“The most important thing is to know~what is the most important thing?” ~ A Very Wise Person
This summer I practiced loving-kindness meditation like my life depended on it, and in a way it did. I spent a week exploring the dark rigid places in my heart, the places that had, up until this point in my life, remained closed and hypoxic. Without meaning to, I found myself in a silent meditation retreat on an island I’d never heard of in British Columbia. The retreat was accidental, I hadn’t planned on leaving my boyfriend and our dogs for a week, but I did. I took two ferries, one overstuffed shuttle with a singing driver named Richard, and one mini-van ride with an anarchist named Amber to an island be alone with my grief. I went to Denman Island to be reminded once again, of the most important thing, and all the ways I have kept myself from that which I want to give and receive the most. It is as clear as the sound of crickets chirping in the desert at dusk ~ love really is the most important thing. As I write this there is still a part of me who is rolling her eyes at this confession. A part of me who feels this is a hippy~dippy~new~age~hyper~cliche’ thing to say, and to this part I do declare, I love you my dear, and I simply don’t care.
I think we were about four weeks into our scheduled 8 week road trip when I told Gene that I needed to go on a silent retreat. We were having Thai food on a Friday night in Bellingham, Washington, a screaming-green, wildflower infested, mountain bike destination just fifty miles from the Canadian border. It was supposed to be our date night. This was our lame-assed attempt at restoring some kind of fun to what had become a not-so-fun journey. I had inklings before we even left Phoenix that cramming ourselves into tiny spaces for extended periods of time might not be a great idea, but ours was a journey with a life of its own. I knew I was going, no matter how many reasons I came up with that it wasn’t a good idea, these reasons didn’t stand a chance in the face of the opportunity to get out of Phoenix for the summer. Our trip had a momentum that pulled us along, both of us shrugging our shoulders and surrendering, because, it really and truly felt like the whole thing was being driven by some unseen force that neither of us had any control over, just like the rest of our relationship.
One of the reasons I thought our trip was a not so great idea, was that the one year anniversary of my father’s death would be occurring during our time on the road, and I knew this would be a difficult time for me emotionally. I told this to Gene before we left Phoenix, because I wanted to give him a heads up. I naively thought if I told him, it would buy me a “get out of being bitchy dark matter” free card. That night at dinner I was numb and so far away from my own heart, that when Gene innocently said, “What’s wrong, you seem sad,” I looked up from my plate of mediocre green curry with vegetables,and said with a voice flat and cold, “are you serious? I told you that I would be mourning my father’s death during this trip.” These words came out of my mouth before I was even aware that this was what was underneath the numbness I was feeling. I don’t remember his response, but I know I hurt him. I wasn’t able to make it better because at this point I had nothing to give. I really believed that I was entitled to my darkness and because he was my boyfriend, this meant he was responsible for caring for me emotionally, no matter what. As far as I was concerned, he wasn’t doing his job. I was pissed and I didn’t even know it. I guess somewhere inside of me I knew I needed some space to be with this heaviness that had descended on me as soon as we left Phoenix. It was during this dinner that I went online and found a one week meditation retreat in Canada beginning in less than a week. The timing was perfect.
All of the details for my trip magically fell into place, I suppose because I was ripe for a retreat. A few days before I went into silence, I had sent my sister a text message sending her love, as I assumed she too would be having a hard time with the anniversary of our father’s passing. She and I had a falling out over the holidays when I had visited her in Florida last year, but I wasn’t prepared for the hate slurs she volleyed back at me after I reached out to her in love. It was just more to work with I guess, everything lining up for me to sit with. The loss of my father, my boyfriend, ( I was pretty sure Gene and I were breaking up, but I wasn’t ready to let go.) and now my sister’s cruel rejection were all sitting on my chest waiting for me to be still and to feel them.
I had the heart wobbles about Gene caring for the dogs by himself. My worries were many: They’re rescues and not good with other dogs, and what if Zeb gets away and goes looking for me, and Gene’s never been responsible for another living thing, and what if one or both of them gets eaten by a bear?! I left Gene a letter detailing all of the doggie duties that he would be responsible for, as well as post-it notes all over our little home on wheels that said things like, “Has Zeb had his rescue remedy today?” and, “Call Melissa at ***-***-**** with dog questions!” I was crazed with worry over something happening to the mongrel monsters while I was gone, but when Gene dropped me off at the ferry station in Vancouver, he asked, “How many times a day do I have to text you to let you know the dogs are ok?” I thought for a moment, and feeling like I maybe needed to let go a bit, I said after our quick and chaste embrace, “Just once, before you go to bed.” This was a change from the twice a day I had originally intended. I hugged the fuzzy creatures and said silent prayers to the one true god for their safety.
Once I was on the ferry, I didn’t even notice we were moving until I looked up from my notebook in which I had been scribbling incomprehensibles, to behold a sky that had opened its big blue mouth and spit out a mind-erasing landscape layered with mountains popping out of an endless sea. This space must have allowed for ventilation of at least some of my fear, because not long after I sat down and started breathing in the realization that I was finally alone, I knew that I had to let go. I had to let go and trust that Gene would take care of the dogs, I knew he loved them and I also knew that just like every other step on our journey up to this point, this too was out of my hands. I had to go on this retreat. I had to leave the dogs with Gene. I also had to send him a text telling him that he didn’t have to text me at all, and as a matter of fact, I would be turning off my phone as soon as we went into silence the following day. I told him that I trusted him and knew he would take good care of them. That last part was a bit of a lie, because I didn’t know that he would take good care of them, but I did know that I needed to tell him that, that he needed to hear it. It never occurred to me as I made my plans to go on the retreat that it was absurd to be in contact with anyone while having psychic surgery. I’ve been on silent meditation retreats before, and I know how it goes. No contact with the outside world unless it’s an emergency. Melissa would be able to handle all things doggie just as well as I would, being that I was one mini-van, one shuttle, and two ferry rides away. It’s funny how absurd it seemed before I got on the ferry that I wouldn’t need an update from him everyday. This makes me wonder how many other things which I thought absurd, perhaps weren’t at all absurd when seen from some other spacious and saner perspective and vice versa. I seem to have just tied myself into some absurd thought knot that I now plan to slip out of by simply starting a new paragraph, because rethinking all of the thoughts I thought while suffocating from too much togetherness from a spacious and sane perspective is absurd.
When I got to Denman Island a few hours later, I was happy. I felt my breath again and the sweetness of my feet simply walking on the dark mulchy earth. I arrived the evening before the retreat began, and after walking around The Hermitage which is nestled in the middle of a second-growth forest and buzzing with electric blue dragon flies, I snapped some photos of the grounds, and then I turned my new iPhone with the turquoise case covered in red and pink peonies to the retreat manager, because I didn’t trust myself to not contact Gene.
My home for the week was a kuti, which means house of a monk in Pali, the language of The Buddha. All the kuti’s had names, mine was called, “River.” River was painted beige with bright yellow trimming, she was a tiny one-roomed, two-windowed structure that was furnished with everything I needed: a twin sized bed, nightstand, lamp, a garbage can, and a space heater. It was perfect, after being crammed into 100 square feet with a giant man and two 50 pound dogs, my digs seemed downright luxurious.
Since they weren’t serving dinner that night, I made do with a piece of mozzarella string cheese and some organic tortilla chips I bought at the ferry station. I sat outside my tiny one-roomed house on the little stoop while I ate my salty dinner, listening to bird songs and a the breeze rubbing up against the trees. It was still light outside when I went to sleep that night about 9:30. I wrote for a while and then turned off the light, but I could still see blue sky through the little window by my bed. Tears fell down my face because they just did. I had a pressure in my chest that could only be relieved in this particular way. I fell into a dreamless sleep, and at some point in the night I woke up to nothing. When I say nothing, I mean I woke up and had no reference point not only for where I was, but for who I was. Kate was gone, there was only blackness and then some awareness that there should be more, there was a searching for something, a reference, but there was only nothing. I’m not sure how long it lasted, but eventually awareness found personality and they merged, creating ground and solidifying a self once again. It was trippy, but no big deal.
The next morning, I had planned to go get breakfast with the one other person who had come a day before the retreat as well. The others wouldn’t be arriving until the afternoon. I was a few minutes early for our meeting, so I sat on a log across from his tent to wait. His back was to me, and he was facing the sun, which was reaching its golden fingers through the forest and onto a field of long dry grass while Richard played his guitar. It was a sad strumming, or at least it felt this way to me. Sitting there on that log I felt three things~ sad and so I cried, sweetness and so I smiled, I also felt like I had walked in on someone’s prayer, so I felt a bit awkward. The awkwardness passed as he turned around a few minutes later and smiled and waved. We folded ourselves into his Toyota and drove up the road to a little purple house that is one of two restaurants on Denman. My new friend was about twenty-years older than me, and he bore a striking resemblance to the actor, William J Macy. He told me that he had even been asked once or twice for autographs. We ordered our breakfast and sat outside on a crooked bench and he shared with me, that he too had come to Denman to be with his broken heart, which was good news because mine wouldn’t stop crying, and he assured me it was okay with him. This was how it was to be for the rest of the retreat. I was grieving, and with grieving there are frequent snotty and salty facial floods which haven’t a lick of shame or self-consciousness.
Our teacher arrived soon after we returned from breakfast. I met her out by the prayer wheel, I was sitting on a bench waiting for the first session to begin when she approached me. I recognized her from her photos, she looked Nordic and kind. She introduced herself and asked me how I had found The Hermitage, when I told her I was on an accidental retreat, she said, “Awww, there are no accidents, you were meant to be here.” There were about twenty of us in all, a mix of young and old, big and small, experienced and novice. Our meditation hall was a cozy but spacious yurt with mediation cushions in rows all facing a large altar showcasing photos of teachers from this particular Tibetan Buddhist lineage. Our teacher, who is also a psychologist and writes a column for Mindfulness magazine, sat on her cushion just beneath the altar, fresh wild flowers in vases sat beside her. She began to give us the rules and regulations of retreat life, as some of the people were virgins as far as silent retreats go. She said something to the effect of, “You’re all adults so I expect that I don’t need to take your cell phones away, but please don’t use them, and if you do, you really may as well leave, because you’d be blowing your retreat.” She covered our schedule and the observance of silence that we would be going into after lunch. When she asked for questions, I raised my hand and asked, “Is it okay to write during this retreat?” She immediately said, “No. No reading, no writing.” I tried to explain that writing was a practice for me, a way to go into myself not away from, but she stopped me and said, “If you need to talk more about this you can sign up for a meeting with me later.” She wasn’t unkind, she was just clear. No writing. This was to be one of the many spins I would take up and down and around my mind full of attachment during the week. I told myself so many stories. She obviously didn’t understand the practice of writing, she obviously had never heard of Natalie Goldberg and her silent retreats which include writing as a practice, as a way to be with what is presently arising. It took me about twelve hours of feeling superior and right before I finally let it go. I was here. I wouldn’t write. I would follow the form as advised by my teacher.
Our schedule was structured and tight, lots of sitting and walking meditation and dharma talks. We also ate ambrosial meals made with food that was grown at The Hermitage. We ate in silence while sitting on a wooden deck overlooking a field where we would watch the sky dance with the birds and the clouds and sometimes we’d see a mama deer and her baby grazing in the grass. We were treated to yoga classes twice a day which were taught by a sweet mother/daughter team and held in this same large grassy field. There was a huge maple tree that we passed every time I walked out to the yoga class, this tree held some kind of magic for me, it was just begging to be climbed, to be hugged, to be lived in! Its trunk could have housed three generations of Leprechauns! The first time I saw it, I just stood about 20 feet in front of it beholding its majesty. It was really something. One day our teacher passed around a string of Tibetan prayer flags and explained that we were to choose a flag and write our intention for this retreat on our flag. I chose a green Tara, the goddess of universal compassion, on which I wrote, “Let go.” After we passed the flags around and everyone had a chance to write their intentions on the flags, we walked out to the field and up to the mighty maple tree and with dental floss, I tied one end of our flags to a thick branch, while a man who slept in a tent across the field tied the other end to another thick branch. We were told that when the wind blew, our prayers would be carried on the breath of the wind and across the ocean, and that every time the wind blew, our prayers would again be sent out to the world.
On about the third day of the retreat I was ready to tear my hair out and scream until I’d let go of every last ounce of pain I contained. I’d had it. I was being swallowed by my sadness, all of the sitting and silence and slow zombie walking was making me miserable, and even though I knew this was all a really good sign, I also knew that I needed some guidance. I needed to take a meeting with our teacher. I told her after the late afternoon yoga class where my mat was again slippery with my tears and snot, that I needed to speak to her, she asked me to come by her cabin before our evening meal, ( our “meal” was always just soup. Not hearty soup. Parsnip soup, beet soup, pea soup. No chunks. Just liquid.) I met my teacher on her porch where we sat across from each other on green plastic lawn chairs. I said through tears, “I feel like I’m in hell. Like I’m on fire.” She nodded her head to let me know she heard me. I told her about my father, and about Gene, I told her I wanted to leave the retreat, but I knew that I wouldn’t. She was looking at me with so much compassion and love, and then she asked, “what do you think you need?” I thought about this, and then I said the absolute truth, the only thing I could think of that would make me feel better in that moment, “Bread.” We both laughed, and then she said something amazing, ” I think it would be good for you to start writing again, I didn’t realize Natalie Goldberg was your teacher, ( I had told her this during our interview on the second day) I want to thank you for honoring this tradition, but I think you should write, and tomorrow afternoon why don’t you take a few hours after lunch and walk down to the beach.” to which I replied, “Thank you, it hadn’t even occurred to me to ask!” I was beginning to feel a little space around my heart, and then she said, “Do you like chocolate?” This just kept on getting better, “hell yes!” was my obvious answer. She got up and went into her little cabin and came back with a bar of dark chocolate that she explained was infused with black licorice. She broke the thin brown bar and wrapped half of it in a napkin before handing it to me. In that moment I believed she was the most wise teacher I had ever come in contact with, and then she gave me something way more valuable than chocolate. She asked me if I had ever practiced metta, or loving-kindness meditation. I told her that I had, but not regularly. It was during this meeting full of the transformative energy of loving-kindness coming from my teacher, that I made loving-kindness a formal practice. In the midst of a heavy darkness, there was light that came from her heart to mine. A light that breathed life into my dense grief. I was still sad, but there was also room for more than just pain, there was room for joy too. As we were saying goodbye, my teacher said, “I think you’re really brave to come to a silent meditation retreat with all of this, and don’t mention the chocolate to anyone, I don’t usually do that.” We laughed and then walked seperatley the short distance to the dining hall to have our soup. As I stood in line, I noticed that along with the pureed vegetable soup, there was heaping bowl of hummus which was surrounded by a mountain of fluffy pita bread!! This was unusual, and I was elated. I sat on the deck after eating four pita triangles heavy with hummus. I gazed out at the empty field simply enjoying the weight of the bread sitting in my belly and the space I felt around my heart.
The rest of the retreat was hard, but it was never again unbearable. I wrote and I spent a day by myself at the beach collecting seashells and simply sitting in the sand looking out at ocean. I practiced loving-kindness several times a day, I must have lost five pounds in tears alone, letting go of all that pain made my heart get bigger and bigger and bigger. I always had a wad of kleenex in my pocket. I found that the more metta I sent to myself and others, the more I cried, but my heart also just spontaneously began to feel gratitude for just about everything and everyone. Even my father and especially Gene, who had made this whole trip possible. I didn’t know if we would be together or not once I came out of this place, and it didn’t matter, because I had been able to let go of needing anything to be other than it was. Yes, there were lots of skull-shining dharma talks thick with wisdom and laughter, and plenty of stillness where it was just me and my breath, and of course lots of struggle, and magic-infused moments, like walking a labyrinth and witnessing with full attention, from start to finish, a giant blue dragonfly eating a ladybug. So many experiences that led to a deep and healing experience of letting go. But I believe the loving-kindness practice was one of the most powerful antidotes to my suffering, by sending love to myself, to those I love, those I don’t know, and even those I don’t like, I was opened up to a vast space that held so much gratitude and kindness. It also contained forgiveness. I forgave, at least in the moment, my sister and my aunt and others who I had been holding resentment and anger against. I had compassion for their suffering. By experiencing my own suffering on such a deep level, I was able to feel theirs. I too had caused my share of suffering. The pain we cause others is always a direct reflection of our own pain. Pain is pain. It’s universal. And so to is love.
One our last night together while our teacher was giving a dharma talk about concepts in the mind vs reality, there was a loud, “pop! crack, crack, pop, crack, crack! pop!!!” sound that went on for about ten seconds. She used this as a teaching opportunity, she said, “For example that sound, what was it?” She looked at me, and said, “what was it?” I said, “Fireworks!” because to me, that’s what it sounded like. Then she asked two others, one said, “Hunters,” and the last one replied, “Tree branches breaking.” “See,” she said, ” The same sound, all of you with different interpretations of the same reality.”
The next day after breakfast we had our last session. It went like this: 30 minutes sitting, 30 minutes walking, 30 minutes sitting, 30 minutes walking, 30 minutes sitting, and then our last dharma talk. Our teacher said lots of really good stuff that I can’t remember right now, but she was very passionate about us waking up, and she called each of us up to her by name and gave us a special rock that she had chosen just for us, as she handed us our magic rock, she looked at us with her wise heavy-lidded blue eyes, and she said, “May you be happy. May you awaken swiftly.” And then she told us what the sound we had heard the night before actually was. The big strong oak tree we had hung our prayer flags on had split down the center. There was no lightning strike. There was only the splintering and cracking and splitting of what was to me, the most magnificent tree I’d ever seen. Our teacher started to cry as she said, “Do you understand how powerful your intentions are?” In that space as she shared these words, I think we all had a moment of awakeness. The room was permeated with a profound stillness and this collective realization. By the way, the man who had guessed the sound of tree branches breaking was an arborist who lived on Denman Island, and he said he guessed that tree to be about two-hundred years old. Our intentions had split a two hundred year old maple tree.
It’s been about three months since my retreat and I still practice loving-kindness meditation everyday as part of my sitting practice. I taught it to Gene, and he practices it too. After my retreat we had a rough time, I ended up driving home with the dogs by myself. Healing takes time, and the road isn’t only paved with chocolate and bread and wise sweet teachers, it’s paved with anger and sadness and sickness too. I experienced a shit ton of atomic rage around my father’s death after I left The Hermitage, and this I needed to deal with by myself. To love myself through it. To feel the layers of thunderous energy that was my grief . The storm I’d been carrying since I was a child was terrifying and I would not invite a soul into some of the spaces I’ve visited. When I told my dear friend Geertje about these places, she said, “It sounds like you’ve had a proper dark night of the soul.”
The miracles have been many : I have been able to accept my life as it is, not in every moment, but more than ever before. I’ve been able to let go of my expectations that I should be some other way and that others should be some other way, simply because I think they should. I’m so much kinder and gentler to the doctors and nurses at work, my patients, my friends, the person in line in front of me at Starbucks, and most importantly to myself. My intention to let go is seated in the practice of loving-kindness. The most important thing is love, and to recognize with kindness all of the ways we keep ourselves from each other. I guess I’m just nicer, and that’s a really big deal. 🙂