On the weekend of the summer solstice, 2014, my friend Manisha helped me put my stuff in the car. It wasn't a lot. A few changes of clothes, toiletries, a yoga mat, a meditation cushion, a notebook, two translations of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, and a special chiming alarm clock that didn't make any tick-tock sounds. It all fit nicely in a single suitcase but on our way out the door Manisha's mom had handed me a Native American drum of some kind without any explanation. I was able to shove the drum's mallet in amongst my clothes but the circular instrument made of wood and stretched hide would have to be carried separately. I didn't want to lug an extra item around, least of all one whose purpose was unclear to me, but less so did I want to seem rude, so I put it in the car and off we drove to Light on the Hill Retreat Center outside of Ithaca, New York. I was to stay there alone for 3 days in a little hut without electricity or running water. I was planning on getting enlightened.
At this point I had been meditating daily for 4 years. I had already done one solitary retreat and one group retreat. I had left behind many negative habits and broken world-views; I had created a career for myself, teaching others how to experience similar transformations to the ones that I had enjoyed. I felt that I had made so many large strides in my spiritual journey, especially over the course of the 6 months prior to this retreat.
January of 2014 my friend Manisha had introduced me to a dharma teacher whose explanations of human and universe made so many things clear to me. So as I rode up toward this 3 days of silence, solitude and deep nature, I felt cocky. "I'm primed and ready to awaken and it's really going to happen," I thought. "On my way back south on this road I will no longer identify with this body or this mind, but instead with the part of me that is outside of space and time. This is going to be awesome."
But as soon as the back of my friend's car disappeared up the dirt lane, assuredness fell away to reveal a deep layer of lonely. I wandered around the property, noting how beautiful it was and wishing that my inner experience better matched the outer environment. And when it got dark I was embarrassed by the amount of fear I felt. I grew up in the country and had spent a handful of nights alone in my isolated home, but that house was familiar, chocked full of my daily comforts and humming with electricity. This place was strange, dark and ever so quiet.
The nighttime trips to the outhouse were what I dreaded most. When I got back into my hut I locked the door quickly. What if a bear came? Or worse, what if a person came? A person that wasn't supposed to be there. In my head I knew that spiritual seekers had been using this hut for nearly two decades without incident, but my gut wouldn't listen to logic. I was too proud to break my own rule and power up my cell phone, but I memorized the hand gesture it would take to reach under my bed, into my bag, and pull out that lifeline if I needed it.
I was sticking with a retreat routine that my Tibetan Buddhist teachers had taught me. The only hard items on my daily schedule were 4 hour-long meditation periods. One that began between 4 and 5am, one between 9 and 10am, one between 4-5pm and the last between 9-10pm. For each of them I was to sit in the same spot in my little hut for the whole hour. But besides those sessions, there was nothing planned. And I was supposed to more or less honor those spaces in between meditation sessions for exactly that--nothing. That was it. The teachers who taught me how to do solitary retreat insisted that the magic happens in those moments of not-doing and that the main thing to be wary of is creating distractions for oneself. So no novels, no music, no big projects.
What one is trying to step into on retreat--what one in pursuit of yoga is trying to do all the time--is the sense of steadiness and joy at the heart of simply being. We spend most of our time trying to take something in or push something out. But retreat asks: what are you when you're not you're not consuming or producing?
Sure I did things beside meditating and doing nothing. I slept and ate and went to the bathroom. I journaled in the morning and evening. I did an hour or two of study in the afternoon. I had chosen the 4th book of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras to be my text for the retreat and I would memorize sutras that interested me and repeat them as mantras while I walked around the retreat center. I did about an hour of yoga asana practice out in the field each day. On the second night I did a little fire ceremony like my shamanic teacher had taught me and threw into the fire all that I was ready to release. Then I threw into the fire all that I was ready to embrace.
In the first two days I had some helpful realizations, a few fleeting experiences of peace or joy, and one exquisite meditation, but much of the time my heart felt heavy and my mind's dialogue was uncertain. That made it really uncomfortable to "just be." There is a part of every human that resists the uncomfortable, the unknown the unfamiliar, always striving to find some way to drop back into an old, familiar pattern. I dealt with all the fear, the sadness, the loneliness, the boredom, by turning to an old tried and true habit: busy-ness.
My fear of being alone with my anxiety expressed itself as a drive to explore every inch of the huge retreat property in 3 short days. Each day I came up with a totally arbitrary schedule that had me running around to all different areas of the property all day long. Going up to the labyrinth in the early morning, a patch of grass by the small pond to do asana practice, back to the hut for mid-morning meditation and a nap, lunch at the big pond, hiking to the the waterfall, back for study and the early evening meditation session. Dinner, a walk, a fire ritual, night meditation, prep for bed and, finally, sleep.
I had scheduled so much in between my four meditations, and at such disparate destinations on the map, that I was rushing all over this retreat center all day long. It must have looked pretty silly to the eagles above but it felt great to me. Stressing my way all over Brooklyn is how I spent the other 362 days out of the year. This satisfied the ego because it made what was supposed to be an extraordinary journey into the heart of the unknown feel just like home instead.
Then on the last night I decided I would break my own rule. (They're all my rules when I'm on solitary retreat. All the more reason to honor them.) I wasn't going to do my nighttime meditation in my hut but instead to walk a mile through woods and field to the chapel. It would be empty of course but it was closer to the road and the retreat center caretakers. I was trying to fix the loneliness and craved, at the very least, physical proximity to other humans. I was walking quickly as I thought that I might be able to catch the end of a sunset through the chapel's west-facing windows. And maybe that would cheer me up. Receiving the gift of a beautiful sunset might convince me that I am beloved by the powers that be. Perhaps that gift of a sunset could make me feel connected to something, someone, anything, anyone, but especially anyone who might be holy.
But then it started to smell like rain and the sky got dark. I was already walking fast, lest I miss a sunset that might prove I was beloved from above but the threat of rain got me really hustling. Until I remembered that I had left my running shoes and sweaty clothes on the deck of my hut and realized that if I didn't want them to be ruined I would have to turn around.
This made me angry. I cursed myself for leaving the stuff on the deck. For being in such a rush everywhere. For being angry. For being horrible at doing retreat. For being so deluded as to think that an idiot like me could get enlightened, when here I was, on this last night, literally sprinting around the retreat center like the stressed-out New Yorker that I really was. I cursed myself for not being able to stay faithful to the rules I had set for myself or to come close to reaching my own goals.
As my internal storm gathered force, so did the external one. Booming thunder rumbled the ground and huge flashes of lightning lit the summer sky. The rain poured down on me as I sprinted through knee-high brush. I watched a thick, ragged charge of lightning connect cloud and land not far from me. And a bolt of an idea connected a memory in my mind with the tenseness of my heart. Seeing that lightning made me think of something that my Shamanic teacher had mentioned in passing. She said that many of the Shamanic masters of her lineage are struck by lightning in their moment of realization. It's a common motif, apparently. You're doing all your spirit work and then one day you get struck by lightning and, boom, a deep instantaneous shift in consciousness occurs. Enlightenment.
Now, this is what I had asked for. I wanted to be enlightened. But I did not want to be lightninged. Not at all. "I'm not ready." I thought. I would have yelled it up to the heavens but I wasn't willing to try breaking another one of my own rules tonight. So I said it fervently, but silently, and I said it over and over over. "I'm not ready. I'm not ready. I'm not ready." These were the most fiery prayers I had uttered in a long time. "I am attached to my body, I am attached to my mind. I don't want to be struck by lightning. I'm not ready to be struck by lightning. I'm not ready for pain, for seismic change. I'm not ready to let go."
I got to my hut, pulled off my wet clothes, put on dry ones, and sat watching the storm through the sliding glass doors. The thunder and lightning had grown intense. Thick drops of rain were pounding the roof of my hut and animating the surface of the pond directly through the doors. Wind was whipping through the trees, sending leaves and small branches through the dark sky. The scene was gorgeous and terrifying and made me feel puny inside of it, made me feel lucky to be dry and warm and safe in spite of it.
My breath was still quick and I wanted to scream or shout or sing. I remembered the drum my friend's mom had given me. When I was leaving for retreat, I considered it an unwanted thing to schlep and had only accepted it out of politeness. But now I finally knew why it was with me.
I didn't know how to play it but I picked it up and found a rhythm with the mallet. It made me feel relaxed and somehow powerful to feel mallet strike hide. Not as powerful as the storm or the Nature that had made it, perhaps, but empowered in my ability to respond to the noise and the swirl and the fury of the storm. I felt as if I had some little role to play, a voice in the larger conversation and feeling in partnership with this wacky experience allowed me to breathe more easily. I was still repeating in my mind, "I'm not ready," and now the phrase connected with the rhythm of the drum. "I'm not ready," I repeated but now it was a soothing mantra rather than an urgent plea. Instead of begging the universe to spare me pain, to bend to my wishes of how this evening would go, I was expressing surrender to the way things were going, saying "yes, ok, I'm with you" to how the universe was shaping me.
There was peace now as the thunder drummed and my drum thudded and my mantra sang over rhythm of heartbeat and worldbeat. "I'm not ready." It felt like truth. It felt like a relief. I had finally stopped trying to force myself into some grandiose idea that I had in my head. I had finally let go of striving and struggling to be anything at all. I was nothing special, just some silly, lovely, sweet and humble woman sitting in a hut with a drum, having a conversation with a storm. And that was perfectly enough.
"I'm not ready," I admitted, now almost proudly. And after a while, from somewhere deep within, a voice said, "Have I ever given you anything you weren't ready for?" I smiled through grateful tears. "No." I replied. "No, you never have."
I spent the last 18 hours of my retreat solely in my hut except for bathroom breaks. The storm died down before I went to bed that night, but a light rain continued until my departure around lunchtime the next day. The urge to zoom all over the place physically had disappeared, and something inside clicked into a state of quiet, peaceful, contentedness. My hut transformed from a dark and depressing prison at the end of the earth into a dry, cozy refuge. My heart was the center of that universe, my body a cell-membrane around that center, the hut was the membrane around that center, and all other spaces and species rippled out from there. I realized that I needn't move anywhere at all to be connected to everything holy.
I didn't get enlightened, whatever that means, but I broke through some serious blockages for myself in those final hours of meditating, journaling and simply being, of allowing myself to be still and present. To be without a schedule or agenda, without some lofty expectation and the judgemental attitude that accompanies such. To be in a space of trust and ease. I came back with immensely greater tools for relating to my partner, my family, my friends, my students and myself. I came back with everything that I needed.