The Retreat

The retreat is summer camp for grownups in October. We meditate. We listen to deep wisdom. We walk mindfully. After lunch the first day, I take a canoe out onto the lake and paddle slowly. A turtle basks on a log. I bask in my canoe.

The second day we settle back into our meditation postures and frame of mind. The rain falls gently on the roof and drips off the eaves. It makes a soft sound, like the sound of breathing around me. The silence deepens within me.

A truck rumbles up the road beside our pavilion, delivering food to the dining hall kitchen. It enters our meditation like a messenger from the world we have all left behind, a world we will rejoin in a week’s time. Part of me wants to climb into that truck and return to the noisy, jarring world of sensory delights outside. I chuckle to myself and return my gaze to the floor; I return my restless mind to my breathing, to the Now moment.

My mind has begun to quiet down. Now my world revolves around my breathing. As night insects replace the rain as background, I begin to experience the present moment with unusual clarity. I can see that there are two levels of reality vying for my attention.

One is my breath: I feel my breath come and go, come and go. Life seems to be breathing within me and through me—as if my personal breath were part of the Breath of Life itself. It feels personal and transpersonal at the same time.

The second level is the stories I tell myself. Within this meditative consciousness, these stories about my identity and my life feel arbitrary, as if I could have chosen different stories about my world. I see how much power these stories have, and how easy it is to mistake the stories for Truth. As the week progresses, I become aware of that power loosening, softening.

Then comes the night when frost kills the rose blossoms. The overtaxed power system fails. When my alarm wakes me up at 5:30, I put on all the clothes I brought; my legs are layered like cigars. In the predawn I walk to the pavilion. Orion hangs over the entrance, his Dog Star romping among the treetops. The bell guides our meditation, bringing us back to mindfulness. We breathe into the present moment, the cold, the dawn.

After breakfast the sun rises above the trees. I walk out of the dining hall. I feel the motherly touch of the sun on my face. My mind is as clear and spacious as the autumn sky.

A leaf dangles at the end of an invisible strand of spider web. A group of us stop, in wonder and delight. Later, a co-retreatant tells me that he saw it, too, and that there was no spider web. He saw someone pass his hand over the leaf, which did not move.

I sit on a rock and soak up the sun, full on my face. I have become the turtle. I am the sunlight. I am the leaf suspended by a maybe-spider web. There is no separation.

Anne C. Highland

Anne C. Highland is a clinical psychologist; her private practice centers on the interface between psychology and spirituality. She attends Gwynedd (Pa.) Meeting.