©2001 Marie-Lynn Hammond
First published in Chatelaine, December 2001
The woman was on a quest. She had left her bustling village and travelled hundreds of miles (okay, kilometres, if you insist) to arrive at a white house at the foot of a mountain. Like countless travellers before her, she was seeking spiritual enlightenment. Unlike those pilgrims of yore, though, she had found this place through the Internet. She was also on a tight schedule. She had exactly three days to achieve inner peace.
That woman is me, and such are the contradictions of soul quests in the modern age. I was searching because I had come to a point in my life where I could no longer deal with suffering – not my own so much as the suffering of others, both human and animal. Not that this was anything new. When I was a kid, my family made fun of me for refusing to swat flies. As an adult, I found that the sight of a homeless woman could haunt me for weeks.
Then, in the space of 17 months, I watched my beloved mother and sister suffer and die from cancer and my father succumb to lung disease. My depression and grief went off the scale. I had to stop reading the papers, because so much of the news seemed to deal with tragedy and human depravity. Since the world was not going to change, however, I would have to find a way to deal with it.
I was still grieving deeply when the horrific events of September 11 and its aftermath unfolded, leaving me in shock. I no longer wanted to live on a planet where suffering seemed to be inflicted so casually, so randomly, so broadly. I considered suicide, but I knew my one remaining sister would be really upset if I abandoned her too.
Meanwhile, my doctor was threatening to put me on Prozac. No thanks, I thought; I’d seen too many friends do badly on anti-depressants. If I was going to modify my brain chemistry, and therefore my outlook on the world, I wanted a non-drug alternative. And about the only thing I hadn’t yet tried was spirituality.
Well, that’s not quite true. I’m what they call a recovering Catholic, which means my experience of the Church was less than sublime. Even though I later realized you could be spiritual without being religious, I had no further yearnings to contact the Divine, experience the White Light or hang out in heaven with the seraphim. Sure, the infinite cosmos and the creation of life were mysteries I couldn’t explain, but then so were a lot of things, like the popularity of monster trucks or why people kept voting for Jean Chretien.
But I was desperate, so I decided on a silent retreat: no telephones, no television, no radio, no e-mail, no talk – a kind of shock therapy for the soul. Unable to find any non-denominational retreat houses, I ended up at la Maison de prière, south of Montreal at the foot of Mont St-Hilaire. It was run by Catholic sisters, but I figured that might give me a chance to make peace with the Church.
My friends had laughed like maniacs when I told them what I was doing. “You, silent?” they hooted. Thinking of this while I rang the doorbell, I was a little annoyed. Yes, I’m a gabber and a raconteuse once you get me going. What my friends had forgotten, however, is that because I live alone and work at home, I often spend long periods incommunicado. Three days of silence? Piece of cake.
A sister came and unlocked the door. I stepped into a large, airy foyer, all cream walls and gleaming floors. It was quiet. Very quiet. “Bienvenue,” she whispered.
Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure. Did I really live without noise or conversation? On most days I made phone calls to clients, or I ran errands and chatted with store clerks. And, okay, I’ll admit it, I talked to my cats (though the conversations were disappointingly one-sided).
The good sister took me to my room, a tiny cubicle that was just shy of Spartan. I unpacked my bags and discovered that my clock had gone berserk, randomly losing time, and my bottled water had leaked in my knapsack onto my address book. The ink had run and all the telephone numbers were illegible. Aha, a sign! Time and space, my life as I knew it – friends, business contacts, my terrific new hair stylist, for god sake! – erased. Surely some momentous change was about to occur. Some of my middle-aged friends had returned to the churches and synagogues of their youth, and I envied them. Wouldn’t it be nice to have faith once more, to trust that there was a divine purpose to all the shit that happened on this earth?
A small notice on the desk reminded guests to maintain silence so as not to disturb the prayers of others. Outside, I’d seen discreet signs asking that, in order to preserve the peacefulness of the place, we also keep quiet on the entire property. Disciplined creature that I am – probably that early Catholic training – I did. In fact, when the sisters’ big tabby cat followed me deep into the woods one evening, I found myself whispering even to him.
Looking back, I realized my stay at la Maison was the longest three days of my life. But I mean that in a good way. It’s amazing how time stretches out when all there is to do is read, walk, ruminate, and pray – or, in my case, try to. La Maison held services several times a day in the chapel, beginning at 7:30 a.m. Mornings for me, an inveterate night owl, are a punishing fog that I grope through, but on my first full day I still made it for those early devotions. Clearly, a number of guests were sleeping in (the sin of sloth?) but I tried not to feel smug (the sin of pride). How strange it was to recite prayers I hadn’t said for thirty years. I tried not to focus on the content, but rather on the hypnotic repetition and soothing voices of the nuns. Still, I felt like an impostor.
Afterward, we gathered for breakfast in the refectory. Mealtimes were the hardest thing to get through without talking. I’m so used to meals as a social occasion, a chance to gossip with old friends or get to know new ones, that it seemed odd to sit beside strangers and break bread without saying a word. And yet, the anonymity was restful. I didn’t really want to trade my sad stories with others.
After breakfast, I found myself feeling sleepy. I felt sleepy a lot at la Maison, and took more naps in three days than I usually take in a year. I felt guilty about those naps – what’s a Catholic without guilt? But I also went to Mass. And then to mid-afternoon devotions. And then to vespers to say the rosary. I kept hoping I would suddenly believe once more. In other words, I wanted a miracle. Instead, in the sunlit chapel, I’d find myself drowsing. Again.
To shake off my stupor, I went for long walks. What was going on? Sure, some of my sleepiness was due to exhaustion – modern life does that. But maybe I was avoiding something – intimacy with myself or my soul. Did I even have a soul? Was there really a Great Being out there, or was life just a random collection of molecules bumping around in the void?
The woods around la Maison were lovely, all dense foliage and dappled shade. As I wandered and pondered, I realized I felt more at home in the forest than I did in the chapel. Perhaps, then, I was simply a pagan or a pantheist: God was Nature and Nature was God. Then I came across a pile of black feathers in the middle of the path. Some sharp-fanged beast had clearly eaten crow tartare for supper. Nature, I was forcefully reminded, was not just trees and rainbows and fuzzy critters. Nature was also earthquakes and e-coli and carnivores ripping other animals apart.
I felt gloomy again. To avoid the crow feathers, I took another path. According to Judeo-Christian tradition, I mused, suffering and evil came into the world as a result of the disobedience of Adam and Eve – but mostly because of Eve, the original bad girl. As if on cue, I looked up and saw the original good girl. Ahead of me, at the edge of a pond, stood a colourful plaster statue of the Virgin Mary. The blue of her irises had faded, though, so that her eyes looked entirely white, and the pink of her lips had been jaggedly applied. The crooked mouth and ghostly eyes made her look both peevish and demented. I giggled. As a young girl, I’d found the Holy Mother inspirational, but now all I could think was, well, if some angel came and said you were going to have a baby but you weren’t ever going to be allowed to have sex, wouldn’t you feel peevish and demented?
And then boom! – I had a revelation, but not the one I’d hoped for. Silly me – there was no way I could find solace in Catholicism or even Christianity. Yes, the gracious sisters here were a far cry from the oppressive nuns and priests of my childhood, but I would always be at odds with a patriarchal church that blamed the woes of the world on Eve and her daughters, and so abhorred sexuality that it had to turn the Earth Goddess of earlier religions into a bloodless virgin.
So I bade farewell to la Maison de prière and returned home rested but spiritually unfulfilled. A few days later, a poster for a Zen Buddhist temple caught my eye. At university I had been fascinated by Buddhism, and I’d recently read that Leonard Cohen, my favourite depressed songwriter, had just returned to the world angst-free after five years as a Buddhist monk. Maybe it could work for me.
The temple turned out to be right next door to a popular ice cream parlour I’d often visited. Funny how I’d never noticed it before. I was graciously invited in and tried to follow the service. At first it all looked suspiciously like church – altar, statue, candles, incense, priest (Sunim, the Korean monk who heads the temple), with chanting in place of hymns.
Eventually, differences manifested themselves. Sunim made us repeat after him the Six Right Livelihood Guidelines, as well as the Five Traditional Precepts and The Three Optional Contemporary Precepts of this branch of Buddhism. These included “Cherish all Life. Work for peace at many levels. Do not partake in the production and transactions of firearms or chemical poisons. Pay attention to the effects of the media you consume.” Whoa, I thought. Is this a religious philosophy, or a Greenpeace convention? Yet I was delighted – I believe in all those things. Who knows where I’d be now if I’d grown up with those tenets instead of “Passionately kissing a boy is a mortal sin and if you then die before going to confession you’ll burn in hell.” (No wonder I’m still single.)
My favourite of the Six Guidelines was a subset of Consume Mindfully: “Pause before buying and see if breathing is enough.” Brilliant! I could see my Visa bill shrinking before my eyes. Like most of us, I bought things I didn’t need because I was feeling insecure, blue, or empty. I had a sudden desire to run into Holt Renfrew and cry out to all those women brandishing platinum credit cards, “Stop, ladies, and BREATHE!”
Buddhism, you see, holds that all suffering derives from too much attachment to the material world. And yet, while the world won’t ultimately satisfy, it can be enjoyed in moderation. As if to illustrate this, Sunim grinned at the end of the service and said in his accented English, “Today, my birthday. You stay for cake. Then we go for ice cream – my favourite, Chunky Monkey!” I couldn’t believe I was hearing this from a man who looked like the very embodiment of the Buddha. And I certainly couldn’t imagine hearing these words at the end of a Catholic Mass.
Perhaps more importantly, though, instead of reciting prayers, we meditated. Even with my beginner’s concentration and limited experience, I could see the benefit of trying to still the swarm of troubling thoughts that my hyper brain constantly generates. I’d read that meditation decreased electrical activity in a certain part of the brain, resulting in a feeling of oneness with god or the universe. Perhaps if I could feel that, I’d be able to accept more easily those aspects of the world I currently couldn’t handle. I wanted to find out more.
As I was leaving, I noticed a flyer for some lectures by a Tibetan Buddhist nun who was raising funds to start a Buddhist nunnery. Tenzin Palmo had spent a dozen years in a cave in the Himalayas meditating twelve hours a day. Now that’s a retreat. But my inner cynic couldn’t help wondering – wouldn’t it be easy to be spiritual when you were cut off from all of life’s troublesome things? And how exactly did twelve years of meditation make the world a better place? Wouldn’t four have been sufficient, with the other eight spent, say, caring for lepers?
Still, I wanted to see the effect of all that meditating, so I went to hear her. Tiny, with that radiant face so many holy people seem to have – clearly she didn’t need Prozac – Tenzin Palmo spoke about how we are doomed to be reborn and suffer again and again until we let go of the material world and attain Nirvana. About how meditation shows us that everything we experience – anger, sadness, joy – is just an emanation of our minds, and that we don’t have to submerge our identities in those emotions. I found myself nodding.
Then I found myself nodding off. Oh-oh, I thought. What is it about religion that puts me to sleep? And yet even as I fought to stay awake, I felt envy again. This woman had stayed in her cave for twelve years, she said, because that was where she was happiest. I wished I’d had that kind of clear calling, not to mention twelve straight years of bliss. And then came my second revelation.
In fact, I’d had such a calling. It was a chance thing, a visit to a ranch when I was three. The grownups slung me up onto the back of a horse, just for a minute, but my tiny soul knew instantly that I’d found my cave. Ever since, I have felt mystically bound to horses. I can’t explain it, and I’m embarrassed to admit it, because it may sound sacrilegious or just plain silly.
Furthermore, I have a confession to make. I’ve sinned – a sin of omission, as Catholics would classify it. I’ve left out an important part of this story. You see, when I realized I was going to be near Montreal for my retreat, I called up a friend in the Laurentians. Mark has horses. Come and ride after the retreat, he said. So all the time I was trying to hear the voice of God, I was also eagerly anticipating the sound of hoof beats.
Under a clear blue sky Mark and I cantered through cool pine forests and fields starry with wildflowers. We didn’t talk much. The rhythmic thud of the horses’ hooves and the swish of their tails became our mantra. My mind began to quiet itself. Thoughts flowed in and out, but I didn’t cling to them. I seemed to become one with my mount, and therefore one with nature. And I certainly wasn’t nodding off – I felt more alive than ever. As if to test me, a hawk flew overhead. Instantly, I imagined it swooping down to grab a terrified squirrel. Normally, from there, my thoughts would have spiralled downward compulsively – from nature red in tooth and claw to my sister’s dying moments to the unspeakable things humans do to one another. Instead, I heard a voice in my head say, “This is the way the world is, at once terrible and beautiful. Live with it.” I exhaled, and the image of the hapless squirrel dissipated. I returned to the present – wild asters, the horses, the pure sky. Somehow, it seemed easy to do on horseback.
It wasn’t until I listened to the Buddhist nun, though, that I wondered if maybe my own spiritual path had been right under my nose (or under my buttocks, so to speak). Several years ago, I began to leave the city once or twice a week to ride. Although I live for those times, I never thought of them as qualifying as religious states – until now. Lately, though, friends have been sharing similar experiences. One is a cyclist, another works with clay. Both their passions involve a physical connection with the earth and rhythmic, hypnotic motions, be it of the bicycle wheel or the potter’s. They both used the word “meditative” and “transcendent” when describing what they love.
Yet according to Buddhism, we three aren’t as evolved as Tenzin Palmo because we’re still attached to things – horses, bicycles, art – and we may need to be reborn countless times before attaining enlightenment. If that’s the case, so be it. Still, I’ve decided to take a meditation course at the Zen temple, because I can’t ride a horse every day. If I can learn to access that inner place of oneness when I’m out of the saddle, if I can learn to accept more and obsess less, then maybe I can avoid that Prozac prescription.
Meanwhile, I’ve found a new bible, a beautiful book called She Flies Without Wings – How Horses Touch a Woman’s Soul. On every page, author Mary D. Midkiff validates my feelings about these animals. “The horse is my talisman and my guide, “ she writes. “We know we have found our own talisman when we touch an image or presence that lifts us out of our material world and carries us so high above it that we begin to see the threads that connect us to the rest of the universe.” To which I can only say, amen.