Buddhist Retreat in the Appalachians

(Note: this story takes place in September of 2016, which is startling, considering how much as changed since then. The experience I had here was the catalyst that propelled my wanderings, and my desire to find a new of being in the world. Maybe you will understand.)

 

A long winding road followed my plane ride to North Carolina. I didn’t mind. It was a welcome relief to drive quietly and allow my thoughts to unfold against the peaceful backdrop of the Smoky Mountains. Last week had been one of the most hectic of my life, and I knew needed to get away from it all—from deadlines, WiFi, notifications, and work emails—and do some soul-searching before the chaos would dissipate.

Little cabins, dilapidated barns, and trailer homes passed outside my window, tucked away from the road in verdant alcoves, nestled protectively in the palm of the mountains. A white church steeple rose up in bright contrast against the slate-grey Appalachians, stirring a strange nostalgia in my chest. I had another hour’s drive before I’d reach my destination—the Southern Dharma Retreat Center—and I had no idea what to expect. Beyond dabbling in yoga and meditation, and reading books by Buddhist monks, I’d had little exposure to a Buddhist way of being. It was curiosity and a search for peace that drew me here.

After a harrowing and (nearly unsuccessful) ascent on the gravel road that snaked up the side of a steep mountain, I pulled with shaky relief into what I hoped was the retreat center. The campus was heavily wooded, and the structures hugged the incline, digging their way into the mountainside. Quaint, single-room cabins grouped along the edges of a large sloping green, pleasantly scattered with Adirondack chairs and hammocks. A garden sprawled at the top corner of the grounds with bright, yellow-speckled squash and a large workshop above the green, full of tools, wheelbarrows, and firewood. Further down the path was a large building with a pagoda roof, which I assumed was the meditation hall. I parked, and followed the path past a huge gong and into the cool lodge, where a few friendly souls directed me to the steep path around the building to my dormitory on the third floor.

I climbed the steep stairs and swung the creaky door open, instantly feeling calm and reassured by what I saw; the room was cozy and inviting, with a low, pitched roof like an attic garret, long and rectangular, with beds on either side of a center aisle. I smiled. It reminded me of Madeline...“Twelve little girls in twelve little beds brushed their teeth and went to bed...” Or something like that.

Everything in the room was a different shade of soothing blue, the floors, walls, ceilings and bedspreads all a blue that felt like a sigh. Each full-sized bed had its headboard up against the long walls, with two thin walls on either side and its own cream-colored curtain along the aisle that could be pulled to create the fourth wall. I walked the length of the room and chose a “bedroom” with a little skylight covered by a light bamboo shade. Soon my books were on the white night stand next to the reading lamp, and two sweaters hung cheerfully from the hooks on the wall with a pair of walking shoes lined up below. I pulled the curtain open and padded down the center aisle to the steep ladder at the end of the room, down to the second floor of dormitories, and down the wide staircase to the bottom of the lodge where a few retreaters were already congregating.

Three long tables took up the greater half of the lodge. A counter ran the length of its far end, and on it rested a huge stone bowl of locally grown plums and apples; beside it sat a sideboard, cheerfully populated with still-warm muffins. There was a lovely tea and coffee

corner at the end of the counter, with tea infusers and honey below, and jar after jar of loose-leaf teas. I spotted my name amidst others on the cubby shelf below a brightly colored stoneware mug. The other half of the room held a library with a long, heavily cushioned seat built into the wall and a plush easy chair pulled up in front of the antique, cast-iron stove.

I selected a chair in the corner of the library and fell into conversation with a girl about my age and two garrulous, eager women in their late sixties. The girl was small-framed, soft- spoken and genuine, and I liked my immediately. The older women, however, had unsettling presences. The one I perceived to be the elder of the two, had short grey hair with white streaks, and a broad, sly smile like a Cheshire cat. The other was tall and lean with a figure that was perfectly square from the tops of her shoulders to the bottom of her hips; her eager eyes darted about, and betrayed an intense eagerness to know all the juicy bits about everyone and everything.

The conversation was still early, bouncing around what they all did for a living. The two women and the girl had all been in healthcare in some capacity, and it seemed all three resented it. The elder woman turned to I. “And what do you do, my dear?”

I straightened and smiled. “I’m a writer,” I said, still feeling a bit of disbelief that I could say that now.

The woman’s eyes glowed darkly. “A writer, how lovely! I’d love to look up one of your books if you’d give me the name...” and pretended to rummage through my purse for a pen.

I shrugged. “You won’t find any books under my name yet, though my ultimate dream is to be a published author.” The woman looked triumphantly at the square-shaped woman, who smirked. The girl smiled with genuine interest as I continued, “Right now the majority of my work is ghostwriting, which is confidential.”

The woman’s smile broadened ominously, and her eyes flashed gleefully. “It’s so nice that there are options like ghostwriting for writers who don’t have ideas for their own books! It’s so wonderful that you can still dabble in that—good for you!”

My mouth dropped in surprise.

The woman’s smile was nearly ear-to-ear in triumph as she observed that the underlying meaning of her words was not lost on me; her eyes shadowed with disappointment when I laughed and shook my head head without responding to her, turning, still smiling in amusement, to ask the girl a question before the Cheshire cat could get her next jab in. I hadn’t know Buddhists were allowed to be passive-aggressive. While the girl answered my question, I snuck a sidelong glance at the elder woman, who was looking thoroughly dissatisfied at being put-off.

The square woman wedged myself sharply into the conversation at every possible junction, scanning the room between my own inserted comments, making eyes at the most handsome men in the room, 25 years her junior. When any of them came near the library, she would issue brilliant bursts of laughter, and crane her neck towards them to judge the affect—if they looked back, she’d grace them with an eager smile as if she owned the place, and slid over, invitingly. The move wasn’t working just yet, but she had loads of stamina left.

At the earliest polite opportunity, I excused myself and escaped the room to explore the outside world, followed by the girl, who looked equally exhausted by the conversation. The day was sunny and bright. We walked along the top ridge of the path, contemplating the light as it played through the leaves, and met up with another young girl who joined our exploring. A sleek Black Bear cub startled out of the trees as we approached and lumbered in a sideways gait across the hill. The path ended at a flat grassy knoll with a stunning vista view. The Appalachians rippled before us in all directions—a smoky, verdant green in the distance. We stood quietly. I closed my eyes and breathed. This was just what I needed.

A gong sounded distantly across the hills, and the we retraced our steps back to the lodge. The rest of the retreaters were already seated, so we separated and slipped in where we could. I scanned my table’s length and spotted the two older women seated nearby. They looked up at my gaze, and I and looked away quickly. The leaders of the retreat walked to the front of the room. They were white, and dressed in ordinary, urban clothing, which surprised me—I had unconsciously expected them to be Tibetan, or at the very least, to be wearing monk robes.

The staff and guru welcomed the room warmly and launched into explaining what the format of the retreat would be. The director was an eclectic man with white hair and thoughtful eyes; he led off his talk with a short poem of his own composition, which he read in an unimposing, endearing manner that touched me. I surveyed the rest of the retreaters as the speech went on, registering that they also seemed like ordinary people.

The director said something I didn’t catch that caused a reaction. I leaned forward. He smiled indulgently at us and continued, “The gong after dinner will mark the beginning of the Noble Silence that we will keep until the lunch gong on the final day.”

This was a silent retreat? My eyes widened as I did the math in my head. Counting today, that’s five days of silence...

The square-figured woman leaned over and confided in my direction, “There’s no way I’ll be able to keep that.” I believed her. “The girls will think this is a great joke—me at a silent retreat. They really should have warned us.” She huffed in irritation, and her companion to the left smiled her Cheshire smile, but her dark eyes betrayed annoyance.

I turned away, feeling relief and curiosity. On the pros side, at least I wouldn’t have to deal with their passive-aggressive chatter while I attempted to connect to my innermost being.

After dinner, the gong rang, signaling the beginning of the five-day silence. The two women looked at each other grumpily and the square one couldn’t quite refrain from hissing one last time that ‘they really should have told us.’ The rest of the group filed silently down the path to the meditation hall and removed their shoes outside the building. I selected a floor mat near the back with a round zafu cushion atop it. The guru sat in lotus position at the front, facing the room as the retreaters filed in, a soft smile on her lovely face, which was wrinkled lightly with smile lines. She wore a blue kimono the same shade as her bright eyes. I crossed my legs before me and settled in, palms up on my knees. The experts were easy to spot, and already seemed to be meditating, but my mind was absorbed with trying to place who the guru looked like.

The guru picked up a small wooden striker, and tapped a singing bowl for our attention. I waited patiently for the note to die out, hands lightly clasped in my lap. When all was silent, she began to explain in a soft-spoken way about the purpose of the silent retreat.

“Attaching to the idea of one’s personality being one’s self can be dangerous.” Her right hand floated up from my knee to gesture gracefully as she spoke. It rose and fell slowly, as if lifted by currents in the air that only she could feel. “Our retreats are done in silence, that you may simply be, without feeling the need to assert yourself or take up unnecessary space with your personality,” she offered in deliberate, soothing tones. “Take advantage of the Noble Silence and detach from who you think you are and who you feel you have to be in the outside world and simply exist in your breath.”

I wasn’t getting any of this, but I kept my expression serene with a slight smile at the corners of my mouth, just like the real Buddhists in the room were doing.

She smiled and continued, “As we are here to empty our minds, the bookshelves in the library will be covered for the remainder of the retreat. If you have a journal, I request that you limit your writings to processing your meditative experience—not the questions that might arise, but the quality of your experience.”

I thought regretfully of David Copperfield on my reading self and serenity wavered. Surely she wouldn’t have intended to censor Dickens?

The guru then invited the group to place our hands palms-up on our knees. A dread began to grow in the pit of my stomach; my back was already shooting spasms of pain up my spine from the ten minutes we’d already been sitting—when the bell rang, there would be 45 minutes more. I’d been in a horrible car accident and my back hadn’t finished healing just yet. The guru rang the bell to start the meditation, and my eyes fluttered closed as it reverberated. I tried to find stillness, but my thoughts ran wildly, sweeping me away with them, laughing at any efforts I made to step outside them.

It was twenty minutes into the meditation, it finally clicked.I peeked under my lashes at the peaceful guru—Jamie Lee Curtis! That’s who she looks like. Wow, I haven’t thought about her since I saw Freaky Friday. That must have been… at Kaileigh’s fourteenth birthday party with Erin and Sara! Yes! Those girls —I grinned—The chick-flick marathon…staying up all night talking about the boys on the basketball team, eating Cheese Whiz, and Twizzlers, and using fake tan spray…Oh my God... Mom was so mad at how tan I was when I got home... Haha! How did she put it...? Oh yeah, “there’s no reason for good, modest girls to have tanned stomachs...” I laughed, and my eyes fluttered open. I was back in the meditation hall. Immediately I composed my face and coughed lightly, hoping to disguise the laughter that had escaped. My face relaxed again, and my mind was still a moment; a smile reemerged, tugged at the corner of my mouth. She really does look like Jamie Lee Curtis...

It was a forty-five minute eternity, twice as long as I’d ever meditated before; my back was screaming in pain when the guru finally rang the singing bowl thrice to signal the end. Pain-wise it was definitely up there with the worst experiences of my life. The room raised clasped hands in prayer, pressed them against their foreheads, and bowed low; I joined them and straightened back up, and was in the process of uncrossing my legs, when they all moved to bow again. I caught myself and joined their bow just in time. I unbent, sighing inwardly at having muddled it, twisting right and left to crack my stiff spine when the group moved for a third bow. I untwisted and bowed again, freezing when I rose back up, scanning the entire room out of my periphery, determined to catch the fourth bow if there was in fact going to be a fourth. Someone near the front made a movement, and I false started, bowing solemnly before I realized the rest of the room had capped it at three. I sighed. This night...

The room stood and filed out silently in a single line to the dormitories. Once safely behind my cream-colored curtain, I riffled hastily through the welcome folder to find the schedule.

6:45 AM-morning meditation

7:30 AM-breakfast

8:30 AM-working meditation

9:45 AM-sitting meditation

10:30 AM-walking meditation

11:15 AM-sitting meditation...

On and on it went. I scanned in disbelief to the bottom of the schedule and found an asterisked note that read, “All meditations will be 45 minutes.”

I stared blankly at the paper; the math ran quickly through my head. That’s over...ten hours of meditation a day. What have I gotten myself into? I can’t do this, I’ll lose my mind. I flopped backwards on the bed and stared up through my skylight in dismay. I expected freedom to wander and contemplate the mountains. I expected dharma discussions and conversations and time to journal and contemplate existence with a wise monk... I’m not disciplined enough for this... I can’t spend ten hours a day in silence without my books, trying to empty out my head while my back is screaming in pain. The stars glowed lightly behind the bamboo shade. I watched them silently and listened to the subdued shuffling of my dorm-mates. The square woman had already broken the Noble Silence, asking everyone in a stage whisper whether any were opposed to her turning the fan on. I took a deep breath. Just see what happens tomorrow. Maybe it won’t be as hard as you think. I fell asleep clinging to that hope. One day down...

***

Day Two:

When morning came, I found that I was right. It was nowhere near as hard as I thought it might be—it was impossible. After the first three hours of sitting meditations, my back completely seized up and sent shooting pains all the way down to my toes. The rest of the room sat quietly while I squirmed and peeked sideways out the window. It felt like purgatory, karma for something or other that I’d done or left undone, though I wasn’t sure Karma was even a Buddhist idea—Buddhist or not, it had caught up to me. I gave up on emptying my mind and spent the rest of the forty-five minute meditation constructing one escape plan after another, each more desperate than the last as the pain increased.

By the time the singing bowl rang out, I had a plan. I filed back to the dormitory and began hastily packing my bags. I had my mandatory interview with the guru after lunch, and after that, I’d leave a note and slip out while the rest of the retreaters were still in afternoon meditations. My things were in my bag in five minutes. I laid across my bed and gazed up through the skylight.

Too soon, the bell rang out for the next mediation. I groaned and pulled the curtain closed. The guru is conducting interviews all afternoon, I told myself wearily. No one will notice if I’m not there. I rolled over, took four ibuprofen, and closed my eyes. A while later, another gong echoed over the hills. I opened one eye to peek at the clock on my phone, then sighed and rolled back over.

Another session passed, and the gong rang out again. This time I roused myself. The interview was soon. I pulled myself up and meandered down the path to the guru’s cabin, hoping she wouldn’t notice the pillow lines that ran diagonally across my cheeks. I walked to the edge of the woods towards her tiny cabin, and found her there waiting for me on the porch, with a peaceful expression on her kind face.

Her eyes twinkled disarmingly. “You must be Willa,” the guru smiled. She had a wonderful presence, Like a warm grandmother.

“Yes, I am. Hi.” I took a seat across from my, and despite my pain and resistance found myself relaxing ever so slightly.

“I understand this is your first retreat,” the guru said with a smile. “How are you experiencing it so far?”

I squirmed. “Honestly, it’s been hard. I had no idea there would be so much time spent in sitting meditation. I had a car accident a few years ago, and it messed up my back pretty bad— the pain makes it hard to focus.”

The guru’s round blue eyes filled with empathy. “Well, we can’t have that. Let’s see if it helps for you to do a lying-down meditation. There are plenty of cushions in the back. We can clear a space for you.”

I didn’t expect that. I smiled back with slight reserve. “Thank you, that would help.”

The guru waited, then prodded gently, “Is there something else?”

I hesitated, not wanting to say anything offensive. “Well, I came here to learn about Buddhism, but...are all Buddhist retreats like this?”

“It depends. What do you mean by ‘like this’?” She replied curiously, without a hint of defensiveness.

“All the meditating. The silence... I was expecting more teaching and interactions. The sheer amount of time spent trying to empty my mind I find a little...exhausting, and I’m not sure I see the point of it,” I finished apologetically.

The guru smiled and nodded. “It is overwhelming at first, I agree. It’s not in our given nature as humans to be still. The point is equanimity, but until you can empty your mind, it can be hard to experience what I’m talking about.” The guru waited.

I paused and considered. “It’s just not what I pictured from reading Thich Naht Hanh’s books...”

Her eyes lit up. “Thich Naht Hanh is a lovely, lovely person. You know”—she pondered a moment—“his style of retreat might be a better fit for you... They are very different from Vipassana retreats. There are singing circles and nature walks—it’s very community and social-justice oriented.”

“Is it a different kind of Buddhism?” I asked with confusion.

She swung my white head energetically. “Yes and no. This retreat is a Vipassana retreat. It is one of the most disciplined strains of Buddhism. We focus on clearing the mind through extensive meditation and discipline, and achieve equanimity through detachment and emptying of self. Thich Naht Hanh leads a very different strain... You can think of it like the difference between Christian denominations, like the experience and focus of a Catholic church versus an Episcopalian church, though both are Christian.” She looked at me warmly, and I felt embraced. “If you feel drawn to his teachings, I would encourage you to find a Sangha near you that you could find community with.”

I nodded, struck that the guru didn’t feel the need to defend her personal practice. The timer dinged and the interview was concluded. The guru smiled at I one last time. “Check in with me tomorrow and we’ll see how the lying-down meditation works for you.”

I smiled back. “I will, thank you.”

The guru contemplated my as I rose to leave. “You know, Willa, there is enough suffering in the world. It does no one any good for you to suffer needlessly.”

My words brought tears to I eyes as I nodded and walked down the stairs. The words were enough to keep me there. The gong rang as I reached the path, and the retreaters began to file obediently towards the hall, but I remembered the guru’s parting words to me and decided that I should shield myself from needless suffering a little while longer.

There was a lovely balcony on the third floor behind the dormitory that drew me instead, and I curled up in a rocking chair with David Copperfield nestled inside my journal, a pen hanging from the outside cover just in case someone was to walk by. A couple of happy hours passed, and Agnes and her family found themselves fallen into the clutches of the despicable Uriah Heep. The final gong rang, signaling the end of afternoon meditations, and I looked up, feeling slightly guilty, hurriedly shoving David Copperfield in my bag. Another pro of Noble Silence, was that no one could tell the guru I’d skipped afternoon sessions without breaking it.

I liked the Dharma talk that night. It was about detaching from emotions, placing distance between oneself and one’s reactions and thoughts, and changing language to change perception by saying things like, “I am experiencing anger,” rather than “I am angry.” The guru spoke about the world as passing and changing, and warned that not even the teachings of the Buddha were something to attach to or feel the need to defend. “Attach to nothing,” the guru said, scanning the room, “not even my words.”

The following meditation went smoothly lying down, and I relaxed and began to feel like I was getting the hang of it—until the final gong woke me up.

***

Day Three:

I struggled through most of the morning sessions, sometimes lying down in the back of the room, sometimes on the porch just outside the large window so I could stretch. The guru suggested this option to my when my back continued to plague my from having to keep still, and I suspected my nearest neighbor had submitted a written complaint about my rustling. I didn’t care. It was better outside, anyway, with the freedom to spend half the meditation in Child’s Pose, half in Savasana. The guru was sharing her stash of homeopathic muscle relaxants with me, and my attentions during the meditation were slowly growing more focused.

Morning meditation was followed by working meditation, which was my favorite part of the schedule. The day before, I’d been cutting and stacking firewood, but today I was sent to the top of the ridge to clear the drainage ditches with a rake. It was going well until the square woman sauntered up the path towards me with a rake in her hand. I turned away quickly and kept to my raking.

She approached anyway and addressed my irritably, “James told me that if I came up here with you I had to remember that this was still a meditation practice and not a time to talk! Can you believe it?” She looked at me, expecting backup.

How ironic. I simply smiled and shrugged, and went back to my raking, Noble Silence intact. Another pro of Noble Silence was that you didn’t have to talk to people you didn’t want to—I was starting to suspect this whole philosophy was dreamed up by an introvert, and I was starting to warm up to it.

The woman watched me a moment, and tried again to elicit a response. “I mean, of course I had to come talk to you, because I’m not exactly sure what we are supposed to be doing... So what are we doing?”

I sighed and gestured to the ditch, pantomiming what the job was, determined not to let the woman bait my into breaking silence, positive that James would have already explained the job to her. The square woman pursed her lips together in dissatisfaction and went up the road about fifteen feet and proceeded to shuffle the leaves about, industriously if not productively, glancing up all the while towards me as I worked.

I fell back into the working meditation with satisfaction, immersing myself in the soothing repetition of moving crunching leaves across the gravel. It really was a therapuetic—

“God, there’s a lot of poison ivy out here!” the woman broke out loudly, pointing at the bank.

It was amazing how jarring a voice could be—especially hers—after forty-eight hours of silence. I raised a disapproving eyebrow, and went back to work, trying not to be irritated. I soon overtook her, and passed to move further up the road to the next patch and give her some space, but the she was bursting to have someone to talk to and had determined it would be me. I could practically hear her desperate desire to speak as I passed. A few seconds later, a squeal made me stop.

The woman was bent over, pointing dramatically into the ditch, “Oh my God, a snake!”

I heart raced as I turned and scanned the undergrowth, expecting a rattler. I saw nothing and stepped closer, curiously.

The woman continued to squeal like a child, hands on her knees, “A snake, a black snake! Oh my God!”

I stopped and heaved a sigh. A black snake? Seriously, lady?

The woman squatted down and nudged it cautiously with her toe.

I straightened back up and let out my held breath with a whistle.

“Never mind. It was just a twig.” She shrugged. “Sure looked like a snake...”

Geez. I pivoted before my expression gave away the depth of my dislike for the woman and walked a quarter of a mile up the road to finish ditch digging in peace, much to the woman’s consternation. After there was no one left to break silence with, the woman huffed back down the mountain and found a different task and someone else to bother.

I couldn’t help reflecting while I raked at how out of place I still felt here. My raking became more vigorous. The others—besides the two elder women—wandered the campus like the walking dead, as if in a trance, and I still had to fake it along with that loquacious woman and the Cheshire cat. I felt like Sister Maria felt like in The Sound of Music, crashing around and running to get to the hall on time, dodging past those who were meditating the right way. I looked out across the hills regretfully, pausing, chin on the top of the rake handle.

I was missing it, whatever it was.

By the day’s end, I had caved a bit and made it through another seventy pages of David Copperfield by skipping three afternoon meditations, which was two less than I had skipped the day before, so I didn’t feel too bad about it. Another day down, I thought wearily from behind the safety of my cream curtain when the lights turned out across the campus.

Day Four:

At the morning meditation, something strange and inexplicable happened. I pulled out my mat to the side porch of the meditation hall. The bell rang, and I settled in as usual and began to breathe. The air was cool about my cheeks. The song of the cicadas rose and fell about me, and my breathing unconsciously fell in with their soothing rhythms. The breeze stirred through my hair as the forest rustled. A birdcall echoed in the distance across the mountains to its mate, who answered in the trees nearby. The wanderer’s warble echoed again, closer this time, and again his mate sang out to guide him. For a long time they called to each other, until the one found his way home. The sky turned a lighter grey against my eyelids, then to a faint blue. My breath came steadily, in and out...in and out, unceasing, unhurried. The leaves rustled and whispered their secrets. The sun peeked over the crest and caressed my smooth skin, sweeping its warmth across my body.

The singing bowl sang out three times.

I eyes fluttered open in surprise. The deepest calm I’d ever known had seeped into the marrow of my being. I bowed thrice slowly with the Sangha and fell in line with the rest, slipping effortlessly into the unhurried gait I had failed to understand before. I was not holding myself back, as before; the world had simply slowed. Time and thought had departed. The day passed by in a blissful high, every sound, every blade of grass and taste received my full admiring attentions, every color and texture delighting my senses and being.

It was a new world.

After attending the final afternoon meditation, I was drinking tea on the balcony, not reading, but journaling about my meditations. The light faded, and the sky turned grey. I looked up as the trees began to bend and bow to me, and one reached out to brush my foot with its boughs. They danced before I felt the wind. There was a crack like a bullwhip echoing across the valley. A storm was coming. I got up and ran down the stairs to the meditation hall just as huge, hail-sized raindrops pelted down, knocking leaves into the swirling winds. I watched in breathless wonder as the Appalachian rains swept down and cleansed the mountains. Wave after wave of joy surged through my until I couldn’t stand it—I kicked off my shoes and grabbed an umbrella, splashing barefoot down the stairs, jumping in cool, summer puddles, squishing the soft mud between my toes, overwhelmed with excitement. I dropped the umbrella and lifted my face and arms to the rain as I danced, a single thought pealing joyously through my being, I am the storm...I am the storm...I am the storm...

***

Day Five:

5:40 AM. My phone alarm buzzed under my pillow, and my head became instantly clear. I rolled onto my back with a nostalgic sigh and looked up at the soft, scattered lights glowing behind my bamboo skylight. I was going to miss this place—especially the mornings. I stretched quietly and swung my legs over the side of the bed, rummaging through my suitcase, grabbing a light sweater that I pulled over my head before walking down the center aisle. The curtains across the other cubicles swayed gently in the currents from the fan. It would be a while before anyone else woke up—I had the whole place to myself. I crept to the far end of the room and opened the ladder hatch, descending quickly and pulling it closed behind me without a sound.

Once on the bottom floor, I went straight to my cubby and filled my mug with coffee. I slipped into my shoes and pushed the lodge door gently open. The world was dark outside; the trees towered like black friendly guardians standing watch over the campus. Small ground lanterns marked the path to the meditation hall. They guided me obligingly to a long wooden bench atop the ridge where I sat cross-legged, and wrapping cool hands around the warmth of my mug.

A cove of thick trees had been cleared long ago to build the lodge and meditation hall, and their absence provided an oval-shaped keyhole into the sparkling skies above the mountains. I sighed happily and sipped my coffee, lost in the night ambience, tipping my head against the bench-back to stare up into the expanse, my bare feet cool against the dew that pearled on the smooth wood. I loved being the only one awake.

The moon lit the eastern corner of the sky. It was waning, more and more every morning—now it was a dark circle resting on a glowing sliver of a bowl. The cicadas swelled in their song. The crickets chirped to each other across the hills.

The moon was still.

There it was—the sound I’d come to love, ringing out in the lodge, a slow, three-toned reverberation. A reverent silence followed in the gong’s wake as it was carried slowly down the halls. I knew I’d never forget this. A solemn figure emerged from the lodge, walking amidst the shadows. My eyes took in the figure’s gait, as unhurried as the dying reverberations of the gong as he passed before me on the path, looking neither right or left, continuing his way down the hill and up the next, striking the gong softly when its vibrations ceased, further and further down the path until its echoes were distant and the figure was enveloped by the dark forest. Goosebumps raced down my arms.

The dawn brightened the edges of the night, until only the moon and four brightest stars remained. Finally the dark circle of the moon disappeared, leaving its delicate silver slip behind. I hugged my knees to my chest contentedly, contemplating the silver basin with fascination.

Am I good?

The old question surfaced unbidden; I pondered it curiously. The question felt different than before, without the sharp ache and urgency it held for me once. It wasn’t the question any more. All of this is good, I thought. And I am a part of it, a part of this beautiful world. The question was satisfied and dissolved, a peaceful glow took its place.

I would be leaving soon, without knowing if Buddhism was what I’d been looking for... In some ways, perhaps, it didn’t matter. An awakened magnetism was pulling my being towards something great and unknowable, something sacred that ebbed and flowed within me like the tides drawn by the moon, connecting all wisdom, all souls, all life.

It was enough. I breathed, and watched the stars succumb to the morning light.