“In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer”–these words by Albert Camus have resonated for me often this winter. I was on retreat with an interesting group of people in Boston over the weekend. Sitting and breaking bread and moving around with them in a beautiful, harmonious space that was once a harpsichord factory, I was very aware of the way the container of a retreat supports the effort to wake up and be present to our lives. Meditating with others who have come from different places heightens the awareness that our bodies have come from somewhere and not just Boston or New Hampshire or New York but from the distant past, from ancestors who have braved all manner of hardships. In the container of a retreat, supported by the energy and intention of others, the experience of sitting on a cushion and turning the attention inward is no small thing: it can feel like descending into a vast subterranean cave or series of caves full of forces and energies unknown to the thinking mind. In the flickering light of my attention, I was filled with an unusual mix of awe and optimism, fairly that if I kept going I would come upon wonders.
This is a paradox of retreat: I didn’t go away to be “myself,” still less to bond with a new group, to be “ourselves.” I didn’t go to a new city to have the feeling of being at home, but to have a feeling of intentional exile, to uproot myself from home and all the props of familiar habits and ties, to seek a greater reality. Back and forth, I went, between letting go and grasping, between emptiness and identification. At moments when I wasn’t grasping, t a new inner spaciousness seemed to open up. In those moments it seemed extraordinarily touching to inhabit a body, heart and mind capable (in spite of a misspent youth!) to explore and discern the working of larger forces and finer energies, capable of being still and knowing.
Here is another paradox that pops up on retreat: you confront how much you long for the unknown and how much you long for the familiar. Years ago, in the early days of a week-long silent meditation retreat when, telling myself I wasn’t breaking my vow of silence, I checked my phone messages only to learn that the scientists at National Geographic “Genographic Project” had succeeded in tracing my matrilineal DNA back to our earliest common ancestor in Africa. What a strange message to receive on a retreat! I called home hoping for a simple “I miss you Mommy” or some other cozy bit of news from home, sticking to the shallows before I pushed off for the depths. I didn’t expect news of this scale.
“It’s so moving to look this map and see the route my ancestors took out of East Africa and on to Greece and Italy,” exclaimed my friend Liz ” in her phone message. “To realize that my people founded Athens and then went on to found Rome.” As silly as her identification was–her voice swelling with pride as if she personally was there with Socrates and Caesar–it inspired me to walk out in the woods behind the retreat center and furtively called my husband for my results. I wanted to enlarge and glorify my sense of personal identification too! “Why are you calling? I thought you took a vow of silence?” He explained that yes, yes, a large envelope came from the National Geographic Society but it was far too strange and complicated to go into. The red line appeared to leave Africa and then cross Siberia and enter the New World. Siberia! Mongolia! As I’ve written before, dear reader, my imagination seized on this extremely unexpected and improbable result and galloped away with it. What there was living on in my very own cells the effervescent substance of those mysterious beings who brought esoteric knowledge to the early Greeks?
There is the map and then there is the territory. Retreats have a way of revealing the way we move between moments (seconds?) of openess to a greater reality and identification with what was glimpsed. It is extraordinary to see the speed with which we attach “ourselves” to whatever is received. In recent years, further National Geographic research has revealed that one branch of my ancestral DNA strain actually split off from those heading towards Siberia and headed towards France, upending all my theories imaginings. And I did receive a legacy–we all have. We have inherited bodies and parts that are capable of knowing more than we can imagine. In certain conditions, I can come down out of my head and descend into the cave of sensation and see something glowing just around the corner, the hint of something marvelous, something awesome to be known. In that moment I realize something that humans have probably always realized when conditions were right, that we were made for something more than mere survial. Afterall, didn’t “my” prehisoric French ancestors paint the caves in Lascaux?