Vacationing in California I’ve hung out amid ageing hippies in Berkeley, attended a folk concert amid the redwoods, hiked in the Sierra Nevada & sampled the local wines. So when I was invited to a Zen meditation retreat, I saw it as a chance to add something else to my California experience.
I was completely unfamiliar with this Japanese tradition, and didn’t really know what to expect. And yet I was surprised to find myself resisting. I struggled not against the intensity of the regimen- it began at 5 a.m. and included ten half hour sitting meditations and several walking ones- but against the pomp & ceremony which I could not possibly understand. Even our meals were highly ritualized, with precise directives on how bowls and utensils were to be arranged, how napkins were to be unfolded and refolded, and how dishes were to be washed.
I kept having to remind myself that I was a guest, and that the Catholic mass which I grew up with must also seem very strange indeed to someone who has never experienced it before.
In the end, I felt it I had spent most of time simply trying to let go of my own prejudices. When the day ended and it was time to share our thoughts with the group (speaking to each other for the first time all day) I was surprised by the earnestness with which most everyone gushed with gratitude I didn’t feel. I had to force myself to mutter a halfhearted, if not insincere, “thank you”.
Though my first impression was that I had gotten nothing from the experience, upon reflection I found otherwise. The ritualized mealtimes, which I had found so disagreeable, had actually stirred in me a deep gratitude for the fact that I had anything to eat at all. And the silent rule, which I rather enjoyed, made me more mindful of my words in the following days. So much of what we say is empty chatter, mere noise which in no way improves upon silence. It is good to remember that.
Still, I felt as if I had missed out in something which the other participants got. Some had been moved to tears by the experience, whereas I wrestled all along with impulses to be rude.
After the retreat was over, we went camping next to a river in the mountains. The place was empty and we had the campground to ourselves. It was a truly beautiful spot at the edge of a meadow with trails into the forest and along the river.
And so the next morning I got up early and went exploring. As I ventured into the woods I was reminded of that quote, either by Muir, or Emerson- or perhaps it was Whitman or Thoreau- about forests being sacred places that put any man-made cathedral to shame.
As I approached the river, I saw that it too was holy, and wondered how we ever lost sight of that. Here I took off my shoes and walked barefoot, not because I was expected to, but because I WANTED to.
I marvelled at the sunlit leaves reflected in clear, still water and thought that in all the museums I have visited, I have never seen such artistry.
Then I came upon what I can only describe as a hummingbird garden. The riverbank was covered in wildflowers which buzzed with the whirring flight of countless hummingbirds. I watched them chase each other around, rising high into the treetops, only to plummet in a vertical free-fall, levelling out again as they reached the flowers to pause and feed, before resuming the chase.
And as I watched their feathers flash different colors as they caught the sun just so, I was moved to tears. For I knew that 5 minutes outdoors had taught me much more than a whole day spent inside a temple.
For there is more of God to be seen in a single hummingbird, than in all the rituals and ceremonies of Man combined.
David Nuñez is a biologist, photographer and author of several books on the Wildlife of the Mexican Caribbean, as well as a founding member of Mexiconservación.