It was a birthday present to myself, to go beyond my mind’s limitations. To dive into the emptiness and come up with new possibilities for my life. This is what I needed, and felt ready for the unknown.
The hermitage was located halfway up a narrow path in the mountains north of Taos, New Mexico. A small cabin, poorly insulated against the cold, away from the rest of the world, would be my home for the next eight days. All my food and water were carried up to the cabin with the help of a friend. I would see no one, talk to no one, and have only my own thoughts and feelings.
The hermitage was part of the Lama Foundation, a spiritual community. Connected to this center were; Baba Ram Das, the former Harvard professor, who experimented with LSD and wrote the book Be Here Now; Murshid Samuel Lewis, also known as Sufi Sam was the founder of Dances of Universal Peace; the author Thomas Keating, and many others. Promoting truth, beauty, community, and creating a better world, it seemed like a good place to have my first solo retreat.
It was a simple idea, meditate, relax, walk, eat, write, listen to music, read, and see what happens. My birthday being the middle of December, and this being in the Rocky Mountains, meant it would be cold with lots of snow. The first challenge was an old wood stove. No matter how carefully I build a fire and loaded the stove, it would only produce heat for about four hours.
The first days I tried different variations of sleeping, feeding the stove, and being awake. With no real success, I finally decided to sleep during the day when the penetrating New Mexico sun would keep me and the cabin from freezing. It was a creative solution that worked except for the mice. These tiny creatures lived in the walls and roof and would scratch away for hours. It was very annoying. What a great opportunity for looking at my anger. We eventually came to an agreement.
In my desire for silence, I discovered how listening to the mantra music I brought was a distraction. It was the same when reading a book. In both cases, I noticed how these innocent activities took me outside of myself. I put both away.
On day three I took a short walk in the knee-high snow partway up the mountain to a healing tree. Over the years, people had tied and left objects with the tree as an offering to help in healing. A loving idea, but again it was a distraction. I needed to create my own world. The next day I headed up to the highest point on the trail. Covered with a fresh thick layer of snow, it was an effort in some parts to keep going up. New Mexico has an extreme amount of sunshine and being high up, it is also intense. After more than two hours I came facing a huge proud tree. To me, it was a grandfather tree. I found a flat rock where the snow had already melted and made myself comfortable. I began to meditate. Nothing fancy. Just sitting still, noticing my breath, feeling the sun warm me, and opening myself for life.
Surrounded by beautiful snow-covered mountain peaks, tall evergreens, and next to the grandfather tree was a remarkable place to empty myself. With the strong sun, I removed all my clothes and felt absorbed by nature. I laughed. I cried. I soaked in the warmth. The sense of time disappeared. I did notice the sun burning on the top of my head and grabbed something from my pile of clothes and put it on top of my head to protect against getting sunburned. I took a selfie while enjoying this remote meditation spot. As the sun got lower in the sky and it was time to return. I got dressed, walked back down the trail.
On day five, I had run out of things to do, and in a moment of boredom, I wrote a letter to my dad. I wrote about the things I wanted growing up and did not get. I also included the things he did I appreciated. It was a deep and moving experience. The last days on the mountain were quiet and relaxed.
A friend met me at the end of my stay and drove me back to Santa Fe. Still feeling strongly connected to the little cabin I sat the two hours mostly in silence. The first week back, I felt disconnected from work, people, and worldly concerns. Friends me gave me the space to adjust. I felt loved, understood, and respected. A beautiful and unexpected gift. I typed the letter to my dad into my computer, did a little editing, and sent it to him. All fourteen pages. It began a multi-year healing process.
Life has a way of surprising us, and surprisingly, we can prepare for surprises. What I mean is, we can live our lives in such a way we invite more loving, healing, and inspiring experiences. Going to a mountain cabin away from all the normal stuff of life is one way to prepare to be surprised.
In the eighties, we used cassette tapes, computers remained on our desks, and cameras used film that needed to be developed, so it was some weeks later I finished that roll of film which included my retreat. The following week when I got the prints, I had a huge laugh. In the selfie I took under the grandfather tree, I was wearing my underwear on my head to protect against the burning rays of the sun.
Everyone can benefit from alone time. It gives the space for personal reflection, for healing, for preparing for the new challenges in life. Not everyone is ready to confront their greatest strengths and fears. Facing these strong emotions is necessary for spiritual transformation.
Link to hermitages at Lama Foundation: https://www.lamafoundation.org/ways-to-be-here/hermit/ (these are new buildings as the original cabin I stayed in was destroyed in a forest fire)
Photo of a similar stove to the beast I had in my cabin.