At the opening orientation for our group, I gave people permission to skip an activity—to pace themselves, their energy, their body’s response to the altitude, and their need for down time and solitude—by sitting out a scheduled activity on an as needed basis. I asked that everyone come to writing class if at all possible since a writing circle can’t build intimacy and trust on a drop-in basis—but many days we were also going to have an afternoon outing to explore an archeological site or a group of village weavers or a city, to visit a local school or a family farm —and that during those activities, people could opt out and stay behind to rest, get a massage, go for a hike or have a solo adventure.
I told the group that the main thing that gets in the way of people taking care of themselves is FOMS—fear of missing something. I stressed that if they opted out of a scheduled activity, they actually wouldn’t be missing anything—they’d just be having their own experience having their own experience or adventure. I told them it was likely that everyone would need at least one day off; with daily yoga, writing and touring our itinerary was full—and that taking a morning or an afternoon or a day off could be a natural way to reset themselves and to maintain their balance and equilibrium. Traveling has its own stresses and people have different tolerances for being in a group. Sometimes there’s only so much you can take of moving to a schedule or with a group. Besides, if they didn’t do something on the schedule, they’d be doing something else during those same hours. They’d just be having their own different experience.
So far, a few times, people have opted out of an outing and stayed back. They’ve hiked, gotten massages, rested, written or just regrouped with themselves, dealt with a headache or a cranky stomach. And after their catch-up day, they’ve been ready to rejoin the group’s activities the next day.
Yesterday, when I was not feeling 100%, I decided to do the four-hour traditional sweat lodge on our itinerary for the afternoon anyway. I’d insisted on including it because I love sweats and rituals and I wanted something for myself, rather than always taking care of the group. Taking part in a traditional sweat lodge was one of the things I’d looked forward to most on this trip—a personal highlight of my stay in Peru. I knew that doing a sweat lodge wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I figured maybe half of our group might say yes to it. And I was right. The morning of the sweat, half the group—ten—said they wanted to participate, but by the time two o’clock rolled around, the group of participants had shrunk to six. Everyone else had a free afternoon. A woman came down from the mountains to do coca leaf readings and many people had massages. They had a relaxing afternoon.
But I stuck with my initial deep desire to participate in the sweat lodge. I knew it wasn’t a great fit for my body at that moment. My chi, my vital energy was low, and I knew intense heat would probably sap me further, but I decided to do it anyway. I knew I might pay a price for it, but it was an experience I didn’t want to miss.
I’m not going to detail the experience I had in that sweat lodge because it was deeply spiritual and not everything can or should be shared publically or the experience gets diluted. But I prayed, as I always do for an open heart and I got a clear message about the price I pay for being who I am in the world.
When the fourth round of the sweat was over, it took a long time for me crawl out of the lodge and to step into the cold shower. I laid on the dirt floor, streaked with mud and sweat and I couldn’t move. I was definitely in an altered state. Something profound had shifted inside me. But my body was paying the price. I had used everything up going on that journey.
This morning when I taught writing group, I was drawing on depleted reserves. I felt sapped and empty. I’ve taught all over the world in all kinds of conditions and as a professional, I’m able to rally and push through my own discomfort and malaise to teach. I’ve done it hundreds of times—stepping out of the way, shedding my physical body and channeling a force more powerful and vital than I am. Grace takes over. Divine energy takes over. I tap a creative energy that rises out of the earth through my body. My small personality self and my weary body fall away and something essential takes its place. I rise to the occasion by stepping out of the way.
In all my many years of teaching, there’s only one time I got so sick that I had to cancel all my classes. I was at the San Miguel Writer’s Conference. I had terrible bronchitis and chills and I’d lost my voice. There was no way I could teach. I was staying at a dear friend’s house a good place to be sick, and I had to contact the director of the Conference and cancel all of my workshops. There was no other option. I didn’t have a choice. I had to surrender. I laid on the couch and a sexy Mexican doctor made house calls to care for me.
But other than that one instance, I’ve always been able to plug into this super-power transcendent force so I could teach despite what I was feeling physically. It’s not that I’m defending this. I’m just telling it like it is. My work ethic is so strong, it can override almost anything.
The year I had cancer, when I was 50, I taught through my whole year of treatment. I’d arrive at class, bald and hunched, having lost 40 pounds, too weak to lift the folding chairs out of the closet to set them up in a circle around the room. Lift a table to set it up against the wall? Impossible. But my students loved me; they came and picked me up at my house, took turns coming early to set up the room. They came to class despite the fact that their teacher had breast cancer. I pared way back on how much I taught that year, but I still planned those few classes and taught them; then I’d go home and go back to bed.
Why did I teach that year? Because I was afraid my classes would fall apart. Because I was a self-employed breadwinner with kids to support; because I worked for myself and had no sick leave; I needed to work. But even more importantly, I needed to be more than a cancer patient; I wanted to hold on to a small piece of my dharma, my identity out in the world. My classes got smaller and became more intimate that year because I had no energy to draw more people in, but I kept teaching. And once I got through cancer, my classes expanded again. I started expanding again. I started running workshops again. I moved back into an expansive, generative, creative phase. And that’s the thing. There’s this expansive part of me, the doer, the creator, the manifester, and I let her have her way with me. She rises up from my core and manifests. She creates. She makes things happen. She serves. But there’s a price to following her call.
After writing class this morning, the group was going on a long outing to Pisac and the archeological site there. The group was leaving at noon and wouldn’t be back until 9. They were going to tour the archeological site. There was going to be a hike down the terraces into Pisac and I’d been looking forward to hiking down. I’d been looking forward to dinner out at a restaurant. I’d been looking forward for my first real chance to shop.
But deep down, I knew it was too much for me, that I needed to sleep and rest. I clearly knew it last night and this morning when I still felt like I’d lost all my chi, but as the time got closer for the noon departure, the feeling of losing out bloomed in my chest. Sadness over missing something grew stronger.
A couple of the women in our group also weren’t feeling well; they also didn’t want to miss out. So, they decided to go with the group and take a cab back to Sach’a Munay as soon as their energy flagged. When I heard their plan, I immediately started bargaining. Maybe I can go with them! Maybe I could come back early, too. Then I wouldn’t miss the archeological site. I wouldn’t miss shopping at the Mercado. I wouldn’t miss exploring Pisac.
I had these thoughts ten minutes before the bus was leaving and I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t packed my backpack (warm layers, down coat, raincoat, hiking poles, sun hat, warm hat, sunscreen, passport, money). And I knew deep down that I shouldn’t go. I walked back to our little house where Karyn was finishing her novel. “I don’t want to miss out,” I said to her.
“You need to rest Laura. You should spend the day sleeping.”
I knew she was right. Karyn is almost always right. I’d pushed myself to attend the sweat and it had depleted me. Resting today was the cost. But it was still hard not to go. I worried about being lonely. I worried about missing out. Everyone else would have an experience I wouldn’t get to have. Still, I knew deep down that I wasn’t going. The lesson for me in the sweat lodge had been that I pay a deep personal price for being the person I am out in the world. That my dharma as a teacher and a creator and a generator or plans and retreats has a steep cost to me personally. The energy I put out in the world has its cost.
This was not a day to push through anything.
After the bus departed, I felt a deep sense of relief. I sank into my core tiredness. I felt like a wraith. If my acupuncturist back home had taken my pulse, I’m sure it would have been faint and thready. My mouth had a terrible taste in it—sour and disgusting. Was that a side effect of Diamox? My joints were sore. I had no energy. I didn’t feel sick exactly; I felt like a flat tire. A completely flat tire. I didn’t know if it was the sweat, the energy I’d expended holding the space for two retreats—forty souls—back to back or if my body just didn’t like Diamox. My headache was gone, but it was hard getting off the couch.
I found a spot in the dining room on black leather fainting couch with a cozy thick wool blanket. It felt great to stretch out on that couch with a warm blankie and a cup of hot coca tea. I dozed off. Then I heard voices—the six young women who’d arrived a couple of days ago for their own retreat. We were sharing Sach’a Munay with them. They invited me to join them for lunch.
I served myself simple vegetable soup, fresh avocado, quinoa salad with large kidney shaped green beans, and roasted potatoes and I brought my food over to their table. The six of them were young; they could all be my daughters. They’d come from all over the US—and one from Norway—for a weeklong ayahuasca retreat. Tonight was going to be first of their three ceremonies. Only one of them, the trip leader, had ever done plant medicine before. The others were nervous and excited and eager. I asked them why they’d come, what they were hoping to find in their journeys, what had led them to the choice to come here and take the potent medicine.
They were warm, friendly lunch companions, full of the energy of youth. I tried to imagine my kids coming to Peru for an ayahuasca ceremony and I just couldn’t imagine it. In our family, the hippie/alternative/spiritually-seeking/consciousness altering gene has skipped a generation.
The trip leader and I traded notes about organizing and running retreats, and when lunch was over, I wished them well on their journey. It will be interesting to check in with them tomorrow.
Now, they’ve gone back to their little house to rest and prepare for their long night ahead and I am alone again on the black couch, listening to the sound of our lunch dishes being washed in the kitchen, hoping that the wifi comes back on today so I can upload this post and the pictures I took of Karyn’s morning yoga class.
But now it’s time for a nap, a lovely deep sleep.
P.S. I slept for three hours this afternoon. Then I came back to the black couch and the two gals I told you about—the two who planned to take a taxi back early—came through the doors of the dining room and reported on their adventure, shared some pictures (see below) and showed off the things they’d bargained for in the market. Now they’ve gone off to bed. It’s 7:30, time for me to go back to bed with a book. I’ve also decided to cut back to half the dose of Diamox—half a pill in the morning instead of a one in the morning and one at night. I’m hoping that yucky taste in my mouth will go away and that I’ll have a little more air in my tires by tomorrow.
PS The reason you haven’t heard from me in more than two days is because there’s been zero Wi-Fi. I’ll post what I can now, but if you don’t hear from me again that’s why!