I took off my dress and underwear to take a shower, but there was no place to put them where they wouldn't get wet. There were no hooks, no shelves, no window ledges. The sink was iso close to the shower, anything on it would get soaked. The toilet had no lid, so nothing could be put there, either. I thought of people crossing a river, their belongings on their heads. I wondered if I could roll my clothes into a ball and hold them on my head as I showered. But my hair was as full of the red Tuscan dirt as my body, and needed to be washed. I wondered if the Italians had a secret method for handling these situations. Like the bathrooms in some bars with only two bricks beside a hole in the floor, no toilet paper, no sink. Secret knowledge.
I draped my dress over the door and took my chances nobody would come along. At a meditation retreat with 300 people on a Tuscan hillside, some bunking in the converted farmhouse and barn, most camping under the trees, all in need of a bathroom, those chances were slim. Not caring, really, if someone walked in, I showered, dressed and headed off to the gonpa, the meditation hall, where the guest teacher, the great Tibetan lama, Lopön Tenzin Namdak, was scheduled to give an initiation in the state of Rigpa, or primordial awareness. I had come from Amsterdam, where I was living, to be there.
Twenty years earlier, I had bumped into this state, also known simply as our natural state, unbidden, and had set out to find out how to return to it. It is simply the open space between thoughts, like the air between all the cars and trucks and buses of our thoughts, and fears, and judgments. As the Lopön - an honorary title - described it: "It is always there, like the blue sky -we just can't see it because of the clouds. It doesn't matter if the thoughts are positive or negative, white clouds, black clouds, they all block our seeing. The practice is to relax in the space between thoughts, that's all." Sounds easy enough. The problem is, just when you catch a glimpse of the open space, the thought pops up, "Aha! I found it!" and in that moment, you lose it. Or the thought, "I'm not finding it. Why?" Thoughts are always ready to jump into the space.
We sat on cushions on the floor, the doors and windows open to the golden summer air and chorus of birdsong wafting over us. Our principal teacher, Namkhai Norbu, was away in Tibet, and in his absence, had invited the Lopön, who was on a 6-month tour of Europe, to teach a special retreat. Only a few years earlier, this idyllic land, of sloping pastures and wooded groves, under the protective gaze of Monte Labbro, had been a sheep farm. I had heard it said that when Namkhai Norbu and a handful of his students from Naples came to consider purchasing it for retreats, the sheep had come over to where he was standing, and laid down at his feet. Wildflowers grew at the edge of the grove, and the scent of honeysuckle and hot, high, golden grasses ran in invisible currents of air. Wisps of white clouds floated over the distant valleys. The world here was free of concepts such as time, ambitions, desires, regrets.
The Lopön sat on a small platform so we could all see him. His face was large and saggy, in a friendly bloodhound kind of way. Even if you didn't know what he had endured during the Chinese ravaging of Tibet, carrying his own teacher, heavy and infirm, on his back across the Himalayas to safety in Nepal, his face showed it all, the hardship, the sorrow, the devotion to helping others, no matter what it took. Every wrinkle, every drooping lip and jowl, was beautiful as an ancient oak, sculpted by every storm it had survived. Sitting in his presence, the only place to be was in that part of yourself.
I followed his instructions and, as if uniting with the warm air wafting in and out through the open door, found myself in a state of open observation, free of thought. I noticed that we were a group of people sitting on a hillside, who had erected walls around ourselves, and those walls were just like the facades used to make movies in Hollywood, propped up fronts to give the impression of solidity. I noticed that along with that facade, we had many other kinds of facades, to make us feel secure, to hide from the enormity of the universe that otherwise might overwhelm us. I noticed that we were, in that way, a lot like the rabbits we saw hopping across the hillside: needing to burrow, to feel safe from the dangers lurking in open fields. I noticed how similar our situation was to the facades at a carnival, painted with laughing faces, but behind them the sad faces of the people who put up and take down the carnival, and how billboards, and cities and big important buildings, are all the same frantic attempt to bring the measureless reality down to our size, so that we can feel we are the center of it, so we can forget that we are standing on a living ball flying through limitless space.
When the session ended, I had no desire to get up. People milled about, heading off to lunch, and left a space around me, gazing at me, getting quiet when they passed by me. I just sat there. When a woman finally spoke to me, it was to ask, "What's it like?" I looked up at her, baffled by the expectant look on her face, but hopeful that she could help me solve the problem we all shared.
"What we need," I said, "is hooks in the shower so all these people who traveled so far to be here, can get clean without their clothes getting wet."
I watched the Lopön slowly hobble down from the platform, assisted by one of the young men, and realized he'd carried me here.