Hollyhock Journal 4

After greetings and introductions I’m assigned a host to help me get settled. A kindly gray haired woman takes me back to the beach in a golf cart. I unload the kayak and bring it up on logs, and she shuttles me to a quiet campsite at the base of large cedar.  She’s retired to Cortes from Salt Spring Island and knows Jeanne L., a sculptor and midwife we visited there recently who once lived in our barn in Lund.

I pitch the tent, change into dry clothes, and return through a wood-latched gate and across the great garden to the porch of the lodge. The request to leave shoes outside is familiar after Japan. The building’s wood interior is immaculate, graced with local artists’ watercolors on the walls and large windows oriented toward the water. Through them I see the southern peninsula of Cortes on the right, beyond it Mittlenatch Island and beyond that Vancouver island, to the left the channel between Cortes and Twin through which I paddled, and in the center the passage between Twin and Hernando opening to the wide water outside Lund. In the middle of the prospect, crouched on the horizon, I recognize Mace Point, eastern tip of Savary Island, the center of the view from Knoll House on a sightline shifted 120 degrees.

In the buffet line several people ask if I’m the guy who came here by kayak. Dinner is gourmet vegetarian, largely supplied by the garden, the tables adorned by its flowers. Afterward we hear a welcome talk by Dana Solomon, Hollyhock CEO.  She tells us a little bit about the place: “Hollyhock exists to inspire, nourish and support people who are making the world better.” It offers programs on spiritual development, nature study, corporate and non-profit capacity building, bodywork, photography, environmental activism, gardening, cooking as well as writing—well targeted to my demographic.  Hollyhock was created in the early ‘80’s on the site of the Cold Mountain Institute that I knew about in the ‘70’s, but at the time wasn’t confident or prosperous enough to visit.

The first session of the workshop convenes in Kiakum, hardly distinguishable from the surrounding forest on the outside, but inside a spacious dome with a transparent central peak above which tree branches are silhouetted against the sky.  In the middle of the floor stands a vase of flowers surrounded by a circle of burning candles and cushions with seatbacks for the six participants and two leaders. We begin with brief introductions, Carol from Victoria, Fran from Vancouver, Brenda from Calgary, her sister Laurel from Courtenay, and Michelle, who works in the kitchen and is here on a long-term retreat.  She’s the only one that’s not retired. I’m the sole male.

Kate and Ruth make sure that everyone is appropriately seated, two of the group in chairs, the others on cushions with the pelvis tipped forward, shoulders back and spine erect, in a half lotus or supported by pillows under the knees to provide a stable and relaxed three-point posture.  With eyes closed, I follow Kate’s instructions, uttered quietly but forcefully, punctuated by long pauses.

Breath awareness is fundamental to meditation practice, to awareness of body and mind, to cultivating the stillness to see into the true nature of existence. Once you have settled into your sitting posture, bring your attention to the sensation of the breath passing in and out of your body. Once you have located and settled into that sensation, begin to follow the breath for its entire duration, coming in the nostrils, filling the lungs, lifting the diaphragm. Note the moment the in-breath turns into the out-breath, the diaphragm contracting, emptying the lungs, air flowing out the nostrils. You may want to use phrases like, “Breathing in, Breathing out,” to support your practice, letting them quiet as the mind quiets. Follow the breath with ease, not forcing the breath to be other than it is, experiencing each breath just as it is. In this noble posture of stillness, the mind naturally quiets, and the breath naturally deepens and slows. [text provided by Kate]

This is somewhat different from my habitual 20 minute morning practice, when I sit in a chair  and maintain focus with a mantra.  The voice, the presence of the group, the space, my sensation of passing from one stage of a voyage to the next another heighten the energy.

Afterwards we each talk about our experience with meditation and writing and our purposes in attending. One has written small town newspaper columns, another has done public relations and journalistic work, three people belong to meditation groups. Everyone wants to work on memoirs and poems. I mention complacently that I’ve written three books, but haven’t published anything in ten years, preferring to write regularly on my blog without further aspiration. As I say it, I sense this may be changing.  An appointment schedule for individual consults is passed around and I sign up.

Ruth introduces a talk about the interplay of meditation and writing by distributing little two-by-three inch pads with the black and white mosaic covers of old fashioned school books. They are to keep handy for jotting down ideas and phrases worth saving before they float off on the stream of consciousness. Writers are always trying to snag thoughts.  In meditating though, we observe them floating by. Each complements the other, both are grounded in the awareness of the body, sharpening the senses, paying attention. Both are cultivated habits.

This place and mood take me back to a rainsoaked week on a mountainside above the Slocan Valley in 1976.  I was crammed into a tipi with ten other people and an open fire for warmth in a Gestalt workshop led by another inspiring teacher, Bethal Phaigh, a disciple of Fritz Perls.  Richard Weaver, also his disciple, founded Cold Mountain Institute.

Ruth says that it’s crucial for writers to maintain a questioning attitude rather than looking for answers, just as it is for practitioners of meditation.  She reads part of a poem by her teacher, Norman Fischer, a Zen master and disciple of Suzuki Roshi. A few lines pop out for me:

Why are you and I both “me” to ourselves
Though we refer to different people?
How is it we don’t get mixed up about this
Or are we mixed up about it
But we don’t know we are
And if we don’t know are we?

I say, “That reminds me of something I once wrote for an English class on grammar”:

In the mirror
I see me.
How can the subject
Object be?

I feel like a kid in grade school hoping to please.

The session ends at 9:30. In my sleeping bag, by the light of a headlamp, I jot reminders of the day’s events into the little notebook.

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