After hearing Catherine Ingram speak earlier in the week, I decide to attend her two – day non-residential retreat in one of Melbourne’s greenest suburbs. I arrive, remove my shoes and enter an elegantly decorated corridor leading to a sitting room bathed in natural light. Catherine sits in stillness as she did for her Dharma Dialogue a few days ago, gently smiling, eyes closed, waiting for us to arrive.
I find a seat, close my eyes and rest in the silence. I look forward to this retreat as – apart from Catherine’s dialogues and a few question and answer sessions – it is to be in silence. Unfortunately, silence has become an extreme sport in our culture, undertaken by a few mavericks and stoic hippies fleeing the din of human excess. However, as a way of staying sane in a mad world, I recommend you seek it with the vigor of a stampeding wildebeest.
A little later, I sense a subtle energy shift in the room and, shortly after, Catherine begins to speak. Her tone is warm, confident and clear as she welcomes us and explains the weekend is about an emptying out of our accumulated fears, stories and beliefs. There will be no specific techniques, she says. Rather, this emptying will occur as a result of resting in an atmosphere of quiet stillness in the presence of like-minded people. As a technique addict, I baulk at this although I’m willing to see what happens.
Anyway, no place for my mind to rebel as it’s time for our first walk. We quietly don coats and scarves, put up our umbrellas and head off into a soft rain.
“Get out of your heads and feel your body,” says Catherine as we gather our group. “We’re like a herd of animals, just taking a walk. Use all your senses. Hear the birds, feel the moisture on your skin and smell the air,” she says, as we set off at a cracking pace. The scenery is gorgeous — green, lush and teeming with birdlife — and I do my best to stay alert. We circumnavigate streams of clear water and cross small wooden bridges as we pass other humans walking dogs and riding bikes.
Before I know it, we’re back at the house and I realize I’ve been in my head most of the way. I also notice how tired I am and it’s not from the walk. It’s a long-standing weariness I begin to heed in the growing silence.
“What’s with the ducks in trees?” asks Catherine when we’re all seated again. Someone assures her ducks do that sometimes. Then It hits me: I was so stuck in my head I had completely failed to notice the bizarre sight of Ducks In Trees. What else had I missed? I resolve to watch for Ducks In Trees on our next walk and, rather ambitiously, for the rest of my life. Catherine had also noticed an earthworm on the track and hoped it would survive our feet. I hadn’t seen the worm, either. The more we leave our heads, the more we notice, it seems.
Here’s a story Catherine tells that I find helpful:
Imagine you’re at the bottom of the Himalayas on the way to base camp. Your journey takes hours and hours and you become utterly exhausted. You are cold, hungry and desperately tired and yet your trek is nowhere near over. Finally, in a state of physical and mental desperation, up ahead you see base camp. You stagger through the door into the warmth of a raging fire. Someone hands you a hot, steaming drink and you collapse onto a soft chair in front of the radiant heat. As you stare into the flames, your mind has all but stopped and all you feel is a contentment and ease beyond anything you have ever known. Use this image whenever you need to encourage a sense of wellbeing in your life.
Catherine’s words have a quality about them. She answers people’s questions with gentle wisdom and clarity. She precedes much of her instruction with invitations — “I would suggest …”I’d ask you to consider”… “You may like to imagine” — and this has a remarkable effect on the mind’s rigidity and tendency to resist new ways of perception. At the same time, she talks, looks and acts like a completely normal person and I have no sense she’s playing the role of a holier-than-thou guru or having us on like a character from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. She simply is what she is: a person who’s found a way to live with lightness and ease and who seems to have done this by dropping most of her beliefs in the process — including her Buddhist ones.
Day Two and I’m much less tired. My mind and body are quieter and I notice more on our walks but, alas, no Ducks In Trees.
It’s question time again and I feel my mind working on brilliant insights with which to regale the group. However, each time I’m about to speak it becomes irrelevant. Questions I never knew I had are answered via other people’s observations and experiences. What a relief. In fact, the entire retreat has been a relief, especially the silence. Silence is a great gift as it frees us from the pressure to be interesting or entertaining. It’s also a peaceful way to experiment with that dreaded word in our culture: invisibility. You can play with the experience of being “nobody” for a short time and see how it affects your mind and body. You may be surprised to find it’s not the social death we think it is. Midlife women, take note.
Despite the lack of specific techniques, Catherine’s simple presence demonstrates there is another way for our tormented species to inhabit this planet. It is a way of lightness, ease and humor without the slightest hint of falsity or harshness. Catherine seems to be about embracing her humanity with all its quirks and foibles.
She gently invites us to do the same.