My retreat at the Hermitage on Denman Island

I want to start off this post with a powerful poem that I was introduced to during my meditation retreat. It really sums up the feelings I’ve been having on this trip about love and relationships.

A Full Moon in Each Eye – by Hafiz

Admit something:
Everyone you see,
You say to them, “love me.”
Of course, you do not do this out loud;
Otherwise someone would call the police.
Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one who lives
With a full moon in each eye
That is always saying,
With that sweet moon language,
What every other eye in this world
Is dying to hear?

Isn’t that something? What everyone is dying to hear, I think, is that they are loved. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about love and its relationship to the spiritual path to enlightenment.

Be a lamp unto yourself — The Buddha

I often remark how one thing leads right to another, and I find that when I acknowledge this fact, I notice it happening even more. The last five days, I’ve found myself back on Denman island, returning to the Hermitage that I passed on my way to Hornby Island. The week was a whirlwind of meeting many new people, and I found so many loving, heart-centered people to connect with here. The experience has left me glowing with a renewed dedication to the art of being present in every moment. Let’s see if I can summarize everything that happened over the last week.

My sleep wednesday night was long and dreamy. I slept in until 10 or so (usually I’ve been waking at 7 or 8). Sometimes, your sleeping bag and air mattress can be so comfortable, you just don’t want to get out of it. That is how you know you’re doing the whole camping thing correctly. Good gear makes all the difference.

After a breakfast of oatmeal, I whisked out of my camp site to go write for a bit. To my usual hangout, Jan’s CafĂ©. I was becoming quite the regular, going in for my coffee and wi-fi. Perhaps I was getting too comfortable here when I should have been seeing new places every day. But something about Hornby drew me in like the song of the sirens, and kept me there longer than I planned to stay. I knew I would leave soon, though. In the back of my mind was this idea that maybe I should do a retreat at the buddhist hermitage on Denman island. I had wanted to do a meditation retreat before my trip, but that didn’t happen because I figured the cycling trip would be a kind of silent retreat anyhow. But I had seen this hermitage on Denman before I came to Hornby, and I thought it would be a great way to spend a few days. I looked it up online, and as it turned out, three days from then, they were hosting a 5-day Yoga Nidra (Yoga of Sleep) retreat. On their site, they said it is a donation-based retreat, because “spirituality cannot be bought or sold”. I really respect that. So that had become fixed in my mind as the one thing that would get me back on my way. After all, summer was waning and I had more places I wanted to visit before the cold hit. By the time the rains came and decided to stay, I wanted to be southbound.

Hanging out in the pavilion of the community hub, I start chatting with a local who tells me about jazz at Ford’s Cove that evening. That sounded tempting. I also wanted to camp out at the Helliwell bluffs that night, so I could sleep under the stars and take some sunrise photos in the morning. No matter, I could do both. It just meant I would have to do a lot of biking with my camping gear (by this point, I had gotten used to leaving my gear in my tent and biking around light as a feather). That was fine though, and I was looking forward to both.

So, as the sun began to recede from the sky, I headed out to Ford’s cove. I stopped to eat the most delicious, plump blackberries on the top of the hill. It made the climb worth it.

I can't count how many blackberries I've eaten so far...

Then down I went this hill that dropped like a four story water slide. Slightly nerve-wracking, but mostly awesome. Into the cove I pulled, and the first thing I notice was the jazz music had begun. Then I noticed a pile of dog poo with a little toothpick flag on it. It said something like “This is art because I say it is”. Kind of hilarious. After I looked up, though, I saw. I quickly grabbed the camera and started snapping away.

The evening sun burst through the clouds into glorious golden rods of light pouring into the ocean from above

As the sun finally waned, I had taken hundreds of photos in hopes of getting a few really good ones. I was going to have to spend some time sorting through my photos. I realized I was really hungry and decided to get a burger because there was this little restaurant there.

The total for a burger and fries (including tax) was 17.5O CAD. Ouch. I could have just made my own camp food. I guess sometimes I’m a sucker for quick meals I can’t make easily on the road. After I shelled out that money I was thinking, this better be the best damn burger I ever had. Of course, it was just OK. The bun was one of those white bread cheap buns that melts as soon as it gets wet, into a white paste. Gross. I couldn’t help but think that’s what it was doing in my stomach. I’ve been spoiled by Portland’s food scene. I only want to eat lightly toasted Brioche buns with my burgers now.

As soon as I finished my burger, I wandered down to talk to this guy who seemed like he was worth talking to. He had long frizzy hair, and seemed like he had no particular place to be. He was on island time too. As it turned out, he had lived on the island a long time. Robert was his name. We talked about a lot of things, but what stuck with me was how he said island community sustainability was mostly an illusion. At least on Hornby, anyway. Any sort of sustainability efforts on the island are too little, too late. I did see a few bio-farms selling their produce at the Wed./Sat. market, but I don’t think that it’s enough food to produce for the whole island. Like most areas of the world, the island was very much running on money and fossil fuels. As far as permaculture goes, there’s more happening in Portland than all of the gulf islands, to my knowledge. The conversation ended on a slightly melancholy note, which was that yeah, the world is screwed if we don’t act quickly to manifest a new vision. But I try not to focus on that too much, I just want to enjoy the beauty of nature while I still have it available to me. That’s part of why I’m on this trip. Things are changing so fast, something’s gotta give. I want to live each moment as if it were my last.

Off I went again, it was 9 PM and dark. I hugged the hillside and arrived at Helliwell park about 40 minutes later. I rode my bike out to the bluffs, and lay down in a field of tall wheat grass. Looking up at the night sky, I began to notice shooting stars and the milky way. It was indescribably beautiful. Then, I noticed something very strange, and my heart raced.

It was a dot, the size of a star, but rather bright for a star. At first I just thought that’s what it was. But then it started moving sporadically. It would wander to the left, then to the right, then back and forth, like an aimless gnat. Then it would stand still for another minute. I said to myself, what kind of plane could that be? That couldn’t be a plane, because it could hover in place. It was so high up in the sky, it didn’t seem like it could be a helicopter; it was completely silent. I began to suspect that it might be a UFO. Well, I sure as hell couldn’t identify it, so technically it was an Unidentified Flying Object. I watched it for a good 30 or 40 minutes, and it just kept wandering around the sky. So weird. I wish I knew what it was.

Laying on my back in that field, listening to the sounds of the ocean spray against the rocky bluffs, I was too tired to see what else this moving star would do. So I was lulled into a misty sleep in my dewed sleeping bag.

At 6am sharp, I awoke to a less-than-spectacular sunrise. There were clouds on the horizon, and I figured I probably wouldn’t get any really amazing photos. I stayed in my bag 20 minutes longer, then decided I should probably get up before the morning joggers began their daily runs. I packed up my things and rolled along, hoping that maybe if I walked along the shoreline around to the easternmost cliff, I could get a better view of the sunrise once it poked its shining face out from the clouds.

I arrived east and still there was no sunshine, so I sat down at a bench nearby and started to cook up some breakfast. I love using my stove on a brisk morning to make a hot breakfast. It takes the edge off the cold. There’s nothing like warming up with a hot bowl of creamy peanut butter oatmeal while watching the sunrise. It does wonders for the soul.

Once the sun decided to show its face, the bluffs burst into a golden wonderland of exceeding beauty. I had to run around to all the best vantage points to capture these warm morning hues before they became the hot white mid-day light. I did end up with some really decent sunrise photos after all. I was so glad that I decided to leave the comfort of my hidden hobo camp and spend a night at the most beautiful part of the island.

A thing of beauty
Nostalgia in fields of flora
Golden tones grace the Heliwell bluffs in the early morning sun

When I headed back to camp, I realized I was thirsty and out of water, because I’d used it all on my morning oatmeal. So, I went back to a paid campsite near the co-op, where Bobcat had told me I could refill my water bottle. I wandered into the camp site, looking for the water spigot, and I noticed this cute blonde girl packing up her bright orange one-person tent into her touring bike’s panniers. I immediately wanted to talk to her about touring. But first I needed water.

“Do you know where to refill my water bottle around here?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, it’s right over there by that sign that says water,” she replied in her German accent.

I felt like an idiot. “Oh, thanks” I say dumbly.

I refilled my water bottle, and then, “I see you’re doing a bike tour. Me too!”

“Oh yeah?” she asks.

“Yeah, I started in Vancouver and biked here. I really haven’t gone that far yet, but I plan on biking back to Portland.”

The conversation continued like most chit-chat between cyclists. I tell her she has a nice bike, and I inquire as to where she’s from, where she’s been, and why she was in BC. She tells me she came from Victoria a few weeks prior, but has been in Canada for over a year now, working and traveling on and off. Her touring bike was a kind of spur of the moment purchase, and she just decided she was going to do a solo bike trip. I was impressed with her confidence to just get out there on her own and bike. She’d logged 1000km already. But then she remarked about how expensive this camp site at Hornby island was.

“30 dollars for a camp site. For one night. I told the lady, you said thirteen, right? She says, no, I said thirty. And then she says showers are a few dollars extra. I thought she was joking.”

I tell her I would be hard pressed to pay that much to pitch a tent for a night.

“You know, there’s places to camp for free around here, you just have to know where to look,” I say to her with a coy smile.

“Really?” she asked with eyes all lit up. “Please, show me! I was just going to leave because I was frustrated with how much camping costs here.”

I pulled out my map of the island and pointed to the location.

“I’ve been camping here the last 4 days, nobody has come back there once. It’s really peaceful. I can show you, but I wanted to go to this farmer’s market first. Want to go with me?”

“Yes, that sounds nice. Let me pack up my gear first,” she said.

“And then we can go check out the bluffs, you have to see that before you leave the island,” I added.

I told her we could get some food from the market to cook for dinner that night. She pitched her tent next to mine, and I showed her Helliwell park. She told me she was glad that I showed her a free place to camp so she could stay longer. We rolled along those hills back to the tents and made camp chili with a 25 cent zucchini from the market. It was such a change of pace from cooking and eating alone. I now had someone to joke with about silly things that didn’t matter.

I found her carefree personality fun to be around, and when I told her we need 5 hugs every day, she said she hadn’t gotten any that day. I said, “then we need to hug!”. We talked about the differences between a regular “socially acceptable” hug and a real, deep, honest-to-god embrace that feels like a communion and commingling of hearts. When you can feel the intersection of the magnetic field emitted from your hearts, you can feel the depth of their soul. I got to thinking about how I missed human touch. All I wanted right then was to wrap my arms around her and cry. It might have been that I was facing my own discomfort with being completely honest with everyone. I wanted to tell her how I wanted to just embrace her. I didn’t cry. But I did notice the wall I have built around my heart.

I told her about the wall we all are trained to put up. I wanted to break it down. I started by telling her that I think we all need touch, in every day life. Not just “sensual” touch, but pats on the back, shoulder rubs, hugs, hand holding, and gentle touches on the arm when conversing. I wanted to tell her how I just wish everybody was already on the same page, that I wish we were all were totally comfortable with touch. It would just be such a more loving world, wouldn’t it? Or is that just a hippie pipe dream? Maybe I’m just a dreamer like Lennon. But alas, we’re not the only ones. I got this idea from a workshop at the Breitenbush hot springs summer solstice retreat. They called it Vitamin T. Everybody needs touch, and without it, we can become depressed, angry, and alienated. I heard that If a baby isn’t held and touched for the first year of its life, it can actually die. I think that the proponents of vitamin T might be onto something.

Nadine and I were content to just talk about life and love and everything in between until the stars came out. After brushing our teeth, we said goodnight, and I did give her that real hug. It was long and deeply satisfying to hold someone close. I looked her in the eyes. I had this overwhelming urge to kiss her right then. But I didn’t, because earlier in the day, she told me she’s not interested in being with anybody right now, or something like that.

The next day, she made strong coffee and I got the jitters. We were packing up, and I didn’t even say anything, I just went over to her and wrapped my arms around her for a long hug.
We decide to bike down to the nearest pay phone so she could check to see if her plans were going to work out. She was going to go to see the Fiddler on the Roof with a good friend, and wanted to see if it was sold out. She asked what I was doing next, and I told her I was going to this Yoga Nidra retreat. She says that it sounded really interesting, and if this play didn’t work out, she might be interested. Turns out, that play was sold out. After a few minutes of saying “Well now I’m not sure what to do,” she decided to come to the retreat. I told her, sometimes, life just opens a new door with a new opportunity that you never saw coming.

We biked to the ferry, I said goodbye and farewell to Hornby, and after another hour of biking, we arrived at the hermitage as the sun was setting. The meandering country road into the property was beautiful.

The country road that leads to the hermitage

Some of the buildings at the hermitage are shingled domes interspersed by trees, it made me happy to see a place where creativity was emphasized over functionality. So this was the birth place of Greenpeace; I learned that they acquired the land and built all of these amazing dome buildings in the 60’s. Now the property was managed by residents of Denman island, and was kept alive by generous donations.

You have to love these dome buildings, they give the place such a unique feel.
I wanted to learn how to build like this
Surrounding the property was all kinds and buddha statues and prayer flags. We both instantly felt more peaceful. This was going to be good, I could tell.

Nadine and I met a few other early attendees, and we cooked a dinner of pesto pasta with a fresh zucchini that one of the others brought, along with a loaf of french bread and an avocado. We all pitched in for ingredients, and shared a meal with the five of us. It was perfect. But in the back of my mind, I was struggling with the fact that I was attracted to my new German friend. I wanted to be distracted by a pretty girl, but found myself questioning my motives — I came to the retreat to practice meditation, I didn’t want to let myself become distracted in relationships for the wrong reasons. I would be willing to go down that path if it felt right and there was no pursuing involved; the goal of my spiritual practice is to learn how to acknowledge and release the impulses of attachment and aversion. By attaching to the idea that I could be with this girl, I was setting myself up for eventual disappointment in some form or another. Maybe this was supposed to happen, so that I could learn this lesson firsthand.

Friday morning, I awoke late. Breakfast was being served at 7, I didn’t come into the communal kitchen and dining area until 8 or so, after Nadine kindly woke me up at my tent. I had stayed up writing late into the night and had slept in. There was still an omelette, yogurt, granola, fresh fruit, and oatmeal. Not to mention a nice selection of teas. I was already beginning to feel spoiled.

At 8:30, the workshop began with an introduction to what Yoga Nidra was. We were going to be studying a program developed by Billy Ledford, named “iRest” (short for Integrative Restoration). Apparently, to make it more appealing to the military (for PTSD), Billy had to drop the “Yoga” from the name. Anyway, the core of the program is dis-identifying with the six bodies. The bodies are: physical earth body, breath/energy body, emotional body, intellectual body, joy/bliss/love body, and the “ego” body. I found the teachings to incorporate techniques I’ve read about before that are used to go into a kind of trance state (body asleep, mind awake). I really enjoyed the first day, the format was open, and anybody could ask questions, no matter how big or mysterious.

The schedule was fairly consistent. Mornings, we had Q & A sessions, guided meditations, eye-gazing and partner breathing exercises. During the day, we would go swimming at Graham lake, which was the favorite local swimming hole. The water was so beautiful. My time outside made the time spent indoors — in the yurt — a lot more enjoyable. This was my first retreat, so I didn’t have anything to compare it to, but some people were hoping that it would have been more structured and strict, with less free time for superficial conversations. For me, it was a nice change of pace to be connecting with people again, even though I wasn’t getting in as much spiritual practice as I needed.

I really loved our hands-on activities with partners. It was then that I felt I really got to connect with people. In the eye-gazing exercises, we set up in pairs and looked each other in the eyes for 5 to 10 minutes. I noticed that after a while, people’s faces would begin to blur or shift shapes to look like other people I know. It was as if the mask of separateness was trying to remove itself for me, so I could realize how we are not as separate as we think we are. One session, my partner told me that he could see me in the forest, but not separate from the forest. Another partner told me that she could see compassion in my eyes. I felt nothing but love from everyone.

The weekend sped by in a blur. I got to know some really friendly people, who decided that I’m more Canadian than I am American. I felt so open and honest with several people at the retreat. I had an especially powerful eye-gazing session with my new friend Michelle, and we talked into the evening as bats flitted around our heads, snatching up mosquitos with supersonic clicks followed by the crunch of insects being devoured. She understood me, and I understood her. We saw our own beauty in each other.

“Is it weird to say that I love you?” I asked her.

“No! I wrote the same thing in my journal. I said that I had a new friend Cameron and he’s beautiful and I love him.” It was heartwarming to hear, and we both just felt unconditional love for each other.

She placed her hand on my heart and told me I had a good soul. It was amazing to have such a deep connection with someone so quickly. We talked about how nature is full of tiny miracles, and how sometimes, we look someone in the eye and feel a welling of emotion, feeling the pull to embrace them right then and there. We read that poem about a full moon in each eye over and over, because it just described our yearning for love so truthfully.

On our last night, six of us carried blankets and pillows out into the grassy field and watched shooting stars all night. I was feeling like embodied bliss, laying under the stars with beautiful people. I cuddled with them until we decided it was getting too cold and moist.

Michelle went to bed, but Shannon and I kept the connection, holding each other that night. The 7AM alarm for breakfast awoke us abruptly, and after breakfast, we held each other some more. Seven minutes before our last workshop started, we kissed for the first time, and I felt the electric tingles of excitement dance through my body. “Only seven minutes left, and now I kiss you,” she said, with a tinge of sadness in her voice. She was going back to Vancouver after the workshop was over. It was bittersweet, having to leave after an amazing night of connections and cuddling and love. I wanted to talk to our teacher.

One of the questions that I asked him was, how do we reconcile the fact that the happiness and fulfillment we so desire is already inside us, with the fact that people need communion with others? I had been pondering this a week earlier when I was alone at Chickadee lake, wanting to experience it with others. If it’s true that we already have everything we could possibly need or want, then why would we feel like we need other people there with us to be happy? The answer given to me was that if you’re searching for fulfillment through others, out of a sense of incompleteness, then you will never feel whole or complete. If you realize that you are already perfect and complete, then other people will gravitate to you. So maybe I’m doing it in the wrong order. I’ve been looking for a fulfillment through love with women. My flawed thinking is that, in order to be fulfilled, I need to be loved by someone; but that thinking is flawed. The old saying, “you need to love yourself before you can love others” comes to mind. I need to find love within myself, and from that place I can have a healthy sharing of love with another. Better yet, I just need to meditate on experiencing “being” love, and I won’t have to experience the pangs of loneliness that I sometimes experience at all.

The first time I meditated on “being love” at the hermitage, it brought tears to my eyes. My body was filled with a flowing up of energy, and it felt like I was completely accepted and loved exactly for who I am. This kind of love is not conditional, it has no boundaries and it is the most powerfully fulfilling and joyful experience. It wasn’t long before the experience faded back to normal. I was sad that I couldn’t prolong the feeling, but it gave me a peek behind the veil of duality, and affirmed that there is more where that came from, if I just kept practicing.

The hermitage on Denman Island is so peaceful and meditative

George suggested I find a teacher at home. I found myself wanting to know how do I know who the right teacher is for me? I said I needed to increase my awareness of my intuition so that I would know in my gut. I wanted to know, do enlightened individuals get angry? He said yes, that everyone has their buttons that you can push. It’s just a matter of how quickly can we recognize the pull of emotion and let it go. How quickly are we aiming to be able to observe and dis-identify from arising emotions? In the beginning, it will be impossible to dis-identify from emotions. But as we become more present & aware, the more we will be able to quickly release emotions.

Another question I wanted to ask him related to big-picture questions. In wanting to discover the answers to questions like, “is there life elsewhere in the universe?” or “why are we here?”, should we surrender to the mystery and just live here and now? Or, is it that the external world is an illusion constructed by the mind, and that the universe is accessible within? In response to my question, he told me about the Taoist saying:

“That the self advances and confirms the ten thousand things is called delusion;
That the ten thousand things advance and confirm the self is called enlightenment.”

In other words, ultimately, seeking knowledge out in the world is what the mind wants to do, but to reach enlightenment, we will realize that the knowledge of the world is already contained within, and that we don’t need to go anywhere or do anything, we just need to realize and be present to that truth.

Another topic that came up was that some traditions aim to transcend the wheel of Samsara, or the cycle of life and death that keeps on turning, keeping us stuck in an endless cycle. If enlightenment is the total acceptance of the here and now, then there should be no desire to be anywhere else but where you currently are. If Samsara was somehow inherently bad, then why would we be here to experience it? Somehow I think that we don’t suffer without a purpose.

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned at this retreat is to not to repress any negative feelings, but to observe them, and say something along the lines of, “oh, that’s interesting. my ego is telling me it’s angry.”, etc… It is the acceptance and acknowledgement of the feeling that allows it to fall away before it can have much of an effect on us. By welcoming the feeling, it loses its power, and we can then let it go.

It was nearing the end of the workshop, and I decided to take some time to myself during the day’s downtime to walk around the park. The sun was setting and I captured some nice images.

Fillongly park provides well water to pump yourself -- but warns that you should boil it before drinking...

The workshop was over, and many of us felt sad to have to leave and go back to our day-to-day lives. I was thankful that I had no job to go back to, just more adventure and self-discovery. I asked Susan, the workshop manager, if I could stay another night so I could get a full day of riding in the next day. She said that would be fine if I did a few extra chores. I was happy to help, and to remain at this peaceful place. Where I would go next, I didn’t know, but I trusted that if I listened to my intuition, it would lead me to the exact place I needed to be.

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