"There is only one question: how to love this world."
~ Mary Oliver, from her poem "Spring"
The sun shone through the 300-foot tall trees of the Enchanted Forest, bright like a North Star above me, shining on me like a benediction through the giant redwood trees. I was curled up in a hammock strung between two redwoods, napping between yoga sessions at the Land of the Medicine Buddha in Santa Cruz, CA where I'd headed for a four day yoga and meditation retreat.
Two of those four days were spent in silence. This was my fourth silent yoga and meditation retreat with my teacher, Dina Amsterdam, who is like a forest sprite herself, lanky and long-limbed, slim and dark and beautiful in an exotic Buddhist-Jewish way.
The retreats follow a certain pattern: arrive in the evening, join the group for dinner followed by an opening circle and an evening meditation, and awake the next day into silence. The practice for the subsequent two days is yoga, meditation and our own time to do as we wish, all of it in silence.
The idea is to help us move into present moment awareness and peace, which can be easier said than done in our rush-rush-rush, blackberry-bluetooth-Ipod-TVO, sensory-overload kind of world. Yet I believe most of us are stumbling and falling our way toward enlightenment in this lifetime, sloooowly evolving (at least I know my own path has not been smooth, linear, or fast!).
Talking about the path toward enlightenment, Dina gave the analogy of moving one grain of sand at a time from a pile which represents the "unconscious," unawakened part of ourselves, into another pile that represents the enlightened being in us. She said that in our regular lives we generally move one grain of sand at a time from one pile to another, in a painstakingly slow progression, grain of sand by grain of sand, as we gradually awaken in this lifetime to our own divine nature.
Dina said her teacher says that a retreat is like a chance to take a whole scoop of sand and pour it into the "enlightened" pile! We are learning tools to help us stay "awake," to live our purpose in this world.
Time away from the chaos of the world to work on our "awakening" is such a gift. A true blessing. The blessings were manifold this time at the Land of the Medicine Buddha. The grounds were filled with monks in their saffron and mustard robes, and I'd often cross paths with a shaven head or two as I walked in the woods, or walked to the dining hall. To respect my vow of silence, I'd simply bow with hands in prayer position - Namaste. I honor the divine in you.
The monks were not in silence this time, but there to receive a Highest Yogic Tantra initiation from the Venerable Choden Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama born in 1933 who was one of the teachers/guides of the Dalai Lama. Needless to say, a great man and spirit...
As ordinary yogis who had not received the Highest Yogic Tantra yet, we were not allowed to sit in on the ceremony, but I got to bow down to him, touch his vehicle (I know, that sounds almost kinky, but I mean it quite literally - I touched his car, which bore the message: "May anyone who sees, touches, remembers, talks or dreams about this car achieve everlasting happiness and have compassion for all living beings"), and do a sitting meditation/prayer in the hall where he was teaching, thus taking the energy into me... All of it, a blessing.
The days were filled with yoga, meditation, prayer, journaling, walking the forest paths, praying in the temples, observing with awe and delight the simple wonders of spring... Lupines and lobelia with their blue and purple splendor, bluejays, butterflies fluttering around blossoms, even the bright banana slugs in the forest, which look like slices of mango underfoot, only they are moving, shining, glistening, with two slimy antenna reaching out to the world... All of it, beautiful, fascinating.
I've been on some silent retreats in the past where the lessons and epiphanies seemed big and dramatic. This retreat was peaceful, restful, lovely, and more simple. No giant lessons descending from the heavens, no opening in the clouds, no deep pain or out-of-body bliss experiences. Simply this message, over and over, which was inscribed on a bench in the forest: "The path is under your feet."
I'd come into the retreat with some questions in mind about love, work, home... I am going through some transitions in my life, all positive, and looking for "divine guidance" to lead me... The message this time was simple. Keep walking. Trust your heart. One step at a time. The path is under your feet...
Walking the forest path on the last day, I was stopped by a monk who asked me "Do you know what time it is?" I had to keep my vow of silence so shook my head no, but then remembered my cell phone was in my pocket (I was using it as a watch!). I took it out and showed him the time and we bowed to one another.
We passed each other again on my way out of the forest, and bowed in silence and respect. This, too, felt like a blessing. I'd been watching my steps, careful of where my foot falls, because I'd noticed the black, white and gold caterpillars that were on the path, inching along, dozens of them, scattered across the earth, one every few feet. Some had been squished already by another hiker, and in my "retreat state" I was feeling an extra high level of compassion for these creatures, wanting to be careful of them, and also to just walk lightly on the earth in general.
Reverence for all beings, for all life, seemed to be another message on this retreat, or rather a reminder. The monk and the caterpillar, equally important, one bowing to me, one below me, one a spiritual guide, one a lesson - to walk lightly on the earth. What is more important? Who can say?
To all creatures of the earth, I say, Namaste, and give thanks for the blessing of a time away like this! I will end with a poem by Hafiz... My wonderful teacher, Dina, conducted a "poetry hour" Saturday night when we came out of the silence, reading poems by Hafiz, Rumi, Mary Oliver. If you have not spent time in the company of Hafiz, 14th century Sufi master poet, I suggest you do sometime! He is funny, wise and wonderful... His poems make me laugh and touch my heart.
May this poem help you to feel deep compassion for all beings - which is what it does for me.
Blessings, peace, love, light!
It Felt Love
Did the rose
Ever open its heart
And give to this world
It felt the encouragement of light
We all remain