Learning Presence through Meditation

Many years ago, I was beginning my life as a facilitator for Shalom Retreats, a psycho-spiritual healing modality.

I was blessed with extra time in those days and added another day to the traditional three-and-a-half-day retreat. This allowed time for yoga and meditation every morning and a refreshing dip in the small lake every afternoon.

On my first morning of leading meditation, the quiet stillness of the morning was interrupted by the loud crowing of the resident rooster named LeRoi Brown. We finished the half-hour sit, and I was barraged with complaints that LeRoi Brown had ruined the meditation experience for many participants.

Admittedly, Leroi was loud and not particularly musical in his expression, but I was struck that the meditators were attached to having an experience that precisely fit their desires.

The question arose. Is meditation about having a relaxing, quiet experience of no interference? Or is it a practice of learning to be present with what is without judgment?

I encouraged the group members to consider the latter as LeRoi continued making his presence known in our sessions. As we continued the healing work of the weekend, we talked about what it means to be with what is without resisting. We looked at how our insistence on having things as we wished sometimes interfered with finding real-time solutions to our distress.

What would it mean to be with LeRoi and his crowing rather than fighting against it? What would it mean to listen — to his sounds and those surrounding him? What would it mean to feel the feelings arising inside ourselves and how our bodies are affected? From that place, we can begin to calm the distress in our bodies.

This is not to say that after the meditation, we do not take action, but action from a place of calmness and presence is likely to produce better results.

On the third day of the retreat, we situated LeRoi in a building far away from the meeting room. Surprisingly, many of the meditators missed his presence. At the end of the retreat, when we were creating an altar for the closing ritual, they asked that one of LeRoi’s feathers be placed along with the other sacred objects. LeRoi had been a teacher, and they wanted to honor him.

I went to where LeRoi had been hanging out and found that he wasn’t at all interested in my taking anything as precious as a feather from his body.

What to do? Then I remembered the story of Psyche and Eros. In the story, Psyche, searching for her lost love, Eros, is given three impossible tasks by his mother, Aphrodite. One of the tasks was to collect the golden fleece from a pack of violent rams. In despair, Psyche was ready to drown herself. Then, in the stillness, she heard a voice that said she should wait until the rams went to sleep and then find their fleece attached to the brambles nearby.

When I looked around LeRoi’s shelter, I found a feather attached to a bale of hay. LeRoi’s feather became the center of our altar.