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A Spiritual Retreat



Maybe your next vacation should be a journey inward.

On the path to the hot springs at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, I begin a kind of walking meditation, a continual awareness of what I am doing right now. Now I am crossing a footbridge to the baths, now I am taking off my flip-flops, now I am standing in front of an altar and reading the calligraphy: “With all beings/I wash body and mind/free from dust/pure and shining/within and without.”

“Guess my name,” says the little girl who shares the Japanese-style outdoor pool with me.

“Okay. Emma,” I say.

“Do you know her?” her mother asks, puzzled.

“No,” I say, “she just looks like an Emma.”

I’m not clairvoyant, but at retreat centers people converge in unexpected ways. Beyond the pool, past the sun-bleached sycamores on the far side of the creek, seven naked women in sun hats carefully wind their way upstream. There’s something mischievous about them as they wander in haphazard single file. I try to give them a context: Are they workshop participants hunting for wild mushrooms? Who knows? I think of the Zen notion of beginner’s mind, ready for anything, open to everything…and, silently, I thank Emma and the naked women for being here, for opening my mind.



In my mid-30s, I became an inveterate retreater. With two small kids, time to myself seemed a thing of the past. So I began to take week-long breaks, alone and seeking contemplation, at cabins, in farmhouses, on islands. Along the way, I discovered one retreat that offered me contemplation as a way of life shared by an entire community. Tassajara is the place I return to year after year.

Slowing way down is the first gift of Tassajara, and slow is the only way to drive the 14-mile dirt road that climbs through the Los Padres National Forest and over a 5,000-foot ridge of the Santa Lucia Mountains to the retreat. I stop and look down the steep descent through firs, sugar pines, tanbark oaks, and madrone into the canyon cut by Tassajara Creek. I exhale deeply, sloughing off my half-day drive south from San Francisco and a few layers of anxiety that have accumulated since my last visit here — the war and its threat to all of us with draft-age children, my divorce driving its way toward finality.

An open gate leads travelers to Tassajara, also known as Zenshin-ji (Zen Mind Temple), founded in 1966 by Japanese Soto Zen priest Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and the San Francisco Zen Center. The first Soto Zen monastery outside of Asia follows a traditional monastic schedule during the fall, winter, and early spring, then opens for guest season from late April through early September.

At Tassajara, where electricity is largely confined to the dining room and kitchen, cell phones don’t work, and a single public telephone is more trouble than it’s worth, guests are offered another way — the way of retreat. Here, the scheme of things is clear. One’s small place in it, uncomplicated.

Digital Zen Alarm Clocks and Timers, available in maple, walnut, bamboo, and black lacquer

Digital Zen Alarm Clocks and Timers, available in maple, walnut, bamboo, and black lacquer

Whether here or elsewhere, there are a number of ways to have a retreat. Retreats are times to turn inward, to quiet down, to let your own needs take precedence. At Tassajara, free from cars, buses, jobs, and family responsibilities, you simply bathe, eat, sleep, sit in meditation (or not, as you choose), swim, hike, read. You might venture to the massage kiosk to be kneaded, tapped, stretched, and unblocked. The day’s big excursion could be swimming some laps in the spring-fed creek-side pool, or hiking a mile downstream to a tumble of large boulders and small waterfalls you can ride down to the local swimming hole. Feeling more energetic, you might hike one of the trails — my favorite being up the mountain to the Wind Caves, where you can sit inside shallow, white-sand-floored pockets in the granite cliff face and behold the top of the world. You can return for the organic vegetarian meals, a cuisine pioneered by Tassajara’s Ed Brown and Annie Somerville, the chef of the Zen Center’s San Francisco restaurant, Greens.

Another way of visiting Tassajara is as a workshop participant. “Zen and Yoga” marks a turning point in my retreat life — a threshold to greater community, one that adds structure to my retreat time. With my daughter away at college and my teenage son spending every other week at his dad’s, I no longer crave alone time as I once did. Instead, I’m looking for ways to realign myself in relationship to others. In this context, retreat becomes an active verb.

My workshop takes place in the meditation hall, or zendo, where over the next three days we will examine how sitting meditation and the practice of yoga postures, or asanas, inform and enhance one another.  I have brought my Zen Meditation Timer to end my meditation.  It’s taught by Victoria Austin, a long-time Zen priest and yoga teacher who is also president of the San Francisco Zen Center. The afternoon we arrive, Victoria introduces us to the statue of a sitting Buddha that dominates the altar in the middle of the hall. When a fire destroyed the old zendo some years ago, the stone statue exploded into hundreds of pieces. Painstakingly reconstructed, the Buddha is almost exactly like the original, but not quite. “This Buddha is like practice itself,” Victoria reminds us. “You’re always putting yourself back together, each time a little differently.” I can relate to that; we all can. Practice reaches far beyond the yoga or meditation mat to include, ultimately, each moment of our waking lives.

Tea Room with Zen Clock and Timer

Tea Room with Zen Clock and Timer

After restorative yoga, dinner, and an evening plunge in the hot springs, I’m as relaxed as I’ve ever been, in a comfy bed in my roomy turn-of-the-century cabin, lulled to sleep by the sound of water tumbling over creek stones. I’m awakened before dawn by the boom of a mallet striking a wooden block, calling the entire community to meditate in the zendo. An hour of sitting sorely reminds me of all the muscles it takes to sit that long, that straight. After temple cleaning, my workshop group continues with asana practice, all 25 of us spread out over the zendo, assuming Mountain, Tree, and Triangle poses, the Warrior series, and all the standing poses to fully awaken.

Famished, at breakfast I have a hard time choosing between the offerings: polenta with fresh strawberries, kiwis, and bananas, and the pancakes with raspberry compote. I sit at a table in the dining hall overlooking the creek with three women stem-cell researchers from Stanford University, a woman running for county supervisor, and a Minnesota man who founded a successful marketing firm. Busy lives and type-A personalities are a common bond for many people attracted to retreats.

Later that day, I talk to the gregarious guy from Minnesota. “I’m usually shy and standoffish, judgmental,” he admits to me, “but I decided to pay attention yesterday during sharing time.” He pauses to let a little cynical emphasis grin through. “I felt completely drawn to each story; it made me want to engage with everyone here.” I found myself wishing I’d done that. “Funny what’s possible,” he says.

It’s been a day of intense physical work, experimenting with yoga poses that help strengthen our meditation posture and focus our attention. Lying still, during Savasana, our last pose, Victoria says to us, “Let sounds come to you rather than pulling in the sounds.” I drift in and out, aware of the sound of footsteps on the gravel path, of the squawk of the ubiquitous blue jays, but most of all of our sighing — an ongoing chorus vocalizing the deep pleasure of exertion and release, a natural by-product of the primary work we are doing: following our breath in and out.

The next night at Victoria’s dharma talk, she compares the monks’ winter practice at Tassajara to one long breathing in, or refreshing the practice, and the summer guest season to a long breathing out, or giving to the larger community. I resolve to work on that out-breath.



Afterward the low light of kerosene lanterns dimly illuminates the path back to my cabin. I stop to watch the new moon rising above steep black slopes.

It is summer solstice night. Looking deeper, into the bright and scattered stars, I feel as if I’m standing in a roofless cathedral, buttressed by the Santa Lucias, part of some great force tilted upward in praise. My body tingles from the demands of the day, fledgling upper-back muscles awakened, all my cells celebrating in active communion. Attention. I whisper the word to myself, like an ancient secret. I raise my arms to the new moon in thankful salutation, take a long breath in, and sigh it westward, down the path of the year’s longest day.

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Adapted from Body + Soul, April/May 2005

Posted in Bamboo Chime Clocks, Hot Springs, Japanese Inspired Zen Clocks, Meditation Tools, mindfulness practice, Now & Zen Alarm Clocks, Well-being, zen monks