I have moved through the high mountain desert at a snail’s pace. Just this step I tell myself as my conditioning and the altitude argue that I should turn around. It is a short walk from where I am staying at the Shambhala Mountain Center for the retreat and still it is a long journey.
We are only in our second day and I have already learned a few important lessons. The first is that we can begin as many times as we need to. The second is that trying to write everything is probably trying to please everyone. Neither of these things are possible even with endless beginnings. Let that shit go. (I might have paraphrased) The third is that I want a heated towel warmer.
Our spartan room features mismatched threadbare towels that hang on a heated towel bar. Here at the buddhist retreat I have found a material good to covet. I can let go of this coveting. And I will. By buying one for myself.
On the path I pause to take a picture of the reverse footprints of the people who have been here before me. The ground is clear but the snow has stuck into the impressions that their feet made on the earth. I remember what our instructor said the first night. This place in steeped in Dharama. Here they may have stepped in Dharma.
On the hillside a woman sits in the sun looking out at the great Stupa. All who come here receive enlightenment. I’m paraphrasing again but in a less shitty way. Seeing her serene face in the light makes it seem possible. She is at least lit. Which is probably a key step to enlightenment. If there are steps at all.
Just this next step I tell myself as the sweat begins to bead on my brow. There is a group coming behind me. I remember what my new friend told me at lunch. “We each have to reach the Stupa in our own time. At our own pace.” I try not to hurry to keep ahead of them. They can pass me. I can simply step aside. We have been practicing letting things pass. As we sit in the shrine room we notice thoughts and emotions, label them “thinking” and return our observation to our breath.
Here is what my meditation sounds like:
Wow are my eyeballs dry? Thinking. Thinking is a verb. Thinking. But here it is a noun. Thinking. So like that other writer said it is a gerund. Thinking thinking thinking. Do verbs want to be nouns? It seems as though nouns would want to be verbs. Some nouns turn into super annoying verbs. Like adult turns into adulting. Ick. Wait, I shouldn’t be thinking ick. I shouldn’t be thinking shouldn’t. I shouldn’t be thinking. Thinking. I didn’t think my eyeballs could get any more dry. Thinking thinking thinking. I’ll just add in a few extra thinkings to plan ahead for my next thoughts. But the point of this is not to plan ahead. Thinking. Wait? Is that one of the ones I already had banked? Thinking. One extra can’t hurt.
On the path the group passes me by. This morning Susan told us that thoughts are famously compared to clouds. I got stuck on the word famously. Is that her way of avoiding naming the source? Perhaps I can use that in the future when I forget whose words I am using. Fourth thing learned. As I am stuck contemplating the use of the word famously she has continued. The clouds are like thoughts. None ever stay in place for long. So we should let them go. Today, she tells us, we are the sky, not the clouds.
Right now the sky is cloudless.
After just a few minutes more of walking I have shed my hat and unzipped my coat. The wind is cold on my chest and I imagine my heart closing against its gust. I try to unclench, to soften, but in the end I just hurry up.
Despite the rushing I still arrive.
I walk around the outside of the structure and feel like I could be in the middle east, or Greece. Something about the white plaster against the blue sky makes the Stupa feel out of place in this Colorado mountain range. But of course this is exactly where it belongs.
In meditation practice our instructor tells us that we can engage with the shrine in whichever way makes us most comfortable. We can bow or not, we can see it as our teacher, or not. Most of all we can see it as a reflection of ourselves. Our highest and best selves.
I like this, even though it makes me think of my time on Zillow where realtors encourage buyers to tear down right sized houses on generous lots because the “highest and best use” is for a four lot subdivision. They don’t need to tell me that these houses will be huge, overly ornate, with ceilings too high for furniture to fit. I just know.
This great Stupa would be the house of my nightmares. The floors are many colors of marble in a variety of patterns, the walls and ceilings are painted in garish colors. Niches are filled with art and flowers and requests for donation. And with butterscotch candies which may have some meaning or may not.
I am stopped for a minute thinking (thinking) of “may or may not.” Doesn’t “may” already have the “not” included in it? Have I been wasting two words for endless lifetimes? Maybe. Or maybe not.
After taking in his surroundings I allow my gaze to rest on the Buddha in front of me. He is golden. His eyes are cast down in the manner that I have been practicing for two days. And his nipple is out of place.
I am pretty sure that this is not the most common reaction to the sacred space. I have seen people enter and exit with placid faces and fluid movements. I try not to stare. I try not to catch anyone’s eye and gesture up at his nipple. In front of me people are sitting. Sitting in the Buddhist way with fierce back, soft hearts, and natural breath. I take a seat on the cushion and straighten my back. Before I find a place to settle and soften my gaze I peek up again. Yeah. His nipple is way too high.
“Thinking” I tell myself. And that thought floats away like a nipple shaped cloud in the sky.
I approach the statue to add my gratitude to the notes in the offering bowl. Thank you. I plan to write. Keep it simple. Despite this being a writing retreat here it is the feeling not the words that matter. Instead I find that the orange slip of paper reads. “Thank me.” I might understand this shrine. Even if I don’t know it. I write it again, one for him and one for me. We can thank each other.
As I leave I tell myself that next time I will see his eyes not his nipple. I remember the first lesson of meditation.
We have endless beginnings.
I will need them all.
If you are wondering where to begin (again) I deeply recommend Susan Piver’s (our instructor on this retreat) approachable volume: Start Here Now.