Happy Winter Solstice! Yesterday I led a Day of Mindfulness retreat with the Center Valley Mindfulness Community in Chimacum, WA, near Port Townsend, on the Olympic Peninsula. For the past five years I have been privileged to lead this Winter Solstice retreat in Chimicum. It has offered a wonderful way to counter the craziness and stress our current hyped up approach to mid-winter holiday festivities. We came together for six hours to sit and walk in silence, and to listen to the deeper stirrings of our bodies and hearts at this moment of primal pause in the earth's annual journey around the sun.
The theme of my dharma talk was “Paddling In the Dark”. The talk was inspired by an experience I had last summer on one of my kayaking meditation retreats in Alaska. I stole the title for this talk from my friend Gordon Peerman, who was part of that retreat, and who subsequently gave a powerful talk to his Insight Nashville group by that title on his return from Alaska last summer.
So I want to begin by telling a bit of Gordon' story. Gordon is an Episcopal Priest and psychotherapist in Nashville with a long-standing and deep dharma practice. For the last ten years, he and his wife Kathy Woods have led a thriving weekly insight meditation group in Nashville, something that has grown from a handful of people to an average of 150 participants each week.
Kathy developed breast cancer some years ago, and despite some periods of remission, it continued to grow in her body. As her cancer advanced, both she and Gordon have lived and taught fearlessly from the center of Kathy's dying experience. Late last July, her moment of death arrived. Almost to the end, she took her place beside Gordon at their weekly meditation gatherings, and spoke radiantly about the miracle of her awakening from within her dying process.
Gordon had hoped to come to Alaska with me last August for a special trip with a group of male colleagues. But the uncertain timing of Kathy's death forced him to cancel that trip. As it turned out, she died three weeks before that trip was to take place. 700 people filled the chapel at Vanderbilt University for her memorial service. Her last instructions to Gordon were for him to go on that trip to Alaska, bringing his 24 year old son Alex with him.
Gordon's mere presence on our kayaking retreat was a powerful teaching. He was fully in his grief during that time, of course. But he was also cracked open, filled with gratitude for Kathy's continuing presence with him, in a way that was stunning to behold. There was nothing indulgent about his living into that grief. He was just simply and fully in it, with his whole heart, even as he was radiantly present to the rest of us.
During our week together, we spent two nights camping on a wilderness island. Those nights out camping were unusually clear and calm for Southeast Alaska. It was a great opportunity to experience paddling through the phosphorescence, or bioluminescence, in the water, so I decided to lead the group on a late night paddle around the island.
As the warm glow of our campfire faded into the distance behind us, we entered a darkness that was filled with uncanny light. The Milky Was was fully deployed above us, and fully reflected in the calm immensity of the inland sea below us, so that it felt as if we were suspended in the middle of the stars, paddling through them. Then there was the phosphorescence. Light from the bioluminescence in the water exploded from each paddle stroke, and the wakes from our kayaks were made out of fire.
We paddled in silence, seeing only glimpses of the other boats in the darkness from the fire in our wakes. Each boat was assigned a number, and periodically I shouted out for everyone to stop, so that we could count off, so that we could confirm that everyone was still there, and still reasonably close together. The forested edge of the island was a looming, ghostly shape that was just enough to keep us on a vague course of circumnavigation. Otherwise, each stroke was an act of blind faith, moving into a darkness laced with nothing but stars above and stars below. And then the northern lights kicked in . . .
We were eventually guided back to our campsite by the fading embers of our campfire. As we pulled our kayaks back above the high tide line, Gordon later reported that his son Alex said, “Dad, that was the coolest thing I have ever done.”
On returning to Nashville, Gordon gave a talk at his first meditation group without Kathy being present. Her cushion was still laid out beside him, and he titled his talk “Paddling in the Dark”, and he told the story of our paddle that night as a metaphor not only for his own journey through grief, but as a metaphor for how our lives actually are.
The truth is that we don't ever really know where we are on our journey, and whether our personal journey will end today, tomorrow, or twenty years from now. We only know that it will end, surely and without a doubt. Our egos lead us into an endless war with that truth, and so we suffer. We suffer from our attempts to nail down our lives, to plan everything out into an illusory future that we think we can control. We suffer from our fruitless attempts to banish what we don't want from happening, and to hold on just as fruitlessly to what we merely want. The beginning of freedom happens when we recognize the fruitlessness of this battle against reality, and begin a new journey that accepts the necessity of letting go. Letting go of our need to control what we cannot control. Letting go of our need to know what is beyond knowing. Letting go of our need to always have things our own way, and opening instead simply to how things are in any given moment. What a relief! Yes, this takes bravery. We are left with nothing, strictly speaking, but our next paddle stroke in a darkness that only hints at the true shape and scope of our lives. But when we are truly able to let go in this way, and to trust that our next stroke will bring us where we need to go, a mysterious freedom and joy has room to emerge out of the apparent darkness of a life previously bound by fear and anxiety.
The winter solstice, with its literal leaning toward the dark, is a great time to remember how rich this darkness can be, and how important it is to our journey of awakening.
May we bring the fruitfulness of this darkness with us as the earth begins its turn back toward the season of returning light.