My First Retreat – Part 3

This is Part 3 of a series of 3 articles.  

For Part 1:

For Part 2:


Morning 3:

This was the last day, a short day. And in everything, I “relaxed”… in a “bad way.”

I think that one factor was a personal or internal one: all of the praise I got during Dokusan helped me to say to myself, “You’re doing quite above average. You can slack off and be fine.” (Knowing that Kritee will probably read this, I want to again note that this was my issue and not something for her to critique herself over.)

Now, under most any other circumstances, this sort of self-talk would probably have been a sign of some serious self-improvement. (I have always been the over-achiever and the work-aholic – to the point where it was actually self-destructive. That it would even occur to me to give myself permission to relax is unexpected, and overall, much needed.) But at a retreat… it just wasn’t quite right. Or at least, the result of such a mind state was to decrease my focus / mindfulness, to almost waste the time remaining in a preciously rare retreat setting… (Not to worry, however. While I recognize this, know that I’m not going so far as to actually beat myself up over it.)

Of course, there’s also the other obvious factor. I knew I was going home that afternoon. That generates a natural “relaxing.” Kritee even mentioned as much at one point – the change in energy during the last day of a retreat. Personally, I suspect that if this had been longer (say, 7 or 8 days at least, as science recommends for “vacations”), I would have refocused that afternoon and attained something deeper as I persisted for a longer time.

But this wasn’t a longer retreat. What actually happened was that I came downstairs exactly at 5AM (maybe even a minute late). I was completely wrapped in a comforter against the early morning chill. (I imagine I looked like a tepee, no joke). I …got through… chanting, breakfast, etc. I don’t even remember our morning outdoor or kinhin sessions.

Oh, and pre-breakfast, I think I did one session of zazen sitting in a chair (which is easier / kept me awake / is lazy / kind of was a cheat). I’m pretty sure this was the time that I remained in the chair while others were doing yoga. I recall thinking that the yoga would warm me up, but I just didn’t want to face it. Then, there was breakfast (including some coffee for me).

Uhh… I’m not sure if it was the day before or this morning, but I used a break for a nap. Then the coffee kicked in. I moved from consciously recognizing that I needed to re-commit to doing my best (or at least a bit better) at the retreat to actually doing what felt necessary to re-build the internal resources that that required. I brushed my teeth. I then left a note saying that I was going on another hike to re-energize for the retreat. Also, that I was going to look for that bear and cave again and not to panic over it, lol.

The Bear, The Bear, and The Maiden Fair

I failed to find the cave or the bear this time, but I did find energy. I checked out the unique coniferous species of the area. (This probably won’t mean anything to any of you, but the cones arise directly from the branch instead of at a more typical location. The end result is something that looks like a wooden rose attached directly onto a branch. And that’s cool… for a geek like me. Addendum: Sorry that I’m still not sure enough on which species these trees were to be comfortable posting a link to more info on them. I do have my suspicions, however, and an intrepid googler can probably find out on their own.) I also found about a dozen stunted raspberries that could be picked. (Some were sweeter than others, but thorns were not a problem, and – I got to pick berries growing wild on a literal mountain! How cool is that?!) I took them back to the lodge for us all to enjoy at lunch. Kritee and I may have been the only ones who ate them, but I found them to be sweet beyond their mere fructose content:

The story I’m about to tell you, originally told by the Buddha in a sutra, concerns a Zen Master who, while out walking one day, is confronted by a ferocious, man-eating tiger. He slowly backs away from the animal, only to find that he is trapped at the edge of a high cliff; the tiger snarls with hunger, and pursues the Master. His only hope of escape is to suspend himself over the abyss by holding onto a vine that grows at its edge. As the Master dangles from the cliff, two mice – one white and one black – begin to gnaw on the vine he is clutching on. If he climbs back up, the tiger will surely devour him, if he stays then there is the certain death of a long fall onto the jagged rocks. The slender vine begins to give way, and death is imminent. Just then the precariously suspended Zen Master notices a lovely ripe wild strawberry growing along the cliff’s edge. He plucks the succulent berry and pops it into his mouth. He is heard to say: “This lovely strawberry, how sweet it tastes.”


So far, I’ve used the official retreat schedule as a guide to organizing my recollections. However, here, I must let that raft go. Kritee changed up the schedule a bit that day, and I can’t reconcile what’s listed with what I recall. So I’ve decided to go with the latter and to hope that I don’t miss anything major (as far as sessions):

At some point (and I suspect that it was between the first sit of the day and the above mentioned hike), Kritee was speaking to us as a group, and she shared what she knew of the cave. Apparently, drawings or other markers of a Native American group had been found within, and they had recently been dated. I can’t recall the exact age she gave, but it was over a millennium. She also mentioned that no one had been able to enter the cave for some time, but didn’t give an exact reason why. These facts only made me more keen to seek the cave as well as a bear (or moose).

I then took that first hike (if I’m recalling correctly), not finding my goals, but finding other delights. Later, there was a meal, and I was part of the clean-up after it. An older woman (who had joined the retreat at a later time) who worked in tandem with me had been there for the previous day’s bear sighting and my notes/hikes. She passed me a note offering to guide me to the cave during that short break after cleaning and before the next session. As soon as we were done, I took her up on it.

I now knew not to cross the river (as I’d done the day before), but with my guide’s help I figured out my second mistake (from that morning). Something that looked like random scree or a rock slide was actually still part of the trail. If you surmounted it, there was again something that looked like an actual trail.

Not much further, you come to something that I can’t really call a couloir (see End Note)… more like a “wrinkle” in the mountain. More than 75% obscured by a large slab of stone, there’s an opening at an acute angle to the trail. A more casual hiker probably would have missed it, but that slant led down into an actual cave.

While the opening was sheltered, there was a very gentle, sandy slope downwards for about 15 feet before a left-hand turn into a deeper portion of the cave. So far, I did not see any reason why someone would not be able to make the climb down. (No Native American artifacts were visible, nor a cordon prohibiting access to the site. Note: if I had come across an area where I might have disturbed the archaeological finds, I would have turned back.)

I made some noise in case the bear was lairing there (as I had hoped in all of my seekings of the cave). Nothing. I told my guide not to follow if she wasn’t confident of her footing and gracefully descended halfway to the turn. She told me that she hadn’t intended to (not only because of the footing, but because she’d chased more than one bear herself already in her life – she was good). It was then that I heard a grunt. I held my hand up for silence.

“What did you hear?”

“A grunt,” the smile already forming on my face.

I remained still and kept my eyes focused on the deeper darkness and the turn. I saw a clawed foot pad come lethargically around the corner, then disappear again.


I quickly left the cave, informing my beloved guide of what I had seen. “I’m going back for my flashlight to confirm!”

My guide elected to stay behind, but to descend down a game trail towards the stream. I dashed off like a mountain goat back to the lodge and was out of breath when I got there. Aware of the duty to return on time for the next session, I grabbed my flashlight and dashed back.

Upon my return, I didn’t get a reaction – but I also didn’t descend past the entrance. The bear would probably only tolerate that once. Still, I was confident enough to mark “see bear in the wild” off my bucket list.

Eventually, I hustled back to the lodge, passing my guide. She invited me to join her by the stream, but I was concerned about being late to the next session. We both ended up getting there on time, however.


Re-energized – positively beaming, smiling – I entered the last sessions, which were sitting (zazen) and Teisho (a Dharma Talk). As with the first Teisho, a recording of this one can be found at the link in Part 1.

I don’t have anything to share on this Teisho of an “intellectual or academic” nature that lends itself to being written down. I will say that the imagery of the “Pecking and Tapping” story evoked emotions related to a loving teacher/student or parent/child relationship. I appreciated that evocation, as well as the idea of maturing and realizing your own growth that went along with it.


The close of the Teisho marked the time for the closing ceremony / session of the retreat. Kritee wanted to conduct this outside, which we all seemed pretty game for. She asked if we wanted to go down by the river (where we had meditated together the previous day) or if we wanted to take “the high trail.”

Reactions were mixed, and I didn’t know anything about “the high trail,” so I abstained. Kritee argued that this trail led to a panoramic view of the area not to be found elsewhere. Others said that it was a “tough” trail. “Tough” is too subjective a descriptor for a trail I’d never seen / area I wasn’t very familiar with to be of any help to me in deciding. So I ended up noting that I was down as long as it wasn’t incredibly rigorous for someone originally from Florida. Overall, people still seemed very torn. Kritee had clearly already kind of decided before even asking, however, and finally declared a hike up the high trail for our closing ceremony.

Some people left at this point (mostly the few people who were “part timers” coming at certain points later into the retreat or leaving earlier). The rest of us lined up, crossed Overland Rd (the dirt road into the retreat that ran between two hilltops at this point), and then started up the hill (mountain top) on the far side of the road.

(Funny aside: I took with me a branch suitable for use as a walking stick because I had no idea how “tough” this trail might be. Kritee found an actual metallic hiking pole within a closet in the lodge. Not needing it herself, she offered it to anyone who might need it. I gestured to take it over the informal branch if she really wished, but she looked right at me and noted, “Well, we might need it to fight off the bear.” Then she gave it to another person who was willing to just carry it with them. I’m pretty sure she went, “Jen would just run up to the bear. I need someone who will use this to fight the bear,” as she made that sudden choice, lol.)

It was not “tough” by the standards of states like Utah and Colorado although I can understand how it might be “tough” by the standards of individuals. The slope was relatively minor, the ground mostly dirt / lichens and stable rocks (instead of scree), and the distance to the overlook pretty short. Once we got up there, we looked out over Overland Rd, our lodge, the stream, the meadow, and the patches of wood beyond it. You could also see even further – to “Pride Rock” and the “farm,” to where the road curved back towards Nederland, to a true couloir, and these spots of lighter, bare stone high on adjacent peaks that sometimes tricked the mind into thinking they were patches of snow.

Finding a circle of boulders (claimed vigorously by black ants as a few of us soon discovered), we sat briefly. Then, Kritee led us in this “circle” in which she invited us to share anything from our external or internal experiences during the retreat that we felt “could use the group’s wisdom.” This could include complaints, for which we were instructed not to use specific names, but rather things like, “A person did X, Y, or Z.” (This is similar to the methods for resolving offenses or disputes among Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis as described in the Vinaya and as lived in several monastic ceremonies around the world. In other words, “A Bhikkhu/ni did X, Y, or Z,” or “I ask forgiveness for X, Y, or Z,” and any censure or other necessary action would then be handled by the community as described in the Vinaya, etc.)

I’m not sure I can remember the bulk of what was said. I know that there were questions on the mechanics (posture, breathing, etc) of meditation and chanting – the kind of things that anyone new to (these forms of) meditation might ask. I know that a lot of gratitude was expressed as well as positivity towards that food. There really weren’t complaints, and I would have been surprised if there had been.

Then I was passed “the talking stick” (random tree branch), and I treated this session like our SBA Practice Circle. (i.e. The retreat was like the meditation portion, and this session was like a break-out group or when we come together again in the larger group and share whatever came up during the meditation.) I offered much of what I have offered here, but in broader, less organized strokes.

I faced the anxieties and challenges around making the journey there and then actually being fully present at the retreat. I had nothing but praise for the programming and the land. I expressed a desire to keep improving. (And note: I’m able to meditate for much longer periods of time now than before, so that’s another way that my practice has been positively and permanently changed by this experience.) I expressed love and praise for Kritee, my fellow attendees, and all who made the retreat possible (e.g. Gautama Buddha and the Zen lineage). Then I shared my…realizations.


1. On the “self”

I know that all of this (the trip, the retreat) could easily fall into the cliché of “after X, young woman goes on a Y in order to find herself.”

(It’s beyond the scope of this article, but I recently lost my ex/husband to mental illness. (He’s not physically dead, but his perceptions have become skewed enough to make it impossible for him to accept care from me or to remain in this marriage. He’s currently receiving care in another state, and a divorce is in progress.) A result of all of that was that I had to live in my RV for a month because of the timing around moving out of one place and into another. (And a lot of people have seen this as this horrible experience for me when it was basically the opposite. I play Dungeons and Dragons and got to live like a Ranger for a month. There are people who would PAY to do that.))

And while I can’t deny the parallels, this isn’t quite that trope. It’s true that I come from a background of anxiety and over-sheltering. It’s also true that a lot of people didn’t believe in ME. (From my ex-husband to my ex-D&D buddies, there were people who had seen me at my worst and decided to keep me there in their minds; they didn’t bother to see how much I had changed for the better and stronger.) But I knew ME. I faced these challenges with very little dukkha.

In fact, there had been a moment when I was standing on the deck of the lodge looking out over the strand of trees and the meadows (I can’t remember which bear sighting it was after) when I… saw what the others must have seen when they looked at me. (It was not so much a kind of supernatural experience per se – at least not as I would categorize one – as it was a …satori (a Zen concept of a moment of Enlightenment)… in which my mind stopped thinking in the way it normally does and instead, metaphorically, “stepped out of me and looked back at me from the outside.”)

Freed of all of the awkwardness of conversation and of expectations of standard American society, I was just a simple youth, energetic, kind, committed, and adventurous. And you know what – I liked what I saw.

I’m not sure I had ever consciously said it to myself before then, but I honestly love me. Not in the way of conceit. Not in a way that can’t improve. But for the first time in my life, I’m healthy enough to stand on my own and to really love who I currently am. I can recognize others’ “tear me down” bullsh*t and don’t need it or anything else from them. I’m finally liberated from that unhealthyneed” – for love, acceptance, and approval from anyone and everyone. I can get that from myself. That’s how much I’ve – genuinely – grown. And I can really see that now. And I love it.

2. On Trump Sympathizers

I was surprised when Trump won. I did not expect almost half of the nation to vote for an open bigot. I knew there were issues… but not to that level.

After the election, and like so many others, I struggled with what I had learned and how to proceed from there. This is something I came to a while before the retreat, but I have to repeat it here, and I WANT YOU TO ACTUALLY LISTEN TO WHAT I’M ACTUALLY SAYING:

There’s lots of reasons why people voted for Trump. But ultimately, no matter what your major reason was, you decided that that (e.g. voting for your team, getting attention, wanting health care to change, wanting to end abortion, etc) was more important than the harm that would clearly befall the half of the nation that didn’t look and live exactly like you.

And I don’t want to hear, “You’re judging me! Here’s my reason!” (Or even more exasperating, something like this from people who didn’t vote for Trump, but want to shield relatives and friends from having to accept reality and then to work on themselves.) No, I’ve spent A LOT of time questioning and listening to try to understand why. I have a good handle on all of your reasons. What I need you to hear from me is that [that reason] was more important than the harm that was clearly going to befall this half of the same nation. And for me and those like me, it was unethical and unacceptable to place more value on [random reason] than on the [rights and safety] of people who are your fellow countrymen (or just fellow people period). That’s the absolute truth of the matter that must be realized and addressed if we are going to survive as a nation.

But I digress. Knowing this, I was left with a very reasonable and justifiable anger, sense of betrayal, and desire to withdraw all compassion from Trump Sympathizers. And, believe it or not, as a Buddhist, I was certainly “allowed” to experience such emotions and thoughts. In fact, they are something to sit with, not to condemn or push away. So the real question for me was not so much how I “should feel,” but how I “should act” within these conditions.

My personal feelings aside, we are now in a condition where the rights and safety of half the nation (including me) are endangered, and there must be a response. …But any such response that I can conceive of (or have heard of from others) will cause some kind or amount of dukkha among Trump Sympathizers. And, as a (Secular) Buddhist, I was struggling with finding a middle way between a very real need to hold Trump Sympathizers accountable and a very real goal to minimize harm to all beings (even opponents).

(Aside: While I think that some readers may immediately get why both of these needs/goals are so deeply important to me, some will not. I’m going to link* to some resources below because I don’t think that I can explain as thoroughly and concisely as I would need to within this article space.

However in broad strokes (to quote myself), “…If we really care about all sentient beings reaching Nibbana, we need to care about creating conditions that facilitate reaching Nibbana.” That means not just allowing injustice. But it also means giving some thought to how we interact with opponents or oppressors as well. To clarify, if a choice has to be made, always defend the harmed, but try to give thought to ways that this could be done that will also encourage positive change in those causing harm. On an ultimate level, I deeply believe that that’s the way to create general and lasting positive change. And while always a challenge, it’s a challenge that I am seriously committed to facing whenever I must.)

Now, long before the retreat, I had intellectually concluded that social justice work doesn’t have to be fueled by anger. It certainly can be, and space must always be made to allow for healthy anger (i.e. as with any other emotion, it should be sat with, not maligned or suppressed). But at the deepest / ultimate level, such work should arise out of care for some one, some group, or some thing. Care is at the core.

What I realized at the retreat was that (1) I was dangerously close to habituating the kinds of thoughts and emotions towards Trump Sympathizers that I just didn’t want to have towards anyone and (2) I needed to LIVEcare is at the core” instead of keeping it at a level of intellectual abstraction.

So yes, we need to not be complicit in our own oppression. We need to engage in direct action (e.g. boycotts) and constructive program (i.e. building our own systems to provide services that we are otherwise being denied). And yes, that may often require us to be a little mean or to cause some dukkha to Trump Sympathizers. But that can all come from a place of care. I care about the people whose rights and safety are endangered. I also care about the ultimate fate of my opponents (Trump Sympathizers).

From a Buddhist perspective, when someone harms another, they are really harming themselves. Thus (as others have basically said), one of the greatest ways to help an opponent is to prevent them from harming you in the first place (i.e. Kamma). So while it can be hard to offer a kind of “tough love,” it’s ultimately for the well being of your opponents (as well as yourself or others). Or in other words, whenever you are “tough” make sure that you are coming from a place of care instead of just anger, hatred, or aversion.

To quote Thich Nhat Hahn:

I am the twelve-year-old girl,

refugee on a small boat,

who throws herself into the ocean

after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am the pirate,

my heart not yet capable

of seeing and loving.”

Important Note: I just want any readers to know that these are beliefs and standards that I give to myself only. I am in no way condemning those who don’t adhere to the exact same things. Within reason (i.e. nonviolence, including “violence only for self defense/ as a last resort”), I respect people coming from where they are, and that is often anger without space for considering compassion towards those who are causing harm. That can change, and if it does, great. But know that regardless, you are loved and respected. We are free to take different paths (within reason) to the same goals.

Now, all of this stuff on social justice politics could fill a novel (at least) and, honestly, could derail this article (as it almost derailed things when I shared at the retreat…). But I did mention previously how I had a kind of breakthrough or realization during a chanting of the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows, and I just wanted to share that briefly here before moving on to Realization 3:

A major part of why this was so unexpected for this half of the nation and why we still struggle with it is because we see both halves as being Americans – residents of the same nation, ultimately on the same team. What we are currently struggling to realize is that Trump Sympathizers don’t actually see us as all Americans, fellow citizens, part of the same nation and team. We’re the “enemy” team, okay to cause harm to, the people that they “must” cut down and defeat in order to lift themselves up.

They struck a painful blow to us in a war that we didn’t realize we were in.

As ill-omened as these are for the nation and for the ethical well being of Trump Sympathizers, it truly gives me a noticeable measure of peace to have these insights and a “guide” for how to proceed as I interact with the current American landscape. I really, really needed this and may not have ever had the stillness to discover any of it if I had not isolated myself briefly at this retreat.

3. On a conflict

Not long before I set out for Colorado, some people who I played D&D with and considered closer friends sent me a text message accusing me of some really out there things and were not open to re-evaluating the conclusions that they had decided upon (without any information from me) or to really listening to me at all. Where losing my ex to mental illness did not break me, where being “homeless” did not break me, this did. It was so unexpected and searing to me.

(Please note: These people are not “evil” and don’t deserve to be unjustly vilified or harmed. We really enjoyed each other’s company for a while. They offered me forgiveness and help in previous times when those were needed. What they did was not done from a place of malice, but from delusion. And, most importantly of all, what is presented here is an unfairly concise recounting because it must be within the context of this larger article. So while it’s true that there is pain associated with what was said and done to me, I don’t desire to hurt these people back and vigorously discourage readers from developing thoughts or feelings towards them along these lines. Thank you.)

Anyways, Ted Meissner talked me through a lot of it, and I eventually let it be known that I was open to accepting an apology (although not really to renewing the intimacy of the relationship). I was not even remotely listened to, however, and my mental illness (which is a well-managed anxiety that even at its worst does not impair my ability to perceive reality) was used against me in a way that honestly horrifies and disgusts me to this day.

But until the retreat, this conflict was just another banal, cacophonous leitmotif in the opera of my life at the time. It took the isolation and introspection of the retreat for me to realize that this was something …more… that I had been gaslighted**, however unintentionally, by these people – some of whom really, really should have known better. (And honestly might be in a position to make such a mistake again with some other person, who in turn may not figure it out or recover as well as me.)

I am still deeply disturbed whenever I consider how something like this actually happened to me, how I didn’t see it or suspect a thing, how my ex also started to go down this path once his mental illness had consumed him (i.e. trying to use mental illness as a weapon against me in legal matters, which law enforcement quickly squashed). I genuinely want to share my experience in more detail so that others who might fall into such a situation (on either side) will have a better chance of recognizing when they are being gaslit or are committing a gaslighting out of delusion. And, in fact, I have begun a draft for a TinyBuddha article with that aim. If and when it gets finished and published, I will link to that article here: [link]

In the meantime, while perhaps not something that will be greatly impactful for readers here (in this truncated form), this last realization was incomprehensibly important and impactful for me, personally. Oh, and it also came with an additional boon… I realized that I was still okay.

When I got that text and eventually realized that I could not continue those relationships, I asked myself if I was really okay with that. Ending them was something that I wouldn’t be able to take back. And I had answered myself that, considering, I really was okay with releasing those relationships. (Such beliefs about a person (along with the inability or unwillingness to really know them as they changed or to listen to them) are incompatible with friendship.)

But an older, unhealthier version of “me” would have surely come to regret releasing any relationship given enough time. That “me” needed unconditional love and acceptance from someone – anyone – everyone (because I had never really gotten it even from my biological parents). And because I did not have any experience with what such a relationship was actually like, I could never recognize one. (And let’s be honest – I probably still can’t.) This, in turn, led to me getting in and staying in some “meh” to downright abusive relationships with others because all of those were still better than what I had experienced with my biological parents. In other words, my frame of reference was ( / is permanently) shot.

But this time – this time, as soon as I saw things as they were, I was able to let them go. I wasn’t pining for these people. Such relationships were not healthy and thus were not needed. I was (still) fine without them – or anyone really – even as more time passed. I could give myself all the love I needed. I really was enough for myself. And, readers, I really can’t express (or even comprehend) what THAT realization truly meant. I was liberated from the unhealthy craving for (any kind of) relationship. I truly saw my own self-love. And it was not some transient thing… that’s really how much I have grown. That’s “me” now. It makes me want to shout out a lion’s roar***!

Homeward Bound

The above is really the end to this story, but it’s also not really the end to this story.

We took so long sharing that Kritee skipped whatever other part there was to be to this closing ceremony (something more traditionally Zen, I think). I have to admit that I honestly have no idea what we skipped or missed, but that’s okay. I loved what we had and can always learn more about Zen closing ceremonies at another time or retreat. ( <3 )

Silence ended with the retreat, and we all chatted as we headed back down the way we had come. “We” began the final clean-up. (Because Kritee kindly allowed me to have a final shower before departing, I missed a lot of it.) My only major contribution was a successful Sleight of Hand check**** on one of the bathroom doors. (It had somehow become locked even though – and despite some people expressing some sudden fears to the contrary – no one was still inside the bathroom.) I took a serrated utility (kitchen) knife and jimmied at the lock, popping it in under a minute. I felt like such a Rogue. (Your Open Lock Skill has increased.*****)

Anxiety, “Colorado Nice,” and “They do exist”

After that I tried to head out. Getting out of their tiny parking lot, with its narrow-@ss opening, and rail-less edges that ended in drops of about 6+ feet down to the level of the lodge (below)… in an RV… was a mission. And you know what, I don’t really want to talk about it. The RV has this thing that if you flood it with gas (especially in reverse or after switching gears), it’ll turn off. It’ll turn right back on, but between that and trying to do billion-point turns (on a dirt road with side ditches and some incline) while other cars were waiting on me to get out of the way and helpful (Note: “Colorado Nice”) bystanders were being (anxiety-provokingly) helpful (which I appreciate, but ::starts to feel panic coming on due to my own issues::)… it was just… a mission.

I finally ended up getting moving and oriented in the right direction (and it did involve moving one of the pillars at the entrance to the parking lot – and I’m sorry, but Jesus…). But, I noted that Kritee was going to end up behind me. If you’ll recall from “The Journey To,” the RV has to take those hills real… slow… (i.e. in lower gear and still slow even by those standards). So I stopped and flailed for Kritee to pass me. After several minutes, she came up and asked if I wanted to follow her to Boulder (“Colorado Nice”), which really was nice and sweet, but it took several more minutes for me to convince her to just go on ahead, lol.

Also, I had to lie to her. When I stopped to let Kritee pass, I broke a rule of my old RV. Another time that flooding/stopping thing can happen is when I stop completely on a steep incline. (It’ll turn off and even roll back for a second.) Only this time, it gives me a MUCH harder time about restarting. I needed her to get the hell out from behind me so I wouldn’t have to worry about rolling back into her while taking a few to get the RV to unflood / restart (which it will and did). And even then, some church truck (for another retreat across the road and up the way) came up behind me, and I had to repeat the “please pass me” thing. And even after they passed, they stopped and waited to see if the RV would start (which is really, so great, but being watched drove my anxiety waaay high) because “Colorado Nice.”

And I just want to reiterate here that I fully recognize how nice, caring, and wonderful (ethical even) all of these things are. It’s just that with my anxiety… I just can’t even. I remember thinking once I had gotten restarted and actually on my way how “Colorado Nice” was going to kill me, lol.

Anyways, I had no desire to go back the way I had just come and was still not 100% sure that I didn’t want to hit Yellowstone on my way back, so I continued down Overland Rd (past RMEDRC) towards Boulder. Here, I kind of want to lie again, but I won’t… there were a couple of places where my heavy-@ss RV picked up more speed than was safe (going downhill on a road with hairpin turns and inadequate rails), and I did have a “runaway truck******” once (but very briefly). As you may imagine, I didn’t like the lack of rails combined with the RV (you know, tipping, or just going over the edge to my frightening death), or the “one lane road” combined with the RV (because I often had to dip over into the oncoming lane just a bit for the sake of making a blind curve). There was also the lack of phone service, the uncertainty of the way to go in a few spots, and the lack of gas stations. It’s all true.

But you know what – I could handle it all. (Seriously, there was a time when my anxiety would not have handled even one of those aforementioned obstacles without a noticeable, if not serious, inability to cope.) I got to Boulder just fine and had energy.

However, I did recognize the needs of my body (and the fact that I seemed to be on some major road with lots of food options) and used my phone (service!) to find and go to a Taco Bell a couple of blocks away from the entrance to the next major highway of the trip. I mean, Taco Bell… it’s fast, cheap, and good… it’ll keep me going for a few hours.

Man was I wrong though. I mean, at least about the fast part. I don’t know what the exact deal was (and I’m sure there was some mundane reason like a new cook), but it took everyone (and there was a small, but long standing line) a looong time to get their food. My order was not big or super-fancy. There were maybe 2 people ahead of me. But it took close to an hour to get my food.

Now, I may not have mentioned “the Taco Bell in Boulder” at all (despite the wait) except for two things. (1) I’m pretty sure the cashier was high. I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere without even having to blame the slowness on that (and I don’t think it was that). And (2) the two (elderly, European American) men who decided to use the line as a time to just talk to the world. And even (2) may not have been anything so noteworthy as to make it in here except that – get this – they were actually, literally the negative Liberal stereotypes. No joke. They truly were. Those things are real. (Seriously, as Liberal as I am, I had never actually encountered anyone who even remotely lived up to the stereotype, but here they were.)

The main guy (the other guy was less dominant in this conversation) started by commenting on a “hiring” sign in the Taco Bell… then went on to mention how there’s no real job problem and how “back in his day” that’s the kind of job they’d have been begging for. (Basically, he was showing ignorance in his trash talking of “Millennials.”) That immediately killed any desire to talk to him, but he forced it anyways. He went on to talk about “places like Alabama” (the South) and how they are “still all caught up in the Confederacy” – how they are still doing reenactments down there (with the implication of this being a sign of pure insanity). And I mean, on this one, he’s not exactly “wrong” at least on some parts, but my gosh, how do you start spouting such things in line at a Taco Bell around complete strangers (and have everyone around be completely accepting like this is a perfectly normal thing)?!

He really did consider himself to know more than “the uneducated” and Conservative – like, in that negative, stereotypical way. And he just shared it, skillfulness or unskillfulness be damned. And y’all readers can laugh at me if you want, but I’d never actually seen any of that in real life. I did not think that stereotype actually existed. But it does. In Boulder. I’m not sure if it does anywhere else, but yeah… I gained just a fraction of extra understanding for all of the Conservative anger while waiting in line at “the Taco Bell in Boulder.” (Just sayin’.)

…I can’t really extrapolate something more …profound… from this experience. It was just this “wow” moment that deserved a share. Again, they do exist.


In addition to allowing me to see stuff I hadn’t already seen and the chance to hit Yellowstone on the way back, this new route was also theoretically “easier.” Instead of dealing with Colorado hilliness, I could take the relatively famous I-80 back to Utah, which is basically straight and flat (at least by “out West” standards). The thing is… I’ve driven through Wyoming once (on my way to Utah from Florida). I haven’t had reason or desire to drive it again since.

When I first went through, I was in a U-Haul towing a car and passed through the only truly hilly patch of that entire state – which also is a “high wind” area. So in addition to whatever exhaustion or other discomfort, there was driving in something more unwieldy than the RV (and for the first time ever in a hilly place) through an area where the wind actively tried to push you off the road to your death. (No joke. You could feel it. You had to fight it. And for some unfortunate people, the wind sometimes still wins.) I crossed a (no joke) wooden f***ing bridge (that only one car, period, could cross at a time, so you’d be facing each other waiting for a signal for one car to come across one way, then you went across the other way) into Utah. Then I drove down to where I live now. And after I got the hell out of F***ING WYOMING, I decided that I hated F***ING WYOMING.

All the same, there were only so many options to get home. So this time, I took I-80 (which is not the exact same path that I took that first time). And, you know, there were… positives… I mean, it was pretty straight and flat. That’s true. And I made good time (ish). …But oh my god did I still start to lose my mind within an hour of entering the most god-forsaken of the states that I’ve been in.

I slept for a few hours, then woke and stared at a large red light for several minutes (again, no joke) wondering if it was some kind of warning signal. No. It was the F***ING SUN. Because in Wyoming, the sun doesn’t really shine through all of the constant haze.


Wyoming’s idea of a sunrise (Photo taken by Jennifer Hawkins via her cheap cell phone.)


I drove past Medicine Bow National “Forest.” All I saw was a patch of shrubs about up to my hip in height. That’s Wyoming’s idea of a national forest.

I did see a moose… jump into traffic because with all of the fences and highways that was the only way that it could escape life in Wyoming.


I brushed my teeth at a rest stop. It had multiple bathroom options (the first / only place where I have noticed such) so everyone could feel right (and that was the only great thing). And then I got back on the road. And instead of heading into the oncoming lights, I thought of my dog.

F*** Yellowstone. I already saw a bear in the wild, which is my only real reason for wanting to go there. I just want to get home to my dog.

And so I skipped Yellowstone and just drove 12 hours straight to get out of that hell hole, into a small stretch of really rural eastern Utah, then home. It was dark… 9PM or later… when I got into town. Because of the time (and the fact that it was Labor Day), there wasn’t anyone there at the time to let me in to get my baby. I did try to break in (again, no joke), but my Open Lock / Sleight of Hand skill and Rogue level were just still not high enough to do it without smashing a window.

I slept outside in the RV and got her first thing at 7 or 8 AM.


I rounded a corner into a still unlit room, and she was just laying there with her head down on her paws. She didn’t immediately look up. She was just so desolate that, for a nano-second, I wasn’t even sure it was her. I called her name. “Happy?” She jumped up, surprised to see me.


We went outside. Apparently, she had refused to use the bathroom the whole time she was there. ::cries:: And for the rest of the day, she not only followed me around, but refused to even look away from me. She really didn’t think I was coming back. She really didn’t understand why I just left her. She really feared me “disappearing” again.


…As if I’d ever willingly leave her…


I’d CRAWL through F***ING WYOMING just to get back to her.

But that day, I picked up the keys and finished moving into our new house. And once I had spent some more quality time with my Immortal Beloved, I set up my desktop and my internet and got to work on making our new house a new home… and on writing this article.

And as long as my baby now knows that I’ll always come back for her… 10/10. I’d do it all again.


Geek References / Citations



****A reference to Dungeons and Dragons

*****A reference to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (game)



End Note

I was doing a quick re-read and some minor editing to this part of the series when it occurred to me to add this one last thing. I didn’t want to deal with moving around all of the other Geek References / Citations, so I’m just adding an End Note here.

When I first moved “out West” from Florida (the “West” is mountainous where Florida is very flat and close to sea level), I had no mountain-specific vocabulary. I had never heard of “scree,” “couloirs,” or the like. And I still rarely hear such things. However, about a year ago, I read a book called Faces of Deception by Troy Denning as part of an ongoing quest to read every Forgotten Realms novel. Now, this novel has A LOT of issues (from plot mechanics to actual anti-Indian racism), but it also made an attempt to reference Tibetan Buddhism (in a way that, while imperfect, was at least not full-blown racist towards Tibetans/Buddhism), which is so rare in popular, English language fiction that it caused me to think just a bit more deeply about this novel and Troy Denning. Anyways, as is typical, in my experience, for a Troy Denning novel, he uses his real life mountain climbing experience to somehow make a trip over mountains feel like an interesting adventure that involves more diversity of experience than just, basically, walking upwards on rocks. And it is from his writing in these four novels that I picked up my entire technical “mountain” vocabulary. (Thanks, Dungeons and Dragons novels!)

So I just wanted to create an opportunity for any readers here to also check out such works for themselves – especially since I’m sure many of you had to google some of those terms. AND PLEASE NOTE:  Faces of Deception by Troy Denning is a negative outlier for D&D novels in general. (That’s also part of why it stuck out to me.) Generally, these novels do a good job on inclusivity, and in fact, Denning has allegedly (readers can google the forum post for themselves) publically stated that he knows how terrible this novel is. He insists that he was given a week to write it. Not that that makes racism okay, but know that that’s really not at all common in the Forgotten Realms novels. So if any readers would like to learn more about mountain climbing or to read other, far better D&D novels, feel free to check out these links here in the End Note.



Ha Ha Ha – There’s now a Post Script

P.S. Kritee Kanko got back from a trip of her own not long ago and sat down to read this whole series. Here is her response (shared with her explicit permission):

Dear Jennifer,

Our first multi-day retreats often do leave a deep imprint on our psyche but I’m very impressed by your careful recounting of so many details when you didn’t take any notes. I enjoyed getting a sense of your road trip adventure from Utah to relatively remote part of Colorado and back. I am sure it was hard to find the place at night given my directions assumed that all travelers were coming from Boulder/Denver area. Coming to your actual experience of a Rinzai Zen retreat at RMERC, I have some reflections to share:

  1. I am so happy to note that you enjoyed feeling concentrated during chanting, walking or seated meditation: all you conveyed indicates that you really did “get” breathing from hara. In addition to your determination to follow the schedule and not move, I do think that your breathing from hara helped you experience the retreat in the deep way you did. It only gets better with time! I am also delighted that you are able to sit for longer times now. Usually, with some discipline, we reach a new plateau after every retreat. I am also happy that you had that taste of genuine love and respect for yourself. This feeling might not stay permanently because life experiences make us doubtful again and again. However, now you know that this kind of self-love is healthy and possible with some disciplined silence in an overall caring environment. Loving our ownself in a healthy way is much more importantly than getting anyone else’s approval. Please never forget that.
  2. I agree with you that Zen retreats, with all their apparently “rigid” rules and rituals, create a constant pressure. In our initial years, there is indeed a sense of performance at retreats.  The idea of having so many rules, as compared to other traditions, is twofold. First goal is to create a sense of community by asking everyone to be mindful of each other (e.g., walk in sync like a caterpillar instead of walking alone or putting the teacups down at the same time). The second goal is using/heightening our tendency to want to be the best in following rules and learning to let go of doing it right. I do understand that this second goal has shadows. If we are naturally anxious, all these rules can be debilitating and not freeing. So one has to approach them carefully. I learnt from what you had to say!
  3. I do LOVE sitting in full lotus. It activates my hara in ways that other postures don’t. Having said that we should not do it when it dishonors the body. Rinzai Zen is very masculine. It took me some effort and many conversations with female teachers from other lineages to begin to honor my body when I was in moon and not try too hard to sit in full lotus when in pain.
  4. Sleep and wake up times: Like other rules, they too create anxiety on first 1-2 days. By the time third day comes, we are simply exhausted, sleep well but sometimes can have deep, baffling, lucid dreams. Overall, when people really are able to focus on hara, the need for sleep goes down.
  5. Chanting: Yes, the meaning of chants where we read romanized version of Chinese or Japanese language sinks in subconsciously. The most important thing, as you say, is the state of mind chanting from hara takes us to. When people really chant from their hara, the whole body, especially lower abdomen, feels energized and activated after chanting. Sometimes, hara pulsates. My face gets red with chi (energy) after long chants.
  6. Walking meditation: “you would come to focus on every micro-movement of the other person’s feet” – this ideally should be our own feet and not “other person’s feet”. We do notice the person in front of us but only the sway of their shoulders so that we can keep in sync with their feet without looking at their feet (so that we move our right foot when they move their right foot).
  7. One shower is not usual at zen retreats in the U.S at this time. We were just requesting this because we were not sure how much water we will have at this new center given there had been some problems at the last retreat at RMERC.
  8. For about 13 years, all my retreats with my root teacher in New Jersey involved retreat attendants working together for cooking and cleaning. This keeps costs down and creates a sense of community. Most retreats also have “yogi” jobs or “samu (work practice in zen tradition)” where people do help in overall clean up once every 1-2 days. So ours was not unique in a universal sense but certainly relatively new for Boulder-Denver area in that we had no assigned cook or manager at all.
  9. I’m glad you survived and even managed to like the vegetarian food. All food was indeed vegan and gluten-free (except wheat bread and a piece of regular butter left by previous group). The sprouts were made from mung beans. All sprouts are very high in vitamins as well as amino acids (broken down proteins which are much more easily digested than any other form of protein). No mayo anywhere (there was some left by the previous group in fridge but we didn’t use any)! We did cook beans, chickpeas, lentils, veggies on the spot but my husband made the sauce/gravy for all soups in advance!
  10. I’m not the first female Zen priest in our lineage but certainly the first female Zen priest teaching independently. My teacher ordained three other women before me who assisted/assist him. I’m also the first Indian female Zen priest. There is only one more Indian (male) who is Zen teacher and trained in Japan.
  11. Totally agree that yoga has become an appropriated workout in form-fitting clothing in the U.S. For us, the idea was to stretch the muscles that do get tired by sitting for long. Believe it or not, some participants wanted more yoga sessions. We had none in my root sangha but have found it to be very helpful for the body after long hours of sitting!
  12. Dokusan process is supposed to be confidential. Between the person is teacher’s role, student and Mu! This confidentiality can be abused but the purpose is to let every students experience their own answer to each traditional or life koan. The teacher should not share any details of the conversation to protect the privacy of the student because people do share vulnerability. The student can share their own journey but not the answers to koans.

Overall, I admire and respect your courage in taking on this adventure and sitting so still through everything you had gone through in your personal life that you describe in your article. Facing all that and the emotions that arise as we face our life-truths and transforming these emotions is our practice. Traditional koans are just tools to help us and they work to the extent we apply them to our real life-koans. We are never fully done. So we all keep practicing. Thanks for joining me in practicing together!

much love and bows,



So first, I appreciate her dedicating her time to reading so much. She really didn’t have to although I love that she did. (And then she even went the extra mile and responded!) May this article be of help to her and her organizations in addition to me, mine, and readers. Next, I appreciate her catching inaccuracies, letting me know about them, and then granting me permission to post her response / corrections. It’s important to me that I only spread correct information – in addition to being able to recognize, accept, and admit when I am wrong with a right attitude (as part of my own personal path). Finally, I had to email her back on 2 points:

(1) I have nothing against vegetarian food. Food from Oaxaca (a state in Mexico) and India are among my favorites and are traditionally vegetarian. I just wanted to treat “food” much as I did other aspects of the retreat – describing it from my point of view, which should be noted, is non-vegetarian.

(2) Her #12 concerned me. I have absolutely no desire to cause harm or to disrespect. Since I was only sharing my own personal experience (not another’s, for example) and my own made up answer to a koan (not an “official” one – as far as I know), I never occurred to me that what I wrote might still be problematic in some way. I was completely ready to come in here and do some serious edits when she replied to reassure me, however. #12 was more of a “heads up” if I ever went into a deeper study of koans (etc). (And that’s a huge relief. Seriously, I don’t want to cause harm.) So, those sections remain as is because, hey, I’m American, and we’re just really open about things, lol.


In other news, Kritee has agreed to be interviewed for the SBA podcast, and if I remember, I’ll post a link to that episode here:

I’m also trying to convince her to lead an SBA Practice Circle in Zen-style chanting one of these Sundays (maybe in tandem with Mushim Patrician Ikeda), but that’s still a work in progress. If it ever happens, it will be announced here:


May all who read this get something wonderful from it. May all who read this grow and deepen their practice. May all who read this be HAPPY!


  1. Michael Finley on October 12, 2017 at 8:48 pm

    Do dogs have Buddha nature?

    Of course.