I’m back in green, lush New York after a week in the Mojave Desert, at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center. The desert landscape is wild and beautiful, and during early morning walks I thought of Don Juan, and also the Christian Desert Fathers. The power of the land and all its seen and unseen inhabitants strikes a newcomer. You can feel like Don Juan, accompanied by unseen forces and powers. But you can also feel a profound solitude. The unfiltered extremity of the sun and the darkness, the swift alternation of heat and cold, has a way of testing a person. I felt as if I were being exfoliated, as if the sand that is carried on the wind and works its way into everything were buffing away all that is false and or not really thought through, not really my own, leaving only what is essential and truly alive. I was aware that every flower and Joshua Tree had to have deep roots that reached down very far to living water. I was aware that every animal lived there also had to live very deliberately, to work at staying alive. And for a week I found a deliberate, deeply rooted way to live as well.
It takes a while to get to such a place. This was the second week-long retreat in the 2 1/2 year Community Dharma Leader Training Program I began last September. Offered through the auspices of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center (which was founded by Jack Kornfield and friends) the program aims to train experienced meditators to lead sittings and retreats in their own communities. But this 4th time out is also focussing on diversity, inviting people of many different colors, nationalities, and persuasions to learn to express the truth in their own languages. This time out, I found that my own language–or at least one of my own lanuages–could be silence.
I undertook the program because I wanted to step out of the observer role and be part of a larger life, to be part of a greater whole. Parabola seeks to be a meeting place for all sincere seekers, yet working for Parabola can feel a little lonely and locked in. Thinking of that last scene in the movie version of Meetings with Remarkable Men, I set out to test myself against the larger forces of the world that tell us who we are. Landing in the desert, it struck me (why do we forget this?) that when we leave our ordinary worlds and go somewhere different, it isn’t just our ability to sense and to see clearly that is heightened, but also our tendency to cling to habits–also our fear. I spent the first few days of the retreat spending what seemed to be a large amount of time checking and rechecking the little bit of gear I brought, checking emails hoping for little nuggets of news for home–clinging to the known. I talked with people when we were supposed to talk, feeling that I was in that early stage of the hero’s journey that often takes place in a saloon–finding friends and foes. I went through phases when I felt very much like an outsider, a mainstreamer pressed to hear the voices and stories of people who have been marginalized. Supported by the surrounding desert, I began to see the difference between seeking an external refuge and an internal refuge. Day by day, when I could, I practised finding an attention that can be inside and outside at the same time, open to a wildly diverse group in all it’s unfolding drama, yet attuned to the inside, to finding the qualities of mind and heart that could help me come into alignment with a greater awareness. I realized that everything can be taken as food for inner growth. It depends on our intention, and I discovered last week that I have a sincere intention to grow.
I didn’t say much in the big gatherings, yet I wasn’t passive. There were times of being very alert inside, “voluntarily passive” as Madame de Salzmann describes it, attentive and open to what was arising without rushing in to label and judge. In those moments, I felt reality unfolding–not in the linear way that is associated with white mainstream intellectual society but opening, revealing layers, surprising depths. In those moments, I felt the presence of unknown heights and depths inside as well as outside in the desert. I’ll go into more detail in a few days, but as I went around keeping my silence and just being no one, I came to glimpse that it might be true what Gurdieff and other masters have said, that our ancestors live on in us. That at moments when we are in alignment with a greater awareness it is possible to be human in a larger way, to be part of greater whole, to play a role in a conscious way. The price of entry seems to be asking (over and over in deeper and starker and ever-more-sincere ways) some form of the sacred human questions that don’t even need to be put into words: Who am I? What really matters? What do I really want to do with this brief and precious life?