a future that genuinely fulfils you.
Who it’s best for: This workshop is suitable for anyone prepared to spend time with what is often a scary and challenging subject. It’s particularly relevant if you have a fear of dying or want to gain a better understanding of your feelings towards it. Given that the focus is on your own mortality, there’s a lot of introspection, quiet time and soul searching, so if you’re looking for a space in which to do lots of sharing, this country retreat isn’t it. If you’re looking for potentially profound transformation, then you may well be on the right track.
What you can do: Over the course of the weekend retreat, you are part of a pretty intense programme that doesn’t give you much free time to socialise or just ‘hang out’ – and that’s intentional. There’s very much a feeling of moving deeper and deeper into a very personal process. However, meal times are sociable and the food at EarthSpirit is excellent, so eating is a genuinely nurturing experience here. Friendships strike up quickly over a plate of food or talking before bed in the shared rooms.
We have been asked not to give precise details of the programme, as it relies on people not knowing exactly what will happen in advance. However we can say that it includes lots of thinking time, as well as guided meditations, writing exercises, some deep work in small groups as well as time for sharing within the circle. You’ll spend some time outside too and there’s also an invitation to move your body – to celebrate being alive and to dance to Alan’s fantastic playlist. Music is very much part of this process too, designed to move, relax, shift emotions and provide a fitting soundtrack to the journey.
Alan holds the space for everyone remarkably well, allowing everyone to feel as safe as possible in spite of any emotions that may arise. He has a team of helpers with him, on hand to offer additional support and guidance, but it’s his presence that holds the weekend together, creating the continuity and ongoing insights and wisdom that allow it to be as powerful as it is.
Where you stay: A popular venue for yoga and personal development workshops, the EarthSpirit Centre is tucked away down narrow winding roads on the edge of a little village not far from Glastonbury. It mostly comprises restored 17th-century farm buildings, so you might well be sleeping in an old dairy or repurposed cowshed. Bedrooms are dorm rooms in various sizes, with communal showers, and there are also five ensuite twin or double rooms. They’re comfortable but not luxurious – expect IKEA-style furniture and furnishings – although cheerful curtains and rugs warm up wooden floors and bare-brick walls. In the summer, there’s also the option to stay in one of the basic caravans in the garden or to camp.
It feels like the majority of the energy at EarthSpirit is focused on the main workshop space, a light and airy converted barn with underfloor heating and a crazy sculpture of a dragon’s head emerging between the wooden beams above. It’s an attractive, calming space and the light natural wood and stone – also in the rustic dining area – feel very grounding and reassuring. There’s also a beautiful garden with green lawns and an uncultivated border of trees, which offers plenty of peace and quiet, as well as vegetables and herbs for the kitchen. The hot tub room and sauna were closed for the duration of our workshop.
How was it for us? My partner suggested we went and I agreed to accompany him with some (large amounts of) trepidation. I wasn’t at all comfortable with the reality of my own mortality or that of anyone else I love, but I bit the bullet in the hope that there might be a way of taking away some of the sting. It would be good for me.
We all gathered for dinner at EarthSpirit the night before the workshop all wondering somewhat nervously what was to come and then went to bed hoping it wasn’t going to hurt too much – but I had no doubts that it was going to get emotional.
The next morning, we were given a notebook and the plan for the weekend and then we were off. It was relentless. Alan left no stone unturned in his quest to make us face up to what will, one day, come to pass. Was I happy with the way my life was going? What had I achieved so far? Who mattered to me? It was a weekend of truth – in its most raw and stripped-down form, whether that was in the words I put in my notebook or the thinking that took place as I lay outside on the damp grass looking up at the sky. It was an invitation to surrender totally to the inevitable and find, in that, the celebration of life, the ability to let go of all that I held most dear and to accept the solitary nature of leaving this world. And yet there’s also a spotlight cast on the pleasure, value and joy that can be found in connecting with others, particularly those we love.
By the end, I was exhausted and deeply grateful for the smiles of those around me as we emerged like crumpled butterflies from our cocoons, celebrating our aliveness, dancing, hugging and armed with, in some shape or form, a new and more helpful perspective on death.
What we took home: While I’m still a bit wobbly about the idea of dying before I’ve done all the stuff I want to do (better get on with it then!), I gained a profoundly reassuring sense of death simply being part of nature’s never-ending cycle. Far from being alone, I am part of this cycle, inextricably connected.
Would we go back: Given the way life can change in a heartbeat, there are many reasons why repeating this workshop would be beneficial. I wouldn’t want to put myself through it again in the near future, but I still have a reminder of it in my purse – part of a necklace – and the experience and its teaching are still with me weeks later.
People watch: Alan Lowen is driven by a passion for helping others live and celebrate themselves and their lives fully. His work is designed to move participants towards a more complete, richer and more beautiful experience of life, not just within the Universal Experience workshop, but also through his teaching of Tantra in the UK and abroad. He’s spent over four decades honing the courses he offers and he’s still reviewing and revising them with each new experience. He’s accompanied by a close-knit team helping him deliver them, managing everything from setting up the room to stepping in to make up numbers.
Food watch: Meals are hearty and satisfying here, with more than enough to go round. They’re vegetarian with a vegan option on the side and dairy and gluten-free dishes are also available if you give the kitchen advance warning. Breakfast is toast and cereal with fresh fruit and a bountiful range of teas and coffees, which are available 24/7. Lunch consists of soup and three salads, plus bread and cheese, while a typical dinner would be aubergine tian with brown rice and steamed vegetables and a gluten-free chocolate lime and coconut tart for dessert. Ingredients are sourced from local suppliers where possible and a growing selection of vegetables and herbs come from the centre’s own organic vegetable patch.
What’s queenly: The Universal Experience is a brave workshop which takes you deep into a difficult subject and gives you the support and love to continue the journey when sometimes you might feel like it’s all too much.
What’s lowly: Although you are likely to gain a different perspective on your own death, the workshop doesn’t focus specifically on how to deal with other people’s.
Insider tip: Don’t ask other people who’ve been on this workshop exactly what it consists of – they won’t tell you. Alan has asked them not to. Instead, go in good faith. It’s a journey worth taking.
Price per person: The workshop fee is £240, with early bird prices available. Accommodation is paid separately – a shared twin/double room with an en-suite is £200pp, or with a shared bathroom £180pp and a shared twin or double caravan with a shared bathroom is £170pp. There are no solo options, other than camping in summer which is £150pp with use of facilities.
Value for money: Although the accommodation is fairly basic, the fantastic food and the quality of the workshop, which in itself is very reasonably priced, make this a retreat worth paying for.
Sister retreats: Alan also runs The Universal Experience workshop at Waldhaus Zentrum in Switzerland, a light, bright venue, all pale wood and white fabrics, which uses ‘living water’ throughout the centre and serves organic and seasonal vegetarian meals.
Reviewed by Olivia Mackinder
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