I traveled south this weekend to Manchester, New Hampshire for a three-day healing retreat, an experience that was to lead me into intimate lessons with a small group of women, all healing from chronic illness of one sort or another. The conversations, exercises and reflections were hard, hard work for me and others who probably also face each day with very limited energy. Amazingly, not one of us gave up in any way. We stayed with the work into the evening, each day, knowing and trusting that it was moving us to a new place of understanding our disease. More importantly, our healing.
Life has taught me that my greatest understanding often comes outside of the work itself. The work prepares the way, sending out the invitation to welcome the learning.
Our work space was in an old mill building by the Merrimack River, a building marked by the gesturing statue of a young mill girl who worked here from dawn to dusk, weaving cloth from the power of the river’s hurried flow.
At lunchtime each day, I walked across to the river to watch, feel and hear the great power of the water at that place. As I walked, sometimes pausing to simply gaze down into the churning, black water, breathing the cool, fresh air, I took the river’s great energy into my body and spirit. Not sure that I could withstand more of the work of this retreat, the river spoke to me with its deep, unrelenting confidence. Each day, the river told me I could find my strength to do this healing work.
Across the river, on the outside edge of the steep, curving bank, I found with my eyes the sandbar that (I believed) had moved on from 30 miles north—a sandbank that had served decades of sun-worshipping swimmers and campers. A sandbank that had probably moved on in one of the great floods of the last few years. No swimmers, no campers are likely to find it there, wrapped in the embrace of the noisy highway, slowly gathering the inevitable debris of the city. But there it rests, until it moves again, so close to these powerful rapids where pounding, tumbling waters allow only the hugest of boulders to find rest from the fury.
On the last day of my retreat, filled with my now churning understandings and feelings, unburied after years of focusing on everything other than my inner sacred place, I walked by the river in the bright sunshine of early spring.
As I approached the river, I found a young man tying great, orange straps between two strong maple trees. By the time I was near, he’d stepped onto the line, where he swayed wildly to hold himself in balance, moving along in tiny steps when the wild swaying calmed, only to fly into wild swaying once again. He hopped off, catching my eye. “It’s slack-lining,” he called out, smiling. “It’s a sport.” “Wow,” I called back. “Have fun.”
I walked upriver on the brick path between Manchester’s old mill buildings and the powerful river itself, hearing nothing but the roar of the spring flow, moving with great energy to the ocean, some 75 or so miles away.
A few dozen other people had also been drawn down to the river, some walking, some occupying benches and chatting quietly, some sleeping on the warm, stone steps leading down to the water.
I followed a kayaker as he walked up the riverbank, carrying the tiny yellow boat along the brick path and into the tangled weeds beyond. I stopped to watch him in his preparations to become one with the river. Remembering past experiences with rivers—especially with the few rapids I’d dared to descend—I expected him to find the easiest way through, following the “V” of the flow through white, frothing water to arrive on the other side within moments, triumphant. Rivers, with their great movement and flow, offer a way from one place to another, after all. In those special places where water moves with thundering force and their strength can readily be harnessed to drive powerful mills, I believed that nothing rests. There could be no pause here. At least, in my experience, so far.
Not so with the tiny yellow boat. This man’s journey appeared to be about holding himself in the most powerful place of these roaring waters, working through a combination of great bursts of strength and subtle nuance of movement to hold that space. To experience it, to master it, to learn all that it had to teach. That one great tumbling wheel of water, churning and roaring, was this man’s place of—I can only guess—energy and renewal. I left him there, bobbing and turning, working with his whole being to hold that space without going under. Each cell of his body learning the way to do this, understanding the forces of the water and learning to just be there, finding calm in the flow.
Walking back downriver, turning my attention toward the green, time-honored statue of the mill girl who beckoned me back into the currents of my powerful weekend work, I was moved by the gifts of the river. Ahead, I could see the barefoot slack-lining young athlete, again swaying on his orange line a few feet above greening grass. I wondered, what would his work be like with those roaring waters beneath him? Ice cold waters, into which I could barely imagine dipping a toe.
Again, he called out as I approached. “It’s harder than it looks!” he said, hopping off the line.
I stepped of the brick path, accepting what seemed like an invitation to move a few feet closer. “I can’t imagine the strength it must require,” I responded. I could not. I tried on for a moment, in my mind, the experience of finding balance on that loose, swaying line, a few feet above the ground. Using every muscle and tendon to find stillness. I could see myself for a split second, holding the space, before tumbling off without grace to land on the ground, exhausted from the effort. Who was this boy, so eager to share his experience with a stranger walking by? I wondered, stepping closer still.
“Really, it’s more mental energy than physical energy,” he told me.
He sat down on the line, resting one bare foot easily on it, the other on the ground, turning his full attention to me. The line seemed a part of him, requiring of him apparently no effort to rest on it, no more than one inch of nylon. We chatted about the sport of slack-lining, his opportunity to “go professional” and his subsequent decision to keep it for himself, to not let money taint his experience of the sport. He talked about bringing the sport to an orphanage in Haiti, where he taught the skill to the children before leaving them with an orange line of their own. I could only imagine the children finding their power on that line, in a place where so little power is theirs.
I shared my wondering about walking the line over danger like the roaring waters beside us. “I’ve walked between cliffs,” he said. “I go to the most beautiful place. It’s like a calm—a place where everything is still. It’s like a beautiful meditation. When I’m in that place, I have no fear and I know I’m safe from falling.”
I took the full meaning of his story deep into my gut. This weekend’s work was all about understanding and “rewiring” our neurological responses, to create healing in our bodies. What a gift to be able to find that place of calm—that uniquely sacred place—rather than to live in the fear, panic, sadness and regret that underlies any chronic disease.
Finding myself nearly without words, I considered this very young man and the unmeasurable value of what his practice had already taught him. “That must mean you can return to that calm place whenever you need to, or whenever you’re in danger,” I said.
He smiled with the knowing of an ancient sage beaming from the playful face of a young boy. “Yes,” he said. “It’s a beautiful place to go.”
I rejoined my group for the last afternoon of work, unearthing what was buried, preparing ourselves to bring this important work back into our lives to heal our bodies and spirits. I understood now that this weekend, this special place by the most powerful waters, was our place on the hurling waters or the quivering orange line.
This was our place to find and know our deepest places of calm and strength. This was our place—here where generations of others had come to feel, understand and put to work the great power of this river for themselves and others—to know that power, too. This was our place to acquire and refine the tools and practice of finding that place of power and sacred within ourselves.
Walking that brick path will forever return me to that place. I looked toward the calm, knowing face of the mill girl as she set her attention on the door, behind which she would work until nightfall and exhaustion allowed her to leave.
I will remember this learning in all the cells of my being.
How do you access that place of calm and power? Do you have a special place?
Thank you, Ona Sachs and Michael Schaffer for your teaching. Thank you, Medaphysical Whole Health for offering this healing retreat.