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By Spring Washam, an excerpt from the Chapter “Meeting the Great Cheif Compassion,” in her book A Fierce Heart: Finding Strength, Courage, and Wisdom in Any Moment
A few years ago, I was completely exhausted from all the projects I was involved in, and I began to crave solitude. I have always felt that deep down I am secretly a nun and my yogini nature loves solitude. This time I planned a five-month retreat in Crestone, Colorado, an area at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, sacred to Native American communities.
I planned to spend the whole time at a Tibetan meditation center focusing on “purification practices”—prostrations, mantras, meditation, and visualizations. But after I’d been there for two months, a nun told me about a magical cabin way up in the mountains nearby, and I instantly knew I needed to spend the rest of my time on retreat there. I grew up in cities and am not that nature-ish, although I longed to be so; and this would be a real immersion in the natural world. So, despite snowstorms and freezing weather, up the mountain I went.
My cabin had a small solar panel, so I had a tiny fridge and lights for a couple of hours in the evening. There was a wood-burning stove, and when I got cold, I went out and got wood to make a fire. The caretaker brought food and water up every ten days, and I would meet him halfway up the rutty road. That was my only human contact. I decided against having a cell phone, and there was no Internet connectivity. I wanted to meditate like a true yogi. So there I was in this very isolated cabin, with an outhouse, a propane burner, a cushion, an altar, and a few Dharma books.
When I’d first heard about the cabin from the nun, I envisioned my retreat as a series of beautiful moments connecting with the Earth, with no one around to distract me. I imagined long periods of blissed out meditation. Setting up the space, though, I began to have second thoughts. Still, I encouraged myself, “Spring, you’re here! You know the Dharma; it’s time to rely on yourself. If times get hard, you can be your own refuge.” I thought the worst that could happen would be a feeling, that is that I would have to feel something. “Okay,” I thought, “I’ll feel whatever comes up. I can do this!”
But the moment the caretaker got in his truck and headed back down the hill, I instantly plummeted into the most painful sorrow I’ve ever known. Oceans of tears interrupted by overwhelming terror. Every day tears poured down my cheeks, my chest ached, and my body was filled with grief. I started sobbing in the morning and it went on for hours, in waves. It was huge and kept getting bigger; I didn’t understand where it was coming from. It was as though ten thousand years of ancestral sorrow was coming straight through my heart, and so I called it “African grief.” It consumed me physically, mentally, and spiritually for hours, a kind of purification. I had co-led several grief rituals led by my dear friend Sobonfu Somé, a healer, teacher, and shaman from Burkina Faso in West Africa. She’d describe this grief that was far beyond anyone’s control. She said that in her tradition, it’s critical to feel it completely and then let it go. While I was wailing, it would turn into gospel hymns, screaming for hours, and witnessing my body contort in unimaginable positions. I thought I was going crazy, but I began to try to trust the process.
In the evenings, as it got dark outside, terror would grip my heart and I’d shake uncontrollably. I was an African American woman completely alone in a place populated by rednecks, I thought. I was sure I’d be attacked and killed at any moment, ripped to shreds by wild animals or deranged rednecks.
I began marking off the days on a calendar, knowing that one day it would all come to an end. It was then I realized how much I needed compassion. I needed to care for myself through this, I needed to help myself. So I began to meditate on self-care and self-compassion for hours at a time, holding my hands on my heart. I began doing prostrations and bowing before my altar for hours, taking refuge in Quan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion. I began praying for compassion, I sang songs about compassion, and I chanted Om Mani Padme Hum, the great compassion mantra, constantly. I called in all the compassionate deities from Quan Yin to Mother Mary and everyone in between to help me meet this profound pain, realizing that without compassion, I would not be able to stay present with the powerful forces that were moving through me.
On the days I felt my compassion run out, I borrowed some from Green Tara. I would say, “Tara, please help me. I need some compassion. I’ve lost all of mine.” And it would come. Then I’d say, “Thank you, I feel restored.” I thought about all the people in that very moment meditating, going into churches and temples, praying and reflecting, all the monks and nuns all over the world, as well as all the laypeople. I knew that in some way I was connected to them, and that their practice and faith affect me. We’re all interconnected.
The only way I could get any sleep was to stuff pillows behind me. I would sink down into them and imagine they were the giant bosoms of Mother Earth. I would imagine these big black arms reaching around me as if I were being held in the arms of the Great Mother, and I discovered that you can evoke compassion, this great force, and it will protect you.
After a month of this intense experience, I could feel that I was freeing myself of ancient suffering and that’s when I recognized compassion as a great chief. He, She, They, It, whatever it is, when it showed up, it never left my side. With compassion, I was able to bear what felt unbearable. All I could do was feel the emotions and have faith that my heart was strong enough to take it. I thought about all the beings who throughout the ages had freed their minds through struggles. I thought of Dr. King and Harriet Tubman a lot, as well as Buddha and his great struggle with the demon Mara. I thought of Jesus and his forty days and forty nights in the desert, when they say he battled the devil, and all the nuns I’d read about.
When we’re purifying ourselves, when we’re letting go of ancestral sorrows, it doesn’t necessarily come with bliss and light. I had expected serenity and moments connecting to nature. I had imagined it would be all beauty. We want liberation; we want to be awakened. We want to understand the Four Noble Truths without feeling the suffering or anything else too difficult. But that’s not how it happens.
This solo retreat was the most intense unraveling I’ve ever experienced. It was a three-month vision quest, and on this journey it was as if I’d died and been reborn. I look back on it with amazement that I endured something that difficult by myself. But in fact I was never alone; the great chief of compassion was by my side every day. We don’t know what we’ll have to go through. Spending three months by myself in that tiny cabin, I developed an unshakeable faith. At the beginning, I thought, “The worst that could happen is feeling.” And wow, did I ever feel! Who knows where this stuff comes from? It was unwinding a sorrow so deep and a fear so entrenched that it felt it would break me at times. Without knowing it, I had prepared for years to be able to meet that experience and to begin to understand about the power of compassion.
About the Author
Spring Washam is a well-known meditation and dharma teacher based in Oakland, California. She is a founding member and core teacher at the East Bay Meditation Center located in downtown Oakland. She is the founder of Lotus Vine Journeys an organization that blends indigenous healing practices with Buddhist wisdom. She was trained by Jack Kornfield and has studied numerous meditation practices and Buddhist philosophy since 1997. She is a member of the Sprit Rock Teachers Council. In addition to being a teacher she is also a healer, facilitator, spiritual activist and writer. Spring is considered a pioneer in bringing mindfulness based healing practices into diverse communities. She has studied indigenous healing practices and shamanic practices for over a decade. She has practiced and studied under some of the most preeminent meditation masters in both the Theravada and Tibetan schools of Buddhism. She currently travels and teaches workshops, classes and retreats worldwide. www.springwasham.com