Professor Monkey at the Hot Springs

I went to Breitenbush because I had received the call three times in succession.

The first was at Coast Mountain Lodge, the household of the Ralph and Lannie Keller who ran the kayaking trip I took (see Serenade for Kelphorn). Their household is a sort of Appropriate Technology Swiss Family Robinson. A hydroelectric generator runs off their small stream, and they use passive solar to heat their shower water. They grow oysters in front of the lodge and raspberries behind it. Although they don’t usually take in guests, they allowed me to linger on after my trip as a sort of paying member ot the family. Lannie stood in the kitchen surrounded by the bags and containers of food that she was preparing for the next kayak trip, and said to me “You should check out Breitenbush. I think you might like it”. I mentally filed it away.

The next day, in Hollyhock, (See First Balance, Then Movement) English Peter peered at me through his round glasses. “I’ve found my next vacation!” he said, and turned around the book he was reading so that I could see it. The heading on the page read “Breitenbush”. Hmmmm.

The following day, a woman in the hot tub said “I had a great experience at a place called Breitenbush”. Okay, Okay, I got it. I’m supposed to go to Breitenbush.

I suppose I’m like most people in that I want to find meaning in the stream of seemingly random events that I swim through every day. The Buddhists talk about monkey mind, the ceaseless chatterer that prevents us from being fully in the present. Well, my monkey mind likes to take on the guise of Professor Monkey. He stands at a lectern, his glass perched on his simian snout and he discourses on the meanings of things. He loves to amass events into patterns. Professor Monkey is delighted to find so clear a message from the cosmos and dispatches me to Breitenbush.

I arrive at Breitenbush, and neither Professor Monkey nor I have a clue as to why I am there.

Breitenbush is a determinedly rustic hot springs retreat center. The buildings are unpainted wood, the landscape mostly overgrown and natural. The sauna sits over a spring, a shack that looks like a small tug boat with steam rises from the top of it. Most of the soaking pools are made of piled stones. The meals are strictly vegetarian. Most of the soakers are in the nude. It’s quite interesting to hang out with nude people, I think.

Breitenbush often hosts retreats. The previous weekend the Northwest Radical Faeries had been there, and I discovered bright red feathers from a boa along the path. (It occurred to me that it would be kind of fun if different political organization traded members like Major League sports does. Imagine a member of the Christian Coalition being traded to the Northwest Radical Faeries for a first round draft pick. Or a member of Greenpeace being traded to the American Beef Council). The weekend coming up, there was a gathering of Reiki masters. The retreat has its own generator running off geothermal energy. It heats cabins with the hot springs water. They’re pretty much off the grid, so if you’re concerned about Y2K, maybe you’d like to go and soak in the Millenium.

By the end of the first day, I feel like I’ve been dosed heavily with sedatives. I can barely make it to ten o’clock. I sleep soundly, wakened by the breakfast bell. Talking to the other guests, I realize that my experience is quite common. Everybody is zonked. Most people attribute this to decompressing from the “real world”, but I haven’t been in the real world for a while, so I think it must be something else. Maybe some sort of somnolence vortex.

My second night, I mentioned this to the Reverend Paul Six. “Oh there’s a lot of lithium in the water”, he replied. In honor of (response to?) the solar eclipse, Paul Six had just spent a lengthy evening covering the nature of the zodiacal signs and what it meant when they were in each of the planets. At times during the presentation, he would light up from within like a prophet, his face flushed and shining, his white hair molded to his scalp, his gleaming blue eyes seated in the side of his head like racing glasses.

Paul Six did a personal reading for me in which he determined that I was too guarded, and that my defensiveness prevented me from fully experiencing my own life. He suggested that I move from New York, where defensiveness is de rigeur, especially for a sensitive Piscean like myself. A smaller benevolent community such as Breitenbush might be just the thing.

Although I think some of the Reverend Paul Six’s points are quite valid, Professor Monkey and I determine that I was probably not sent to Breitenbush to meet him. (By the way, I asked for a chemical analysis of the water, and the lithium level is not particularly high, it seems to me. But I’m no biochemist.)

The next day, I participate in a sweat lodge. Lilian “Lala” Gallindo leads the sweat. She is an Indian from the Warm Springs Reservation (she calls herself Indian, not Native American). Lillian is short and olive skinned with a mass of curly black hair, a streak of white spraying from her hairline. Her heritage is part Aztec, and she has a central american look to her. She is the mother of eight kids, and is kind and firm. She allows me to put my eagle feathers on the altar, and tells me how to use the owl feather (it’s not supposed to come out during the day, just at night). I have some trepidation before the sweat – my heat tolerance is not all that great. But I trust Lillian as soon as I meet her, and that reassures me. Besides, Professor Monkey is insistent – maybe this is why the cosmos sent me to Breitenbush.

The sweat lodge is a domed structure maybe four foot at the center made of branches tied together. It is covered over with blankets. The floor is packed earth covered with bracken ferns, and there is a pit in the center. We crawl in dressed only in shorts. There are about twenty of us, and we’re pretty much overlapping – bare legs overlapping sweaty bare legs. It’s hard to sit upright – my head pokes into branches or the blankets overhead. The guy next to me is hunched over as well. “Now I see how the elders get that way”, he says.

Rocks are heated outside in a fire, and seven of them are shoved through the front door of the sweat lodge on a pitchfork, one at a time. It’s like spiritual shuffleboard. They roll into the pit, and Lillian arranges them with a pair of deer antlers. Cedar is sprinkled on them, and the scent rises into the air. The door to the lodge is closed and the rocks glow red in the darkness. Lillian throws water on the fire. We commence a round of prayers. You can pray for anything you want, and to whomever you want, although I get the sense that if you want to pray to Jesus, it’s best not to mention Him by name.

We get through four rounds, adding seven more stones each time. The heat builds up, and everybody is sweating pretty well, but Lillian is merciful, and before it gets too intense she calls out “Door!” and the door is opened, and steam pours out, and cool air in, and we’re done with another round.

At the end, I’m pleased and clear headed. I give Lilian one of the three eagle feathers I have. This is a hard moment, because although I want to practice open handedness, the fact is I want to keep that feather. As soon as I give it to her, I really would like it back. But I push down my feelings of outraged greed. I don’t want to be an Indian giver.

I stay at Breitenbush for a few more days. I try to take Paul Six’s advice and sink down into the moment, trying some meditation and practicing my t’ai chi. By the end, I’m no longer feeling zonked. In fact, I feel pretty energized. The staff members have begun talking to me, emerging from the woodwork like shy woodland creatures.

When I leave, I decide to head east via the Warm Springs reservation, to see Lillian’s store, but really to see where the call to Breitenbush might lead me.

Lillian is not at the store. In fact, trying to locate Lillian seems like trying to grasp air, but I persevere, and find her the next day. She invites me to the Warms Springs Huckleberry Feast and Pow Wow. We head off, and it’s a little odd for me to be there, because the Feast is kind of like a big family gathering, and I’m pretty clearly not family. Kids run up and down along the river, looking for crawfish, and throwing rocks at each other. People sit at tables chatting, smoking. I pass by one pickup truck and hear snoring. Inside an enormous belly seems to have pinned a sleeping man to the bed of the truck.

Lillian breezes about, rarely introducing me, mostly leaving me alone. In fact, nobody goes out of their way to make me welcome. But although I’m not exactly embraced and looked after by the tribe, neither am I shunned. They all just sort of let me be. We have arrived late for the feast, but there is plenty of left over salmon, and cabbage and potatoes and carrots, and some of the older Indian women are still cooking up fry bread, which is a sort of Indian zeppole.

Lillian leaves early, but I stick around for the pow wow. The pow wow is held in the long house, a big rectangular buliding with two rooms – a kitchen with a big pass through window, and a main room with an open floor and benches lining the walls. There are four big drums at the end of the room, each with a circle of drummers around them, mostly beating in unison, and singing. Each group drums for several songs, and then the next group takes over.

There are dance contests for various age groups, and it’s fun to see the various age groups do their thing – the little kids still getting there sense of rhythm together, bouncing almost in time to the music, flinging their limbs about, the elders stepping along stately and self-contained, the young men wiry and explosive. For the older groups there are often not more than 5 or 6 contestants. All of them wear handmade finery, and it makes me realize that it doesn’t really take much money to have a good time. There are dances to honor the elders, and a dance for a young man who hasn’t participated for a long time, and is dancing for the first time in regalia. It is touching to see him welcomed back, like the prodigal son, dancing together with his family.

There is open dancing between the contests, including one social partner dance. An older woman named Kate comes over and pulls me onto the dance floor. It’s a very simple dance. You move together in a side – together step following the line of dance around a big circle. When the verse changes, you and your partner rotate in place, then go back to following the line of dance. There’s a fun twist to it. A woman comes on to the dance floor with a broom. She sweeps her way over to a couple, and hands the broom to the dancing woman, cuts in and begins dancing with her partner. Now the woman who lost her partner starts sweeping and cuts in on a different couple by handing that woman the broom. On and on it goes, the couples mixing by broom exchange until the song is over.

At the end of the evening, I discovered that Kate was the fund raiser, so I went over to give her $20 for next year. She insisted on announcing it to the crowd. I was embarrassed, but that didn’t matter to Kate. “We always acknowledge our gifts” she said. Which made me think about what it means to accept the responsibility for having giving a gift.

I slept that night by the side of the long house, so now I have camped with both cowboys (see Post Card from Red Lodge) and Indians. In the morning I stopped by Lillian’s store one more time, but of course she was not there.

In the end, Professor Monkey is baffled by my Breitenbush mission. Could it be that I was sent to Breitenbush in order to give $20 to the Warm Springs Confederated Tribes Year 2000 Huckleberry Feast? The mind boggles.

Or is the call simply to move forward, not worrying about where everything is leading? Or is there no call at all, and was the tripartite summons to Breitenbush mere coincidence? Professor Monkey holds his tongue.

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About Tom Weiser
This blog is devoted to the development of the Bad Lama's Guide to Meditation.

One Response to Professor Monkey at the Hot Springs

  1. Pingback: My Opinion of the Pinyon « The Journeys of Thomas Anomalous

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