Green Mountains Walking: a Training in Landscape Intimacy
The Evaluation of an Experimental Retreat
This event was devised in the light of my own experience alone in the Plynlimon hills for extended periods over several years. This led me to reflect on what might be the conditions and strategies for facilitating for others a deeper intimacy with landscape. Accordingly I hired a bunkhouse up in the hills, selected a variety of solo meditation "stances" (locations for practice) in different parts of the mountain and invited participants to a weekend retreat, from the evening of 14 June to the morning of 17 June, 2002.
The letter of invitation stated that "the aim is to enable you to feel more at-one with the landscape. By the end of the weekend you should have a deeper appreciation of Dogen's dictum, "When the self retreats, the ten thousand things advance." A second letter contained specific instructions, as follows:
Landscape Meditation Instructions
Please familiarise yourself with these and bring them with you on the mountain.
Setting up the Stance
You will be given a map and directions for finding your stance. With a bit of luck you will be on your own there for as long as six or seven hours on each day, Saturday and Sunday, with at least one visit from me each day. The stance will usually comprise a landscape feature and the area adjacent. Select a meditation seat, which as far as possible, gives you a panoramic view, with foreground, middle ground and background features. This is your Home View. However, you may also need to frame a Supplementary View to meet these requirements, and spend some time becoming intimate with that also.
Most of the time you should aim just to sit and keep bringing your attention back to the landscape. It can be useful to have a foreground, a middle ground and a background feature to help focus the attention initially. Persist and eventually the landscape will hold you.
If and when the above becomes difficult, turn your attention inwards and follow your customary meditation practice for a while.
Work out one or two little contemplative strolls, to ease the mind, or exercise the limbs, or to warm up if the weather is bad (like down along by a stream, then up round a big boulder, and so on). Check your map and keep well clear of any adjacent stance. Such a stroll should not be longer than, say, five minutes. The aim is contemplation, not exploration. Stay with this route or routes all weekend.
Reading, photography and sketching are as unhelpful as they would be on a conventional retreat.
First, with all three contemplations, keep gently bringing the attention back to what is in front of you. And if this causes some agitation, then contemplate that for a while. Where is it coming from?
Secondly, depending on your mood, the time of day, or whatever, always try to find a middle way in this practice - not too pushy, not too laid back, not too tight, not too slack Remember - the mountain is trying to woo you, but can only reach you if you are gentle,
open and relaxed with yourself.
By participating in this retreat you are undertaking to take full responsibility for your own safety and well-being. If you feel cold, wet, midge harassed, or in any way distressed, please do return to the bunkhouse. Do give yourself a generous margin of comfort and
easefulness. Do take good care of yourself and do not hesitate to seek help if you need it; there will usually be another stance not far away. Remember that in many ways this can be a more demanding experience than a conventional group meditation retreat.
Outer and Inner Contemplation
The above instructions can be read in the context of some controversy (or alternative perspectives eds) in Buddhism about the significance of landscape and other "direct contemplation" meditation. This is relevant to the evaluation of this event and merits a digression.
For some, like Master Sheng Yen (the root teacher of the Western Chan Fellowship), direct contemplation is an "auxiliary method" for use "at times when it seems especially conducive to do so". "As the focus becomes stable, the mind will become still and spacious" (See p. 114 and p. 94, Illuminating Silence, Watkins Publishing, 2002). It is argued that in direct contemplation the self becomes "invisible" but does not "disappear". In order to open to the liberation from suffering that lies in the experience of "emptiness" it is necessary also, when the mind is calmed, to turn the attention inwards. This follows Master Dogen’s dictum "To study the Way is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self; to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things". In an event comparable to this one, Geshe Tashi of Jamyang Centre, London, instructed participants first to calm their mind through landscape meditation, and then to direct their attention inwards.
The contrary view (as in the Dzogchen school) would give precedence to Dogen's "When the ten thousand things advance, the self retreats" over the other half of this saying of his: “When the self retreats, the ten thousand things advance." Here it is argued that authentic "unity consciousness" of subject and object, of self and landscape, is itself sufficient for liberative awakening, for body and mind to fall away. There are questions at issue here, which go beyond Buddhism, to wider controversy around eco-spirituality and the inner path traditions. I shall return to this discussion at the end of my report.
The ParticipantsParticipation was by invitation only, to people personally known to me as most likely sustain this retreat and find it fruitful. Also the introductory letter was very detailed, to enable self-selection. However, the evaluation of the retreat revealed that the expectations of two or three of the thirteen participants conflicted with their actual experience of the weekend. The origin of this apparently lies in the following ambiguity. On the one hand, all the participants were friends or acquaintances of mine, and orally I gave the impression that we were a group of friends come together to undertake an experimental project. This was true, but two very detailed letters made it clear also that this was to be a traditional, structured kind of retreat and that I was designing and leading it. Thus, an experienced Zen practitioner got hold of one end of this stick and complained that the event was too "regimented", whilst a Maenllwyd habitué felt that it was insufficiently "disciplined"!
Eight of the 13 retreatants were women. Five of the 13 were veterans of the comparatively rigorous Chan retreats at the Maenllwyd, whilst four others had attended those retreats at one time or another. Two other retreatants were experienced Zen practitioners. Of the remaining two one practised in a Tibetan Buddhist tradition and the other might be described as a free-floating eco-Buddhist.
The retreat followed a rule of silence, with one hour sittings at the beginning and end of the two full days. Each morning before breakfast everyone climbed the nearby crag carrying a couple of stones to add to the "sangha cairn". The event concluded with a fire puja up by the cairn.
After breakfast on the Saturday and Sunday the retreatants made up their lunch packs and set off for their stances by about 9.30. They were invited to return to the bunkhouse any time between 4pm and 5.30pm, depending on the weather and individual circumstance. In the evening the day's experiences were shared in a round-the-table debriefing. There were also orientation talks on the mountain, on the Chinese landscape tradition, and on relevant Dogen teachings (particularly his Mountains and Rivers text - from which the title of this retreat is taken).
The written assessment questionnaire enquired as to specific likes and dislikes in the programme. Six particularly liked the debriefing sessions (though with reservations about long-windedness) as against one who did not. Two strongly appreciated the fire puja. One singled out the talks for approval, and another dissented. The main complaint was about dampness and cold showers.
This evaluation is based on observation, on the two evening debriefings, and on a thirteen question assessment sheet to which each retreatant responded during the fortnight following the event. To keep this paper within bounds, no systematic and detailed report of responses is offered here. Instead, the responses have been compounded around the main findings. Moreover some of the questions were designed simply to assist in the organisational details of a future event (though in fact all participants felt that they had been well briefed for the retreat, and all thought it was well organised - though with some reservations here and there).
Apart from the fire puja evening, low cloud hung over the mountain all weekend, a keen and unseasonable wind never let up, and there were occasional light showers which fortunately never degenerated into continuous rain. The bunkhouse was damp and uncomfortable, and the hot water supply was erratic. Fortunately our two Chan cooks kept us well fed, and this was much appreciated. Notwithstanding these conditions, nobody returned before the 4pm "flexitime", and several stayed on the mountain for as long as they could. Indeed, all the evidence points to sustained high morale and much positive energy on the part of all and strikingly evident in the concluding group photograph!
Both in the two debriefings and the written reports most participants made some distinction between their experiences on the first and on the second day. This was in part due to the need to settle in on the first day (even more so than on a conventional meditation retreat). And in part it was apparently due to my invitation on the Saturday evening to each, at their discretion, to feel free to relax my written instructions up on their stance, so long as a mindful awareness were maintained. I was motivated both by the harsh weather conditions and by a feeling that many apparently found the first day's regime too rigorous. In the event, for almost all the retreatants, it was on the Sunday that they had the most positive experiences and to which their assessments particularly refer. The following remarks by one make a distinction, which was shared by many:
My state of mind moved from a rigid restrictive self-discipline on day 1, to a state of playfulness and openness and receptivity on day 2. Another way to describe this would be to say that day 1 was about doing something wilfully, where day 2 was about letting the environment do it for itself. Day 1 was actively listening for something and hearing little, while day 2 was about being counselled by the mountain without asking for help.
A clear and consistent picture emerges both from the anecdotal evidence of the debriefing sessions (but most notably on the second day) and from the questionnaire responses. All the retreatants had generally positive experiences up on their stances, though this was noticeably more muted in the case of four of the five men. Indeed, I was quite taken aback by the general enthusiasm and delight which came out of the round of oral reports on Sunday. Certainly for the women, what one described as "a free and open intimacy with the environment" seems to have been the experience of most if not all. "Playfulness", "focus" and "carefree unconsciousness" were typical experiences. The following description by one woman embraces some of the experiences of most of the women:
Sitting, dreaming, listening, watching, walking around, looking, playing, activity - cutting reeds, plaiting them, moving stones, making patterns with them, making offerings. This allowed me to be open to the mountain and to be in a state of communication, relationship and intimacy, whereby when I left on the second day I would have liked to have given it a hug - but how do you hug a mountain?
For another woman the weekend was "a bringing together of all the years I've loved the outdoors with my spiritual practice - a kind of 'permission' to meld them together in a way they haven't before." Some women appeared to have had quite intense experiences of landscape intimacy. One, not normally given to such flights of eloquence, reported as follows:
The big views allowed the watcher to dissipate and simply be in the watching. Melding into an overhang of rock and joining the sheep droppings and mosses with a vast land and skyscape calling to some primeval space and point within one, took one beyond the body and yet within it, to an ancient unity independent of time and place. This seems an odd thing to say about a landscape experience, which has, by definition to be experienced "in the body". Nevertheless, it was the case. It was decidedly not an "out of body" experience though. The physicality of it all required an attention to the body that was fairly acute. It certainly eased a way into an experience of unity where self-obsession was irrelevant.
The stance had a huge range of options and presentations. It was protective and confrontational. It was gentle and severe. It was vast and intimate. It had flowing aspects and rigid ones. It was huge and tiny. It was enveloping and imploding. It drew one's attention to oneself and then threw that away while one laughed at the process and enjoyed it as the mountain chortled away alongside. It allowed and encouraged one to blend with it and shake off the trappings of civilisation. One felt insignificant and aware of the vast power present in the form of the mountain. The geological forces that shaped it were calling to a primordial memory almost in one's genes. Yet that connection did not allow for any fear for the self. A connection of physicality precluded it. At that moment, the rocks, water, bogs, lichens, insects, birds and humans were just there together, just then, in that spot.
However, only one retreatant (again a woman) referred specifically to turning the attention within:
My single most important learning is a greater awareness in the practice of "holding attention". I practised holding attention inwards, outwards, and inwards and outwards together. Holding my attention on the landscape and in the vastness, I tried to find the still point of the turning world. I went back to my koan, "Soul Mountain lies beyond the Source of the Me River." It seemed apt to contemplate this from my cave. The Me River became less significant and I wandered Soul Mountain, holding my attention, looking for the Source, the pivot, the acupuncture needle. This search is lifelong, demanding, exhilarating, fascinating. Plynlimon has given me another perspective, an opportunity to practice in a different way. What an adventure!
Typical responses of four of the men referred to "playfulness and energy", "becoming more focussed", and "from being constrained and self-concerned to being open and playful". However, the fifth man erupted off the mountain just as the Sunday debriefing session was about to begin, excited, wet and dishevelled. He explained that he had experienced "a sense of reconnection" and he added that "free landscape meditation is just as valid as formal practice - which can be very restrictive and lead to narrowness." He was vehement that it was in the face of the "advance of the ten thousand things" that the self withdrew. It is noteworthy that this retreatant did claim to have spent "much" of his time in "formal meditation" on the landscape.
The assessment paper included the question "Would you come again on a broadly similar retreat?" One retreatant said he felt he didn't really need to do so, since he was now practised in the method and could do it on his own. Two others, both women, were experienced landscape solitaries and preferred to keep it that way. Another man was lukewarm; he would return, "but more to help Ken than for myself"! The remaining nine were enthusiastic about attending another, similar retreat, and there was a general feeling that it should be longer - certainly four full days, or even six.
In response to another question there was general agreement that this kind of event was suitable only for experienced and robust meditators.
Conclusions and Recommendations
(a) The retreat undoubtedly achieved its broadly-phrased aims, both in terms of individual experiences and the spread of those experiences across the group. There was much unselfconscious opening to the landscape, with feelings of release and delight.
(b) This is probably as much as could be expected of a two-day retreat. Even on conventional meditation retreats it is usually not until the third day that most participants become settled into their practice. On this one I suspect that in the unfolding of a longer retreat our laid-back second day would have emerged as a necessary and valuable episode along the way.
(c) Nonetheless I must confess to a certain ambivalence about the whole event, particularly in the light of the remarks on "Inner and Outer Contemplation" earlier in this report. It is true that these refer to quite high states of consciousness, and so far as our modest intentions on this retreat are concerned I am content to remain agnostic in that controversy. However, had the retreat been longer I would have re-emphasised the first two of the "Three Contemplations" in my original instructions, as follows.
On the first day several retreatants reported experiencing with direct contemplation the kind of restlessness and resistance commonly experienced by beginners in traditional inner meditation practice. Two or three explicitly found the instructions too "prescriptive", (though in fact they were no more so than on a conventional Zen retreat). With persistence and determination direct contemplation does in fact become as open and easeful as a mature practice of inward meditation. And in my experience direct contemplation can lead to a very profound landscape intimacy in which the sense of self certainly falls away. Thus it is a misunderstanding to oppose the discipline required of direct contemplation in its initial stages by the relaxed playfulness of that second day. In my experience a well-established direct contemplation practice enhances those periods of unselfconscious playfulness (of which I am myself extremely fond), and vice versa. I believe that to abandon direct contemplation because it appears difficult and "unnatural" is to sell oneself short on the mountain.
Secondly, I would re-emphasize my "second contemplation", to turn the attention inwards, in two situations in which it can be fruitful. When direct contemplation makes the mind restless it can be calmed by turning inward in an established meditation practice, and taking time to examine the origins of that restlessness. And, even more important, at times when direct contemplation has calmed the mind it can be invaluable to turn inwards and investigate what is there, or, indeed, whether there is now any "inwards" or "outwards".
(d) Although the numbers were small, there was a distinct difference between the masculine and feminine experience of environmental intimacy. This was unsurprising, and reflects the wider gender experience of this kind. The feminine appears to enter more spontaneously and intuitively into landscape intimacy. Is the discipline of direct contemplation therefore less needful? And might the turning within be more needful? These are speculations worth further enquiry.
(e) Building on the experience of this first retreat there is a case for a further event, this time of four or five full days' duration.