Spirit Rock Meditation Center is at once removed and far too close to civilization. It sits close enough to Sir Francis Drake Blvd that traffic always hums, but is also nestled into hills from which several rough trails are cut, climbing out to the ridges around. Perhaps it was leaving my cell phone in the car, the vow of silence, or just the isolation inside the community, but home seemed many thousand miles away, and not a ninety-minute drive across the bay.
Wild turkey dawdled along the road leading from the dining hall to the dorms, seeming not to care about the yogis staring at them. Lizards, less enlightened maybe, skittered in and out of the road, nearly causing accidents that could be fatal only to themselves. These last, especially, were everywhere, either streaking from the bushes or performing their daily dose of push-ups on a sunny surface. They seemed to watch us yogis without much curiosity, as though once they’ve seen one of us, we are all pretty much the same.
Before coming to the retreat, I’d been worried about my ability to sit and meditate for a whole day. I wasn’t sure how I would handle the silence, or the accommodations. And I was worried about breaks for peeing, most specifically because we were going to spend quite a lot of time in nature, and I wasn’t sure if the question would even be addressed.
My worries about the retreat, however, were not more numerous than my expectations. I had noticed, watching people who had come back from retreats or hearing them talk, that participants tend to become a bit addicted to the experience, going back again and again, year after year. I had heard that while the first couple of days were hard, the rest of the retreat seems to pass in a rosy haze of concentration and presence. I also heard that people have all kinds of mystic experiences, such as clearing of past burdens, moments of understanding of past dilemmas or conflicts, and other forms of enlightenment. That all sounded deliciously good to me.
So here I was, in this far-away, humming-with-echoing-traffic retreat center, worrying about details and expecting miracles. Perhaps you can already imagine what happened in the week I was there.
Yes. Exactly, perfectly, nothing.
Turns out, I did not have trouble sitting or walking in meditation. The occasional restlessness, sure, and the occasional sleepiness. Peeing was less complicated than I feared. The silence was softer, less harsh and all-encompassing than I expected (and I may have even enjoyed it as a relief). The accommodations, the bathroom most especially, were clean and comfortable. Sure, I was not crazy about sharing bathrooms with 11 other women anymore, but it was really fine, and everyone was considerate and clean.
I was able to be present some of the time, but presence, or concentration, never became easy, not after two days and not after three days, not for a whole sit or even part of a sit. Throughout the week, I experienced the usual struggle to stay present that I experience at home when I meditate. Some fears plagued me (the most annoying ones being the not being able to go pee fear and the fear that I’ll never hike the PCT, both of which seemed to me huge and petty at the same time), and they stayed on, at some level, throughout the retreat. No really big moments of enlightenment there, or in any of the other dramas of my life.
Quite simply, I just sat there. Or just walked. And that was all.
Toward the last day of the retreat, I started feeling a bit upset. Was I a failure at this too? Did I do something wrong? Perhaps I don’t know how to meditate, after all? Maybe I’m not supposed to just sit here and struggle to be present. Maybe there’s a secret ingredient I’m missing. I grew more and more irritable — no rosy haze for me. The end of the retreat was a relief. I really wanted to come back home.
Safe in the comfort of home, I happened to listen to a Jack Kornfield podcast talk about what inspires us in spirituality. I had watched him every day during the retreat as he was getting lunch. He’d walk mindfully from bowl to bowl, and as mindfully serve himself. He looked shorter than I expected, more Jewish somehow. The noble silence edict, unfortunately, made it impossible for me to go all mushy and tell him how much I admire him and how his books have helped me shift my life. But I sent him thoughts of it, hoping they’d somehow invade his presence of mind.
In the podcast talk, Jack Kornfield told a story about a friend of his who has been meditating for 30 or more years with nothing much happening. The friend had confessed that after a while (the first 10 years especially were hard), he had to come to terms with the fact that nothing was going to happen to him while meditating. No mystic experiences. No enlightenment. After thirty years, however, and reflecting back on his practice, the friend noticed that he had become kinder, more present, and a better listener. More, he said, like himself.
I listened to this story and felt a burden shift. If this is all I can expect to receive from meditation, then it is already more than the whole world. Kindness alone would be enough. Presence alone would be enough. The ability to listen to another fully would be enough. Becoming more myself would be enough. Perhaps, after all, I was not such a failure as a meditator. Perhaps, I was exactly where I most wanted to be: sitting and trying to still the mind into presence, being in the meadow surrounded by other people, all of whom, too, probably just yearn to be kinder, better listeners, more like themselves.
One of the days of the retreat, as the sun was rising above the hills, the turkeys were walking by the road. I paused in my walk down to breakfast to watch them. They walked on the grass, nodding to themselves wisely, pecking mindfully at the ground to search for food. As I watched, a ray of sunshine hit a turkey’s tail and a rainbow formed, flickering, glittering on the feathers in bright colors, as luminous as emeralds, rubies, and sapphires, as soft as just-fallen snow. My heart stopped with wonder. The turkey ambled along, oblivious to the miracle on its tail.
It seemed to me, at that moment, to be the culmination of my life’s work, as though my whole life I had been waiting only for that, the appearance (and then the disappearance) of the rainbow on one turkey’s tail.
One moment it was there, gleaming in the sunlight. Then next, I blinked, and it was gone.