Wednesday, September 1, 2010

They say this is “the US,” but it looks a lot like “Canada” to me.

End of August, 2010
more photos here

I’m on an island not unlike my own home .... at least, what my own island home might have looked like a hundred years ago before it was all "developed."

I’m surrounded by water, mountains, and a thriving cedar/fir/pine forest. Many arbutus trees, and salal bushes and berries. Wild deer and rabbits, squirrels and birds. The people speak a slightly different language and use a slightly different currency, but the native artwork I’ve seen, and the sense of community necessary to survive island life is very familiar.

They call this Orcas Island and I’m here for a meditation retreat my friend organized. My impressions of this place are probably heavily romanticized, given that I’m living in a space that might have been modeled on the imaginary place I visit before I go to sleep at night. There are individual cabins where my friends might live or find solace, and a central building for communal feasting and celebrating. There’s a huge firepit with bench seating and a small stage where musicians or other artists might perform. Of course there’s a large organic garden with everything from walnut trees to wheat fields, and marked trails along the waterfront cliffs and through the forest. Lots of space for yoga, and good reading from the library.

This place is called Indralaya, and it’s owned and operated by the Theosophical Society. I’m not here for a Theosophical workshop, although I did meet my spiritual friend at a Theosophical event more than a decade ago. Exploring my spirituality at that time, I was drawn to the Theosophical philosophy which “is dedicated to preserving and realizing the ageless wisdom, which embodies both a world view and a vision of human self-transformation.” They believe that life, the universe, and everything are interrelated and interdependent, that every existent being – “from atom to galaxy – is rooted in the same universal, life-creating Reality,” which “reveals itself in the purposeful, ordered, and meaningful processes of nature as well as in the deepest recesses of the mind and spirit.”

What I particularly like about the theosophists, and my friend, is that there’s no mention of capital G God. I’m not asked to believe in it, neither am I asked to “just interpret” the word so it fits my own beliefs. That “just interpret” takes a lot of time and energy, since the capital G word is so loaded with patriarchal tradition.

So I’m not being asked to believe in anything invisible, unbelievable, or what might be regarded as clinically insane - ie doing whatever the voices in my head suggest, which might include sacrificing my son.

An aside …. I’m beginning wonder how many of the great teachers were born of “single” women. I’ve been reading Mr Iyengar’s book, The Tree of Yoga, and learned that the great Indian sage Patanjali was born to a woman with no husband. Jesus had Joseph around after his birth, but would have been alone in feeling Mary’s torment knowing that she had been outcast for her pregnancy. Of course there was that convenient “virgin birth” story to help with his PTSD, but maybe there’s something unique and special about men whose primary role model is their mother?

What I am asked to believe in, here at this meditation retreat on this gorgeous island, is myself. My own Self. Quieting my busy mind, finding the source of myself, and listening.

Day Three

Okay, I’m all relaxed and in tune with myself, I’ve read George Bernard Shaw’s satirical play, Arms and the Man, and re-read much of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, and I’m feeling a bit anxious to get home and back to work. My feelings of internet withdrawal are subsiding somewhat, but it’s disconcerting to have absolutely no idea what’s going on in the world. None. There’s no radio, no tv, no internet, no newspapers. The world could be exploding around me as I sit here, on this balcony facing the rising sun, listening to the birds and squirrels and deer making their morning noises and foraging for food.

I feel very privileged, and guilty for it. My spiritual friend assures me these feelings of compassion and concern for others are the result of a mature soul that lives with a deep connection to its own cosmic karma, evolved over lifetimes.

This is not one of those thousand dollar retreats, with a strict guru who insists on 100% participation and rigidity of process and belief. We five participants have been asked to cover my friend’s travel and lodging expenses, but other than that she offers her many years of wisdom for free. Charging money for spiritual knowledge and understanding, she believes, is not in keeping with her belief system. I will offer her a donation, and I’m guessing the others will too. But we’re encouraged to remember she’s the only one who absolutely has to show up for the scheduled meditations each day, the rest of us are encouraged to relax our minds and our bodies in whatever way we feel we can best do that. Falling asleep in meditation is perfectly fine, what greater relaxation can one find that sleep, and if we feel called to wander in nature rather than attend any of the meditation classes, that’s what we must do.

My friend is the real deal, and this Indralaya place also seems genuinely motivated to make itself accessible, asking for fees ($25 a night) only to cover its own costs and offering an opportunity to work in exchange for full fees. I’ve cleaned two cabins so far, from top to bottom, small wooden rustic dwellings with wood burning stoves, relatively comfortable beds, a dresser, and a writing table. They’re very quaint little cabins, and I think about all the people who’ve attended various workshops and been transformed (it’s impossible not to be) by this place.

I’m staying in the roundhouse with the other four participants and our teacher. We have central heating, we each have our own bedroom with a door that locks, and we share three bathrooms. There’s a small kitchen here, and we’re also sharing a kitchen in a cabin to the south of us. The library, where we meditate, is just to the north. Surrounding us are 50+ acres of beautiful forest lands with beach access. It’s quiet, wild, and beautiful.

Yesterday, after one of our sessions, the discussion (we only talk after our class sessions) brought me to query aloud my own need to balance the personal need for this time away, this restorative few days, with the urgent work that is constant and unrelenting. Sure we’re all unique individuals, connected to the divine universe, but some individuals are making life rather horrible for others – they’re making war, destroying the planet, killing and torturing. It feels strange to be lazing about meditating while people are suffering, while the earth is being destroyed for profit.

My friend assured us, prior to answering our queries, that she doesn’t know all the answers. She’s happy to share her beliefs which are shaped by many years of meditation and study. We talked about reincarnation, about karma between and within lifetimes, about those younger souls who’ve yet to learn the lessons of greed and avarice and other temptations of flesh and earthly existence. We shared stories of activism, of feelings of frustration and anger that often result when our non-cooperation is met with state sanctioned violence. We learned of double-blind studies that have proven that sending energy through prayer to sick people does in fact result in speedier recoveries, and how a collective shift in consciousness is possible. We talked about resisting the temptation to respond to injustice with anger, since that brings pollution to our own individual spiritual environment.

We were assured that a great change is underway. During the 60s, my friend said, even mentioning the word “meditation” could lead you to the looney bin. Nowadays, many young people seek the pure spiritual path, abandoning the churchiarchy and its program. The collective energy of those seeking to create and maintain peace in those own inner and outer worlds will expand to a collective refusal to engage with anger and violence to each other or the earth.

I’m not entirely convinced. I mean, I do believe that we can’t know peace in the world until we know peace in ourselves, and that learning to live truly in each moment, without judgement, is a fantastic way of being. But my work every day reveals that those who judge, who are enthralled with the earthly trappings, they have much of the power and a lot of media control. It makes sense that younger souls who believe that fame and fortune are the path to happiness are also the ones to seek that power, and then they do all they can to justify and maintain it. But it’s frustrating, banging heads with them as we frantically work to salvage the last of earth’s ancient forests, to move away from a war economy, as climate crises erupt casting more and more into despair and shock doctrine capitalists capitalize off those less fortunate. Thinking of these as “babies,” my friend suggests, is what keeps her sane. Babies poop in their diapers because they don’t know any better. Eventually they’ll grow, and learn.
I don’t know all the answers either. But I do feel that I have lived many lifetimes on this earth, that I have learned many great lessons, and that’s why I’ve never been attracted to the acquisition of land, for example, or the collection of many earthly things. Let me be clear - I don’t feel that being an older soul makes me better, just different. I’ve made mistakes in this life too, but thankfully I’m not caught in an endless loop of them.

My friend was a peace activist in the 60s, one of many awakened youth protesting the Vietnam war. They believed themselves victorious after the war “ended,” but when the bombing of Cambodia began, my friend realized this war thing just goes on and on and she began searching for answers in the spiritual realm. She now believes her life’s work is to help others find their own inner peace, and she references Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and probably lots of other traditions, throwing in analogies from her own life and experiences, but she doesn’t preach their gospel.

She reminded us, a few times, how western philosophy encourages us to feel as though we’re not enough – we’re not working hard enough, we’re not succeeding enough, we’re never quite enough. She encouraged us to work continually, through meditation, to feel differently – to forgive ourselves for whatever mistakes we’ve made, hurting others and ourselves, along the way, to accept ourselves for who we are, to realize that we are all individuals but we’re also all connected to a divinity that is everywhere. There is no place that is not divine, that is not infused with love. There are lessons to be learned from whatever situation we find ourselves in, and if we can find this peace, this divinity and love, within ourselves then we are free. They can take our bodies, but they can’t take our souls.

Meditation is awesome. Taking time away from our busy lives to just be with ourselves, to check in, to practice yoga and silence, is fantastic. I’m really very grateful to have had the opportunity, but now it’s time to get back to work.