Reflections on Heart of the Forest retreat
I remember thinking that people who went on last year’s Heart of the Forest Retreat were much further along in their meditation practice than I was. I had only done a few of the three-day Holy Spirit retreats. I liked the idea that one day I would take the risk of a longer retreat, but the primitive conditions of the North Woods intimidated me. The idea of embracing the roots of the Thai Forest traditions appealed to me in theory, but as a lifelong non-camper, living in the forest for a week was something I could not imagine doing.
One of the practice’s most beneficial aspects is that it has given me the courage to face some of my fears, even welcome them on occasion. This fearless mindset allowed me to take the risk; that is the only way I can understand my decision to sign up for eight nights and seven days in the forest.
I was fortunate to carpool with two great traveling companions, Jerry Sykora and Fred Howe. Like many of my carpool experiences to retreats, the conversation was great. I could probably go cross-county with those two and not get bored or restless. Jerry, Fred and I had similar retreat practice, but they were outdoor veterans and had camping skills. During the four-hour trip, they helped assure me that I would get through this, and camping was actually fun. I chose to believe them.
A growing confidence enveloped me as we arrived at the property. With help from Jerry, I erect my tent (purchased the night before). I was excited to complete this first hurdle. I was starting to think that maybe I CAN do this.
Prior to leaving, I learned from the retreat manager that my favorite yogi job–ringing the wake up and call back bells–was not yet taken. It is the only yogi job that I have had on my previous four residential retreats. I’m not sure why I have taken the job every time. I guess I like the idea that the entire community is counting on me to get them up in the morning and keep them on a schedule that best supports the practice. I also like it because I find myself thinking of others and not myself. And then there is the less-noble reason that I have an aversion to cooking and cleaning. I also tend to cling to the familiar, and that which I think I can control. This is especially true when I am nervous or anxious, and I was feeling both.
In hindsight, I might have preferred vegetable chopping or tidying the port-a-potty, because the job that I just had to have was … very challenging. I got up at 4:15 a.m. and it was still dark. As I unzipped my tent to face the day and my job, I began getting concerned about meeting snakes, raccoons, wolves or even a bear (one was spotted on the first evening of the retreat).
I made the rounds at 4:30 a.m., using a mallet to bang on an old artillery shell to rouse the retreatants. Then I started getting some feedback that I wasn’t whacking the “bell” loud enough and that some had almost missed a sitting period or a meal. It was frustrating, as I had to cover a lot of ground and didn’t have a lot of time to do it. That familiar whiny voice that echoes in my head had a lot to say about my yogi job satisfaction.
This is not the job I signed up for! … Why do I have to do this the whole day? … Don’t I get a break sometime? … Stop being such a deep sleeper! … I’m out here trying to cover several acres of land. It is damp and muddy and the trails are hard to see with my flashlight. I could easily twist an ankle. No one seems grateful for my sacrifice!
It took a few days to get accustomed to the terrain and the expectations, and gradually my resentment subsided.
Ahjan Chandako was simply everything I hoped he would be. The fruits of his decades of practice were always on full display. His wisdom, discipline, compassion, story-telling ability and humor were always present. His ease with people and his comfort in this setting was evident. Many of the great teachers I have been fortunate to hear seem to have a wry smile, a sense of mischief and an easy laugh. Ahjan Chandako had these qualities and communicated them at his dharma talks, where some truths are hard to bear and humor is good medicine. His laughter was genuine and it was one of the things that got me through.
During one of the first dharma talks, Ahjan Chandako said that the beautiful space provided for us was a safe container. Observing Noble Silence in this container made the optimum conditions for a “controlled demolition.” He described footage of imploding buildings that we sometimes see on TV. Whether it is an old structure, ballpark or outdated Vegas casino, there is a lot of science and careful planning in the destruction process. Sometimes the old needs to be destroyed so something new can go in its place, he said with a knowing grin.
I appreciated his smile, but there was something ominous about it as well. I had a gut feeling that he was talking to me. A lot of my anxiety about the retreat had to do with the primitive conditions and the simple but rigorous schedule. (I had told family and friends about the retreat and at least two of them said: “Why do you want to torture yourself?” My ego liked that and it made me feel strong and admirable in their eyes.) What worried me most was what would go on in my head. The length of this retreat was uncharted territory for me. I worried about losing my mind, or having some kind of breakdown.
Ironically, the last night of the retreat was the toughest emotionally, even though it was obvious I was going to make it. I was proud of what I was going to accomplish, but also afraid to leave the safe container. It felt so good to be free of my many, many preferred distractions. It was good to be free of all those choices, and how I often made them unskillfully. I also was tired of so many of the things that were filling my mind for the better part of the week: confusion, regret, anger, lust, disappointment, heartache and sorrow. On this evening, they all seemed to come at once.
The misery was coupled with the dreariness of the weather. The sun did not and was not shining on me. It seemed like a week since I had a decent shower.
To get some relief I decided to walk down the road off the property grounds. I reasoned that since this was the last evening, it was OK to bring my camera to capture some scenery.
At one point in the walk, the sadness and sorrow was more than I could bear. When it is the proper time to cry I usually don’t, as it seems to be an admission of defeat and I don’t like to lose. I know that doesn’t make sense, but that is who I am. My mental turmoil was getting so bad that I was starting to think that maybe it would be OK to have my controlled demolition out here on this lonely road. Maybe this would be the only way to get out from under these terrorizing emotions. I never thought of the weakness that I associate with tears as a skillful means to alleviate the pain, but I was starting to rethink.
So I did something unnaturally natural. I let myself have a good cry. It was loud and messy and cathartic and, in the end, OK.
When I was congratulating myself that no one had witnessed this side of me, I felt a compassionate presence. It was as if someone had come to check on me and my hurting self. It felt real, as if a pair of eyes was scoping me. I turned towards the feeling and saw a deer. I mindfully scrambled for my camera and was surprised the deer did not bolt. I got a good picture. The deer and I seemed to be having a very peaceful exchange, when I got the impression that that it was OK to move closer and get an even better picture. I did.
The deer still did not move. It seemed to have its eyes locked upon me in a compassionate gaze. About then I realized that my sadness of a few moments ago was turning to joy. This encounter was miraculous to me. I am a city person who had never encountered wildlife in this way. I did not want this moment to end. The deer and I were observing Noble Silence together.
It was wonderful. I remember Ahjan Chandako saying in one of his talks that a picture is worth a thousand words, but direct experience is worth a thousand pictures. This direct experience was teaching me so much. I felt that this deer couldn’t care less about the elaborate, dramatic stories that I concoct in my head about myself. The deer only sensed my agitation and came to comfort me. That was all that mattered.
I made the first move to continue walking, as the deer remained poised in its stance. Suddenly, a question formed in my mind … or was it my mind? “Now John, aren’t you glad that you came on retreat? Nature has many wonders in store for you. They are here to astound you and to comfort you. … Don’t be a stranger.”
A special thanks to John Tendal and his daughter Ali. Their hospitality was unparalleled. Their property became our property. They were so gracious.