Recently I went on a ten-day silent retreat.
The silence was profound, and I managed to go deep inside myself. At that point, I realized that the whole universe was speaking to me, all the time. But what was it saying?
As I walked around the rural setting of the retreat, which was made up of a few old farmhouses, some tents, and the meeting hall, my attention grew. I paid much more attention than usual to the plants, the trees, the frogs, and the insects.
On the second full day, which already felt like a lifetime, in the grass by the door to my house I saw something shining. It was a padlock that had been cut open. I picked it up to look at it more closely. As it sat heavily in the palm of my hand, I read the word the manufacturer had imprinted on it: “Hardened.”
I think they meant that the steel was hardened, and it would be strong, durable, and difficult to break. But I interpreted it as my heart: “On the day you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.” (- Hebrews 3:15). Indeed, what was I here for, but to open my heart and hear God’s voice?
I brought the broken padlock to my room and set it on a white plate. So began my mandala.
A mandala is “a circular figure representing the universe in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism.” How appropriate, since the philosophy behind this retreat was Buddhist!
In my house, the centre keeps the library. Buddhist books, cookbooks, nature books, and even fiction. I asked my Guides to point out the book that would be best for me right now, and I found one called “Medicine Buddha Teachings” by Khenchen Thrangu.
I know a bit about Buddhist practice, having done two Vipassana retreats, but I know nothing about Tibetan cosmology, so this book was very interesting to me, especially because it jumped straight into healing, my favorite topic.
The suggestion is to visualize the Buddha near any ailment or injury, and the color of the Medicine Buddha is lapis lazuli blue. The book advises to call upon the healing energy to enter into the body.
So, holding in my heart that all healing comes from the divine power of God, I invoked the wisdom of the Medicine Buddha to come to me so that I could heal myself and help others heal.
Just then it was time for our daily yoga class. As much as I dislike yoga (I find it totally boring and would prefer to dance!), I went down to the meeting room for the class because it was on offer and because I was feeling stiff.
The teacher handed out the mats. I shook mine out to unroll it and heard a light “ping,” as if a coin had dropped. I sat on my mat. There, in front of me on the floor, was a tiny shard of stone. Blue swirly stone. Like lapis lazuli.
I picked it up and tucked it into my bra strap to save it for my mandala. To tell you the truth, I felt teary and wobbly. I wanted to talk with our teacher about it, but I was worried he would think I was way too “woo woo,” and also that I was putting on airs or showing off, that I was getting messages from the Medicine Buddha. So I kept it to myself.
In the morning, I was poking around by the campfire site looking at some Artemisia afra, a fantastic healing plant that grows wild (also known as Umhlonyane in Zulu, Wilde Els in Afrikaans, and Wormwood in English). I spotted a scrap of paper and picked it up. “9.99.” I knew it wasn’t 666 because of the dot!! (Just in case you were worried).
Not knowing exactly how to interpret 9.99, but keeping to my newfound promise to myself to listen and collect, I brought it to my plate and set it, appropriately, at the 9:00 position on the “clock.”
By now, I was definitely developing a dialogue with the space, or perhaps with my Guides and angels in this space. So even though I couldn’t figure out the meaning, I found a scrap of blue thread because it was bright and contrasted against the green grass in a way that said, “Pick me up!”
A friend a while back told me, “You must have a magpie Guide,” and that’s a wonderful way to describe the feeling — as if a special bird was collecting magical tokens and depositing them into my lap.
The next piece was a bottlecap, to a beer bottle (!) that I would never have picked up if I weren’t on this mission. But the day after that, also in the grass, I saw a teensy-weensy silver spangle in the shape of a star, and it glittered at me. So I knew they were friends, the two stars, and wanted to be together on the plate.
You might think that by Day 6 of my silent retreat, I would be floating on such a high, holy cloud of bliss that the cares of the world would be far behind me. Not exactly. I started to have the old worries, the ones that always crop up, the ones about, “What was I doing taking ten days off work, and would I be able to pay my bills?”
Just then, not one but two coins cropped up on my path. This is a long-standing sign between my Guides and me that everything will be all right, and that I should not let distractions about money and the material world interrupt the learning and meditating that I was meant to be doing on this retreat! OK, ok, I get it!
I loved the signs on the last day before we were allowed to talk again.
First, a white feather. Classic.
To me, seeing a white feather has always meant, “You are guided.” And it’s true, the last day of the retreat I was on a blissful high, feeling so loved and cherished. It was amazing.
The last mandala finding for me was very special: a butterfly. It had just died, because it was in perfect condition, and I admired the perfection of its creation, the detail, the design.
The butterfly was the last piece of the puzzle: time to fly.
I shared the completed mandala with my yoga teacher on the last day. She surprised me with this story: the Tibetan lama (teacher) who founded this centre in South Africa, Akong Rinpoche was actually “an emanation of the Medicine Buddha.” He has since passed away, but his spirit lives on, helping people heal when they come here, and preparing us to heal others.
My mandala is a picture of my universe, as well as a message that the universe is speaking with me, meaningfully and lovingly. Although I dis-assembled the mandala when I left, the imagery and symbolism will be with me forever.