Wednesday, just after lunch, I leave the house with one bag and lots of questions. I hop three forms of transportation – BART to Millbrae, Caltrain to Mountain View, and Lightrail to Borregas Ave – to wander to Jay’s work at dystopian Google. He kindly loans me his car that I take up to Skyline Drive and into the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The road narrows to one lane, then tapers to rutted dirt. I recognize the signs; I’ve been here before. As the light fades, I arrive at The Vajrapani Retreat Center.
I startle one woman who has taken a vow of silence to find the receptionist who checks me into my humble lodgings on top of a forested hill. For two nights, my life will be cabin 6, spartanly furnished with single bed (not for couples), meditation cushions, picture of the Dalai Lama, two-burner gas cooktop, a camp toaster contraption that can activate the fire alarm, a few plates and bowls, and clanging gas heater.
After my hostess departs, wishing me a good stay, I panic. How will I fill the ensuing thirty hours without technology, projects, or reading material? In the dying light, I put on my hiking boots and hit the Peace Trail at a mindfully-slow plod, aware of each footfall. I surmise that perhaps my weak foot arches may cause a lot of my back and shoulder issues. Perhaps if I press harder on my instep when I land my foot? It is past dark on a lonely trail. The rains come. I worry that I will get lost.
The new rhythm of the day unfolds: leisurely dinner of reheated soup and salad, plainfully unspiced; 15-minute sessions of timed meditation in the cabin, either standing, on cushion, or in a chair; lots of hot tea of four varieties (black for the morning, green for lunch, peppermint and chamomile after dark); some stretching; bedtime by 9 or 10pm for a long sick sleep to the clanking radiator (I have a cold); rise at 8am; oatmeal and granola for breakfast; more meditation and a long bout of yoga; a short noon walk; pick up my meal bag with lunch and dinner from the main complex; a slow lunch; more meditation; a long hike until dark; more tea; repeat.
This trip, I saw more of the denizens of the other six cabins than my previous trip. We scurry out of each other’s way, trying to preserve the fantasy that we are the only ones in this post-apocalyptic world. One woman rudely says, “Good morning” to me. I glare back like a good buddhist.
I can’t figure out how to eat my meals without a dining table. I push over the nightstand away from the bed and eat sitting on the floor. The rains come my first night, breaking into sunshine for the rest of my stay. I’m constantly doing the shoes-on, shoes-off hopping dance getting into my cabin and from my cabin to adjoining porch with the outdoor sink. I realize that wherever I’m dropped, I quickly implement systems to create structure from chaos. Too many systems confine, but a few rules keep me happy.
For the afternoon of my only full day, I leave the compound and hike up Castle Rock State Park. I only see two people on my four-hour journey. I plan in advance to smoke some marijuana outside of the retreat center’s grounds. I have a glorious adventure, lost in my thoughts and the steady rhythm of my uphill plod. This is the land of Dudeks and dinosaurs: redwood trees, green moss, hill climbing, and the occasional meadow. Some trees are veritably cute, prompting laughter and amazement. I grow nostalgic by association of all the national park adventures I have had with Tom and Jason. I miss people. I come up with wild conclusions, like how I need to be both more rigid and at ease, more strong but flexible, not weak and brittle.
Perhaps a metaphor, there is no summit to Castle Rock. The trail ends at a chain barrier announcing private property. I pee on the private property. I retreat to a hill view to meditate for 15 minutes. Because I don’t normally do and Stephanie would be shocked, I sit later to watch the sun set beneath a copse of trees. I’m amazed at the brightness of the smallest sun sliver. Darkness pervades.
I soon realize that stoned may not be so compatible with a buddhist retreat center. I crave chocolate, fats, videos, and beer. I forage the best-available substitute out of yoghurt on granola, an incredible sour orange, and small wheels of cheese. I drink pots of tea and hot Emergen-C.
Jay warns me afterwards that two days is not long enough to calm my mind. Once he stayed an entire week. What did I learn, if anything? I did start looking through the rubble of my difficult year: two break-ups, and a lost job. No conclusions, none wanted, but at least an awareness of so many current conflicted feelings: anger, hope, regret, acceptance. I’m not yet ready for it, but I want to strive for empathy and forgiveness.
Most days, my body feels like a twisted piece of metal. My shoulders and hips are fused in odd ways that grind when I sit or walk. I can force parts open, but the energy is fleeting and painful. I’d like to sit better in the form I inhabit.
The sun rises late through the forest in the Santa Cruz mountains. I prepare my last breakfast and sit for a last meditation. I remove the mud from my boots, pack my bag, and wander down the Mala path to check out and then check in to the rest of my life.