Despite my intrepid “fearless” nature in general, there’s something about being alone in a cabin in the woods at night. Surrounded by beauty, surrounded by quiet, surrounded by peace I still was unable to relax at night during my recent solitary birthday retreat. Every sound was something scary, I couldn’t get comfortable sleeping because I needed to face the curtained window that faced the gated entry, just in case that would give me warning when the headlights of some very wounded and crazy person showed up to murder me.
I wish it had been otherwise, but it wasn’t. I have all kinds of tools for navigating fear. I followed my tradition’s practice of the Bedtime Shema cycle, which is extraordinary and addresses all manner of difficult things that could come and attack one, including ones fears about such things. All the prayers reassure one and surround one with the Archangels and speak of the Holy One being our rescuer. They are designed to gird you for the fears and terrors of night. I spoke all of them, felt better and fell asleep for ½ an hour, until the first bird or bat or leaf stirred outside and plunked on the roof.
I spent the nights in the bedroom of my friend’s cabin. They are a practicing Buddhist and a practicing Hindu and their space reflects that. Under the extraordinarily sunny golden Indian tapestry, with mirrors sewn into the pattern to ward of the evil eye, I was still afraid. On all sides of me there were deities of powerful protection. I had three Ganesha beings watching over me and a Buddhist one as well. I tried calling on them and even did a meditation where I imagined myself surrounded by beautiful elephants walking in a circle of protection around me. I just knew they would keep me safe.
I slept for an hour maybe until the next lizard outside scurried under a pile of dried leaves. I tried the Jewish prayers again, tried the meditation, tried getting up and having a cup of chamomile tea, tried turning all the lights on, tried lighting all the candles, tried reading, tried listening to my book on tape, tried listening to meditation music of water flowing, tried and tried and tried and was very tired. No restorative lengthy hours of sleep happened for me, despite all this trying (as in really working hard) TRYING!
I am not a taker of sleeping pills, but I’ll tell you what, I really wanted some and if I’d had any handy, I would have taken them for sure.
So, I napped during the day, here and there, and I kept trying for each of the four nights I spent alone to sleep more than a few hours. The first night of my retreat I had my husband with me and we were able to sleep several hours straight, until the mouse made noises like the apocalypse in the kitchen. Since my mate went and investigated and saw the mouse, he was able to return to sleep and I was as well. I was also next to him and in his arms. But, he wasn’t there the other four nights. So, I had to address my fears.
Or at least be honest about it. What does it mean when I trust the Divine and believe that my time to leave this earth is in the Holy One’s hands? If I really feel that to be true, why would I be afraid at night or ever? Fear is not rational though, it has nothing to do with what you believe or even know, it has a flow and power all its own and it is a VERY deep and core current.
Most of us, myself included, just do everything we can to avoid it. Some folks like dipping into the horror story narratives because it is just enough fear to make them feel stimulated, but then it is all pretend. Real fear, which isn’t about Hollywood zombie take-overs, is another thing entirely. Part of why I am going away on retreat is to look at my fear, so why should I be surprised when it comes to visit me? I just wanted to look at it, not be in it! Darn, it doesn’t work that way.
This territory is well-known to spiritual practitioners or all stripes. There are tools, stories, prayers, guidelines and every manner of helpful teachings to support ones navigating these waters. Clearly, I will need to call on more of them, then I had handy with me for this virgin voyage out alone.
By the final night of my stay, I was pretty sick of my own situation and determined to face this fear head on. I chose to set up a chair outside facing the valley and the front gate. I brought my loud bear horn with me and my small can of pepper spray. I wrapped myself in a shawl and was determined, not to even bother trying to sleep but to face the night and the dark. I had forgone going outside at night, too afraid the other evenings, to appreciate the wonder of stars and half-moon rising and setting. I went outside around 4:00 am, so I knew the dawn was about two hours away and this made me feel safer.
I sang some prayers, I was afraid and I cried and I looked out at the billions of stars shining light years away, who all were singing to me. I remembered that I am their kin and despite the small noises in the night, I stayed put to hear their night song and their long, long history song. I remembered that I am a tiny speck on a tiny speck in a vast Ocean on an expanding Universe journey. My life and its certain end, just are not that big a deal when you put yourself on the deck at night and face the starlight.
So, that’s what I did my final night, and I was still afraid, but I managed it. I didn’t sleep, but at least I spent time enthralled by the beauty of night and wow, I survived to write about it! As this month of Elul unfolds, we face all kinds of fears, consciously, like the fear of having hurt others, the planet, and the Divine. Not facing those fears, will not make them go away, they just loom larger. I think I will have to do a lot more sitting outside in the dark before I can comfortably sleep alone in the woods, but I will do it.
Just like I will face the truth of who I am and what I do that is harmful to others, to myself, to the planet. The Jewish New Year is not just about getting a new start, it’s about fixing and aligning oneself with what is right and true. This means looking deeply and cracking open our hearts. Wednesday, September 24th, the Jewish New Year/Rosh Hashanah will be ushered in right before the sun sets with the sounding of the ram’s horn which we call a Shofar. This sound pierces the soul and cracks through all our hardened shells (we call klippot). I invite you to be exposed and vulnerable and to let in something strange, wondrous and transformative and in doing so, I hope you find what is sweet and true in you and in all those around you. L’Shana Tova u’Metuka (To a Sweet New Year)!
~~~~~~ *Nicole unwinds, unwraps and unfurls her thoughts for you from her home in Bayside and she does so sometimes with twinges of fear, but mostly with great gobs of joy and wonder!
*Originally published in the Mad River Union on Wednesday, September 24, 2014