I live in a desert environment, and I take periodic, personal retreats, some in the desert, some in the mountains, some on water. The natural, external environment is important to me and the internal environment even more so.
My most recent 3-day experience was on a ranch on the outskirts of Tucson. I went there to contemplate, participate and celebrate, alone, except for a few wild creatures outside in the Sonoran desert landscape. I was housed at the far end of the property, on the eastern edge, adjacent to the Saguaro National Park. My portal looked out over the landscape of cacti and mountains with a 180 degree view, east to west, sunrise to sunset. That alone is inspiring.
I create a schedule that includes walking, reading, listening, sitting quietly, unplugged and disconnected electronically. I did not write much except for some notes that would enable me to write this later. It is now later. It’s always later because now is here and then it’s gone. Here’s what I did.
I tried to suspend thought with no judgment, no analysis, no criticism, no assessment, no resistance. Just an open, empty mind, not mindful, but rather mindless. That part is important.
I opened my heart to Spirit, a Spirit that is, a Spirit that creates space and time and is not limited by any defined boundaries. Conscious awareness put me in a state of union with the earth and a realization that I was breathing as the earth breathes, expanding and contracting, in the moment of now, in this particular and unique being that I am. It is not cogito ergo sum, it is simply sum without the cogito, and without the ergo or even the ego.
The first thing I notice is that breath is Spirit, both in word and in life. Words in life, life in words and wordless too. Breathing is a spiritual act. Verbal examples are inspire, aspire, transpire, conspire and expire – all from the Latin spiritus ‘breath, spirit’, from spirare ‘breathe’. Breathing is life, from the very first breath to the very last. Life is in between those two breaths, the big parentheses of life. From that day we are born, taking our first breath, entering creation as one of the many created creatures, we breathe to stay alive. It is widely reported that a person at rest takes about 16 breaths per minute. This means we breathe about 960 breaths an hour, 23,040 breaths a day, 8,409,600 a year. Anyone who lives to 80 will take about 672,768,000 breaths in a lifetime. And then, one day, we take our last breath, grateful for all the others that have gone before.
Breathing can be a conscious, intentional exercise focusing only on inhaling and exhaling, to the exclusion of everything else and this is where suspending thought requires time and practice. Those who practice meditation and yoga understand and appreciate this process although it is not the same. Transcendental Meditation is a branded technique that does not focus on breathing so much as it does on mindful, silent mantra meditation. The meditation practice involves detaching oneself from the external world and promoting harmony and self-realization by repetition of a mantra. a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation. Thus the focus is on the internal, excluding the external. Except maybe for the wind. Listening to the air passing by is to know what you cannot see.
There is a history of “voices from the desert” and a tradition that has spawned more contemporary spiritual practices that one can find in a plethora of books and people who value these experiences as spiritual awakenings. If you’re looking for a resource that touches on much of this kind of practice, I would suggest M.I.T. professor Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together” as a reliable source. There are numerous others as well.
What I came away with in addition to feelings of renewal and refreshment is a deep and genuine appreciation for having such opportunities, grateful for the encouragement and support from S., and for the luxury of having the time and resources to enjoy these “escapes” and “retreats” from the ordinary into the extraordinary. As I move myself from one state of being into another, the transition becomes more fluid with practice, akin to being “in the flow.”
Recent conversations about the differences between doing and being reinforced the notion that there need be no difference. We can do being and we can be our doing. Thus I am, you are and we are. Those are the essential pieces to why, what, how, where, when and finally, who. Listen to the voices that “inspire” who we are for that is where and how we uncover our essence.