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SILENCE IS GOLDEN (AND PARADISE)
by Beri B.

SILENCE IS GOLDEN (AND PARADISE)

“Solitude sometimes is best society.” John Milton, Paradise Lost

Late last year I was offered a trip to a special kind of paradise: A gift of five nights at a silent retreat in the coastal redwoods of California the coming February. Without hesitation, I accepted the generous and fortuitous blessing. Four months passed until the retreat date came, and boy was I ready, more than I could have imagined. Suffice it to say, lately, I’d felt buffeted on all sides by storms, physical and spiritual. Trees had fallen on my small town and we’d been without power for six days in the last two weeks. I’d also received scary news about my health. It hadn’t come as a complete surprise, (I’d been having difficulty breathing for a while), but it felt shocking anyhow. I was not depressed, just ready in every pore of my being, to have a genuine rest in beauty and relaxation. Cue the giant trees filtering sunbeams, a view of the coastline that shaped a yin yang symbol, and stars at night that twinkled and felt touchable.

The road to Mt. Madonna retreat center circled up and ‘round and ‘round, but never scared me with one of those steep drop-offs that I have to deal with every time I want to visit Big Sur, home of Esalen and Ventana. On my way up the mountain, I accidentally drove into a public campground where I was surrounded by large men, possibly-intoxicated, who slapped the hood of my car to scare me. When I finally made it to my actual destination, the conference grounds/retreat center, I was late to check-in and full of fear that I would be turned away. The rules had been stated in a letter and they sounded strict. 

The property of Mt. Madonna Conference Center is 25-acres at the top of a summit looking out toward the Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz to the north. To the right of entry is a small lake or pond with boulders and lights around half of it. Just beyond that is a wide ascending staircase attended by statues of Hanuman the Monkey-God leading up to his temple. Many statues pepper that side of the property. I recognized the delightful writing elephant Maitreya, Krishna, and a Brahma bull. I got a whimsical feeling that I’d just entered an Ashram without having to travel to India. The incense emanating from the enclosure was intoxicating. Sounds of bells and an Om that could have been a cow lowing, made it all seem more mystical than I’d expected, and I felt as if I’d wandered into the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, though the retreat I was signed up for didn’t have anything to do with the Hanuman Temple other than its proximity on the same property.

I’m not going to try to describe anything the teacher of the retreat taught. I will say only that I found the lessons and the experience transformative. I fell in love with being together in silence. That was my paradise found, although it was evasive until about half-way through.

One of the first things I realized, at breakfast on the first morning, was that I’m overgood at being quiet. I just don’t make a lot of noise. I can pull a chair out from a table without a sound. I can set down a plate noiselessly. Usually, even my breathing seems soundless. So, it was with great surprise that I realized that a dining room full of people who are not talking is a very noisy place. It struck me as funny to observe how some people go around trying not to be noticed, while others work so hard to be seen. 

At that first meditation session, I realized that my years of being ladylike in quietness had a benefit. I was already trained to sit in silence, even if I don’t think the reason I was trained is a good one, I found it cool to already be a master at something I didn’t know would be so useful. I felt light and mellow. Talk about a silver lining!

I was put into a dormitory room with 4 beds and 1 more in the loft. I was the last to arrive and got the bed underneath the ladder that went up to the loft. It’s okay, I’m not superstitious, just a little stitious. Really, I just felt grateful that someone had heeded the sign on that requested that if you were able-bodied enough to ascend it, to please leave lower beds for, well, us old achy fogies (paraphrasing). Someone went up there and it wasn’t me, so I was glad, even if I did have to keep my things underneath a ladder.

While I was walking slowly up the long curved road toward the meeting house, carrying a large bundle of assorted pillows, shawls, and a hot water bottle, I remembered that a psychic had once told me that I’d been a Sadhu in a former life, (that’s a religious ascetic who has renounced the worldly life and is often seen in parts of India standing in the middle of roads full of people just holding a certain posture). I could feel people passing me on either side as I struggled not to drop my things. Of course, no one was going to offer to help carry my load. Our silence was the perfect excuse for the pervasive indifference, but it wasn’t the true reason. We are separate, not integrated. I wouldn’t have helped either. I felt sad knowing that. I said to myself, “I know what I’m going to change.”  

When I arrived at lunch in the large dining hall overlooking the spectacular redwoods and ocean, I noticed how judging I could be, and, maybe others were feeling judgmental too. I mean, when you walk into a cafeteria where everyone is being silent, and no one is supposed to communicate by hand signals, notes or even eye-contact, how hard is it to choose where you’re going to sit? Are we reading auras or something? I have never seen so many yoga pants and puffer jackets in one place, (but if you can’t wear then here, where can you?). As I sat there masticating my nuts and granola, I mindlessly categorized everyone who passed by. Beautiful young women were yoga instructors, young men were egoists, the old ones were great just for getting here. I decided that the retreat assistant could have been Judge Reinhold all grown up and sixty. Someone looked like Mary Steenburgen, but like they always say, even prettier in person. And then there was the Ben Affleck from Argo guy. He was a businessman, I mean a CEO, obviously.

As I sat there, judging others, I felt pretty sure that at least some of them were judging me. Someone would tell me that I shouldn’t be wearing leather boots, (although I’d carefully chosen pleather harness-boots in order not to offend vegans or animal rights activists). In hindsight, I realize that my choice was more out of fear of having someone get in my face than of actually trying not to be offensive—though sometimes it feels like the same thing. The darn boots were just too good of fakes. And then, suddenly, like a ton of balloons, it hit me! No one was going to say anything about my boots, my choice of food, my hair, my clothing, my ideas, anything. We were all there under a solemn promise not to break the silence. Even if someone wanted to complain about the CPAP machine I have to breathe through at night, no one could say anything! And, as I became aware that I was not being judged, at least in ways I could feel, I began to let go of my judgments of others, (not that they’d been terribly bad), but now I felt that we were all as one. Every muscle in my body began to relax. I relaxed more deeply than ever before. I felt giddy and free.

In the afternoon there would be three meditation periods of forty minutes each. During the first one, after I’d quieted my mind, I experienced a vision. I saw that I was standing on a precipice. It was so high I could not see for myself what I was standing on. I could only look down onto a gorgeous canopy of trees, with large granite boulders covered with moss, cascades of water, flocks of doves flying in and out of the trees. It was so beautiful and primordial, I just wanted to stay there and behold it. I realized that, maybe, I was supposed to descend beneath the canopy and the water, into the darkness to see what was there, but I didn’t want to. “I’ll be one of those mediocre students. I’m okay with that,” I thought to myself. “Besides, I don’t have time to go to the dark places.” I was thinking of my bad health.

In the second meditation, I returned to the place of the first. The beauty was just astonishing. As far as I can remember, it looked something like a scene I recall from the remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth starring The Rock. Anyhow, as I gazed deeper and deeper into the canopy I realized that I was looking into a mirror. That meant that everything I was seeing before me was actually behind me. The place I was standing, that I couldn’t see before, was actually the top of that canopy. I was looking at myself, only I didn’t recognize me, because I was the smallest particle, and at the same time, I was the whole scene. (No. Absolutely no drugs.) I still wondered if I was supposed to go down beneath, into the dark to where I knew there would be eels, giant centipedes, and vines that would grab me by the ankles and try to pull me down into the oozing muck. “No,” I said. “I choose this up here.”

Yes, in the third forty-minute meditation session after lunch, I revisited the same paradise. How could I not? It was so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes. This time I said, “I hope I’m not being disrespectful by not wanting to go down to that place below and learn and explore all that is offered to me.” And then I heard, “You don’t ever have to go back there if you don’t want to. That’s where you came from. See in the mirror. You crawled up and out from there to where you are now with this beautiful vista. You can stay here as long as you want.” Looking into the reflection again I realized that there was nothing I could actually dive into because as a reflection everything I saw was all behind me. I could stay there and observe or fall back. That was all, so I chose here.

There was dinner, a question period, more meditation, and the next morning. It was very cold in the morning and we were required to leave our shoes (my boots) in a screened porch. I knew that they would be icy to slip my feet into, and sometimes once my feet get cold I have a hard time warming them up all day. I’d hardly had the thought, when I got to the screened room and saw that the only stream of sunlight pouring in through the door was shining directly onto my boots, which were toasty, having been warmed by the sun. “Thank you” was all I could think.

In the afternoon meditation sessions of the new day, I was blessed with another unexpected vision. This time I heard myself say, “I dreamed of you because you dreamed of me.” In this vision, I imagined that the last mother on Easter Island had dreamed of me, and I knew it. She wanted me to know that it had been her idea for her people to carve those giant heads/figures with the hope that someday if anyone was to ever come to that place they would know that they had existed. She had drawn the figures into the stone using a rock as chalk and others chipped away at them and placed them. If a boat should go by someday, they might see the figures and stop. Otherwise, they would never be known to have lived.

I felt wrong, at first, to be the one to accept her message to the future. My ancestors were stone carvers, but Celtic. Surely, I’m not the legitimate heir to this vision. But that’s the thing, she never had any ancestors. No one ever made it off that island to continue her lineage. She was indeed, the last mother of Easter Island, and I dreamed of her because she dreamed of me. In my dream, I traveled to her. She played with me like Koko and her kitten. She wasn’t a primate, but we communicated that way. I called her Mama and she laughed as if I’d said Meow. At the end of our day together, she had to die alone, because we all do. But, I know that she lived, why she drew those stone figures to be carved, and why she dreamed of me. It was a beautiful waking dream. I loved it. I loved her.

In the last session of the afternoon on that day, I had another anthropological vision. This time I simply remembered having been at the Museum of Natural History in London some twenty years ago and rounding a corner, to unexpectedly come upon the displayed bones of Lucy, the oldest human remains ever discovered. She was so tiny. Seeing them I wept. I was embarrassed at the time. In this meditation I recalled the Wordsworth poem, “She dwelt among the untrodden ways…” I rewrote it in my head. “Scientists can say when Lucy ceased to be, because she is not in her grave, and oh, the difference to me.” That probably didn’t count as meditation or vision, but it inspired me, and I loved it.

I learned this week that there is something innately trustworthy inside of me that is reliable and not chaotic. Indeed. On the final day of the retreat, we were instructed to pack up our belongings in silence and put our things into our cars before a final session and lunch. As I was sitting on the edge of my bed beneath the ladder, taking a small break, the last person left in the room, (I thought), a figure appeared in the opening to the loft. She was a young and very beautiful woman in a pretty flowing skirt. She was hoisting a huge suitcase with one hand, trying to make it down the ladder with the other. I felt her hesitate about halfway down. I looked up and knew she could use some help. I jumped up and embraced her suitcase. Though I'm not strong, it was easy for me to lift as it was handed down to me. I set it by the door. We still weren’t supposed to be making eye contact, but I heard her sigh of relief and caught a glimpse of her palms pressed and bow of gratitude. I had done it. I made the change I said that I wanted, or rather, it made me. I had new kinds of awareness; new kinds of oneness.

After all that, I wasn’t ready to leave my five days of silence with others, just yet. I sat there on the bed under the ladder for a while longer, hoping that the memory of my silent paradise at Mt. Madonna in the coastal redwoods of California might leave its imprint on me forever.

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