When we reached the top of the mountain ridge, I was feeling anxious. I decided to place my confidence in the van driver, a man with steady eyes, a gleaming shaved head and sure hands that dwarfed the steering wheel with their grip. I told myself that he would negotiate the descent with ease.
For much of my life, worry had been my talisman, so deeply ingrained was my mother’s refrain, “The things I worry about never happen.” I believed that preparing myself for the worst possible outcome successfully warded off disaster. But her death five years earlier had resulted in my questioning that belief. The habitual state of worry-mind was robbing me of the joy I desired. Daily meditation had become a comforting balm in my effort to release repetitive thoughts. With time, I grew a tougher skin and a more courageous spirit. I began to wonder if I could trust myself to deal with whatever presented itself. It was 1995 and I had just turned fifty.
I was traveling to Tassajara Zen Center, nestled in a mountain valley near the Ventana Wilderness in northern California. This was a training monastery, opened to the public during the summer. I planned to immerse myself in meditation, float mindlessly in the Tassajara Creek, and enjoy the natural sauna that arose from the creek and flowed into an ancient steam hut. My hope was to let go of my worries and discover my own inner mantra, one that would replace the one my mother had taught me. What harm could befall me at this peaceful retreat?
“Rattlesnakes,” I heard the driver say. “They live amongst us, so be mindful not to step on one.” Clearly, these reclusive reptiles were not friendly to intruders, which included me.
Riding shotgun, I conversed quietly with the driver, though the two other passengers were silent. “When I was six,” I told him, “my father taught me to ride a horse by reminding me to befriend the huge creature, and to cherish the deep bond that comes from working together. Do you think rattlesnakes respond to the learned fear we have of them?”
He was quiet for a moment and then began to speak. “I heard of such an incident. As the story goes: one warm day, after a lengthy meditation period, a group of monks extended their walking meditation to the courtyard, where they came upon the four-year-old daughter of one of the residents. She was playing with a rattlesnake. The monks, as if one body, formed a circle around the child and the snake and stood there in silence, their minds and hearts embracing the girl and her playmate. They smiled, in case the child noticed them and became fearful, but she was accustomed to their brown-robed presence. Eventually, the rattlesnake slipped away and the girl ran off to find her friends.”
I was struck by the power of his story as we drove down the mountain toward the retreat center. I felt safe in the car, with him at the wheel.
That evening, I walked to the creek. After shedding my clothes, I entered the dark water. Bending, I could almost submerge myself in the chilly bath. The steam hut, a moss-covered sanctuary, beckoned me as I swam to its perch on the rocks downstream. I climbed up the two stone steps and entered the wooden structure, familiar from prior visits. I felt the excitement of returning to a beloved place. It was lit only by the moonlight that shone through a flat roof made up of foggy corrugated plastic. The smell of sulfur merged with steam rising between the floorboards from the hot spring below, welcoming me with a primitive earthy odor that I had come to associate with healing waters.
“Hello?” I whispered, and was greeted with only an echo. I cherished the solitude as I closed the heavy door, leaving everything I knew behind. A deep silence permeated my mind and the enclosure magnified the damp heat, loosening my tight neck muscles and assuring me of the relaxation I sought.
When my eyes got used to the dark, I made out a bench along one side and stretched out on it, feeling its slippery wetness beneath me. As my breath deepened, I entered a dreamlike state. A clicking sound began to fill the space, gradually growing louder, like a cicada or maybe a cricket. I let the sound fill my ears and glide down my body, enlivening my senses. Soon, it returned to silence.
As I lay there, something touched my thigh. Then it slithered up my belly to rest between my breasts, and curled around itself. In a deep state of calm, I looked through the mist to face unblinking eyes staring from an elegant triangular head. It rested on my chest, as if awaiting a response. I recognized that it was a rattlesnake, yet, oddly, I was not afraid. In fact, I surprised myself by welcoming its presence, sensing it as a spiritual teacher, wondering what it came to tell me. For several minutes we remained connected this way, silently at ease.
Then, as quickly as it came, it slithered away, leaving in its wake a tissue-like replica of itself, a skin outgrown and no longer of service to its expanding body. With no attachment to what was left behind, the serpent didn’t look back, but disappeared through a crack under the doorway to the icy river below.
I was aware of its absence, a weightlessness where it had been, and I knew that a change had occurred in me. I forgot where I was for a moment, but was pulled back by the sound of my breath. A ray of moonlight caught a luminous vapor arising from my body, a vapor that hovered above me until it slowly disappeared, leaving me feeling emotionally and spiritually uplifted. A new clarity of purpose propelled me as I arose from the bench. Pressing against the heavy door, I exited the chamber and slipped into the water, not knowing what was ahead and yet open to whatever came my way.