Walking on Sacred Ground

It seems the space of sacred presence also holds the profane.

By Nelle Oosterom

  Art offerings from Winnipeg Insight’s recent retreat.   Credit: Kurt Schwarz

Art offerings from Winnipeg Insight’s recent retreat. Credit: Kurt Schwarz

We formed a line, two by two, and walked in silent meditation across the open field, the bright sun lighting our way, a brisk north wind chilling the skin of our faces.

After some minutes, we left this wide and open path and entered a narrow trail winding through the forest. No longer buffeted by the wind, we walked with ease as leaves crunched under our boots while little boreal birds on a migration stop scratched and fed at the forest floor. Tree branches formed a cathedral-like arch above our heads as unseen geese honked overhead. We could not always see what was ahead of us — nor where we were going — for this was the sacred and particular path of the immediate.

After what seemed a long time of strolling quietly as a group, we again emerged into the open space of the “world” and for a while stood quietly in a circle at the river’s edge before dispersing.

That was how I experienced the group walking session at the recent Winnipeg Insight weekend retreat at St. Benedict’s Retreat Centre. Along with everyone else who chose to participate, I experienced the walk in my own unique way. We were all heading in the same direction, treading the same path, but each in a different manner.

Of course, the fact that I was leading the group walk — had spontaneously decided to offer the unscheduled, unplanned event earlier in the day — also coloured my experience. The egoic, worrying mind occasionally clouded my awareness as I wondered what others thought of this exercise — and of me!

It seems the space of sacred presence also holds the profane, the ordinary doubts and desires of our usual existence. In other words, our personality. 

Twenty-two personalities participated in the “Living in Presence” retreat. I invited them to contribute their thoughts, photos, poetry or artwork to this article.

Jacqueline Poirier took in the presence of nature, notably the fallen autumn leaves, and used watercolours to express their beauty:

  Credit: Jacqueline Poirier

Credit: Jacqueline Poirier

Michael Pettitt, wrote of his impressions the next day: “The retreat was incredible and really helped me improve my own practice at home and during my work day. I found myself continuing to practice mindfulness on Monday as I was helping a coworker apply fertilizer to trees in St Vital and Sage Creek.  Every task throughout the day involved either paying close attention or being lost in thought. I could practice focusing on my breath while my coworker drove us to our next destination.  It ocurs to me that our "destination" in meditation practice is focused attention, and thoughts and feelings that bombard us during that practice are like bumps in the road.

“I had a walking meditation while trying to find a key that was dropped in a customer's back yard!  Alas, we did not find the key, but the customer was very understanding and intended to replace the lock.”

  Credit:Jacqueline Poirier

Credit:Jacqueline Poirier

Peter Dueck put his feelings into poetry:

The hinges on these walls

I built to keep out the world

Rusted shut on their vertical axis

Sitting for so long


It seems they've become twisted

And falling open, 

That old guard now spans across

The moats of my heart


Barbara Barnett, who has participated in a number of WIMG  retreats, saw the changes she has been going through in her life lately reflected in the activity of a flock of robins:

A restlessness of robins

 Is it time yet?

           Which trees next?

      Food -          berries     chokecherries     crabapples

             Here

                                                      there

   Frost                              North wind

Which way?

              Where?

         When?            Now?

A restlessness of robins

   stirs the air

              the woodlands

It’s time to leave

Kurt Schwartz, who, along with Jillian Preston-Gren, served as a co-leader of the retreat, invited others to express their feelings in a group canvas (shown in the photo at the beginning of this article). 

Some who contributed to the retreat were anonymous. For instance, an empty wasp nest appeared on the “art altar” near the statue of Quan Yin, the bodhisattva of wise compassion. 

We often think of wasps as annoying, even dangerous, pests, to be gotten rid of. But they too have their place in the universe.

As far as I know, this colony of paper wasps did not plan for its elegant and perfect work to become an object for our contemplation. They simply did what wasps do. And some of us did what people sometimes do: We stopped, took notice, and dropped into the sacred presence of the natural world.