Jay and I just got back from a nine-day silent retreat at St. Benedicts Lodge on the McKenzie River in central Oregon. I come home bearing an amusing little story and a recipe I thought I’d share. But first, a bit about going on retreat—fair warning, it’s longer than most of my posts . . .
Why do it? You might ask. Why voluntarily give up all distractions—no talking (except during teachings or tasks), no reading, no cell phone, no email—to sit around for nine days twiddling your thumbs and contemplating your navel?
Well, against all thoughts to the contrary, it’s remarkably enlivening to experience even glimpses of an undistracted mind—where clarity and inspiration, fearlessness and loving compassion live and roam freely, where life is goodness through and through regardless if it feels like bliss or grief. Stripped of our habitual conditioning, those glimpses are life affirming and rejuvenating. Love jumps front and center, senses come alive and play happens naturally. Anne Lamott says it well: “Almost everything will work again, if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”
This retreat was called the Mysteries of Surrender. Egos everywhere recoil in horror at the notion of surrender, falling back on the more popular teaching: “Never give up! Never surrender!”
But on this retreat, for this time, we are invited to step into surrender—a surrender that is not about defeat, but rather about acceptance and giving up control from a place of devotion. It is surrender that is like the relaxing of a clenched fist, the opening of a heart, dew dropping from a leaf. It is offering our most vulnerable self in humble reverence; open to receive all.
The retreat, put on by The Center for Sacred Sciences, has a daily rhythm, a structure around which we dive into the Mystery of Surrender. We rise at 6 am and have our first formal meditation session at 6:30 am. Throughout the day there are scheduled teaching sessions, which include formal meditation sittings, each 30 minutes long and cumulatively adding up to about 4 – 5 hours per day. Mealtimes are at 7 am, noon and 6 pm. There are breaks after meals and before teaching sessions for our own quiet time to reflect, to go for a walk, to nap. Each of us has a daily chore. Mine, this time, is rinsing the breakfast dishes and loading and unloading the commercial dishwasher.
The week has a structure too, taking us deeper and deeper into the unknown and unknowable. We started with the basics: concentration practice—recalling again how to train the mind to come back to the object of concentration (breath or a mantra); it’s akin to training a new puppy to come back to the training pad again and again, gently with love and patience. We learn to relax effort when thoughts increase during meditation and increase effort when we start falling asleep. We are earnest at the start of the week, anxious to get it “right.”
Gradually we move on to conscious awareness—a meditation practice that focuses on one sense at a time, but instructs us to strip away the labels. We might feel a prickling in our elbow, and notice the mind wants to say “tendonitis,” but instead we call it only “body sensation.” A bird singing is just “sound”; leaves fluttering are “sight” and so on. This gives us the opportunity to simply experience phenomenon arising and passing away instead of getting caught up in discriminating labels and their accompanying stories.
Further on in the week we focus on our experience of our self. Who am I? What am I? We investigate on our own. Can I find where my body ends and the chair begins? Can I separate the actions I seem to control and those that happen without my control? In what way am I like a tree? Slowly our conditioning is stripped away.
I think about our teacher’s book, called “Naked Through the Gate,” and I think how this retreat peels off our habitual layers, leaving us, perhaps, half naked and freer to respond spontaneously. I have a moment where I see Buddhahood or God everywhere—in the trees, river, rays of sunshine—everywhere it seems, except in me. How can that be, I wonder? What keeps me separate?
We practice letting thoughts go by surrendering them back to emptiness from where they came. I’ve always found thoughts to be somewhat sticky; it seems hard to “let them go.” How do I do that? But in this practice I am instructed to offer my thoughts up in devotion and for some reason this appeals to me and I find it easy. During this meditation, I have so many thoughts, more than any other meditation thus far, as if I have become a thought magnet. This time, I don’t mind because I envision myself as a willing conduit through which they pass innocently through. I think of the show the “Ghost Whisperer,” where the main character can see lost ghosts and takes it upon herself to help them find their way back into the Light. During this meditation, I become the “Thought Whisperer” lovingly ushering all thoughts back to the source.
Eventually, we listen to the highest teachings of all: how to simply be a human without effort or expectation. We embrace the paradox of striving to let go of striving, of doing non-doing. For this practice, I appreciate my dishwashing job—it’s become one of my favorite parts of the day—for the very reason that it is close to effortless effort. I am relaxed and content to be in service, contributing without expectation, doing without thinking about doing.
On retreat, we are expected to practice constantly both day and night. Our pee breaks are called “pee meditations.” We learn practices of the night too, such as techniques to enhance the chance of lucid dreaming (dreams where the dreamer is fully awake within the dream and can control it.) We learn of different triggers for waking up in a dream, like finding oneself naked, for instance, or talking to someone deceased. We are instructed to pay attention to our dreams or recurring persistent thoughts or songs and write them down. I have to chuckle. One of my triggers for having a lucid dream has been flying. On the first night of the retreat I have a blissful dream in which I am flying/floating naked. There is no shame in my nakedness because everyone in the dream is naked. I am trying to get their attention calling out “Look, we can fly! Come on, it’s so fun!” Before I can wake up in the dream, I wake up for real swathed in warmth and smiling from the echo of the dream. My teacher says it’s a dream about liberation. Later, during one of the group meditations, the line “A magical mystery tour is going to take you away” repeats endlessly inside my head—a silent mantra that arises unbidden but welcome.
Mealtimes are particularly rich times for practice. The whole group—42 of us—eat together . . . in silence. Outwardly, the lack of chatter seems to add a note of seriousness to the event and an outsider might interpret the faces as somber. But during sharing time we hear of the bliss fellow participants have experienced while practicing conscious awareness while eating—paying close attention to each flavor as it arises and passes away, and noticing conditioned thoughts that may be unconsciously driving behavior or experience. “I don’t like flavors mixed together,” one participant described noting. Then wondered if that was true and discovered that she loved the melding of flavors, but had so long told herself she didn’t that she forgot to try.
Eating is never dull. The organic beautiful food lovingly prepared by our cook enlivens our palate and our practice and we are grateful. I find myself eating with reverence, often discovering tears streaming down my face. One day—Moroccan Chermoula Sauce day—I am swept away on a magic carpet ride by the combination of flavors in the simple sauce. I dare to break my silence to ask Linda, the cook, “May I please have the recipe?”
As the week moves on, the group loosens up and starts laughing more. Ease and light-heartedness begin to appear. Tension lines etching people’s faces melt away. We stop trying so hard. Jay reports that he went for a walk alone in the woods and remembered how to play. He spent two hours playing with the world he said. He is glowing. He notes that normally in his life as an adult everything trumps play.
Midway through the retreat a tiny kitten shows up. It is adorable—all small fistful of fluffy white with black ear tips looking like it will grow up into a Siamese cat. One of the participants suggests we try to catch it and bring it to the caretakers, as it looks too young to survive on its own. He turns to the teacher and says, “I hope it won’t be a distraction for us, but it’s so small . . .” The teacher says, “true compassion is never a distraction to practice.”
The rest of the week meetings are peppered with kitty sighting reports—in the laundry room, by the Building B bathroom, under the deck. And, during our alone time, many of us find our way to the laundry room, the bathroom and under the deck hoping to see and maybe even catch the precious little kitty.
Although we participants are all on retreat there is still worldly activity happening at the retreat center itself. Workers have some areas blocked off while they tear up concrete and install a French drain, and then re-cement the area. We appreciate the seamless way one of the seasoned workers does his job—his body making the long practiced motions without effort or thought. His younger apprentice struggles, practicing the new skill with much effort and thought. I think how everything gets easier with practice—even surrendering the self. I think, too, how I lose myself in certain activities, like dancing, or painting, or washing dishes, where the activity seems to do itself without my commentary and control.
Near the end of the retreat, I can’t sleep one night. After a while I decide to get up and venture outside. It’s cold but clear out. I bundle up and head into the three-quarters full moonlit night. I sit by the river enjoying the beauty of the night. An idea drops in that I could go for a walk in the woods to the labyrinth. The retreat center butts up to the national forest on the other side of the street. There are all kinds of forest trails. One of them leads to a clearing and a labyrinth that the monks made. The idea is at once terrifying and compelling. Walk in the woods at night, alone? That’s crazy talk. But it feels enlivening and I want to do it. I cross the road searching for the trailhead. I have a flashlight with me, which reveals to me the opening. My heart is pounding as I look into the dark trail. I begin to walk in and note that there is a faint disperse light ahead. I turn off the flashlight and discover that the moonlight has lit up a wide-open area some ways down the trail. It is easier to head for that light in the dark than to use the flashlight.
I walk into the dark heading for the light. My body is pulsing. Voices in my head tell scary stories and tell me to turn back. I keep walking anyway, noticing I do not feel protected, per se, but rather intensely alive, buzzing with energy, riveted, and mesmerized. I am propelled forward—my leading edge is an arrowhead of fearlessness. Fear trails behind me. I fully expect that any sudden sound will cause my body to react and run, but still I walk on. I stop at times when the fear catches up and I can’t move, but each time after a bit I move forward again. I make it to the labyrinth and slowly walk the entire thing. In the center I pause and give thanks for my journey thus far. I consider cheating and crossing through the maze to the start, but that feels sacrilegious and I can’t do it, so I slowly unwind myself back through the maze to the start. All told, I am out in the dark, barely moonlit woods for an hour and a half. It is a full experience—a ritual ceremony—and I love it.
On the last night of the retreat, we are advised that the next morning session will be a sharing event and that anyone and everyone is invited to share a highlight or summary of their experience. I go to bed wondering what I am going to say. Again I have trouble falling asleep; my throat is scratchy. I decide that I’ll go to the kitchen and prepare some hot honey infused ginger tea. This night it is cold and rainy outside but I don’t want to take the trouble to bundle up. Everyone else is already asleep, so I sneak out, half naked, in nothing but gauzy pajama shorts and a button up shirt pulled quickly on. I tiptoe down the stairs making a beeline for the kitchen, which is directly below my room. All of sudden out of the corner of my eye I see a streak of white at the far end of the building.
The kitty! I cry silently and a rush of desire and joy flow through me.
I’m going to catch the kitty! I think running in its direction. I imagine myself snuggling up all night with that sweet ball of fluffiness.
Up ahead I see the white bundle of fur cross my path heading toward the building and before I even appreciate what is happening, I leap over the yellow caution tape and land smack dab in the middle of . . . wet cement.
Oh no! I stand there on one leg, gauzy shorts flapping in the cool night air, shirt flying open. Kitty gone. “Crap.”
I wonder what to do. I have leapt too far to go back the way I came and it looks like I can’t make it further along without stepping in more cement. I leap as far as I can, stepping once more in wet cement before finding firm ground. I look back at the two footprints now indelibly etched into the fresh cement, probably forever.
Jay’s going to notice that, I think to myself.
Then in a flash, I know what I’m going to say tomorrow.
“Coming on this retreat,” I say the next morning “might be succinctly summarized by the events which transpired last night.” I explain the scene above to which everyone gasps and Jay says, “I saw those footprints and judged harshly whoever stepped in that wet cement!” We all laugh. Me too.
I finish up: “I come on retreat because by and by I find myself half-naked catching a glimpse of something so precious that I can’t help but go after it. And once seeing it, I can’t go back. It proves to be elusive—just out of my grasp—but the process is amusing and leaves a lasting impression nonetheless.”
In some sense we’re all on a Magical Mystery Tour that’s going to take us away, eventually. In honoring that inescapable truth and the compelling glimpses of the divine along the way, I offer this Magic Carpet Ride Chermoula sauce to help make the journey intoxicatingly flavorful and fun. Thank you for sharing, Linda!
Linda served this with butternut squash patties and it was exquisite. It can easily be used as a simple sauce for any vegetables, fish or meat or even rice. Traditionally, it is often served with couscous and Moroccan Tagine—a slowly cooked savory stew.