As I walked through the gate to the Spirit Rock retreat compound recently, the stillness was palpable, like a wall of water. I fell into the embrace of a rain-soaked valley dotted with wild iris and red clover.
I had come to meditate and teach yoga for a week in the middle of an intensive two-month meditation retreat at this Buddhist sanctuary tucked back in the rural hills of Northern California. I was the third yoga teacher to teach a shift. For weeks before I arrived, the retreatants had been following the practices of awakening the mind and heart laid out by the Buddha 2,500 years ago: silence, long hours of formal sitting and walking meditation, and the cultivation of mindfulness in every daily activity.
The rain pelted us all week in sheets of water blown sideways by a driving wind. We walked slowly to and from the meditation hall, shoes squishing, umbrellas streaming and useless. Inside, candles glowed before the Buddha on the altar, and rain drummed on the dome of the roof.
Each day, we sat in the hall in silence for eight or nine hours, practicing the art of arriving in the present moment, again and again and again. Sometimes, my mind was blissfully still for, well, whole milliseconds at a time. At other times, meditation felt like being locked in a dark closet with a lunatic with a megaphone. Between periods of sitting, we paced slowly back and forth, noting the physical sensation of feet touching the ground, teaching ourselves there is really nowhere to go.
We ate in silence, too. Every bite was an explosion of flavor. Every afternoon, almost all my fellow meditators came to my yoga class. Their hips and backs, necks and shoulders, ached and throbbed from sitting on the meditation cushion. I led them slowly through the poses, guiding their sharpened awareness deep into their bodies to sense every level of skin and muscle, nerve and bone.
Their faces were naked. After over a month of intensive practice, they were walking around without their armor, almost without their skin. After weeks on retreat, their quality of sheer presence was contagious; I felt my own senses brightening, as if my inner windows were being cleaned.
I was almost five months pregnant at the time. As I sat in the meditation hall, sometimes I'd feel my baby flutter and kick below my navel. One afternoon, as I followed the sensations of breath moving in and out, I began to feel an opening and softening deep in my belly, as if a gate were opening in my diaphragm between the upper body and lower body. And suddenly, I could feel my uterus, sense its round contours deep in my belly. I felt it as waves of physical pleasure, a soft hum of delight. My womb was singing with joy at hosting a new life.
It had been singing like that all along, I realized--I had finally gotten quiet enough to hear it. Suddenly, I knew that if I really paid attention, I would hear my heart chiming in, announcing the pleasure of pumping blood, my kidneys chanting the joys of filtering fluids, my lungs murmuring the delights of drawing air in and out.
Consciousness lives in every cell of our body, the yogis tell us. Our inner organs have lives and feelings of their own. We tend to feel only the most obvious ones--our heart breaking, our belly shrinking with fear. But as we quiet our nattering minds and turn our attention inward, more subtle feelings can make themselves known. We may feel our liver grieving from years of abuse. We may feel our lungs delight at each breath of rain-washed air. Our organs speak their truth in every moment--as immediate, direct, and purely emotional as toddlers.
Sitting on my cushion, I flashed back to that terrible time last spring when my baby daughter, my first child, died inside me just before she was born. I remembered how my womb had grieved and wept for the child it had cradled and loved for nine long months; how my belly felt like a dark, empty cave, with a cold wind whistling through it. But sitting in the meditation hall that afternoon, in the soft embrace of the rain-soaked valley, my belly wasn't weeping. The sadness was there, of course, a steady underground current. But new life was bursting within it, like the green grass and flowers springing up in the rain, covering the burnt-gold hills. Every cell in my body was singing a song of welcome.