Blog: Weaving Worlds at Menla
By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.
The wind at Menla arises in its own particular way at any time of the year. But in the fall something very special happens when you least expect it. By October, the leaves have begun to change. The sumac is brilliant scarlet, the ash trees are a deep vermillion and the catalpa trees are inexplicably brighter green than they were all summer. In the midst of all these hues, the wind arises. It starts a simple rustle, but soon, it is as if the air becomes more substantial. And then the hushing sounds begin. The hushing sounds are the leaves lifting off the branches of the trees as the wind rises beneath them. Soon, the whole world is a swirl of fluttering scarlet and vermillion. And then, as quickly as it came, it is gone, and the trees settle back into their deepening hues.
Menla Retreat lies in a secret valley in the heart of the Catskill Mountains. It is a place where there are still hundreds of butterflies. It is a place where the owls still call at night. And it is a place where the big event in fall is the ripening of the apples on trees that are a hundred years old. The groundhogs sun themselves on the stones in the fields of the ancient orchard waiting for the apples to drop. The deer dart from tree to tree as they hear the plop of an apple hitting the ground. And the bears take matters into their own hands and climb the apple trees, balancing and stretching to their full length to reach the apples dangling at the tips of branches that are just beyond their reach.
It was here where Robert Thurman, about twenty students, and I gathered to explore the ways in which shamans a have navigated the unseen powers that lie hidden in the beauty of nature – and where siddhas have sought to transcend the mundane world through their inner explorations. Bob’s lecture on the tantra was especially compelling for me as the world changed from one season to the next – where one world gave way to another with the shortening days and the lengthening nights. I have never heard anyone bring the tantra alive the way Bob does. In a single sentence, he cut through all the drama and misconception that often go along with the word when people seeking sexual thrills in New Age circles grab onto it.
“Tantra,” Bob said, “is about weaving worlds in the process of transforming karmic obscurations. Tantric practitioners accelerate their evolution of consciousness by creating worlds and moving through them in a particular, focused way with an ever-deepening understanding of the processes that contribute to the creation and dissolution of experience. Practitioners compress their experience and their evolution in a particular way in order to be able to attain the experience of bliss of what is called nirvana more quickly than the average practitioner.”
He expanded on these teachings as he read from his translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. This work offers a kind of guidebook through the experience beyond death through the description of the various worlds that give way to one another through the death process.
As he was speaking of weaving worlds within the inner discipline of the tantra, I watched the leaves rise and fall as the wind moved through the valley. With the change of season, one world was giving way to another in the dance of creation and dissolution of experience. And all the creatures of the valley were participating in this dance in their own unique way. Bob’s words and the movement of wind through the changing forms as summer gave way to fall seem to be meeting in a kind of magic that moved through the valley. I marveled at our good fortune in being able to consciously participate in this dance of changing forms– and rejoiced in the fact that a place like Menla still exists where people can engage the ancient wisdom of something like the tantra with clarity and purpose.
Editors’ note: You can join Isa Gucciardi and Bob Thurman at one (or both) of two regularly-offered retreats at Menla, Embracing the Sacred Feminine and Shamans and Siddhas: Meeting at the Crossroads of Shamanism and Tantrism!