Gwen Bell is a social media rockstar and an absolute sweetheart. She’s invited more-or-less the entire world to join her in writing about their Best of 2009 experiences with a different subject for each day of the month. Pretend it’s December 1st when the prompt was: Trip. What was your best trip in 2009?
My best trip this year is a trip I had to take in my mind. Plans to attend a meditation retreat with the most kind and generous teacher imaginable were repeatedly thwarted and finally canceled.
Four years ago, my first visit to this center, the landscape seemed unfamiliar and incongruous. American desert, cactus, scrub pine, red-robed monks navigating crumbling paths, and Tibetan prayer flags everywhere, snapping in the wind.
Now I know it as the place on earth where the sky is as familiar as my heart.
I amble up the road in darkness to catch the first light of sun splashing red rock hills and shining on the tip of the stupa. I reserve my usual seat in the meditation hall, just inside the door. Right now the hall with gleaming floors and traditionally patterned rugs is nearly empty. Soon it will fill with monks and nuns and a changing kaleidoscope of roughly 80 of my favorite people on the face of the earth. Shoulder to shoulder. Practicing together.
I wish I had words to tell you about my Guru so you could understand. We now have business gurus and exercise gurus. But capital G Guru is a loaded and misunderstood concept in the west. He’s not my father or my authority figure. He doesn’t tell me what to do, though I’ve asked many times, believe me.
I can say that he is an enlightened being and he knows how to merge his heart and mind with my own, showing me true nature. But I can’t really explain to you what that means. I have no idea what enlightenment is. I only know his wisdom and kindness seem more magnificent to me every year, yet he is not the one who’s changing. I don’t have words to describe his heart and mind merging, either. I only know something happens and some better, clearer, kinder (aaugh words!) part of myself is revealed through those moments.
My understanding is like an iceberg. I know only the very tip while the rest of the iceberg goes on for miles beyond my view.
I wish I could explain devotion. I wish I could explain how you cultivate it, because even some of my friends in the Sangha say they see my devotion and they don’t really know how to feel at. Really? I don’t understand. I don’t know. Just put Garchen Rinpoche in front of me or in my thoughts. Let me read one of the innumerable breathtaking prayers. I’ll struggle to hold back tears while wondering if my heart actually can explode from feeling so much love.
The retreat I missed was a special form, a “drubchen.” The word means Great Accomplishment. Everyone joins together during the day and people take shifts through the night so the practice and the mantra goes on around the clock.
My favorite shift starts around 4 AM. The lights in the room are dim, like practicing by candle light. Or butter lamps. My Guru is seated alone in the front, the other monks taking their turn sleeping. Scattered throughout the meditation hall are maybe three to six other practitioners chanting the mantra.
When you come in at that hour Garchen Rinpoche looks up and smiles at you as you settle in. Can you imagine?
After that happiness comesa feeling I can only describe as holy, mixed with some kind of of Noble Pride at taking your turn, holding the sacred responsibility of the practice.
If you stay through the morning, Rinpoche catches your eye and makes little eating motions, encouraging you to go for breakfast. Even though he’s been there longer, he stays in his seat. He’ll be there still when the sun has fully risen, when you’ve filled your belly and the full Sangha comes streaming in. He’ll be there when the practice begins a new cycle.
I wanted to go to Arizona so badly it hurt. But Garchen Rinpoche, the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha? All right here.
Always in my mind.