December 22, 2011 at 11:31 PMEvery year, around the winter solstice, I retreat to the redwoods for three days, to a little cabin at the Ben Lomond Quaker Center. I read, contemplate, meditate. I take walks and endeavor to spend as much time as possible in the present moment.
Sitting around and meditating is harder than it sounds. I sit still and observe my thoughts, watch them rise up, try and seduce me, maintain their hold over my mind. My goal is not to stop them—nothing will stop them—but to avoid getting waylaid by them, those work issues, past and future issues, parenting issues, life issues, which is to say basically everything besides sitting and breathing. But I am simply there to observe the river of thoughts and unsnag them, without judgment, when, like twigs, they get caught and hold up the flow.
I spend most my life lost in thought.
I like being lost in thought (an occupational hazard).
Living fully in the present is hard work.
Early in the morning, while my mind was still sleepy and compliant, I’d rise before the sun, trekking up a little hill in order to get a ridge view of the eastern sky as it shifted from blue-black to softer shades of violet, a peach-tinted red just above the horizon. It’s an odd feeling to leave the cabin, down amid the redwood groves, in what feels like darkest night. The dark there is so much more mysterious, intimidating. A child’s fear would rise up in me before I firmly reminded myself that it was 6:00am and the sun’s rising was only minutes away. And oh, what a stirring thing to witness. From night, stars and the moon casting the only light, to the gradual lightening into day.
So spiritual to watch on the winter solstice. Sacred, even.
I made other observations during those three days. Silence is not silent. Stillness is not still. Solitude is not being alone. Birds twittered and poked at leaves with their beaks as I walked. It’s noisy when there are no voices or engines to compete with it. The sun cast its light in beams through the redwoods, that indefinable hue and color that whispers December. Through one of those golden beams I caught sight of flying bugs, a lot. There must have been hundreds of them, tiny, darting around in the light, going about their bug business, doing their bug thing. I’d been standing in that same spot five minutes earlier, before I moved on a few feet away. Had the bugs been there when I was? The humor is that we humans register “I am alone” when we see no other humans in a forest. Suddenly I found myself transported to the bug version of downtown San Francisco. Everywhere, swiftly moving bugs. Me, alone? Hardly.
From time to time during my three days of “staying present” work, I’d earn my reward: the abrupt cessation of chattering thoughts and internal noise, following by the astonishing peace of a mind free of free of clutter. I’d breathe in and out, in and out, and feel, all around me, the enormous redwoods, centuries old, their green and brown, the blue sky above, and my world hummed with equanimity. Ten minutes, no more. But a gorgeous, expansive ten minutes.
On Wednesday afternoon it was time to leave the Quaker Center to head home to family. That evening, as planned, we celebrated Hanukkah, with my making latkes and my Catholic-baptized son lighting two candles of the menorah. Earlier in the week, on Sunday morning, I’d sung with the choir at my former Catholic parish (an hour drive over mountains) and rehearsed with them to sing at Christmas Eve Mass. Combine that with the neo-Pagan ritual I observed in the honor of the solstice, the Buddhist philosophy books I read while on retreat, the Quaker facility, and you’ve got spirituality, Terez-style. Scandalous, perhaps, to embrace them all equally, but there you have it. It feels right.
Back home, predictably, life has swept me right back into its challenges, its conflicts and messy, pressing issues. I sometimes feel cheated, as if it has all managed to completely cover up the “soul work” I’d accomplished. Then I pause, breathe, and in that pause, it all comes back.
The stillness. It is still there for me. That’s what I was able to take home.
Wishing for all neo-Pagans, Buddhists, Quakers, Catholics, Christians, Muslims, Jews and spiritual non-sectarians a lovely, soulful week of spirituality and contemplation. It’s in the air, all around us, invisible and unspoken.
I know. I’ve seen it and heard it this past week.
Lastly, ending with music. “Still, Still, Still” is a lovely 19th century carol, that really manages to encompass all that I struggled to put into words here. It is a Christian carol but I like to think it transcends religion. This is a beautiful, pure rendition.
© 2011 Terez Rose
And although I'm not one for souvenir hunting, I did buy a small unvarnished tree, carved out of redwood trees.
Sometimes when I dust the shelves, I pick up the tree and give it a good sniff. The smell is still there, that ancient woodsy smell that brings back a perfect, cold, foggy morning, with the sun breaking through the gaps, and the salty air in the nose.
Those trees are something else.
Happy Holidays to you and your kin.
And come back soon...
Best wishes to you and yours for the holidays. Good luck negotiating them all! The complications and rewards of an interfaith family are many and varied.
Amanda, equally well-put! And it made me think of a moment or two during the retreat that I hadn't expected. Usually I'm a solitude junkie and love taking walks alone in the woods. Can't get enough of it. I never get lonely (in truth, my memories of feeling the most lonely and bereft in my life have been when I'm in a crowded room of people I can't relate to). But truly, that moment, in the dark, one of those mornings as I walked up the hill to seek out the sunrise, that flash of child's terror, just a flicker, did take me by surprise. It was such a primal feeling - think caveman times - and it made me understand, oh so clearly, what it must have been like, prior to the 19th century, when society was largely rural, relying on oil lamps and tallow candles to keep away the dark. Boy. How important it must have been, back then, to gather with loved ones and celebrate something, during that darkest time of the year. A deeply primal need, addressing a deeply primal fear, that it took this retreat for me to sense. Kinda cool, that. I love digging deep, inside myself and the concept of human nature itself, discovering this. It makes me more tolerant of the 21st century when I understand where this "holiday season" frenzy all originated from.
Oh, dear, that turned into a ramble. Hope it made sense to someone besides myself!
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