Robert Frost said, “Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” But sometimes, like during a pandemic, a place that feels like home has to turn us away. So when I returned to Spirit Rock Meditation Center for the first full retreat since the start of the pandemic, it was more poignant, more tearful, and more joyous than any previous retreat I’d attended. It was a homecoming after a long and challenging journey for all.
And it reminded me of the first time I came to Spirit Rock back in 1994 with a meditation group I led. Little did I know that the land, the community, and the Buddhist teachings would instantly call to me, making me feel I’d come home. At the end of our little field trip, I turned to the group and said, change of plans: I need to be a student now. It was so clear to me that I needed to come to Spirit Rock regularly and practice with this sangha. To take refuge in the Buddha’s teachings, how brilliantly he organized insights so that when I had them they would no longer be random free-floating bits and pieces but interconnected and deeply rooted in a whole greater understanding. Coming home to the dharma. And coming home to the sangha, the community, I knew would always have room for me to grow within its open embrace, to find my own way, supported.
All these years later, when I turned into the Spirit Rock driveway, for the first time in years, the gate was open. How hard it had been during the pandemic to drive by and see the locked gate, to feel I couldn’t just pop into the bookstore, attend a class, or walk the land. And though I knew the reason, knew it was for the benefit of all beings, it broke my heart. As it surely broke the hearts of all those for whom Spirit Rock is a spiritual home. And of all those who valiantly maintained the Center, keeping it ready for our eventual return.
So my heart swelled and my eyes teared up as I pulled in and parked, just by happenstance, in a spot I parked in regularly for the better part of two decades as I attended, managed, and then occasionally substitute taught a weekly class. That was back before the beautiful community hall was built. Back before even the upper retreat center was built. Way back when all activity was in one large low-ceiling rather unappealing temporary structure that was full of so much powerful meditative energy and so many sweet memories. Now in the spot where it stood, the meadow reclaims its space.
Things change! Now the beautiful community hall has been converted into a temporary COVID testing station for the 94 retreat attendees and the retreat staff. Eventually, we all got our green ‘COVID negative’ wristbands so we were safe to enter the upper retreat area, sign up for our work meditations, put our luggage in our dorm rooms, and find our just-right spot in the meditation hall where every day of our retreat we would return again and again, learning how to be at home in our hearts, wherever we may be.
Now that I am back home, I see how I can integrate what I learned into my daily life. I bring with me all the moments of awe and delight, like watching up close the wild turkeys fanning and strutting for each other. And gazing into a raindrop clinging to a plum petal, how that tiny orb revealed a whole new world of wonder after the storm. How grateful I feel to be reminded that I have the capacity, we all have the capacity, for such attention.
I bring home with me the wise words shared as well as the embodied awareness of my own need for release and rest. And for silence! and the nourishment that comes with letting go of the need to communicate anything to anyone. I bring home the joy of having ceremonially relinquished my cell phone, along with the need to know what’s happening in the world beyond this moment in this place. I bring home the reminder of the possibility of days without decisions, planning, talking, reading, analyzing, or worrying. Days when a simple schedule and the ringing of bells guide transitions from sitting to eating to working to listening to walking to yoga to dining to bed. Finding my own rhythm to move through it all.
My neck and shoulders softened, shedding the weight of worry for the world as if it was ever mine to carry. And I gave in to sleep, deep deep sleep, nine hours a night, for nothing was required of me, except the simplest things: to show up, to sit, to eat, to move, and to wipe down some tables after breakfast.
Every moment was a gift, fleeting and wondrous. Sure, there were moments when my wonder took a more critical turn, but thoughts, we are reminded, are just like weather, occasional storms passing through.
It was a short retreat, only three nights, but full of riches that will sustain me for some time to come.
(If you have the opportunity to go on retreat, don’t hesitate! Spirit Rock is one of many retreat centers. You can find them listed at BuddhistInsightNetwork.org.)
But meanwhile, I’m wondering if perhaps we can heed the wisdom of many traditions that give a day off a week from worldly engagement. Beyond meditation and other self-care, maybe we can give ourselves time out from devices, from planning and decision-making to let ourselves simply wander in wonder, finding joy in simple things, or rest more deeply, relax more fully, dance more exuberantly, and release all the tight withholding that was keeping us from feeling fully at home in ourselves.
A portable home we carry in our heart wherever we wander so that we are never waiting, always being fully present, awake, aware, alive, and grateful.
That’s the best homecoming of all.