I had entered through the forest of burgundy-turned Oak and golden-leafed Cottonwood, and after having crossed the arroyo through the thicket, I stood in the meadow of wild grasses, a flaxen sea lit up by the morning sun that had taken its sweet time in burning off the last of the clouds from a series of overcast days. My taiji quan form was given to the cliffs I faced, whose own faces I knew held petroglyphs I longed to see.
As my body moved the qi under my palms, I sensed others soaking up the essence of the landscape. They, too, were in silence, all part of a qigong, taiji, gongfu, and yoga training intensive— day five of seven 15-hour practices. Our task for the next two hours was to immerse ourselves in the natural world and to allow our senses to re-sensitize to it.
Silence has a way of making the senses speak out with precise amplification.
I travelled on, following the call of the prehistoric carvings in the rocks beyond, not knowing the way, but feeling for it, and trusting its summons. I found a pale footpath in the grass that took me to a fork where I discovered bear tracks clearly defined in the crusted mud.
To my left, a massive Cottonwood, with nine huge trunks reaching out from its enormous base— more than six feet across. On a small patch of green grass at its bed were two crossed legs with boots peaking out just so.
I let my friend have her time there and I took the path to the right, which led me to a stairway of earth and railroad ties. These gave way to a narrow trail that paralleled the long stretch of rock-wall.
I followed my intuition, veering up its side where it was less steep and found a fence with the barbed wire pulled up to make a portal to the other side. I slipped through and after a short scramble up a patch of lose rocks I found myself with a view of the entire surrounding landscape.
A keen examination of the rocks revealed a series of petroglyphs carved into the flat-sided boulders: A spiral, then a snake, a herd of elk or deer, a handprint that matched mine exactly as I pressed my palm into its shape, the fingers stretched to make pointed nails like flames.
I meditated with the sun on my face and soon my friend from the cottonwood had arrived. I silently pointed out the rock drawings and let her enjoy her own time with them. As I was leaving she handed me a note that read:
This was the phrase we had been given the night before during the Qigong Theatre in which some of us were named as such and had to play that role while exploring a world of archetypes presented to us by way of other qigong actors.
I began hiking down the same way I had come up. But already I felt the trepidation of the descent working its way into cracks in my confidence. On my way up I had been fearless, spirited, and bold. The way suddenly seemed daunting as I inched my way down the cliffside.
I felt the rocks give way under my feet and I slipped.
I caught myself in time, but I was shaken; I looked back to the summit to see if my friend would be coming along, too. She was not.
Sometimes you must descend the mountain alone, with no one but yourself to count on to make it through close-calls and only you to rely on when you lose your way.
From there to the earthen steps I had already lost the path twice. Adding to that, at the base of the stairway I took a wrong turn. Doubling back toward the other direction I finally found the nine-trunked Cottonwood giant, only to lose the trail yet again.
I found myself guessing incorrectly time after time, squeezing through saplings, scraggly oak, and grasses that stuck their seed pods to my pants as I forced my way through. Three, four, and perhaps five times more I ran into obstacles: a ravine, a thick cluster of cholla cacti, a tangle of sweeping branches like arms walling up a boundary to block my way.
Photograph by Brea Fisher
The stickiness of the first, subtle signs of the birth of panic began to whisper blows at my heart. I brushed them off with a deep breath, or a moment of appreciation for the natural beauty in which I was enveloped.
When the mind catches wind of worry the body follows that new rhythm by making the breath shallow, inconsistent; one must lengthen and steady the breath to cue the mind back into a settled state.
I kept glancing back for my friend. I thought of her confident stride, her hiking boots. I looked down at my practice sneakers and wished she was there to help me find the way. Maybe she was nearby. The vow of silence said I couldn’t call out. Should I whistle? Clap my hands?
I finally reached the head of the wood where the adobe walls of the retreat center suddenly came into view over the hill. I was soon stepping sure-footedly across the courtyard and into the dining hall, through the grounds and into the kiva where class was about to begin.
In silence we practiced four hours and in silence we ate our lunch afterward. I sat in the sun on the ground, facing the cliff I could not see but knew was there, through the woods and beyond the meadow.
My friend spotted me and approached, handing me a poem she had penned on that same piece of notebook paper. It’s heading still declared, “Intrepid Adventurers.” Underneath was her story, the tale of her morning adventure.
I looked up and she pointed to her chin, blood visible underneath a bandage. She rolled up her pant leg to reveal a scraped leg and knee. Her hand and elbow were rashed.
She had taken the short way down. Coming straight down the front of the cliff, she had lost her footing and tumbled, slamming down on the rocks.
I opened my mouth and placed my hands over my heart. She took my hand and nodded slowly with a wise calm. She pointed to her mind and placed her arms in Heart Protection position, crossed over the chest in surrender and transcendence. Her eyes were serene; her heart was in peace.
One of the most life-changing teachings I have gained from my years as a gongfu practitioner is the importance of remaining calm in tense situations. Had I given in to the worry over losing the path it could have easily tangled itself into panic and that would have made it even harder to find the way.
In keeping with the idea that the mind and the body are constantly informing each other, influencing each other, and inspiring each other, I’d like you to become aware of what this dialogue looks like for you as you go about your day.
What is your mind telling your body and how is your body responding?
Can you catch your mind telling your body to do things that don’t serve you— like breathing shallow, increasing your heart rate, or tensing up your muscles simply by the thoughts you’re having?
When you do notice these body reactions, are you able to use the body to calm your mind, by breathing deeply and with awareness, by relaxing your muscles, or by slowing your movements?
Pay attention to the communication your mind and body share, and actively take part in that dialogue, using your body to soothe your mind.
As I looked at my friend, with her chin bandaged up, my eyes welled with hot tears. I wanted to say I was sorry I had left her. I wanted to tell her I got lost. All the things I thought I needed to say with words were spun on the breeze like the golden Cottonwood leaves making ocean sounds like, hushhhhhhhhh.
Words ain’t got nothin’ on the language of the heart.
She shook her head in response, drew a heart on her heart, and pointed to me. She opened her arms and I met her in a hug that melted me into trust that what was essential had been communicated and what was true was understood.
One way to use the body to cue the mind back into calm, is to practice qigong and tai chi. If you’d like to learn, DOORS ARE NOW OPEN TO SIGN-UP for the Pay-What-You-Like Qigong Lesson Film Subscription Series. Sign-up is fast and simple via patreon.com/breafisher. Click the Become A Patron button and follow the prompts to create an account.
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