Zen Meditation Retreat

It took me 22 years to stay at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center by the Pacific Ocean. I’d passed it a couple of times while hiking in Marin County long ago, but there was an invisible barrier bigger than the 10 foot fence keeping me (and the deer) out. Hour after hour of silence, meditation in the austere zendo, no distractions apart from the sound of bees moving among long strands of lavender.

I walk into the Welcome Center, You’re Daniel, we’ve been expecting you, a woman named Lucy says with a British accent. I’m one of very few guests staying at the zen farm. My room isn’t ready so I walk to the zendo, remove my sandals and step inside. I’ve been in the zendo before, but on a Sunday when the space was filled with people. The wooden room is now empty, smells vaguely of incense, zafus (meditation cushions) line the floor in rows, two Buddhas watch over the wide expanse from an altar near the front. I try sitting on a zafu, but after a few minutes my aching back says no. I find a chair and meditate for an hour, then walk out imaging the years of silence that the room has absorbed. The long departed women and men who once sat where I was, content, grief stricken, finding their breathing over and over again.

I arrive at my room, it is mostly glass windows, sliding doors, no key. No locks, that is how we roll around here. Lucy said. For a split second I remember that tomorrow is Friday the 13th, but quickly stuff thoughts of Jason back into my brain (I’ve never watched one of those movies). My quarters have a private bathroom. Most meditation retreats emphasize the communal, shared rooms and toilets. In theory I’m not against being communal, but I almost always pee in the middle of the night at 3am and would rather skip the walk to wherever that toilet might be. I opted to do a retreat with no set requirements, no alternating hours of sitting and walking meditation, no dharma talks every night, no emphasis on complete silence. I appreciate all those things, but I had to make the retreat work with my family. Green Gulch is close to San Francisco and is usually available anytime for guests, unlike other meditation retreats that book up weeks in advance.

After getting settled I amble over to a pond, its edges filled with green vegetation poking out of the water. I sit on a bench and meditate again, and appreciate my good fortune. The whole scene has rustic fragrant beauty with abundant earthen sounds, like a summer camp aviary for peace seekers; a complete contrast to the noise and cigarette littered streets of San Francisco.

Two periods of meditation complete, I walk past penstemon and buckeye flowers, then acre after acre of plants rising through soil, the farm’s edible rainbow; purples, greens, yellows, all in rows, an oasis of curated nature stretching out almost to the ocean. Women and men till the ground, water plant roots, their unlocked bikes rest on the ground nearby. The farm is a miniature utopia, a perfect society, a Buddhist hippie kibbutz. Everyone smiles at me as I pass, hummingbirds dart in and out of flowers, rabbits sniff the air, then disappear. I feel like my five-year old self singing I’ve got the whole world in my hands, with my post-Vietnam War teachers smiling peace at me.

6pm the dinner bell clangs slowly, then faster, letting everyone know it’s time to gather in the dining hall. The food is served buffet style, pinto bean stew with sauteed onions, garlic, tomatillo sauce, grilled corn, and steamed leafy chard. It goes without saying that everything is organic, of the earth only yards away. As mindful as I try to be, my wife is the first to say that I eat too quickly. I blame it on being a teacher, always cramming in my food before class, or maybe I’m just like most Americans steeped in a fast food world where eating rapidly is the norm. This is my chance to be different. There is a clock on the wall, I tell myself, you’re not leaving here for 40 minutes. The pinto stew mixed with brown rice is delicious, I make a point of laying my fork back on the plate after savoring each bite. I don’t take another forkful until my mouth is completely empty. 35 minutes later and the food is gone. I slowly get up, walk to the front and pour myself a cup of peppermint tea. I sit for another 10 minutes, completing a 45 minute silent dinner. We are short of volunteers in the kitchen, a young woman with red curly hair calls out after ringing a bell. I have nowhere else to be so I find myself in the dishroom with Santosh, a 70-year old woman originally from the Punjab region of India. She does the first scrubbing, I dip the dishes into a tub of soapy water, then into a drying rack. Santosh’s daughter invited her to Green Gulch as a birthday present. When we first meet we bow to each other, then work in silence for several minutes, occasionally bowing to other people as they leave their plates and utensils.

After dinner I hear coyotes crying out into the night, they live in the low mountain ridges that surround Green Gulch, a chorus of loud lonely barks and howls, high pitched and haunting. The evening brings more meditation, some writing, then reading a Buddhist text by Ajahn Chah. His words remind me that my body and life are not permanent. At 9pm a monk claps blocks together, telling everyone that it is time for slumber (the monks and zen students will be up at 4:30am the next day to meditate).

I arise the following morning at 5:45am, do an hour of meditation, then a few push-ups, and more reading. I won’t go into all the breakfast details except to say the blueberries are bursting with sweetness, bringing the oatmeal to life. I sit with a woman named Janet, also a teacher, married with two adult daughters. We are grinning ear to ear, both incredibly happy to be in this place. She is staying in the guest house. Is it full? I ask. No, only three other people. She tells me. We can hardly believe that Green Gulch is empty compared to all the other spots around San Francisco that are overflowing with tourists. Remove TV, booze, and meat, add a little silent Buddhism, and I guess that is all it takes for the zen center to remain mostly unknown to the public.

After breakfast I walk the 20 minutes to Muir Beach, meditate on a bench, listen to the waves crash, then watch a woman dive into the ocean with all her clothes on, laughing, supremely happy with her decision. I smile, she feels the way I feel, covered, drenched in elation, very thankful for another day of tranquility at Green Gulch.