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  • Writer's picturewendybrd

Finding Magic in Small Moments by Wendy Peterman, Ph.D

Updated: Mar 14, 2021

My first experience with intentionally sending myself to the woods to just “be” and give myself a spiritual reset was during my freshman year of college. I was feeling a rising sense of internal chaos as my family at home was struggling to stay together. Each member had visited me and talked about their confusion, pain, and desperation. On top of that, I hated my Engineering program and was distracted by flashbacks of a violent event from high school.

The Resident Assistant of the men’s section of my dorm was a close friend with whom I often probed the depths of God and the universe through deep conversation. He wanted to be a priest, and he worked in the campus ministries office. One day, as I was returning from classes, I passed him in the hall. He asked how I was doing, and I said, “Spinning out of control. I need a spiritual retreat in the worst way.” He told me to run straight over to the student ministries office and see if I could sign up for the retreat that weekend. A few hours later, I was in the car of a perfect stranger, winding our way from the densely-populated Silicon Valley, upward through farms and orchards to a convent, nestled in the Douglas fir and redwood-covered Santa Cruz Mountains.

Several buildings of various styles had been acquired by the small group of religious women in the 1950s. There was a large, modern building used for a school, a rustic, cedar-shingled home used for retreats, and a bright white Spanish-style building for housing the ladies.

After an evening meal in the dining hall with the warm friendly convent residents, we had our first meeting of the weekend in a comfortable room full of chairs and pillows. We were instructed to refrain from speaking for three days. We could spend time in our cells, eat from the kitchen when hungry, or walk in the extensive convent gardens and surrounding woods. A convent cell is a very small room, about 6 feet by 8 feet, just big enough for a single bed. Sleeping and praying are its only intended uses. This made the beautiful outdoors exceedingly more appealing.

That first night, a petite, dark-haired woman I recognized from my school’s Student Ministries told us about Zen Buddhist meditation practices. I was amazed that I was going to learn Zen Buddhist meditation at a Christian retreat in a Catholic convent. I had been taught that Buddha was a man who, like Jesus had been a great teacher of universal love, but people had mistaken his teachings as being magical and had posthumously started worshipping statues of him, instead of following his teachings. Of course, that is only true for some. Buddhism is a non-theistic set of ideas and practices, which can be useful for anyone with any set of beliefs. Some sects even recommend against engaging in dogma or attaching to beliefs, including Buddhist ones. Little did I know at the time, it was Buddhism that would eventually lead me back to a peaceful relationship with my roots after two decades of anger and disillusionment with the religion of my upbringing.

We were taught the Christian form of mindfulness meditation, called a “Centering Prayer.” Focusing on a candle at the center of our group, we were asked to breathe deeply in and out. We each thought of something we wanted to invite more fully into our lives and connected that idea with a word. I chose “peace.” We repeated this word over and over in our minds like a chant, consuming our whole awareness with the word so that all other thoughts and intentions were blocked. As time progressed, and we became increasingly focused on our internal worlds, we were encouraged to keep folding inward, always directing our one-word intentions ever closer to the center of our beings. Eventually, when it felt like our words had arrived in our deepest heart of hearts, we were guided to just let them rest there, not forcing or chanting them any longer, only thinking them when the urge to think arose, fully trusting that simply being and intending would bring us what we truly needed. With our bodies and minds calm and focused, we were guided to remain silently in this heart-centered state for the remainder of the weekend.

In the silence, time opened into the empty expanse of space, and the details of my moments turned whatever was happening right now into the most important event in the universe. I wandered aimlessly, enjoying the freedom of each untethered breath, stopping to listen to each new trill, squawk, or scolding of a bird. I noticed the changes in temperature on my skin and subtle alterations in patterns of light, as the day unfolded from early morning until darkness with the sun’s lazy movement across the sky. Soft, Spring breezes carried the scent of eucalyptus trees to my nostrils, reminding me of Sunday drives to nowhere, when my dad, consumed with a restless curiosity about what lay beyond, loaded us into the car to explore a wood or countryside we had never seen. With this loss of my sense of time, enveloped in the cozy internal world of my heart, and the sacred, healing world of the woods, two profound messages arose. The first came from a children’s story, and the second came from fully embracing the stillness of the still.

I don’t recall the title or author of the children’s book, but I do recall that I saw it resting on the piano in the common area of the dormitory as if it were a piece of sheet music waiting to be played. As with many children’s books, the main character was a fuzzy, green caterpillar. Unlike most of those books, however, it wasn’t a simple book about a butterfly’s life cycle. It was full of deeper meaning that spoke directly to me at that moment in my early adulthood.

The caterpillar was born, ate, grew, and then wondered what it was supposed to do with its life. It looked around and saw other caterpillars crawling toward a common destination, so it followed suit. Ahead, it saw a massive, wriggling pile of caterpillars, into which its traveling companions immediately disappeared. The caterpillar followed and found itself engulfed in a flurry of pudgy bodies sliding over, under, and around it. The caterpillar sat in this maelstrom of caterpillar chaos for a while, and again wondered what it was supposed to do. It asked this question aloud and someone in the pile shouted, “Climb!”

So, it focused its attention on the direction it thought was up and steadily began to move in that direction. Day after day, it climbed. Sometimes, other caterpillars stepped right on its head, and it exclaimed in shock or pain, but they brushed aside its feelings in their panic to reach the top. Other times, the caterpillar stepped on someone, but when they cried out, “Hey! Watch what you’re doing,” this caterpillar felt sad and full of regret. Again, it stopped and sat still to contemplate the meaning of its life.

As the caterpillar looked around, it noticed not just the writhing mass of caterpillars scrambling over one another to reach the elusive “top” of the pile, but it began to notice bodies of caterpillars flying through the air, heading for the distant ground. It occurred to the caterpillar that it may be spending its life mindlessly climbing to an unknown destination, trampling over others and getting trampled only to fall, or worse, be thrown from the top of a pile of caterpillars. At that moment, it heard its heart of hearts say, “Climb down.”

It pointed its head in the other direction and began its descent, ignoring the cries of the other caterpillars saying, “You’re going the wrong way!” When it reached the ground, it followed its inner compass to a branch on a quiet, comfortable tree, and the voice inside said, “Weave,” so it wove itself a soft, cozy nest until the voice said, “Now, be still.” Having read the other kind of caterpillar story, we know it eventually emerged a beautiful butterfly who flew joyfully over the pile of squirming caterpillars still mindlessly vying for that elusive spot on top.

As it did for the caterpillar, a profound stillness settled on me the third day of the retreat. I had gone out to the woods in a very unhurried way, with no real destination in mind or grand scenery to discover. For some reason, I plopped myself down on the forest floor and proceeded to just sit and stare at the ground. A small movement drew my attention, and I noticed a large, black ant, wrestling a heavy piece of a leaf as it slowly inched its way across the soil, small sticks, and plants. For an unknown period of time, this ant and every minuscule twist, turn and gesture of its little, black body became my entire universe.

Eventually, after hundreds of tiny leg movements and jerks of its head, it pulled that piece of leaf into a hole in the ground. I was flooded with delight at its accomplishment and amazed at its perseverance through every strenuous moment of its journey. I felt a profound sense of joy and awe at the utter absorption of my psyche in the process of another being. I had been still and fully aware, and it meant something to me.

After my lovely ant encounter, I proceeded to wander happily in the woods again, and I was met by another member of the group from my school. I politely nodded at him and started to veer toward another path, but he asked me to stay and talk with him. “That’s so against the rules,” I teased. He replied, “Yeah, well, I’m not into rules.” I was reluctant to let go of my cocooning silence, and somewhat alarmed at being alone in the woods with a much larger adolescent male, but didn’t want to be rude, so I sat near him on a rock. His name was Peter. He liked walking in the woods OK, but he didn’t like silence, and he thought my ant story was weird. He was going to be an artist, so I listened about that until the bell rang for dinner.

Prior to this weekend, I had been known as a smart, quiet, well-behaved girl, with a great smile, a positive attitude, and a very bright future full of stereotypical American Dream-type success. Following this experience, I became an odd duck who, like my ant friend, made unpredictable choices to follow arduous paths, lacking obvious outcomes, learning difficult lessons, and clearly having a great time doing it. I chose to spend more time volunteering to take inner-city kids into the woods to hike, play in creeks, get muddy and make “trail tea” from chaparral plants, and less time forcing myself to learn Chemistry or Calculus. People were bewildered and wondered what was wrong with me. Ironically, I was actually setting myself on the path to being my version of totally alright.

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