Can a man get pearls by floating or swimming on the surface? He must dive deep.
Sri Ramakrishna, The Gospel of Ramakrishna
Silence and withdrawing for a period of time are an important part of Hinduism but I am one of the loudest, least solitary people I know. Don't get me wrong: I actually like being alone, at least, I think I do, but most of my working life I've spent in television news and, aside from a couple of years in my twenties, I've never lived completely alone. And the house I grew up in was loud: had three querulous brothers and we lived in a neighborhood filled with guys who never seemed to stop yelling, laughing or teasing. Now I live in a house with two boys and a husband, none of whom could be described as quiet. But I have liked being alone. The very first few words I put together on this project came when a girlfriend backed out of a cross-country skiing trip we were supposed to take together and, instead of canceling, I went alone. So, I figured it was time to see what a few days in the Vedanta Society's retreat house might be like.
With a letter from Swami Sarvadevananda, I got permission to go to the retreat center in Olema at the very end of January for four nights. It seemed like a good time to go, given that Luke’s and Matt’s finals were over and Kevin had just finished a project making that week a light one for him. Four nights meant I was going to have to keep my mouth shut from Tuesday dinner through Saturday at dawn. But it wasn’t just no talking: the rules of the center said no cell phone or computers either.
The retreat center confirmation also said to bring towels, linen, and all of my own food, that the kitchen was well-stocked with utensils and plates but “retreatants” were on our own for just about everything, including cleaning. So, on Tuesday morning, I dropped Luke and Matt off at school and drove six hours north through farmland and alongside the state’s endless aqueducts to Olema.
To get to the Vedanta women’s retreat center, you have turn onto a dirt road just outside the intersection that is Olema and follow it past the farmhouse that serves as the men’s retreat center, then through uncertainly fenced fields with muscular black cattle chewing in them. At the very end of the rutted road was a fairly new building built expressly for its purpose.
The kitchen was, indeed, well-stocked and cleaner than almost any kitchen I had ever seen. The open dining and living room had polished wooden tables, couches and armchairs and opened onto a wooden deck with a view of pastures bordered by trees. There were eight bedrooms off two short corridors, each opening directly to outside and a carpeted meditation room, Just off the kitchen, there was a small room for the caretaker – it was Noelle while I was there - who gave me keys to front door and as well as a “silence bead” to let the other women know that, even in the few hours we were allowed to talk (around dinner time), that I would be silent.
Not talking for eight-six hours is a lot easier if you’re in a beautiful place without cell phone service or internet or anyone you know. I brought nothing in with me except the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna,the puja kit Hemu had encouraged me to buy, the small handbook Swami Sarvadevananda had suggested – Worship of Sri Ramakrisha - and a journal, although I was determined not even to write in that. And I kept my meals simple: nuts, yogurt, some spinach salad, fruit, nothing that required major preparation.
Not talking wasn’t so bad; not doing was my problem. Watching the day flow by from a bench on a hill instead of being immersed in it was hard. I do so I don’t feel. I do to convince myself there is a point. I do to distract from the fact that doing isn’t the point but I have no idea what is. Days directed by sunlight, wrist stripped of its handcuff of time, were long, deliciously long when you stopped fighting them. When the to-do lists and the doubts came, I simply watched the storm clouds gather, the mental winds whip around and then pass. Thoreau and his sunlight kept coming to mind as I sat overlooking the valley, measuring time by the shadow’s spread from one tree trunk to another, by the layers of clothing needed to stay warm, by the herd of exotic deer’s slow climb from the valley into the hills just after dawn. The deer’s ancestors were left behind more than fifty years ago by men who planned to hunt them but now they overrun the place.
Comic relief: the first two mornings my wake up call was a gang of wild turkeys gobbling and complaining just outside my window as they scuttled across the grass at first light.
I tried to use the puja kit but its complexity, even with plenty of free time, even with the help of the step-by-step instructions in the Worship of Sri Ramakrishna, stumped me again although there was one revelation: in the directions for the daily ritual, devotees are directed to dip their fingers into purified water and then to draw a triangle inside a circle and then a square around both on the ground.
Sound familiar? It did to me. At home, I googled: “Alcoholics Anonymous symbol” and saw, on an AA-related website, the very same image (minus a square around the outside) and the following statement quoted from AA literature: “That we have chosen this particular symbol is perhaps no accident. The priests and seers of antiquity regarded the circle enclosing the triangle as a means of warding off spirits of evil, and A.A.'s circle and triangle of Recovery, Unity, and Service has certainly meant all of that to us and much more." I had forgotten, until seeing this image, Swami Sarvadevananda’s telling me that the founder of AA, Bill Wilson, had been a devotee of this particular form of Hinduism, at least for a while.
But most of the time, when I wasn’t wandering the grounds or trying to meditate, either inside the meditation room or outside on the bench on the hill, I read the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.
He sure was tough company. The Gospel is really more of a biography or journal written by one of Ramakrishna’s devotees under a single initial: “M.” What’s interesting about it is the degree to which “M” simply took notes rather than making a concerted effort to mythologize the man he came to believe was an actual incarnation of the Divine. It has a warts-and-all feel, a very human picture which, for me, made it all the more difficult to consider the idea that this man could be a “capital I” Incarnation. I mean, this was a man who shamelessly guilted some of his married followers into living away from their wives and children for months at a time; who was unschooled, perhaps close to illiterate, and who spent the first years of his adult life weeping at the feet of Kali, sometimes without clothes on, demanding that God actually appear before him, live and in person.
Who can measure up to that standard? Do I want to literally see God, if such a thing were possible? Sure, I’m driven to do whatever it is I am doing – I sometimes feel like a carcass and an intellect being dragged along by this drive of mine – but to weep for it? To stand naked in a temple and demand a Visit? To threaten to kill myself if God didn’t seem interested in complying? It isn’t just that my passion isn’t strong enough to follow Ramakrishna’s example, to disregard all inbred societal norms. If I’m very honest, I’m not so sure I would choose to see God even if I believed such a thing were possible.
In the Bhagavad Gita, the terrifying passage where God finally revealed just part of Itself to Arjuna, made me not so certain any of us really would choose to see the Divine if we could. That awe-filled description takes my breath away. I was clear on this point: at that moment I felt wholly incapable of even imagining myself ever having the courage required to have that kind of desire, that absolute and laser-beam faith. Alone, for days of silence with Ramakrishna, the mountain of faith felt too sheer, too high to climb, without better spiritual equipment than I had.
Perhaps it’s enough, in any given moment, to act on faith “indifferent to results, content with whatever happens.” Or take the actions of a faithful person just to find out something I might not learn otherwise.
When reading Ramakrishna got too much, I wandered around the woods, following overgrown paths wherever they led. At one point, so many branches had fallen, the path was impossible to follow. Clearing the ones I could move, I wondered if it was possible my purpose might be just that, to clear those branches on that particular day so that some modern day Ramakrishna might be able to find his or her way to their bodhi tree, to their epiphanous spot, and it was just my job to move those branches without ever knowing the effect. Could that be enough? Would it matter if it wasn’t?
By the time Saturday morning came, I was packed up in my ice-coated car, waiting for the caretaker down at the men’s retreat center to open the gate at seven in the morning, the moon still high in the early morning sky. I was going to meet Huston Smith. When I got to an area where my cell phone had reception, I was relieved to find no message canceling our visit.