Some years ago, I went on a solo retreat in the majestic Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon. My reasons for doing this were mainly emotional and spiritual: I had lost my sister Ro to suicide a year earlier, and though I’d worked through a great deal of grief, I felt drawn to the idea of combining fasting, meditation and affirmations of healing, and doing so in complete solitude.
This entry focuses on the gifts of my 10-day water fast and draws from journal entries taken during that experience.
The Wallowa Mountains are located in the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area, Oregon’s largest wilderness area and once a home to Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians. I hiked in about 18 miles to a remote gorge surrounded by bare granite peaks and ridges. Along with my camping gear, I took my journal, a few books, and a bag of brown rice and kudzu root powder—just in case I lost my nerve during the water fast.
At sunrise each morning I recorded my dreams before bathing in ice-cold springs. After the plunge, I alternated between yoga, chanting and sitting in silent meditation on a boulder that overlooked my campsite. Then, following the morning meditation, I devoted my mid-day hours to practicing the affirmations of Gerald Jampolsky’s Love Is Letting Go Of Fear, while also reading aloud the poetry of Mary Oliver and W.S. Merwin. This kind of daily structure was at once grounding and nourishing.
Throughout the entire 10 days, I saw not a single human. My only distractions were the occasional gust of wind and bird of prey—mostly golden eagle, bald eagle, and peregrine falcon.
By day three, everything was moving in slow motion, all the world a dream. The life I’d been living back in Portland seemed remote and trivial. At the same time, much was being stirred up on the inside. My sitting meditations were sometimes beset by turbulent moods and unsettling memories and sensations. I often tried to channel or sublimate these energies by alternating vigorous yoga with brief sprints and bursts of calisthenic-like movements.
The challenges encountered in sitting meditation are an old story. Common to all major religious doctrines is the idea of overcoming the dark forces that stir and sometimes explode within us. Buddhist and Christian sages alike have described the problems of meditation in terms of demons that come to one who meditates out in the wilderness. These demons may include fear, greed, anger, pride and laziness—as well as our resistance and unwillingness to look at what is actually happening within.
Dreams I had during those first few nights unleashed an endless stream of lurid dramas in which I saw myself battling, deceiving, provoking and running from my loved ones. Sometimes I would wake in the middle of the night to a churning cauldron of feelings, shivering, cheeks covered with tears. Visions of food, too, were frequent. As my body struggled to burn up fat reserves and throw off toxins, I dreamed of croissants the size of school buses and swimming pools full of ice cream.
By the seventh day, I was able to recall in detail several dreams from the previous night, and also noticed a dramatic shift in the quality of those dreams. Whereas early on in the retreat, I had two identical dreams of being in ancient battles with my sister leading a group of warriors against me, my dreams of her in the final few days were tender and loving. Upon waking, I felt an incredible lightness of being (and not just from weight loss!). I had contacted my sister and let her go, setting myself free in the process.
On the last day, I had a wonderful dream about a brother from whom I’d been feeling somewhat alienated. In the dream, we were both on a giant catamaran far out in the middle of the ocean, smiling and laughing. When I awoke, laughing in ecstasy, I felt a profound sense of spaciousness and compassion for my brother. This positive, expansive feeling has pervaded my relationship with him ever since that time.
It is a rare gift to take time out to deliberately tend to that timeless part of oneself we call the soul or spirit, and to do so for an extended period in total seclusion and in such a deeply nourishing, pristine natural setting. My fast forced me to slow down, cleanse, and open to my own heart. It created much needed internal space for my grief and rage, and in so doing helped me reclaim a sense of wholeness and healing empathy for myself. For these and other gifts of the journey, I am deeply grateful.
Note: Water fasting is not for everyone and requires expert guidance prior to going into the fast. In future blogs, I’ll address the biological benefits of fasting, as well as different types of fasting.
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© 2017, Mark Nathaniel Mead