I was lost in the wild Arizona desert.
Two days prior I’d set out on an informal pilgrimage, leaving the relative safety of a retreat center, where I had so recently completed a three week solitary retreat. And here I was lost. What had I done?
It truly was wild, the road ended in a dry river gulch that could fill and flood from a drumbeat downpour or so I imagined. There was no habitation visible in any direction, but for the holes and rocks occupied by small but perhaps lethal living creatures. And the shade of night was drawing down, as the sun had already set.
A dry, huge and silent landscape surrounded me. It felt absolutely groundless—no thing known other than the bare earth that I could touch, acknowledge, seek comfort in, or say hello to.
Standing in that dry river gulch, I quaked in my sandals. This was definitely not Canyon de Chelly, where I’d thought I’d been headed in a rental car. There were similarities, such as sand, stubby desert grasses and plants, sparsely placed rocks and a vast desert sky unshielded by trees. But there was no enclosing, protective canyon, nor any signs of arriving home for a night, such as welcome signs, ranger huts, tents and RVs.
Uncomfortable stirrings in my gut had begun and grown as the road narrowed and turned from asphalt to dirt to sand and rocks. And the only road signs, hand drawn in large, irregular letters, pointed towards a Squaw Dance. I continued driving, ignoring those direct sensory messages, and blindly thinking this was just the secret, outback, and to me more adventuresome way to the Canyon. But this way went right into no-where, right into a stomach gripping, heart thumping, quaking no-where in the midst of that dry river gulch that could fill and flood.
The closest I’d ever come to this was going out back behind a cabin in the dark and stumbling around in nowhere. Here there wasn’t even a cabin, only vast, unknown, dark desert.
My mind raced along trying to grasp but it could not get a grip, my heart was in clutched shock, my guts could not hold on. Within moments of stopping the car in that gulch, I got out, raced away from the car, scratched out a hole and took a huge dump, while wondering how close a rattler or some other desert snake might be! T
his happened again in within the next fifteen minutes.
Fearful thoughts kept coming, building to a crescendo. “What if it rains? What if the rental car is flooded and carried away, taking all my belongings with it? What if I unwittingly step on a poisonous snake or spider? What if some Indian dude is spying on me right now, planning to come and get me? What if I cannot find the road, cannot get out of this river gulch? What have I done? Where am I? This is the fruition of a three week meditation retreat?”
Two days out of retreat and I have totally lost myself in desert wilderness.
The crescendo of thoughts kept building into a sharp peak. Suddenly, beyond that crested peak, space appeared. My racing, auto-pilot mind paused and I noticed that open gap. I stopped my mind ranting and raving, as my teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, had advised twenty years before. The thoughts stopped. The world did not come crashing or raining down.
In fact, there it was, right there, surrounding me in all directions. And there I was, on the earth, sensing, looking, listening, smelling, touching, moving, feeling. I felt the earth supporting me, giving me its ground. I felt the space surrounding me, offering its openness. And I felt present and whole in my cells, receiving the support, perceiving the space and radiant with relief and gratitude.
By then, night had arrived. The sky shone luminously with stars, with not a sign of rain, and the vista was unimpeded for miles in all directions. The warm, yet cooling, air caressed my face, arms, and legs sweetly and warmly. The silence rang brilliantly. The earth held me steadily and the still warm sand softly cradled my feet. The whole environment, or was it simply me, said yes, you can be here safely, without fear.
A clear and certain voice said be simple, be mindful, take care, look, listen, and feel your way.
I began to mindfully take care, feeling, looking and listening. I found food, water and meditation materials in the car. Then I prepared familia and kefir for dinner. I folded back the front seat, spread out my sleeping bag there, and brushed my teeth.
Before settling down to rest and hopefully sleep, I removed my bags from the car, placed them on the ground above the gulch, and covered them with a ground cloth. After all, things do change, clouds could move in. My last purposeful action was to practice, to meditate with gratitude and tender heart for my teacher and all those teachers who had taught me how to re-collect my mind when it loses its way so that it can return to its embodied home.
When I awakened in the middle of the night, I was still practicing, reciting the guru mantra I had fallen asleep with, continuing to tune the thread of sanity and open heart.
The next day was one filled with charm. I awakened early and refreshed, looked out on a clear, sunlit dawn. I went off walking, looking for the road and found it within a few minutes. I also found that the way to the road was easily navigable, with just a few rocks needing to be cleared.
Back to the car I went for my morning personal care routine, fresh clothes and breakfast. Cleaning up and closing up followed. Then, I cleared the rocks and got into the car.
The road came up easily, the car managed the sandy transition, and I headed back towards the conventionally known world. Within a few miles, a desert style, dusty gas station appeared and I obtained directions for Canyon de Chelly. I arrived within an hour and a half, in time for a guided tour through the marvels of the canyon.
As I walked through the few inches of water flowing through the stream-bed, its gentle, cool touch bathed my feet and fresh green growth on both sides of the stream waved towards me. The flesh pink canyon walls rose high above me, the vivid, daytime blue sky greeted my vision as it rose to the tops of those walls. And the soft whispers of ancient beings and present companions surrounded me.
Stopping my mind returned me to the simplicity of my embodied presence. Mindfulness-awareness and loving kindness practice had trained my attention so that I was able to see and feel that gap.
I stepped through that gap and there I was, delighting in this magical world.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise