I participated in an unusual and powerful silent meditation retreat this past weekend. It was no different in structure from a retreat which alternates sitting and walking meditation over a period of designated days, in silence. For this retreat however, the walking periods would actually be in the form of hiking up Mt. Mansfield in Vermont.
The group met at a campground at the base of the mountain Friday evening, formed our community circle around a fire, and began a mutual container of silence. In the morning after breakfast and sitting together, we each began our hike up the mountain. Every 45 minutes we would each find a spot discreetly off trail and sit in meditation for the next 45 minutes. Individual, but connected. And so on. By the end of the day we each had found our way to the top and back, and continued the retreat at the campsite.
There was no question I was in the presence of an ‘apu’ during this retreat.
Apu is the name given to the spirit of the sacred mountains in Peru; the most powerful of all nature spirits, a form of God. One of the many definitions for this word found in Wikipedia is that an apu is a light being that exists within special mountains, spirits that live in both the middle and upper worlds, and can intercede for humanity. I felt the truth of this when visiting Peru three years ago, traveling from Cusco out into the Sacred Valley, experiencing one of these apus for the first time.
With peaks as high as 16,000 feet above sea level, they loom, reach out, and connect with the god like presence they are named for. They evoke the kind of awe that can linger and work magic.
It didn’t take long to connect with this apu that is the highest elevation at the top (4,393 feet above sea level) in all of Vermont. Our choice of trails were all ‘difficult’ by hiking standards. And this became evident soon enough as bold faces of stone began to greet us and ask to be climbed with much finesse. Conversely, the forest provided a sweetness of green and light filled protection during sitting meditation,
until the elevation was just too high for sustained growth, and we were led out onto broad expanses of ancient stone and the kind of silence and view that comes with seeing so clearly, such a broad section of the earth beyond and below.
Being in silence and in open attention to every sensation of this experience was exhilarating, even fun in the challenge of the climb. And inevitably, like the constant chatter of other hikers around me, there was lots of space to watch my ‘stuff’ come up and want to be heard too. The joy of the moments spent at the top quickly dissolved into the physical pain in my knees and legs on the descent. I had to move so slowly, while the rest of the world seemingly bounded past me with ease. The apu was now working on me. I had to find the place in me that could yield to the pain instead of expecting the mountain to yield for ‘me’.
The last of the sitting meditations took place surrounded by stone, completely exposed, with views to the layered beauty I was now part of.
There were long periods where I was the only human presence. And yet through it all, I felt the power and calm of this apu that simply is, this presence of support for helping me stay, simply, in the open attention I began with.
One of the leaders of the retreat brought his dog Olivia, small in size, but big in spirit like this apu. The reversal of the word ‘dog’ into ‘god’ was easy here. I couldn’t help but note that the dog in my life Nora would never be so easy or well behaved in this kind of context. This brought up another kind of pain for me, one that is attached to my thinking that Nora’s challenging behavior, when she is not being completely sweet, is somehow a reflection of me. That her sharp piercing bark, even while her whole body and wildly wagging tail is quivering in excitement, should somehow be silenced.
Olivia’s presence in the group was palpable and inspiring and I loved watching her freely roam one minute, and the next, settle serenely with her human.
Interestingly enough, like the dogs that roam freely all over Peru and make their connections to humans as they will. The last morning, I was honored by Olivia’s request to hop up into my lap just before we began meditation. Like the apu the day before, her steady presence allowed me to find the place in me that could yield to the pain around so many expectations in so many places in life and feel the fierce love that flows between me and Nora. It is what it is.
But maybe feeling love or pain doesn’t have to be fierce or not fierce. Maybe it too can just be what it is. I’m still integrating this bit of wisdom from the apus of this retreat….