We now live in a world in which the Millennial generation will spend about 45% of their income on housing by age 30. The baby boomers had almost another ten percent to play with. In China the new tag is ‘996’ which means working from 9am-9pm, 6 days a week to be competitive in a country of over a billion.
This changing landscape leaves very little for the ‘frivolous’ extras like vacations for personal growth. With this amount of pressure it is no wonder that when one can save money and carve out time for transformational travel the stakes are high. Most people want to come, and work hard with yoga, meditation or medicines, so the return to the pressures of working life and family are more ease-full. Who doesn’t want to radiate serenity and dole out seraphic smiles in the face of chaos?
It is an incredible amount of pressure to put on oneself, and often is the very weight that blocks the whole thing from ever getting off the ground. It is great to say that one has no expectations, and people actually say this to me from time to time, but lets be honest. Who would fly across the world, suffer through nights of vomiting and tears and be completely neutral about the outcome?
I would like to share a story from a few years back…
By the grace of Jesus’ friend Buddha, I was able to carve out three consecutive months of relative isolation to do some personal work in the Amazon. The conditions were rustic at best and one always had to be on viper watch, especially on the 3am trips to the spidery tarp toilet. Food in the last three weeks consisted of our remaining ration of white rice and the occasional plantain. Approaching the ripe age of forty, nutritional deficiencies started to play with my muscles, my energy and my mind. Yet there was this image in my head that at some point, beatific grace would pour forth and shine its light upon my ignorance. This image helped me through intense bouts of grief and rage that I purged, not in ceremony, but during each dreary and repetitive fifty-six hour day.
In the final week, which should have seen me dancing like a sprite through sun-dappled leaves, I was escorted to hell. The ceremony consisted of me being so depleted, that any idea of sitting or singing was crushed within the first half hour. I lay face down whilst every demon this side of the equator told me I was too old, too lazy, too weak and too laughable to walk this path. After three months of agony, this was the ‘gift’.
I spent the next morning watching tears spill uncontrollably from my eyes because I could not jump on a boat and head home. One of the Shipibo grandmothers showed up on my tambo (jungle hut) with a new ‘kotón’ for me, which is the traditional shirt that the females wear. It was the kindest gesture, meant to welcome me into the family, yet inside I felt utterly undeserving. In my mind, I was already dreaming up new possible vocations that had nothing to do with snakes, purging and fumbling through local languages. She said with twinkling eyes, “you must wear this tonight in ceremony!”
I cried all day in pity. The thought of going back one more time to face the black hole of defeat on an empty battery was too much to bear. How could three months of sacrifice yield this? As we are trained to do when the mind has become a black explosion, I grabbed my medicine pipe and packed it to the brim with tobacco. The icaro (healing song) came out in choked sobs and I could barely breath between each line, but I carried on. Suddenly, everything became very quiet and I heard a crystal clear voice in my head:
You have two choices. You can roll over and die, or you can get up and keep walking. I don’t really care either way.
That was it. The age old existential question of life or death. When you get nothing, will you wipe your tears, and pick yourself unaided off the ground or wait in mourning for the worms?
I started to laugh, as I saw how all of my expectation left no room to receive.
This journey hadn’t been about receiving anything, it had been about letting things go.
A dear friend and fellow long-time dieter came up with a mantra that we contemplated attaching to each structure at the center: ALWAYS A WHITE BELT. The best approach to each retreat no matter what the discipline, is to come in as if you know absolutely nothing about what to expect. To take everything you have ever read, heard or imagined and affix to it a detached, “maybe”.
Maybe I will eat today.
Maybe I will feel better.
Maybe I will be able to poop.
It is about learning to take what comes as it is, without having to score it from one to ten. This is the work. Trumpets from the sky that toot your new life direction in full clarity are an expectation. Pulling out each and every root from societal conditioning is an expectation. Wanting to look in the mirror and see a beautiful reflection instead of wrinkles and spots is an expectation.
A good retreat leader, sporting their own white belt, will help return you to this very lesson over and over. Can we sit together in silence and breathe and just be with what is here now? Even for these five minutes?
Yes we can.
Written in gratitude to my zen master white-belt coach.