The big mountains rose quickly from the flat piñon plain below. Massive, snow-capped mountains, and a sixty mile wide valley broke the scale of distance I was used to. And the weird piñons, with their twisted, old trunks, low tops, many branches: more like oaks than pine trees; held a strange presence. The plain itself savanna-like, with low grass and sagebrush, antelope, and slow-moving mule deer, who I would see in the mornings along the dry watercourses, under black cottonwoods.
I had driven north from Taos, through the wide valley to attend a meditation retreat in the Tibetan Bön tradition, an old tradition mixing Tibetan cultural practices and Buddhism. The retreat cost around $300 for a few days sleeping in a house and a few days sitting in a big circular room, listening to a rinpoche (lit. precious one) talk about Dzogchen, a type of meditation that involves relaxation and a unique lack of effort.
When I arrived, the first thing I noted was the number of new-model cars parked for the retreat. The majority were under five years old. A woman immediately walked up to me and said “are we supposed to park here? I’m gonna move my car. I think we’re supposed to park over there. I don’t think we can park here. I don’t know where.” She gestured vaguely towards a road running into the vast expanse of sagebrush. I shrugged and just kept walking.
At the entrance I was confronted by two people checking lists for names, other people milling about, a variety of scarves, shawls, baggy clothes, hiking boots, and Patagonia jackets piled in corners. The light came in precisely, very clearly, through floor to ceiling windows. It was like the light always is in the high mountains, acute and intense. We were at around 8,000 feet. Outside the mountains rose to over fourteen.
As I settled down on a meditation cushion in the middle of the circular conference room, a man with an unplaceable accent sat next to me. He grew up in Israel, and was Jewish. “Do you practice?” I asked. No, not really, he said. He comes to these things once or twice a year. He’s a massage therapist. He asked me what I did. I said I wandered around and wrote, making money however I could. He said I looked like a professor, but that I should give it a few years.
As we sat for the beginning, he leaned over from time to time to let me know what was going on. We did tsa-lung practice, a type of energetic breath and body work made to be done seated that “opens chakras.” Having never been to a retreat, but practicing meditation for about ten years alone, I found it strange to be in a room of around a hundred people, all saying the Sanksrit syllable “Ah” and imagining white light entering our bodies. Everyone else was ok with it.
As the first morning progressed, I was struck by the humor and ease of the rinpoche. He said things like “just leave it as it is,” and “just relax,” and also “you have reflected enough!” He took questions, and carefully avoided going into people’s personal experience. He was skilled at answering questions.
On the second day, I put up my hand and, while asking a question, made a joke. Several people laughed, as they had at many of the jokes he made. But he had an air of irritation, and as I continued my question, he said “what, is this funny or something?” I got the feeling that he was the one who could make jokes, make people laugh. Others were not allowed that liberty.
On the third and final day, we went outside for a puja. I had seen such things on documentaries, notably The Wheel of Time by Werner Herzog, where a massive hill of incense, juniper, pine wood, prayer flags, and other offerings are piled and set fire to. For our puja we had one of those cast braziers you might see at a suburban home, with a rusty metal grate. Inside a fire of piñon was made, and I was tasked with placing the crumbling, burning incense around the mesh. Rinpoche read a lot of Tibetan and everyone stood around silently, as the smoke billowed feebly from the fire, smelling like nothing really. We each took a handful of barley flour and threw it into the air, which I had also seen. In the video of the Tibetan people at the base of the Himalayas, this scene had the cameraman wading into throngs, people screaming and yelping, bells crashing, and smoke overwhelming the video, turning the screen opaque. Glimpses of weathered brown faces flitted across the screen, heavy woolen robes tied at the waist, prayer wheels, malas, lung-ta billowing, and smoke, smoke, smoke. But around me I saw the pale faced people, in nylon jackets, blankly talking and looking bored, throwing the barley when told to, laughing when queued, being silent when not, below snowy mountains that were not dissimilar to the Himalayas.
As I walked away, a tall white guy with long dreads came up to me. His name was Juniper, and he was from this area. He said: “we’re trying to start a little community here. I have some land. It’s an AirBnB. Next time you come through, let me know. You can stay at our AirBnB.”
I headed to my car, and drove back to the newly built retreat house, to stay one last night. The house looked like it had been airlifted from a subdivision outside Omaha, Nebraska, except it was on an incredibly steep hillside, surrounded by piñons, below the snow-covered mountains. There were new washer-dryer front loading units, a giant island, new fridge, dimmable lighting, soft-closing cabinets, shiny hardwood floors. Everything inside was clean, white, new, unmarked, pure. And very, very expensive.