Originally written around 9/30/2016
The retreat center sits up in Marin County, past Sausalito and Mill Valley. You get to it after you pass everything notable, all the shops and restaurants and neighborhoods, and there are just trees and hills and hills and trees for a few minutes. You’ll see a little offshoot on the right with a simple sign, and you’ll know you’re in the right place if you pass the horse at the front. Keep going.
That main road will take you everywhere you need to go — all the way to enlightenment, if that exists. You just park your car in the dirt lot and haul your luggage up into the hills, where you’ll notice the wheels of your suitcase are the loudest sound for at least a mile in each direction. Pass the half-closed Tibetan-looking gate, the wild turkeys, and dining hall, and settle into your simple dorm.
I’m pretty comfortable with Spirit Rock, now. I’ll have spent 21 days here in total this year. I’m a few days shy of that currently, so I guess I only needed about 18 days to feel at home. This isn’t true everywhere. I don’t actually feel so at home in the house we’re renting, and I don’t even know what city feels like home or where I want to settle, even for the next couple of years.
I first noticed how at home I felt at Spirit Rock when I told new folks where to find the aprons and that they should tie the ends of them before they put them in the laundry so that they don’t get tied up in the washing machine. These are instructions I’ve heard each time I’ve come because I’ve worked in the kitchen every time. Yogi Jobs, they call them.
Upon hearing me describe Yogi Jobs, a friend sarcastically remarked, “Sure, we’ll call them ‘Yogi Jobs’ and say it’s part of the practice.” And while she makes a decent point, a major reason I feel at home is because I do this menial labor. This is the kind of work I only do in my own home, and it’s the kind of thing that makes you care if someone else comes along and makes a mess. Washing pots in my first retreat actually guided me to extinguish my gag response to touching other people’s dirty, smeared, probably spitty, food vessels. I really did learn that I could be with disgust and just see it arise and pass.
The Yogi Job is probably my favorite part of retreat because it’s most like real life. You have to interact a little bit with other humans, — handing pots over or asking staff what to do with something — and you’re doing stuff you’d normally do in your own home, except, here, you’re in a highly sensitive state, even if you aren’t actively trying to be mindful. Not speaking or staring into a glowing rectangle of digital hypnosis seems to go a long way toward naturally heightening the nuance of life. The color of a leaf can be catalyst for tears.
Doing my little bit, washing my few pots, seems relatively important to making things run smoothly. I’m grateful to the cooks who used them, (the food is excellent) and I want them to have nice clean pots ready for the next meal. If I didn’t wash them, it’d be more work for someone else. I feel needed, appreciated, and frankly, quite accomplished about my pot-washing abilities. If I left early (which I have once before), I’d feel quite guilty to leave my Yogi Job undone (which I did).
I’m pretty sure the effects of the Yogi Job are not an accident. Being part of creating the experience for everyone makes you more invested in it and more empowered to fix something if you feel it needs fixing. It makes a meditation retreat different than going to spa and being a client who gets to complain about the water being too cold or the towels being too fluffy. You feel more like family, since you’re not only getting your hands dirty, but you’re also indirectly taking care of others.
The Yogi Job only takes about 45 minutes each day. It’s a tiny investment, and at the end of it, there’s still time to go explore the pristine land, land that seems to remain in centuries past, well-before colonization, somehow silent despite the sounds of the breeze bending the grasses and the evening chirping. The hills hold the refuge like fingertips pressed through the cloth of the ground. Maybe it’s the fingers of nature, or of god trying to scoop up this one spot and hold it a little closer. There’s a safety, a trust that they won’t collapse in, that it will be just the same a hundred years from now.