So once more I went up into the high country of the Eastern Sierras to spend a few days in the silence and solitude of this magnificent wilderness. Found my favorite campsite, pitched the old tent, built a fire, and was ready for a great week or so. It was cold–the highs during the day were in the 50s and the nights would drop to the 30s, but I had a warm sleeping bag and there was plenty of wood for fires in the early morning and evening when it was the coldest. Food would be minimal. Hot oatmeal with raisins in the morning; boil ramen noodles or rice in a package; some salami and cheese that I can pick up in a store on the way and which holds up well in the cold; eggs maybe; pita bread and peanut butter; salted almonds; trailmix and of course coffee and tea.
I must say that this is not what most people would consider a “retreat.” The term is usually reserved for spending a few prayerful days, maybe well-structured and organized for talks and reflection, within the ambience of some kind of religious group. I fully support such ventures, but this is not what this old coot needs at this time of his life! I prefer to spend a few days in the silence of John Muir’s “cathedral,” the Range of Light–or perhaps some would prefer to call it John Muir’s Zen garden!! I don’t recommend this to anyone unless you feel it within you, but it sure seems beneficial and important to include the elemental aspects of reality and not just sit in a room no matter the spiritual practices that enables. There are vistas that open up when you are exposed to the beauty and power of the elements. There is no fooling yourself or imagining some kind of spiritual realization–the elements require your attention in order to survive. Just the daily chores of staying warm, staying alive, etc. are quite a spiritual practice in this environment. And all around you is nothing but beauty and grandeur and manifestations of life in all its intricate interrelatedness. Needless to say what unfolds within you remains unsayable. The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao…….
So there I was, thriving for several days when everything changed. The weather turned threatening, dark clouds covered the sky. There was a drizzle, then a bit of rain. I am well-prepared for such circumstances with a neat tent and like I said a warm sleeping bag. I have been in quite a few rain storms and have fared well. In fact it was quite awesome to listen to the rain and the lightning and thunder resounding through the mountains and canyons. The only negative part is that cooking becomes impossible. It is too hazardous to bring the little stove into the tent, so as much as I would love a cup of hot tea, no go. Just wait out the storm. This is part of that elemental reality that I was speaking about. Everything, absolutely everything, speaks of and manifests Reality, Absolute Reality,…..but sometimes you can get a bit too much of it! Yup! The hail started to come….and it started to increase….and then it got really bad. It hailed like I have never ever experienced or seen. The ground all around me was covered with about four inches of hail. And the worst part…..it destroyed my tent. Just demolished it. I did not get hurt, but the tent was finished. And I was wet and cold. A recipe for getting very sick. As the hail all around me was melting, I found myself in a field of “goo.” Wow, what a predicament.
I knew that I had to get out of there or I could get very sick. Temps were dropping and I was very wet. With some help I got myself out of there and to a motel in Mammoth Lakes, about 40 miles away. In a warm room I could dry out and get a safe and warm night of sleep. I got a chance to wash my dirty stuff, muddy and all, get everything dried out, and head out in a new direction. In the not too distant past I had gone to Mt. Whitney and so I remembered there was this BLM campground right at the foot of Mt. Whitney. It is cheap, just $4 a night, in the desert, remote yet only a few miles from town, Lone Pine. So I got myself there the next day.
Now I was out in the desert and what a difference. Temps were in the 80s during the day and the 50s at night. No tent, so I slept under the stars. It was so exhilarating to be under this vast open sky–looking north and east and south I could see for miles and miles, not a tree anywhere, just the scrub sagebrush. Lying there at night I could look up at the stars and what a sight that was. One night I counted over 11 meteors. Then there was the awesome majestic wall of the Sierras rising right out of the earth directly west of me just a few miles away all the way to 14,000 feet with Mt. Whitney towering over all. And not a sound anywhere, just the whispers of a desert wind now and then. Yes, there were a couple of other campers there, old guys like me with their RVs but we were all spaced out quite far from each other. I felt like I knew how the Desert Fathers had experienced their desert life.
So this was a very different experience than I had planned but I made a new discovery. As much as I love the mountain forests of the High Sierras, I discovered how much I was missing in not going out into the desert. By the way, I found a very brief video on You Tube of the area where I was camping and here is the link:
(Or if this does not connect just go to You Tube and type in Tuttle Creek Campground Lone Pine)
Each environment has its own kind of impact on your heart and on the core of your being. I think this is an important consideration. I realize that there are many very good spiritual teachers in all of the great traditions who would minimize the place of the environment in the spiritual journey, or at least they would admit only the importance of certain human constructs, like a monastery, in considering the importance of the environment in one’s spiritual insight. There are others who would say that none of this has any real spiritual importance, that wherever your two feet are you can be holy and attain realization. Agreed, definitely I agree, and I respect all these views, but one has to walk the path that is right for oneself. And this exposure to the wilderness is a very important part of my own spiritual journey. And this explains why I have this special fondness for the ancient Chinese Taoist and Zen masters and hermits. I feel closer to them the more I learn about them.
The one book I was going to read on my “retreat” was Mountain Home: the Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China by David Hinton. Not knowing Chinese I can’t tell if Hinton is a good translator but the language seems solid and true. But what I liked most is the introductory material where he tries to explicate the Chinese spiritual way. Here is a sample:
“Originating in the early 5th century C.E. and stretching across two millennia, China’s tradition of rivers-and-mountains (shan-shui) poetry represents the earliest and most extensive literary engagement with wilderness in human history. Fundamentally different from writing that employs the ‘natural world’ as the stage or materials for human concerns, this poetry articulates a profound and spiritual sense of belonging to a wilderness of truly awesome dimensions. This is not wilderness in the superficial sense of ‘nature’ or ‘landscape,’ terms the Western cultural lens has generally applied to this most fundamental aspect of Chinese poetry. ‘Nature’ calls up a false dichotomy between human and nature, and ‘landscape’ suggests a picturesque realm seen from a spectator’s distance–but the Chinese wilderness is nothing less than a dynamic cosmology in which humans participate in the most fundamental way.”
And here he comments on a particular poem:
“What makes this poem archetypal is that it tells the story of this ‘first poet’ giving up the empty pursuit of professional ambition and returning home to the more spiritually fulfilling life of a recluse in the mountains. T’ao Ch’ien’s return to his farm became a legendary ideal that virtually all later poets and intellectuals revered, and the deeper reason for this is found in the final words of T’ao’s poem: ‘occurrence coming of itself.’ This term (tzu-jan) has traditionally been translated through the lens of Western cultural assumptions as ‘nature’ or ‘freedom, which reduces this to a kind of sweet pastoral poem, or perhaps a poem of romantic escapism. But this is neither escapism nor sentimental pastoralism: it is a poem about returning to a life in which the perpetual unfolding of Lao Tzu’s organic cosmology is the very texture of daily experience…. The vision of tzu-jan recognizes earth to be a boundless generative organism, and this vision gives rise to a very different experience of the world. Rather than the metaphysics of time and space, it knows the world as an all-emcompassing present, a constant burgeoning forth that includes everything we think of as past and future. It also allows no fundamental distinction between subjective and objective realms, for it includes all that we call mental, all that appears in the mind. And here lies the awesome sense of the sacred in this generative world: for each of the ten thousand things, consciousness among them, seems to be miraculously burgeoning forth from a kind of emptiness at its own heart, and at the same time it is always a burgeoning forth from the very heart of the Cosmos itself.”