Lost in the Woods

Last week, I was at the Garrison Institute in the Hudson Valley, experiencing another retreat in Spirit Rock Meditation Center’s “Community Dharma Leader Training.”   Why an editor of Parabola would undertake such a training, what I have learned so far and what I hope to gain–the Parabola sangha I hope to create–I’ll be getting into that in the weeks to come.  For now, I would like to describe how I managed to get lost in the woods.

It rained for days.  The beautiful former monastery had begun to feel a bit like a gloomy English boarding school, and I had begun to feel a bit like Jane Eyre, doing my best to keep my chin up and my spirit alive.   Finally, there was a break in the weather and many of us went outside.  As stood there, feeling a bit lost and lonely (as one does at times on retreats) a friend came up.  “I’ve found the path you’ve been looking for,” she said.  She was referring to a conversation we had the first day, when we were both looking for a walk in the woods.   I knew this.  Yet, in the container of the retreat hearing “I’ve found the path…” was irresistable.  I set out after her.  We hadn’t gone far when we picked up a third hiker, also looking for the perfect path.

It was glorious, the perfect path through the woods, complete with a waterfall and tumbled down rock walls.  As we walked, we talked about life and about our lives…and the next thing we knew we had lost the trail and we were lost.  It was fun at first, and then we really couldn’t find the trail and we grew a bit frightened.  We worried that we would miss dinner, which is a huge source of comfort on retreat.  We fretted that the retreat organizer would have to call for volunteers with wildnerness skills to come looking for us.  I wondered about using the GPS app on my phone as a compass.

“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves,” said Thoreau.   This was another one of those times when the trance of the ordinary was suspended.  My true vulnerability, my true lack of connection to the real world was suddenly painfully exposed.   It was glaringly clear that I live mostly in my head and that I have very little in the way of practical knowledge.   I saw that I am a collection of parts not a whole, and that these different parts are often pulling in opposite directions, driven by different motives.  And yet I saw that this very act of seeing, this opening to what is, called up—literally recalled–a different quality of understanding and intention.  A more spacious quality of awareness appeared that was quicker and more sensitive than my usual thinking.   I didn’t magically become an expert tracker–it was my companion who found the trail–but I felt as if I was assuming an inner attitude—a way of being with life–that was more whole, more deeply human than the way I usually operate.

Not only did I feel that body, heart, and mind were more aligned and working together, I felt the three of us start pulling together.  I’ve written before about noticing a glow inside, the glow of our own life force and our own capacity for awareness.  I’ve written that it can seem very faint, like a candle or a nightlight.  But when I was lost in the woods around Garrison Institute, I discovered–or rediscovered–how we can pool our light and find our way.

After I made it safely back to the dining hall (and in time for dinner), I reflected on how important it is to have a journal and a community like Parabola–a place where people who are walking different paths or searching for a path can come together and have an exchange about what we have found.   Due to forces and conditions beyond the control of our loyal band, we are struggling as never before.  Please consider subscribing or make a tax deductible donation so we can continue to publish and become the sangha we know we can be.

19 thoughts on “Lost in the Woods

  1. Hi Tracy,
    Just a little question that occurred to me last night. When you say “I saw that I am a collection of parts not a whole, and these different parts are often pulling in opposite directions, driven by different motives”, are you saying that we have many interconnected facets that make us up, or that we really are, at some primal level a collection of distinct, separable parts, or, are we just one part of a collection whose shimmering, shifting unity makes it difficult for constant, objective understanding? It seems to me that whatever the answer is (and I don’t have one), it would impact upon the definition of whatever it is that we truly are – THAT particular part that might survive death.

  2. Hi Lewis,

    I meant in the sense that we are made up parts not a solid self–the Buddha compared us to chariots so today the comparison would be cars. And I also meant it on a primal level, and that we are part of a shimmering, shifting whole. Whether we survive death, in whole or in part, well that is an interesting question.

    Agape (which acknowledges that we are fellow parts of a greater whole, doesn’t it?),


    1. Hello everyone,
      What an inspiring article. I often use the word, particularity, rather than part. Every particularity In constant flux, in relationship to everything in constant flux. All of life moving in every particularly influencing every particularity–particularity and wholeness moving together. No separation. Lost in the woods, found in the woods. With much gratitude to your article infuencing this conversation, Lee

      1. Hi Lee, It’s very interesting to use the word “particularity” instead of separate part–shines the light on how it may be a matter of emphasis rather than a true separation. Thanks!

  3. Tracy,
    Thanks – I think that gives me a better understanding. And yes, agape does point to a greater, collective whole!

  4. What transformation me may see after this life, this side of reality, does lead to some interesting musing and meanderings; let’s just say it will be one big change and that impermanence or change is a constant part of reality.

    Reality in this sense is radically open, but the miracle is that in this openness we are receiving exactly what we need now in each moment, in each breath we breathe and in our relationships with one another. This is certainly something to be treasured from moment to moment.

    I took time early this morning, in this moment, to renew my print and digital subscription to Parabola Magazine for the next three years. I would like to echo Tracy’s appeal above, and ask for the friends and readers here to do whatever you can to help Parabola, it really is a great resource for all of us, and a great community. Peace – Ron

  5. I agree we are lost in the woods. I also believe that the “New Saint” is one whose life reflects what is necessary to find our way out and function as human beings as Gurdjieff would sy: “without quotation marks.”

    “Contrasting with the pleas in favor of Simone Weil’s candidacy for Christian saintliness, Simone Weil herself clearly questioned the very assumptions that could sustain such a questionable honor. In Attente de Dieu[18] she noted: “Aujourd´hui ce ne rien encore que d´être saint, il faut la sainteté que le moment présent exige, une sainteté nouvelle, elle aussi sans précédent.”[19] [Today, it is still nothing to be a saint, what is needed is the saintliness which the present moment demands, a new saintliness, without precedent.] Shortly after, she pointed out that the new type of saintliness “[…] c´est presque l´analogue d´une révélation nouvelle de l´univers et de la destinée humaine.”[20] [is almost the analogy to a new revelation of the universe and of human destiny.]

    How many can become open to this “new revelation” and act in accordnce with it?

  6. Glad to read everything what is written here, esp in this post:)
    Tracy confessed:”My true vulnerability, my true lack of connection to the real world was suddenly painfully exposed. It was glaringly clear that I live mostly in my head and that I have very little in the way of practical knowledge.”
    This diagnosis can be applied to majority of so called (highly) educated people, esp those who got higher edu, payed for it a lot (in different senses) and are proud of their IQ…Or learned people, how HC Andersen called them (id est us) in his fairy-tales…
    I came to this conclusin too after quite a long period of misunderstanding that intellectualism and the quantity of books which stand on your shelves and the bulk of info you devoured have very little in common with real understanding of life and selfawareness which takes again a lot to gain and attain (Here i noticed a play of words where LOT begins to sound as Destiny, or manifest its first meaning)..
    Then, Tracy, you continued:” I felt as if I was assuming an inner attitude—a way of being with life–that was more whole, more deeply human than the way I usually operate”.
    Here I can only remark that not in vain Mary Poppins attracts my attention more and more(it seems she does it herself:) –she knows how to live the full (of) life, having realized (not only in head but in life as well) what Gurdziev (we spell his familyname in this way:) and Pamela learned and knew…And, what is not less important, she found the most appropriate grounds and soil for sowing these seeds — the family space, via children…
    Sincerely yours

    1. Yes, it is very different to know in life…and it usually starts with realizing what we don’t know (at least for me).

  7. Tracy,
    I’m thinking that your being lost in the woods required that you first stepped out of the comfort and sameness (of the retreat) and opened up to a new experience, whatever that might be. It is similar to my trying to die to myself,in my Christian path, and allowing myself to feel lost and out of control. the solution is the same, to keep seeking the path, and especially to walk with others.
    Connie Van B

  8. Hi Connie,

    Yes, you do have to die to yourself to awaken to a larger life, to risk being lost, out of the known. And it helps to stick together, to walk with others.

  9. Great writing, Tracy. Yes, getting lost is the beginning of finding the path, rediscovering the depths o self. If one never gets lost, one hasn’t been fully on the journey, just hovering around the edges. Thank you.

  10. Thank you, Robert. Being lost does show you the desire to find the path…I think next I will write about being found.

  11. Hi Tracy,

    I especially liked the part about being lost. It had a Zen koan like quality.

    “To be lost is to find us.”

    It reminds me of a line scribbled by a yogi on the bulletin board at Suan Mokkh, Ajahn Buddhadas’ monastery in Thailand.

    “Now that I know life is suffering, I abide in joy!”


  12. Dear Ajit,

    I love that scribbling, “Now that I know life is suffering, I abide in joy!” Thoreau also said “The only people who ever get anywhere get lost.” (That might not be an exact quote but close). Be well, Tracy

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