My long awaited silent hippie retreat began the evening of January 25th, Robbie Burns day! This day is stitched into my heart as Bev Hughs worked tirelessly to stage a Burns dinner each year that included performances by her highland dancers and a traditional haggis feast with all the fixings. One year Bev’s brother play the bagpipes for us as we danced in our plaid kilts. My favorite dance was The Highland Sword because I didn’t have to smile, I could look down at my feet and concentrate on stepping over and through the dull blades as I jumped and turned around the crossed metal pieces. I could never compete with my school friend Angela. She held herself straight and confident and had a natural smile that lit up the stage and accentuated her instinctual talent for dance.
As the retreat groupies settled ourselves into the spacious cabin at Banner Mountain Lodge in Smithers, we made our introductions. An intriguing gentleman in his white dress shirt and slacks named Ian was instantly the story teller of the group telling me that my small town of Burns Lake was named after Robbie Burns. I nodded and smiled. (According to Barney Mulvany Burns Lake was originally named “Burnt Lake” by the Borland expedition in the 1800’s due to a huge forest fire that covered the area. Kerry Guenter believes that our town was named after Michael Byrnes, a surveyor for the Collins Overland Telegraph as shown on an 1866 map. Kerry does mention Robert Borland renaming the area “Burnt Lake” in 1869. The name that we now use as “Burns Lake” has been labelled on maps since 1876. Who knew?) David in his khaki’s had flown in from Edmonton that morning and told us of meeting the Burns Lake Clovis family who took him immediately under their wing and helped him find his way. He was interested that I was connected to the Clovis family by sharing a birthday with her younger sister Maria. With our tummies rumbling we all headed to the main hall for dinner where Migon and I sat with a couple of ladies who had flown in from Vancouver. In our prattle I realized that Shannon was the cousin of my best friend Susie. Burns Lake was indeed famous, but not for Robbie Burns, Burns Lake is famous for it’s compassion, long time kindred spirits, and a deep understanding of family.
As we all fell into silence I expected to feel a magical connection of unity with like-minded people. As I struggled to let down my guard, open my mind and allow this connection in, I was deafened by the amplification of life. The scuffing sound of each footstep as well-worn burnt yellow leather slippers decorated with black fur and intricate beading touched the laminate floor, the hum of the furnace, spoons clinking and chiming against white china mugs, knives hitting wooden cutting boards with a loud clunk, clunk, clunk, paper bags being unfolded, and plastic wrap crinkled loudly as it was removed from the microgreens.
I was able to quiet the sounds around me during our early morning meditation. I was instead overwhelmed with the sound of my own life. The blood rushing to the tips of my fingers and back again with each heart beat, the cracking of my neck deep inside my ears, the ringing buzz of silence, the minuscule readjustment of my crossed legs on the tiny round pillow that cracked my toe in a room exploding sound that made me want to hide inside my skin.
As the light came up behind our meditation teacher who was stationed under the enormous windows that disappeared with the colors in the distance, I simply take in what I see, without thought. The grey sky turning blue as the sun rises and shows a tiny color of peach along the top of a low lying cloud that sat between and behind the dark grey mountains as the snow on their peaks brighten. A moving river of selective grey shadows change the evergreens to incandescence shades of color as the light moves in a pretentious display though the layers of tree species to reach us. Grey leafless aspen turn brown, deep forest green spruce shimmer silver highlights as the wind shifts a branch, the small avocado green pine under the window stand guard at the border of the unbroken crystal white snow that lies through the yellow sleeping husks of the cattails. I am not thinking about how I have failed the meditation by watching the sun come up. In my concentration there is no room for personal judgment.
Our silent breakfast is announced by the beautiful tone of a Chinese gong, once, twice, three times. Earthy dark granola with almonds and seeds topped with tart plain yogurt and a soft white banana that awaits us as we all stare quietly at our meals. Savoring each bite, once, twice, three times. We make our way on padded ankle high blue slippers with tiny white v-shaped accents that happily remind me of Sully from Monsters Inc. to the kitchen sink and silently wait our turn to wash our dishes and put them away. The water running and splashing over bubbles, the tinkle of silverware against plastic organizers and the thud of drawers being closed as we dance in and out of each other accomplishing a singular task as one intertwined creature.
Our free time has us all opening our blank paged journals on tables and laps. The loud cracking of the gold bindings on the fancy embossed books and the scratch of a red satin bookmark being removed from it’s page to let hang from the book core where it is glued. The tip, tap, scratch of the pen as it writes, following the sound of the wrist as it brushes over the paper…tip, tap, scratch, flip…tip, tap, scratch. The tepid inhale of breath through pursed lips as hot coffee hits the tongue and a gargle of air follows the flow down the throat. It’s like being underwater in a busy pool surrounded by the muffled sounds of movement. Physical manifestations of thought, without a voice.
It hits me like a brick wall is that silence isn’t silent. A silent group of people is not connected in any true way other than the simple mechanics of accomplishing the same task. In actuality silence is a very loud disconnect to the people around you. Every noise a drum call to your inability to be silent. Most shocking to me is the lack of emotion. Silence is wonderful in it’s lack of judgment, anger, and hurt, but it is also solemnly lacking in joy and friendship. I miss Mig’s eyes as we laugh at something silly…I miss laughing so hard our sides hurt and we snort as we try desperately to catch our breath. We are so good at brainstorming on a spiritual level that we can finish each others thoughts all the while we are solving world issues. Migon has always been real for me. There is a non-judgment from her on a level that goes beyond spirit, beyond words, but without those words we are separate individuals, not two people as one. Susie and I are like this too but we tend to talk over each other, talking and listening at the same time, never missing one word or diminishing one important thought…like our spirits are collaborating in another dimension.
My sore back was the catalyst that took me silently outside. The majestic beauty of the property was the best part of the weekend. One tiny finch in a group of little birds that broke loose a single seed from the tree, the seed falling silently to the crust of snow and bouncing along the surface, pushed by the wind, until settling in the crevice at the base of a tree. Two long oval shapes tied together by a small center circle in the snow from the foot prints of a white jack rabbit that had hopped over the bank and onto the road, the prints of the tri-colored border collie called Erin following after it kept me company with their silent story. The tiny train track prints of a brown shrew scuttling over the bank in search of food seemed to leap from the top of the bank and continue 2 inches down to dart and change direction fluidly. Upon careful inspection the little shrew had not leapt from the tallest point in his travel but instead tunneled under the snow leaving a perfect round hole completely obliterating the tiny body until he chose to surface again. All this was observed in silence without internal dialogue. A simple concentration that is felt with wonder and appreciation without distracting words. I am skilled at this.
I could sit on the steep bank of Tchesinkut Lake and shut out the world with only the sound of the water tapping the tiny stones against each other gently and rhythmically. I could watch without patience or impatience at how the sun dried the warm surface of a pebble before the cold water could reach back and cover it again. A tiny perfectly clear wave along the edge of the seemingly still and very dark abyss under the sparkle of the sun’s reflection, that pulled and pushed constantly and silently.
I’m glad I went. I learned that for me, silence is neither healing nor happy, silence is not even silent, words create bonds, and laughter is uniformly non-judgmental. Meditation is healing but found in so many forms that it isn’t simply a matter of learning to sit still and clear your mind. The foundational key to self awareness lies in the details. The sights, sounds, and stories of nature and loosing your self in it is the only healing I need.