Every 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.
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
I spent two of the best hours in Muir Woods a few years ago. Along with the requisite Vertigo staging, it twas a walk to remember.
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...
What a stirring and at the same time still story! It really feels like one is with you all the way during your journey to Self. Thanks for inspiration and happy holidays of all types and religions!
Wow, that is such a marvellous story! What a great thing to be able to do! I live in a seaside town and am forever surrounded by the hustle and bustle of town life (although it is quieter in comparison to the cities, like London), so I find it impossible to attain such a level of stillness in my life. But you are right: stillness and solitude do not exist even in nature. Humanity is never truly alone, nothing is ever truly quiet. Not that that is always a bad thing. The removal of human influence, and experiencing noise and sights of nature must be very calming to a mind seeking solace.
What a beautiful experience. My bro did a meditation retreat once, and he described it much as you do. I also have a colleague who is a Catholic and does a retreat once per year at a nearby monastery. It's a wonderful way to recharge.
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.
Omigosh, what a wonderful gift to come here this morning and see all these beautiful responses! Thanks so much, Patty, Anne, Mariam, Amanda and Tom. I'm delighted everyone "got" what I was rambling on about. : ) It was a neat feeling to work on writing this blog; I felt transported back to that place during that time. (And I played the "Still, Still, Still" recording an embarrassing number of times in a row.) Ironically, but not surprising, the rest of the day was chaos, with high emotion from my son's "winter carnival" event the day before their holiday break. Boy, did I need to remind myself, time and time again, about the stillness that was indeed still there down deep. Wish I could have reminded my son that as well, but it's not something an overstimulated (and disappointed) 12 yr old boy wants to hear.
>But you are right: stillness and solitude do not exist even in nature. Humanity is never truly alone, nothing is ever truly quiet. Not that that is always a bad thing. The removal of human influence, and experiencing noise and sights of nature must be very calming to a mind seeking solace.
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!
Your ramble does make sense. (btw you never ramble, Terez!) After the big windstorm we had in Pasadena on Dec. 1, we went without electricity for three days. During the first days especially, most of our neighbors also had no electricity as well, and when the sun went down at 4:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m.!) it was DARK. Just unrelentingly dark, at my place, all down the street, everywhere! You honestly can't do much when it's THAT dark, and the candlelight helps, but it certainly leaves a lot of dark corners. I already had a few wall sconce candles in the house, and they helped the most in reassuring us. Still, I grew very aware that that the dark was coming, no matter what, and I needed to prepare for it before it was upon me. I needed to have the food cooked, to know where the lighter was, to have things cleared away so I wouldn't stumble over them. Imagine, all winter! I see the need for comfort and light and fire and hope and beautiful candles.
Oh, Laurie, I can soooo relate to that situation. Santa Cruz County, especially the mountains, was hit hard by the same wind storm. We had four nights without power here and it really messes with your mind/mood after 24 hours of being powerless (boy, doesn't THAT say it all?!). I remember even thinking, "what fun is the Quaker Center retreat going to be this year after THIS?" because normally I enjoy the candlelight/dark feeling. I read an article about how a lot of people in Pasadena were quite traumatized by having the power cut off for so long. Here in the San Lorenzo Valley, most people had their power back by day 4, but some had to wait 5 days and I think the article I read said something about it being even longer for a lot of people in Pasadena. Oh, the joy in this house when the power went on at 9pm on night four! I've never been so grateful for the ability to flip on a switch and instantly illuminate an entire room.
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December 23, 2011 at 12:14 AM · Great article, it reminds me of a friend who went to Nepal for a spiritual journey many years ago. You did such a great job describing your experience, I felt like I was right there with you...
Happy holidays to you :)