Creating Space for Nature: a wilderness solo
by Suzanne Head (Duarte)
Sangre de Cristo Mountains from the San Luis Valley,
CO. Billboard & photo by Paul Kloppenburg
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains shoot straight into the sky out of bedrock buried 30,000 feet below the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado. Most evenings the sun's last rays bathe the precipitous angles of the range in the sanguine alpenglow that inspired their name, Blood of Christ. At least that is one story. Another links the blood-of-Christ image to the startling red tint of the streams during spring runoff. In any case, vivid colors - sunset scarlets, midday blues, and twilight purples - are part of the palpable magnetism that has earned the Sangre de Cristos their place in the mystique of the American Southwest.
I was seeking some magic when I decided to do a wilderness retreat in these mountains. The intensity of city-based environmental activism was starting to wear me down. One can address our culture's alienation from Nature for only so long in an urban environment before getting caught in the accelerating pace of post-industrial culture. At that point one is definitely contributing to the problem. Knowing the Sangre de Cristos' reputation as a power spot, I thought they would be a good place to clear my mind, get back into my body, and regain some perspective.
I chose to embark on the NatureQuest program (now known as Sacred Passage) led by John P. Milton. John was already a friend of mine, and his spiritual activist vision of helping people to transform their relationship with the Earth corresponded with my own.
NatureQuest is inspired by the vision quest tradition of the Native Americans as well as spiritual retreat traditions of the East. Jesus, the Buddha, and the Taoist masters, for example, all did retreats in the wilderness, and to profound effect. But the form of NatureQuest follows the Native Americans' tradition most closely - after all, it is on their ancestral lands that the quests take place.
Curious about the original tradition, I asked Howard Bad Hand, a Lakota Sioux, to describe the format for a vision quest as it is now practiced. He said that in the Lakota tradition, Native Americans prepare for it by fasting - no food or water for four days. On the eve of the quest they participate in a sweat lodge ceremony for purification and are given a drink of water "to teach them appreciation."
Then they enter the alone time, taking nothing but a blanket - no clothes, food, or water. For up to four days they sit within a sacred space marked by a circle of stones, sometimes within a pit dug out of the Earth. Only at night may they leave the pit to relieve themselves. Sitting through the heat of the day and the cold of the night makes sleep difficult. The quester's task is to maintain awareness of everything that takes place and, upon returning, to recount all experiences to the elders who interpret the messages.
Howard explained that these conditions and disciplines are designed to remove the ego; unless the ego is removed, "there is no pathway for the vision to occur." The vision quest, he believes, provides a "spontaneous way to look at the unconscious." If there is a real opening, he says, one begins to "understand oneself as a part and product of the relationship between Earth and sky, the primary forces in the universe, which together bring forth life."
NatureQuest is designed to have a similar effect, but the experience is a bit gentler. The solo lasts longer, five or six days and nights, but fasting is recommended only during the last three days. It is preferable to live without walls, using only a ground tarp, another tarp for a lean to, and a sleeping bag to protect oneself from the elements. If the weather is threatening, a tent is permitted. The quester's movements are limited to a radius of a hundred yards, but one may still keep warm, find shade, drink water, and sleep.
Although not as severe as a Native American vision quest, the NatureQuest does provide an opportunity to step beyond the conventions of social life and discover the regenerative powers of the natural world. As the NatureQuest brochure states: "Today... Nature seems hopelessly distant, its spaciousness and luminosity a fantasy beyond the tangle of freeways and red tape that border our lives. But the wilderness is only as far away as we allow it to be."
I met John in late 1986 at the Kalachakra Initiation conducted by Kalu Rinpoche in Boulder, Colorado. When he told me he had been active in the emerging rainforest movement, I asked him to speak at a rainforest conference I was involved in organizing. During the conference, I learned that John's personal solution to the distress of the Earth is his NatureQuest program.
John Milton's ability to help people open to Nature's spaciousness and luminosity issues from his own rich experience. As a tropical ecologist, environmental consultant, and activist, John has explored many of the last great wild regions of the world on almost every continent, and has led campaigns to save them. He has undertaken wilderness solos every year since he was a teenager. He has also received teachings from and practiced with some of the great Tibetan and Theravadin Buddhist teachers of our time.
The principle behind NatureQuest is that through a direct experience of wilderness, individuals can reestablish a healthy relationship with the Earth, which in turn can catalyze a shift away from the values and lifestyles that are injurious to our planet. John's role is to help participants approach Nature with respect, as one would approach a great spiritual teacher. Through this same process of steeping themselves in the wilderness and taking their cues from Nature, America's most respected wilderness defenders and deep ecologists, such as John Muir and Aldo Leopold, gave birth to the ethics of ecology.
Just as studying Buddhism without practicing it doesn't bring about profound changes, mere commitment to deep ecology was not enough for me. My intuitive, feeling side was withering in the absence of direct experience with Nature. So I tore myself away from the Macintosh, telephone, mailbox, fax machine, and Federal Express, grabbed a tent and a backpack, and found my way to southern Colorado.
The NatureQuest solo is preceded by two days of preparation and followed by two days of reentry. As part of the preparation, four of us walked the land while John pointed out its particular characteristics. His descriptions captured the ecology, geomancy, and spirit of the place. He taught us a Buddhist inspired awareness practice, and then each of us chose the spot where we would spend the next five or six days alone.
John also explained the rules. We would leave behind the familiar props that maintain our habitual patterns: watches, journals, books, musical instruments, alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. We would simply stay in one spot, maintaining awareness of whatever occurred within ourselves and the surrounding environment. Since there was a lot of rain that summer, John waived the no walls rule and we took tents.
My situation was slightly different from that of the other three. I chose a spot a thousand feet up a cliff near a large cave, whereas the others were down in the riparian area along the creek that flowed from the mountains. Theirs was a lush, wooded, mossy area, protected by large old trees. But since I felt the need to be up high where there was a lot of space and a vast view, I sacrificed the presence of water.
The hardest part of my retreat was the easiest for the others: getting there and back. I had to carry gear and water up a very steep, pathless slope of loose rock. The place I chose was well defended from intruders by soft, loose ground, thorny huckleberry bushes and a variety of cacti. Dead tree limbs twisted out to grab my pack and gouge my skin while I was carefully watching my steps. Traversing this slope three times in shuttling my provisions up the mountain, I gained considerable respect for its defenses, including the power of gravity.
My spot was just large enough to lay out my bivouac sack, hardly more than a sleeping bag cover, with a little room next to it to sit and eat or stretch out to nap during the day. It was protected from the wind by ancient bristlecone pine trees, perhaps the oldest trees in the world, with bare branches sticking out everywhere, making them appear half dead. In the dry White Mountains of eastern California there are bristlecones older than 4,000 years. Also around my camp were several ancient cedars, also half dead and valiantly hanging onto life while providing life and shelter for countless other creatures. Aside from the wake-up warnings of dead branches and little, fanged creatures of the insect kingdom, Nature was kind to me here.
Upon arriving in the saddle between rock outcroppings that became my camp, I was greeted by a hummingbird. This first hummingbird was later joined by four others who became my teachers and companions throughout my stay. They made it their business to check up on me several times a day, to wake me up at dawn on most mornings, and to say good night as the sun set every evening, with a chirping and whirring of wings that could make the heart stop.
There were tests I had to pass before being admitted into Nature's deeper mysteries, and these had to do with my own state of mind. By the time I had set up camp, the sun was setting in a brilliant display, and darkness set in quickly. I had time to notice, though, that my camp was right in the middle of an animal trail; I had to remove abundant deposits of mountain lion and deer scat in order to make my bed. Having been warned that this was mountain lion or cougar territory, I was alert to the possibility of a visit by one.
A flashlight, camp knife, and whistle were my only defenses, and I placed them carefully beside my pillow (a stuff sack full of clothing) before I lay down to sleep. I had a few fearful fantasies of being discovered by a cougar, helplessly trapped inside my sleeping bag. I also imagined deer stumbling over me, even trampling me as they ran from the mountain lion. Surely, any indigenous creature would be aware of my presence on the mountain long before it would trip over me, and would probably try to avoid me altogether. But such are the fears of one who has been too long away from Nature.
To confront primordial fear is one of the most important functions of a vision quest or wilderness retreat. In those cultures that lived close to elemental Nature, confronting the fear of death was an essential rite of passage that conferred the courage to maintain integrity in adult life. It was also an important threshold for spiritual development. Since that which we fear most has the most power over us, we must face our deepest fears in order to gain mastery of ourselves. The mountain yogis of India, Tibet, and China undertook their spiritual retreats in extremely remote wildernesses and regarded fear as a teacher. By placing themselves in situations that provoked the greatest fear, they discovered their deepest wisdom and greatest powers.
I thought that I knew a lot about being alone with my own mind and facing my fears, having done several solitary retreats lasting as long as a month. But being alone without walls in the wilderness was a more powerful experience than I had expected, and it provoked levels of fear that were at least as deep as any I had previously encountered. This deep level of fear was reflected in a dream I had the first night, in which I was visited by the local cougars. A mountain lion cub padded into my camp in broad daylight. I was sitting up in my sleeping bag, aware of my meager weapons beside me. I sat very still, not daring to make a sound. The cub was sniffing curiously around at the foot of my bag when its mother followed it into camp.
There is, of course, nothing fiercer than a big mother cat defending her young. And in the dream I realized how futile any attempt to defend myself would be if she decided I was threatening her cub. I was paralyzed with fear, frozen, barely able to breathe. But as I sat there, I slowly realized that it was an honor to be joined by the cub and its mother. I felt kinship with them. Caught between these conflicting emotions, I concluded that if the mother wanted to take me, there would be nothing I could do, so I would give her my life. I relaxed, surrendered to the situation, breathed quietly and just watched.
The mother mountain lion had sauntered in and stretched out on the ground some feet away from me, seeming, as cats do, not to take any notice of me. She was the picture of nonchalance. Following the cat's etiquette, and not wishing to challenge her, I didn't look her in the eye. We simply sat in each other's presence for a while without making eye contact. Then a strange thing happened: the mother cougar turned into a woman, and the woman became my friend. Suddenly. we were in the human world, going to a party together.
With such a sweet ending to the dream, I felt quite safe in my camp the next day. However, another test occurred the following morning when I awoke suddenly, perhaps from a dream, with terrible dread. This time the fear was not about my own person, but about the two things most precious to me: a sixteen-year-old cat and my computer. It was very early in the morning, long before the sun would rise to warm my camp, and I lay in my sleeping bag wide awake, tormented by paranoia on behalf of Maya, my cat, and the computer, Mac.
I imagined returning from the Quest and finding both Mac and Maya gone and my life shattered. After spinning out like this for a couple of hours, I finally came to my senses and began to consider that my paranoia might be a projection of a more fundamental feeling of insecurity about my life, and a reminder of my attachments. This was an opportunity, I realized, to examine my attachment to my cat and my computer and accept that someday I would no longer have them. Everything is impermanent. I could surrender to that. And I could appreciate Maya and Mac fully while I do have them.
Paranoia came up again a couple of days later, and I once more found it necessary to go through the process of experiencing my fear and arousing confidence. This became a minor theme during the solo. In spite of my pride, I had to come to terms with my fear of being alone with my own mind, and eventually I had to accept that my paranoid fantasies were a manifestation of a more fundamental fear, the fear of death.
It took me three of the six days and nights that I was up on the cliff to settle in and really be there. Although I lived at an altitude of over 5,000 feet, I was now at 9,500 or 10,000 feet. While becoming acclimated one normally feels sluggish, and I did. It did not occur to me that my inner struggles might have been the source of my fatigue. I lounged around camp and on the nearby rocks for the first couple of days, taking long naps at midday under an awning, a long piece of rip-stop nylon that I hung from the dead limbs. I arranged and rearranged things so that my new home was as cozy as possible.
On one of the afternoons when I was napping, I had a dream that woke me up. My teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, who had recently died, walked into my camp and stood at my feet. He was youthful, vibrant, and whole, without the paralysis he had had in life. He looked at me and said, “I am the same as Nature. There is absolutely no difference.” I immediately awoke, sat up and looked around. At first it seemed like a mysterious koan, but eventually I realized the unity of dharma and nature, and of my devotion to Trungpa Rinpoche and to nature.
In spite of my laziness, I was obliged to make two trips a day down to the cave that lay a hundred yards down a rockfall from my camp. The climb required considerable energy, for many of the rocks on this slope were boulders the size of Volkswagons. I had to take care not to twist an ankle or worse. All this rock climbing was necessitated by my agreement to hang a white flag outside the cave at midday and take it down again in the evening so that John would know that I was still alive and well.
This was a variation on the NatureQuester's system of mutual checking. Normally, those down by the creek place a stick in the ground between their areas each day to let each other know they are okay. They do this at alternate times of the day so that they don't encounter each other. In my case, since I didn't know beforehand where I would camp, I prearranged with John to hang a white flag outside the cave, which could be seen from only one spot on the road fifteen hundred feet below. John had to drive to that spot and peer through binoculars to see the flag.
Before the solo, each of us had wondered what we would do with all that time. However, I found that as my conceptual mind slowed down and became more synchronized with my body, I drifted more and more into the timelessness of Nature's rhythms. I began to consciously allow the elements to determine my movements according to the natural pace of the day. Take the mornings, for example. As I mentioned, the hummingbirds often woke me up at six am, at least two hours before the sun appeared over the cliff above my camp.
The early morning time was the quietest part of the day for me, a natural time to meditate as I sat up in my sleeping bag waiting for the sun to warm things up. I tried to be there with what was, as I imagine the bristlecone pines do while living through millennia. But like a lizard, I became active once the sun rose.
I found myself watching clouds most of the day every day, not only because they are beautiful, but also to determine whether and when a storm might be coming. Sitting for hours on a comfortable rock, I would watch what was happening in the sky. I could see from my favorite perches all the mountain ranges surrounding the San Luis Valley, all the way to the lower reaches of the Valley a hundred miles south. This view included the golden waves of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument that nestles at the base of the Sangre de Cristos only fifteen miles south as the bird flies. Across the valley west of me were the San Juan Mountains, about twenty five or thirty miles away, where most of the threatening weather and the most spectacular cloud formations seemed to originate.
The more I allowed my mind to fill with space and slow down to Nature's rhythms, the more dynamic the movement of clouds became. One day I watched a huge fleet of cumulus clouds approaching from the south at a majestic pace and in the imposing formation of the Queen's armada. My whole being relaxed into the clouds and the vast space in which they sailed. Nothing in the world seemed more worthwhile than to just be there, a tiny part of the immense power of the universe
Such a deep level of relaxation and contentment contrasted sharply with the mad pace of life in the city I had left behind less than a week before. I realized with sadness that this is one of the reasons that we are so out of touch with Nature: we miss her subtle signs and signals because we are just going too fast to notice. We have no space left in our minds for anything but the information, set in human signs and symbols, that demands our attention on a daily basis.
Sitting there high above the valley, the logic behind Nature Quest suddenly became clear to me. With my senses opening and my perceptions expanding as I relaxed into the retreat, I realized that there is a lot more to the natural world than one can grasp through studying numbers and abstract scientific concepts. If we are to take our cues from the environment and learn how to live in harmony with our planet home, we have to go beyond the linear structures of human language to receive the messages of the elemental world more directly. We receive those messages through the senses and intuitive faculties that atrophy through disuse in urban environments, but which evolve when we live close to Nature. These are the faculties that are regenerated in situations like the NatureQuest solo.
These daytime contemplations probably had something to do with a dream I had sometime in the middle of the week. It began with a scan of the outside of a sterile institutional structure, a building that expressed a linear mindset, like a school I attended in the 1950s. The basement of the building was crowded with indigenous women - Native American, Latin American, Black African, Australian aborigine women and others - all dressed in traditional costumes and speaking very fast in their native tongues. They were very agitated about something and were expressing their feelings vehemently. Among these women were two other kinds of creatures: huge serpents and large cats. King cobra, python, boa constrictor and other enormous snakes were coiling and hissing and arching in strike poses. Black panther, cougar, jaguar, leopard, and other great cats were pacing and snarling and roaring. None of these beings were in conflict with each other; they were all feeling the same entrapment in the “basement” of this awful structure and expressing their frustration.
When I awoke from this dream early in the morning, I thought, "No wonder they are all riled up, being trapped in that institutional structure. I would be, too." Then I went back to sleep and forgot about it until later. When the dream returned to my consciousness, I realized that I had indeed trapped those powerful intuitive and instinctual energies within myself in a rigid, sterile institutional structure - the intellectual structure of my life.
I realized that my rational, linear, logical ways of thinking and living were constricting these powerful elements in the unconscious. It was somewhat shocking. On one hand, I knew that if I didn't allow those intuitive elements to dialogue with my conscious mind, they had the power to destroy the structures that were imprisoning them. On the other hand, I realized that they could be a strong creative force in my life, probably just what I needed.
It occurred to me that this dream was not merely a personal dream, but expressed what is happening in our culture as well. The archetypal energies represented in my dream by indigenous women, snakes, and cats have been denied and repressed by our culture for hundreds of years. Western culture split itself off from its own instinctive and intuitive powers, and then persecuted the people and animals associated with those powers in witch hunts of various kinds. Now these feminine, serpentine, and feline energies seem to be clamoring for expression in the collective unconscious as much as they are within myself.
Consider, for example, our culture's fascination with primitive art and artifacts; or the enormous, devastating, illegal trade in the skins of reptiles and large cats; or the popularity of African, South American, and Caribbean music; or the long runs of movies such as The Gods Must Be Crazy and The Emerald Forest. The popularity of these things bespeaks a longing much deeper than a mere fad or fascination with the exotic.
As I was sitting on my cliffside perch, reflecting on the implications of my dream for myself and Western society, I gained new insight into my own passions for aboriginal cultures and wildlife. I realized that these passions actually express a profound yearning for the sense of community and the sacred connections that indigenous cultures have - or, in most cases, had - with the Earth. Then I remembered one of Laurens van der Post's books on the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert.
In The Heart of the Hunter, van der Post regards the Bushmen, persecuted as they are, to be representative of "our lost selves," which he also calls the "first spirit of life." Our lost selves are those parts of ourselves that still belong to Nature, including the intuition of the sacred. The part of ourselves that is obsessed with power, van der Post says, has created the”tyranny of numbers” - huge populations of humans - to dominate the first spirit of life, represented by the Earth's creatures and her primal people, such as the Bushmen.
In order to manipulate and dominate Nature and people, we also objectify them, turn them into impersonal abstractions, or numbers. In so doing, we necessarily remove ourselves from our inherent feeling connections. As Jung observed, love and the will to power are mutually exclusive motivations. The problem is that love is the only power that can recover our lost selves, the child in each of us who hears and speaks the language of Nature. In the words of van der Post: "Love is the aboriginal tracker, the Bushman on the faded desert spoor of our lost selves."
As I was contemplating such things, watching the sun move across the valley toward the San Juans, a pair of hummingbirds came up to visit. This pair of female broadtailed hummers often visited me, whether I was in the cave or in camp or out on the cliffs. As usual, they chased each other and played for five or ten minutes. One of this pair was the largest and, I assumed, oldest of the five. And she was the most communicative. At least once a day she stopped in midair, two or three feet in front of my forehead, and hovered there a few seconds, looking at me. Her pointing gesture never failed to stop my mind.
I always spoke a greeting to the hummers and they seemed to respond. They often perched on a nearby limb, sometimes cocking their heads or preening their iridescent green feathers while I talked to them. It was usually a simple conversation, such as, "Hello. I'm glad to see you, thank you for coming to visit." This may sound like sentimental anthropomorphism, but hummingbirds possess extraordinary intelligence. Ornithologist Paul A. Johnsgard tells many stories of their amazing feats and declares that "avoiding anthropomorphizing the avian world is good practice, but in the case of these magnificent little creatures, it is nearly impossible."
As one contemporary Native American has said, however, the whole concept of anthropomorphism - the attribution of "human" characteristics such as emotions and intelligence, to the nonhuman world - is backward. Instead, Western culture has made the grave mistake of depriving Nature of respect for what is inherently hers. The whole universe expresses intelligence if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
The reciprocity between humans and the rest of Nature was both a great mystery and a basic assumption in many aboriginal cultures. Some regarded the elements and the other creatures of their world as relatives: grandfather, grandmother, father, mother, sister, brother, or at least cousins. We are familiar with this aspect of Native American culture, but the Pygmies of the African ranforest also love the forest as both father and mother.
To the Bushmen, the stars were the greatest hunters with the bravest hearts, and they supplicated the stars to take their children's little hearts and give them the heart of a hunter. Likewise, their relationships with the sun, moon, lightning, wind and rain, as well as all the creatures of the desert, were intensely personal. They did not make abstractions of the elements; the elements were immediate presences with which they maintained personal relationships. This was not necessarily primitive animism, as we have interpreted it, but more likely an acknowledgment that we humans live within and depend upon a universe of relationships which are spiritual in nature. As Chief Oren Lyons of the Iroquois nation expresses it: "The law of Nature is a spiritual law. It respects all life, for all life is equal. If we transgress it, the consequences will be dark and terrible."
Thursday night, after considering such things up on the rocks all afternoon, I lay in my sleeping bag unable to sleep for most of the night. There was a different energy in this night. It was actually the first night that I was able to stay awake long enough to see the stars. And what a show it was. There was a lightning storm to the west in the San Juans - no thunder, but flashes of light that lit up half the sky every few minutes. This lasted long into the night. Between these bursts of white light, I gazed at the Milky Way arrayed across the sky more brilliantly than I had seen it for twenty years. I was shocked to realize that it had been so long since I had slept out under the stars at 10,000 feet altitude in an unpolluted atmosphere. It was the time of the new moon, and the week of the annual August comet shower, and I was grateful to be awake for it.
After counting twenty shooting stars, I surrendered to a sense of wonder. I became aware for the first time, though this was my fifth night out, that it was far from silent among the cliffs. In the background, a rushing creek echoed off the rock walls. But this night there was something else, a kind of music in that hanging world surrounding me. I remembered something van der Post said about the stars of South Africa: "Soon the stars were great and loud with light until the sky trembled like an electric bell, while every now and then from the horizon the lightning swept a long sort of lighthouse beam over us." Such a night was this in the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
But even beyond the echoes of the water below and the sounding and resounding of the stars overhead, there was the music of the life around me. I became aware of the LIFE around me. It wasn't the rustling of animals, it was subtler. I thought about the cougar dream and the fears I'd had that first night. Now I felt surrounded by a world that was not only friendly, but singing to me, inviting me to a party, letting me in on its secrets, giving me a glimpse of the magical quality of our living Earth, the living quality, the power of ancient rocks and trees and stars. The aboriginal peoples convey that magic in stories, songs, and dance. And over hundreds, even thousands, of years, and countless generations, those sacred traditions kept the magical connections between humans and the rest of Nature alive. We have lost those sacred traditions, and have been longing for the lost connections ever since.
Wide awake, my thoughts turned to the hummingbirds, those fearless, bejeweled, aerodynamic wonders of the world. How they speed impeccably between the same deadly tree limbs that catch me even when I'm moving in slow motion. How they can stop in midair on a dime. How they can sneak up on you from behind, stop right next to your ear and squeak, scaring the living daylights out of you, and zoom away before you can turn around. These little hummers had stolen my heart away and given me in return a profound sense of humility, respect, and joy.
Hummingbirds are not only magical creatures who embody fearlessness, inquisitiveness, humor, and playfulness, they are also the tiniest of birds who travel thousands of miles each year between the rainforests of Central and South America and the fields and mountains of North America. Their winter habitat is being deforested so rapidly that many ecologists predict that those forests will be gone within decades, and with them the hummingbirds.
As I lay looking deep into the universe spread out before me, the thought of their vulnerability wrenched my heart. At the same time, I felt honored to have had such an intimate relationship with them. I wondered what they were trying to tell me. One message, for certain, was that if we don't stop cutting down the rainforests, the hummers won't be able to continue delighting us and pollinating our trees and flowers in the summertime. I wondered how many years we will have before they cease to return. Or could this be the last year that we see them? The thought was almost unbearable.
So small, so humble, so vulnerable, and yet so brave and fearless, so completely itself, so curious, so direct in expressing itself - such is the warriorship exemplified by the hummingbird. At the same time, it embodies the integrity and wholeness of the biosphere, the interdependence and reciprocity of the tropics and the temperate zones.
Sometime long after midnight I found my mind sliding between such waking thoughts and dreams while my eyes were wide open. I still could not sleep, yet I was in new territory where the boundary had dissolved between waking and dreaming. I felt as though my mind were floating in the mind of Nature. I cannot remember the content, only the sense of infinite being and the bursting of my heart.
Just before dawn, I finally drifted into sleep, only to be awakened by a whirring and a tweeting, as usual, around six. But this morning, my last day on the side of the mountain, I sat up in my bag and looked around at the quiet walls, and wept. Perhaps it was the dawning of reverence, that poignant mixture of joy and sadness, longing and gratitude that arises when one glimpses the sacredness of the world. I found myself all that day making prayers and offerings to the place. Of the little food that I had left, I offered bits and pieces at small shrines I made on rocks in my favorite places, feeling that I had to give something back.
In the morning, before I left the retreat, I stood up on the rocks above my camp. The San Luis Valley spread peacefully before me. With hands in prayer, I thanked the Earth for her beauty, her bounty, her balance, and her blessings. Tears poured down my face and my throat choked so that I could not speak. But silently I asked for the confidence to honor my own inner nature, the intuition of sacredness evoked by Nature in this place, and the courage and integrity to manifest sacred outlook as a warrior for the Earth.
I prayed that the other humans of this planet would also find the confidence, courage, and integrity to honor inner nature and outer Nature. To do so, collectively, would create the space within our hearts for a correct relationship with Nature. Realizing the sacredness of the Earth that supports us and the sky that inspires us, and all the relationships in between, we would find ways to live that could be sustained by the biosphere. Instead of poisoning and plundering the Earth until all life expires, we could fulfill our nature by being warriors for the Earth.
I was sad to leave the camp, and walked reluctantly down the mountain, picking my way slowly among the loose rocks and deadly tree limbs. After I had recounted my experiences to John and the others in our group, John let us in on a secret: among the Native Americans the western face of the Sangre de Cristos is called the dream corridor, the interface between ordinary reality and the dreamtime, where the boundary between worlds dissolves. The inner mountains of the Sangre de Cristos, they say, are the realm of the dreamtime. I was glad that John had waited to tell us until we had experienced the dream corridor for ourselves. I also longed, some day, to do a solo in the high inner mountains. But, for the moment, the dreams and challenges bestowed in the dream corridor were enough to sustain me.
From: DHARMA GAlA: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology, edited by Allan Hunt Badiner, Parallax Press, 1990
© Suzanne Duarte