Entering the Bloodstream

From the moment you enter the garden pathway until the time you depart, you should hold the host in most respectful esteem, in the spirit that the Gathering will occur but once in your lifetime.
— 15th Century Japanese Tea Master

When attending a Yoga & Zen retreat at Esalen Institute in Big Sur California, it seems the upwelling of gratitude and respectful esteem rise to the surface quickly like bubbles in a fast-moving stream.

Just like that stream, the five days of practice and community seem to flow by much faster that we would imagine. As students on this retreat, we practice noticing the beauty around us, we take the time to feel the body and breath, and we sit quietly for meditation. But even still, the first day moves into the last day.

I find myself sitting down to write today, and reflecting on the spirit of the gathering.

The Place

Esalen Institute is nestled into one of the most beautiful and magical sections of the Big Sur coastline. The mountains literally tumble into the wild and rocky shores of the Pacific Ocean. The Chinese say that there is much alchemy and possibility on the earth where the mountains and ocean meet. I can certainly feel that potency in this place, and I'm not the only one.

At one time in recent history, the local Esselen Indians revered these hot springs and treated this land as sacred. Now, we have been given the gift to visit the land as guests as its current caretakers offer a space for us to experience transformation individually and collectively.

It's easy to feel the power of this place as you gaze from the hot baths out over the Pacific Ocean. As you see the seemingly endless stars above in a dark sky. As the whales coast past many times a day. As the otters dive and float among the surf. In the soaring of birds, both large and small. In the flutter of Monarch wings on the warm currents of air. In the deep sound of water moving from the mountains to the sea, rushing past.

The Hosts

Tias Little and Henry Shukman guided us deeper and deeper into practice each day. We all felt the settling in that needed to happen: the shredding of stress, tension, the winter season, etc. As we got lighter, the laughter got louder and the conversations more intimate and real.

The topic for the retreat, Yoga & Zen: Entering the Blood Stream, offers us the teachings of Bodhidharma's Bloodstream Sermon C. 520 AD and the remembrance that the heart is the primary point by which we enter the bloodstream.

"This mind, through endless kalpas without beginning, has never varied. Is has never lived or died, appeared or disappeared, increased or decreased. It's not pure or impure, good or evil, past or future. It's not true or false. It's not male or female. It's like space. You can't possess it and you can't lose it. It's movements can't be blocked by mountains, rivers or rock walls.

If you think you can use the mind to find the way, you're deluded. Once you stop clinging and let things be, you'll be free even of birth and death. You'll be at peace wherever you are. Once you see your nature, you're a Buddha even if you work as a butcher. 

Our nature is the mind and our mind is the nature. This nature is the same as the mind of all Buddhas. Buddhas of the past and future only transmit the mind. Beyond the mind there is no Buddha anywhere. The sutras say, "Wherever you are there's a Buddha."

I get the feeling I'll be unpacking this sermon for quite some time.

The Spirit of Practice

Henry welcomed us on the first night by reading the following passage by Pico Iyer:

In an age of constant acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow.

In an age of constant distraction nothing is so luxurious as paying attention.

In an age of constant motion nothing is so urgent as sitting still.

Each day of this retreat offered a balance of movement and sitting. Starting very slow (as was invited by Henry's reading of Iyer's passage), lingering in the seemingly long 3.5 hour morning sessions and building to a strong finish and challenging asanas. Meditations both in the morning sessions and the afternoon sessions gave more time to feel The Pause that is inherent in this type of place and practice.

I am so grateful to have had this time to soak in the practice, the teachings, the laughter, and the lightness that came forth so effortlessly from Tias and Henry this trip.

The Spirit of the Gathering

I found myself not only deepening in relationship to the practices as the days went on, but also building relationships with the other participants. I recognized people from other courses with Tias (both in Santa Fe and at Esalen) and met new people. We laughed loud and long over our meals, shared thoughts and stories while in the baths, and sat together enjoying the view.

I found this gathering of practitioners to be quite nurturing, and it was interesting to watch how quickly and deeply the connections were forged. It made me realize the importance of sangha (community), and made me feel grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this community.

A big thank you to Tias, Henry, and all those who gathered in the heart and the bloodstream at Esalen this year.