Canyon de Chelly
In mid-September 2016 I attended a ten-day Buddhist meditation retreat in Canyon de Chelly in northeastern Arizona.
PLACE. Canyon de Chelly National Monument was established in 1931 as part of the National Park Service. Located in northeastern Arizona, it is entirely owned by the Navajo Tribal Trust of the Navajo Nation. It is the only National Park Service unit that is owned and cooperatively managed in this manner. The land of Canyon de Chelly National Monument is one of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes of North America. The ruins of early indigenous tribes, including the Ancient Pueblo (aka Anasazi) and Navajo people are remarkably preserved to this day. Cliff dwellings, with kivas, pictographs, and petroglyphs, hold mysteries, which archeologists and visitors have tried to interpret.
We hiked in from the rim of the canyon and descended approximately 1,000 feet on a horse trail. There were no big drop offs, but the trail included a long rocky decline. It was hard on knees and other joints, and for the first time I used hiking poles. From the canyon rim to our first campsite was about 3 miles.There were several creek crossings on the route, but it has been so hot and dry that the creek beds did not contain water, even following two rains. We stayed at one site for the entire time, at the base of Spider Rock (pictured above and below from the site of my tent), taking both day and night hikes. Our hike out was long and arduous, and included ascending back to the rim of the canyons on a steep switchback sheep trail.
PEOPLE. Thirty-six people were involved with the retreat: four planners, 25 participants, two teachers, and four Navajo guides who remained with us the whole time. Students gathered from all over the country, mostly students of Anam Thubten Rinpoche, a Tibetan teacher who lives in Point Richmond, CA. A few of us belong to Mangala Shri Bhuti (my sangha) and regularly attend teachings with Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel, who lives in Crestone, CO. I had many poignant encounters with people, including Perry and Irene two of our Navajo guides. They have been partners for 20 years, though not married. I told them about how David and I had lived together for 23 years before we decided to get married. The three of us laughed, and Irene said that maybe they, too, would get married at some point. Although we were all urged to maintain silence during the retreat, this was hard, mainly because we wanted to talk with one another.
SCHEDULE. We were awakened each day by a drummer at 6:30 AM. Then at 7 AM we begin the first practice of the day, called the “white feast.” One of our teachers, Elizabeth, talked from 9:30-10:30 each day. Then at noon we did a “variegated feast.” Our one prepared meal was lunch, served at 2 PM each day. I had brought with me enough food for other meals, and was also able to share jerky and soups that I had made. Our other teacher, Anam Thubten, talked from 4-5 PM each day. Following that we would do the “red feast” practice. Following another break for our own practice, there would be an evening “feast” (small meal of nuts, dried fruit, crackers, etc.) at 6:30 PM. I organized and helped prepare and serve this small meal, which was followed by the black feast at 8 PM. Most evenings we took night hikes: we would settle in a grove of trees or meadow or on a big rock in order to do our meditation practice. In general we chanted in Tibetan as a group, but later we were practicing on our own, and during that time I read the liturgy in English.
CRITTERS: Early in the retreat I started a list of all the animals and insects I saw: many ravens, small lizards about 4 inches or 5 inches, dragonflies, and lots of different kinds of butterflies. I recognized Vanessas and Monarchs, and a small black butterfly with white and yellow stripes. There were hummingbirds and other birds, including chickadees, sparrows, and a few jays. I saw flocks of turkeys a couple of times, and knew from studying the pictographs that they have lived in the Canyon for thousands of years. We saw many wild horses in small groups up to ten throughout the canyon—beautiful colors, spotted pintos, and grand stallions running with their tails up. We heard coyotes, though I didn't see them. A ground squirrel stole the lid from my jetboil stove, which turned out to be so funny. I had just boiled water, which I did daily, placed the lid on a small rock, and returned with the water to the front of my tent. The squirrel then peeked around the side of the tent at me and scampered away with the lid!
GENERAL. Our outer conditions were primitive: no running water, a pit toilet, everyone staying in their own tent and cooking most of their food with supplies they had brought. For the teachings we sat on the ground in the dust and dung. Eventually we put tarps on top of the dung and dust. Some smart people brought camp chairs, but I did not have room in the duffle bag I brought. Mostly I sat on the ground with a small pillow for support.
My tent was set up at the base of Spider Rock. Though my new sleeping pad and sleeping bag were comfortable, I was quite restless at night due to my allergies, plus the noises of my small borrowed tent. The days, however, tended to be restful. To my west a short distance away was Tina, to the east Michael (both part of my sangha), and we formed a little neighborhood, along with Gary whom I had not met before. A dear friend and former caregiver for David was Chris, whom I spoke with daily. He is nearly the only person in my life right now who tells me what to do, especially reminding me to slow down.
I made extensive preparations, including organizing David’s care, contingencies for possible emergencies, and getting together all of the gear for camping in primitive conditions. Among the most curious “events” was learning to use the DeLorme GPS satellite tracker that I had bought in order to be in touch with caregivers. Several times I was also able to help the organizers of the retreat communicate to the Navajo guides in Chinle. Neither the organizers nor the Navajos knew about such devices. Because cell phones don’t work in the canyons, there normally is no possible communication.
INNER EXPERIENCES AND TEACHINGS. The inner activity or inner dimensions of the retreat are harder to talk about than the outer aspects. Before the retreat began, I set a few aspirations and tried to articulate my hopes and fears. To be curious about and present with what unfolds. To be open to what I see and feel, without being too attached to what might happen. In particular, I wanted to go beyond all of my hopes and fears: my fear that David might flounder or even die in my absence. My fear that I would have an accident. Another fear was that I would not be able to manage the rigors of the retreat, and that I would not sleep. My main hope was that David would be well, and that I would stay strong and healthy.
Anam Thubten Rinpoche frequently reminded us to set clear aspirations for some kind of transformation during the retreat. On the third or fourth day of the retreat this is what I wrote: my specific aspiration is to let go of my attachment to my body, and to my specific fears about aging. This turned out to be related most strongly to my attachment to comfort and my rejection of discomfort. I faced a few physical adversities, including not sleeping well and experiencing intense allergies to the smoke, dust, dung, and ubiquitous blooming snakeweed. Though relative minor, my experiences of lying awake with itchy eyes, and of getting cactus needles in throbbing hands was good practice. Elizabeth talked about shifting one’s thinking from “I am suffering” to “there is suffering.” This was very meaningful to me, as a way to relate to my own pain. Finally, I wanted to relax and see what happened to me through our meditations. In the end, I felt as though there is truly nothing to achieve. I had a potent conversation with Elizabeth near the end of the retreat too, about whether and how to do this practice we had learned. She told me emphatically not to do this practice, but instead to carry forward the meditation practice that I've been doing now since 2013. If I wanted, I could incorporate a similar short practice from another liturgy I had recited daily for four years, and I immediately began to do this after I got home.
Finally, seeing Anasazi, Navajo, and Zuni pictographs and petroglyphs, some dating back 2000 years, was stunning. I had been studying the iconography of some of these traditions before the retreat, and it was wonderful to see a few images in person. Although hard to define, I felt that I entered the Navajo sacred world in Canyon de Chelly.