Meditation on Hay River

He ho'okele wa'a no ka la 'ino A canoe steersman for a stormy day. A courageous person.

from 'Olelo No'eau - Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings, #592

I just returned from a seven day silent Zen meditation retreat at the North Woods Retreat Center on the Hay River, Wisconsin. The Hay is ancient and winds through a fertile valley in Prairie Farm. It is a tributary of the Red Cedar River, part of the Mississippi River watershed. People live simply there, surrounded by the beauty of the hills and white pine forests, the clean water and pure air.

During the retreat, we practiced no unnecessary talking as well as sitting still for 4 - 5 hours a day. We listened to the quiet and to sounds of the wind, birds and chipmunks. We heard fire crackling in the wood stove and noticed our thoughts bouncing all around.

Meditation is an opportunity to shine the light inward and work on balancing mind, body and spirit. Research has shown that mindfulness meditation strengthens neurons in parts of our brain's neocortex that improves emotional balance, fear modulation and impulse control.

As we quiet our minds and bodies, we can start to notice things that we do or think that we're not usually aware of such as how we can distort our self-image and thereby give our power away to others. We do this because of personal feelings of shame or inadequacy. We can also notice how we blame or judge others, how we express our irritations in an unskillful way when we're tired, how we fail to see our part in the equation.

Meditation is also a way to be more embodied. Most people in urban environments tend to live just in their "heads," stressed by too much electronic sensory input and compulsive multi-tasking. During Zen retreats we work on doing one thing at a time and putting our heart fully into whatever we do. If we're sitting, we're just sitting. If we're eating, we're just eating. If we're sweeping, we're just sweeping. This is a way to lessen judgments and to ground ourselves in our bodies in the present moment. When our minds wander, we simply come back gently to whatever we are doing - without judgment. It's an ongoing practice.

We always have a mindful work period during our retreats. Part of our group helped cut invasive buckthorn to restore the forest on the land. Retreats help strengthen our spiritual core and build courage to be ourselves. We realize that we are perfect as we are.

A few times during the rest periods, I lay on the 'aina (earth) and looked up appreciating the endless blue sky. I watched geese floating on the river or flying in formation overhead, honking. I saw a bald eagle and hawk fly over the river. There were small turtles that gently swam underwater in the river along with numerous little fish.

By the sixth day, I felt in tune with myself and the land. That last afternoon I spent sitting on the banks of the Hay River as I played my ipuheke (double headed gourd). I decided to do the Practice of Immediacy in the Arts and to make random ipu (gourd) beats reflecting how I was feeling. Pretty soon, a little song about the Hay River just bubbled forth. It honored the beauty of the place and the joy it brought to me. I will teach it to my keiki (children) hula students to remember this beautiful place that nurtured me so greatly. I give you photos of our time there set to the music of Daniel May's "Chi."

But it is not all idyllic there. Trouble is brewing that threatens this paradise. At our retreat's end, my dear friend Elizabeth Allen told us,

"We who live here, have traded the opportunities of city life for the beauty and simplicity of nature. Our land also holds silica sand for use in fracking. In the last year, huge mining corporations have begun offering millions of dollars for farmland, making some people rich, and destroying the homes of their neighbors.Our weakened DNR has refused a petition to regulate silica particulate, exposing families to the threat of fatal silicosis. Many of the local governments here have opposed zoning in order not to interfere with small farms, but are now finding themselves with gigantic mines close to our towns, exposed to perpetual noise, stadium lights that can be seen for miles, and massive amounts of water usage that lower water tables and dry up personal wells. Mines that level the beautiful forested hills, cost us millions in road repair annually, and destroy the natural filtering system of the sand over our aquifers."

Tears quickly came to my eyes when Liz told me this and that a company had bought land for just this purpose nearby. I had grown to love the beauty of this place deeply during my seven days there. It's hard to see it possibly destroyed in the name of "progress." When will we understand that what we do to the environment, we do to ourselves?

Courage helps us bear witness to this destruction of our rapidly diminishing wild places. It helps us to be open and remain connected when all seems hopeless. And it's important to know that we each can do something - even if it's just meditating and staying aware or pule (praying). We can also bring light to a hidden issue by telling others about it. Stormy days are coming. Let's all work to be good canoe steersmen.

Malama pono (take care of body, mind and heart),

June Ryushin Kaililani Tanoue