Brotherhood of Man: My Experience at a Spiritual Retreat for HIV-Positive MSM

Contributing Editor
Participants of the International Brotherhood Retreat weekend
Credit: Claes Lilja

On a warm weekend in July, 19 gay men living with HIV gathered in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania for a retreat. I was one of them.

I'd found out about The International Brotherhood Retreat weekend through a group on Facebook and was intrigued. The Brotherhood Retreat is a three-day body-mind-spirit weekend that happens a few times per year at the beautiful and serene Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the retreat. According to the website, "Everybody is welcome, regardless of age, nationality, looks, etc. The only requirements to attend are that you are over 18 years old and identify as a gay or bisexual man." I figured it would be a nice weekend away from the hustle and bustle of New York City; I'd meet some new folks and breathe some fresh air.

Claes Lilja started the retreats in 2008. "The idea for the retreat hit me like a lightning bolt," Lilja remembers. "I was taking a shower, and the idea came with such strength and clarity that I knew I just had to do this. I stepped out of the shower without fully drying off, went to my computer, and typed out the schedule."

The experience was designed to help gay men living with HIV, giving them spiritual and emotional healing through meditation, touch exercises, breathwork, and fellowship. Although the retreat is focused on gay and bisexual men living with HIV, they welcome HIV-negative men, as well, in order to accommodate serodiscordant couples and to help heal the divide between HIV-positive and HIV-negative men.

Lilja facilitates the weekends. He leads many meditations and exercises designed to help each participant gain more insight into his own mind-body-spirit connection, as well as gain connection to others and to the community. This is a weekend where gay men gather in a non-sexual situation, without benefit of recreational chemicals or alcohol to lubricate or numb emotions. Each participant is challenged to be authentic, genuine, and truthful in the deepest sense.

I rode up to the Poconos with two other participants. The retreat officially started in the late afternoon of July 20, but there was an optional breathwork session with Juan Andreas Wolf offered earlier in the day. My driver wanted to be there for it, and I thought, "Why not?" I didn't know what I was in for. Once we arrived at the retreat center and checked in, we headed straight for the breathwork session. I had never done any kind of soulful breathwork, but a handful of us, guided by Juan, lay down on mats and did intensive, rhythmic breathing for 30 minutes.

Each of us had unique, emotional responses to the work. For me, I discovered something profound that's hard to describe. We started the breathing, and at first, I struggled to keep it going. I finally relaxed into it and decided to allow the experience to happen. Somewhere in those 30 minutes, unbidden and not conjured by me, came a physical and emotional release. It was a deep, rushing letting go of something I felt like I had been holding onto since I was a small child. The physical feeling was deep in my guts, down past my belly, almost all the way down to my groin. And it clicked in me that I first tightened up that part of me sometime when I was four or five. As little boy, I looked around and realized I was different. I can't say that I recognized myself as gay, because I didn't know what that was, but something in me knew that I needed to protect myself and that I was the only one who could. Ever since then, I've been holding tight, deep inside myself. That breathwork helped me to discover and release it. It was intense, emotional, and overwhelming, and my face was wet with tears. The experience left me feeling more exposed than I like to be, but aware of something new inside me, and it was probably a good way to start a meditation weekend.

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After the powerful breathwork and the time recuperating, the rest of the group started to arrive, and we had our first group session. We were all so different: some long-term survivors of HIV, some newly diagnosed; some partnered, some single; young, middle-aged, older; and of varied economic and educational backgrounds. Our common denominator was that we're all living with HIV as gay men, and that commonality gave us an openness and an understanding of one another that was truly beautiful.

Across the three days, Claes took us through meditations that kept us in touch with our breath. The weekend was composed of group meditations, small group conversations, shared meals. I had to trust these strangers, as I was feeling vulnerable and tender. Fortunately, these men were all gathered to experience a healing, reflective weekend. Across the weekend, each of us experienced an emotional break through, a realization of something hidden deep inside. It was an amazing thing to be a part of and to witness.

For me, the meditations meant a continual examination of that release I felt during the breathwork. I started to feel less sadness for that little boy I had been, who felt that he needed to protect himself, and more pride that I had the strength inside me to keep going all these years -- and that I had the strength now to release that tension. I also acknowledged a deep loneliness that I don't like to talk about and most often hide or make fun of. While in the company of these sensitive fellows, I was able to let myself show how deeply I long for a love in my life. It's not easy to admit that vulnerability.

One of the more moving meditations was outside. Claes explained to us that in the days of the AIDS crisis, many families of AIDS casualties were so distraught that they wouldn't even accept the ashes of those who'd died. The Kirkridge Center accepted those ashes and created a memorial garden. We silently walked into the wooded memorial area, clearing weeds and debris from the garden while remembering those who passed away from HIV and honoring those of us still fighting.

When we had free time and during meals, we were able to find common ground with each other, and I felt a kinship with each of these terrific guys. Saturday night, we had a social where we binged on candy, Doritos, cake, soda, and so many belly laughs. I can honestly say that every man I met has a special place in my heart.

The Brotherhood Retreat was a big, emotionally fraught weekend: loving, scary, intimate, and transformational. As I left the mountains on Sunday afternoon, I knew there had been a change in me. I felt healing that I hadn't known I needed. It's not often that gay men get an opportunity to commune together in this kind of shared spiritual experience, and for me, it was precious and profound.

The next Brotherhood Retreat is coming up on Oct. 26-28, 2018, and registration for the weekend is now open. The total cost of the program, including room and board, is $595 per person in double occupancy or $795 in single room. Scholarships are available, and anyone who wants to attend is encouraged to apply. Get more information by visiting their Facebook page or by following @PozRetreat on Twitter.