November 26 – December 3, 2012
While in Las Vegas I started eagerly planning a self-retreat. Maybe that’s what being in the big city, particularly Las Vegas, does to you. Maybe it was seeing Ajahn Brahm. Maybe after six weeks of travel I needed to completely stop and be silent for a while. I wanted to simplifying my life even further and I was overdue for a retreat. Practicing presence and letting go is a balm for the ills of human life.
Like a psychic compost pile, the accumulated leftover debris of the strains and demands of the last several years needed to be stirred up, turned over and exposed. My inner world craved room to ventilate and to be mixed with fresh perspectives, allowing the tensions, worries, and neuroses to decompose naturally into the fertile humus of human experience. Some parts of me still felt stale and dense, thick with the residue of stress. One purpose of this sabbatical is to restore and stabilize deep levels of ease, open-heartedness and clarity. The most efficient method for this profound reconnection is silent meditation retreats. A retreat now might help kick-start my sluggish inner process toward transformation and deepen my future sabbatical experience.
Looking online for retreat cabins in Arizona or New Mexico, I found possibilities but nothing that was suitable. Then during our first night in Arizona, I casually flipped through our brand new copy of Hot Spring and Hot Pools of the Southwest. I didn’t want to miss any good hot springs here like we had in Nevada. One entry jumped out at me, a springs called “Dechen Ling”. I immediately recognize the name as Tibetan. Reading on I discovered it is a retreat cabin west of Phoenix with its own outdoor hot springs tub. Ah, this is the place for me!
I arranged to spend a week there after Thanksgiving.
From Sedona we chose the longer more scenic route to the tiny town of Tonopah, where Dechen Ling is located. The drive was both more beautiful and slower than we expected. Our 2-dimensional map belied the great changes in elevation and the serpentine course we would encounter. Indeed, it was an exceptionally 3-dimensional experience.
After passing through Cottonwood the road quickly began climbing the mountain range as if it were aiming for the peak rather than the pass. Switchbacks and hairpin turns kept Chris busy at the steering wheel. The old mining town of Jerome appeared, precariously perched on the steep slopes of Woodchute Mountain. The buildings dangled over the edge on stilts and the road’s shoulders fell away into a great void below. Coming from California, where earthquakes and landslides are common, this town looked vulnerable to a host of catastrophes.
As we zig-zagged through town, we passed cafes and restaurants, art galleries and gift shops terracing up the mountainside. Tourists sat sipping coffee and enjoying the unparalleled views. We had a destination to reach before dark so we didn’t stop even though we would have liked to explore this unusual village.
The 150 mile drive felt more like a thousand miles, partly because we traversed so many different landscapes. From red rock country, across Verde Valley then over the mountains above Jerome, descending into a long valley, climbing again to the forests and hills of Prescott and eventually entering the Sonoran desert with its stately Saguaro cactus standing at attention, welcoming us.
We arrived in Tonapah at about dusk and met with one of the owners. We checked out the facility to make sure it fit the bill and were satisfied. He invited us to join him in a long hot soak in the large elephant-foot bath tubs. The owners are naturists and feel strongly that you shouldn’t disrespect the natural spring waters by wearing clothing. There is a public hot springs next door which they bought, developed and operated but sold a few years ago. Chris and I had been there is 2001 when on our previous sabbatical.
We spent the night parked a few miles away on BLM land. I planned to start the retreat the following morning. Chris had the week to explore the area on his own. Although we had been getting along well, having some time apart after total togetherness seemed like a good idea.
The retreat cabin sat at the back end of the property and abutted the open desert. Between the cabin and the street were a labyrinth, a hot tub area, the owner’s home and a small rental house. The cabin was pleasant, small and clean. The far wall was set up as an altar with tangkas, buddhas and related meditation equipment. A fold-up futon sat to one side. The opposite end had a kitchenette and toilet area. In another building was a shower as well as washer and dryer.
This is the Sonoran desert. It is a flat plain scattered with saguaro cactus, low shrubs and occasional small trees; distant mountains can be seen in several directions. The sky was a colossal blue bowl arching overhead down to the encircling horizon.
My first evening I was treated to a spectacular sunset, in pinks and purples, stretching across the entire dome of the sky. I walked into the desert and twirled in circles to take it all in. The full moon rose, gradually lighting up the desert. During my second night, I took a midnight hot soak under the glow of the moon and the shimmering of stars.
The weather was truly pleasant, neither too cold nor too hot.
I spent my days going back and forth between the cabin and the private hot springs area and made occasional forays into the desert. Each morning I started outdoors, practicing qi gong and meditation with the rising sun. Any night-time chill in the air was quickly vanquished by the rays of light. Before lunch I practice yoga on the outdoor rug adjacent to the hot springs tub. Both indoor and outdoor sitting meditations were sprinkled into my schedule throughout the day. I also read, wrote, ate, soaked, wandered.
Mornings also included an 11-direction ceremony. This ceremony combines setting intentions, offering gratitude, opening to a world of natural benefactors and consciously connecting with the surrounding environment. It can be done quickly or expansively, spending thoughtful time with each direction. I first learned this ritual many years ago when working with John Milton and Sacred Passage. It was an important part of my month-long solos in the wilderness.
Birds flittered in the tops of the low trees. Small lizards scurried on the ground, stopping suddenly to do a few push-ups, as if daring some predator to catch them, and then ran for cover. Gambel Quails, sleeker cousins of the California Quail, rushed to and fro, squawking, chirping and making their 3-part “Chi-ca-go” call.
I watched the birds above as I soaked in the outdoor tub. Most of them I could not easily identify as they were nondescript grays and browns. There were a few woodpeckers dressed in black and white with red on their heads. This describes many woodpecker species so I was not sure which ones they were. I did identify a Gila Woodpecker. Phoenix is the northern end of their range. Mourning doves periodically mourned. I saw what looked like a phoebe – but not quite – then identified it as a Black Phoebe rather than the Eastern Phoebe I am familiar with.
One mid-day after yoga, I must have been doing a convincing corpse pose because a large hawk appeared flying low, circling above me over and over again. I guessed that the big bird spotted me with its keen eyes and came by to check me out. Although this was not a vulture who specializes in dead meat, it may have been interested in an easy morsel.
I love being a hermit for awhile.