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  • Writer's picturekristina jacobsen

Vallecitos: Interspecies Connections, How to Leave a Retreat, and a Song for an Old Friend



I’ve just returned from a five-day mindfulness (vipassana) retreat in northern New Mexico, at a place in the Carson National Forest. At 9000 feet, it’s a stunning mix of alpine meadows, jagged mountain peaks, and bubbling mountain streams. It was also off-grid (no electricity or wifi) and there was no cell phone reception, and thus a first for me in many, many moons. I attended this retreat, “Mindfulness in Education,” with around 25 other educators, teachers, administrators and college professors from around the country.   It was also my first, multi-day retreat held in ‘noble silence,’ a term Buddhists and mindfulness practitioners use to describe the practice of being present but being silent. In other words, as one of our retreat leaders put it, we didn’t need to “be someone” for this retreat. As a singer-songwriter, multilingual speaker and very verbal person, I was apprehensive about the noble silence in particular. What would it feel like? How would I come to know myself and others more deeply without the tool of spoken language, something that I rely on so profoundly in my work, my art and my play?
Sundown Rock (Tsé Ii aa'í), colored pencil

I’ve just returned from a five-day mindfulness (vipassana) retreat in northern New Mexico, at a place in the Carson National Forest. At 9000 feet, it’s a stunning mix of alpine meadows, jagged mountain peaks, and bubbling mountain streams. It was also off-grid (no electricity or wifi) and there was no cell phone reception, and thus a first for me in many, many moons. I attended this retreat, “Mindfulness in Education,” with around 25 other educators, teachers, administrators and college professors from around the country.[1]


It was also my first, multi-day retreat held in ‘noble silence,’ a term Buddhists and mindfulness practitioners use to describe the practice of being present but being silent. In other words, as one of our retreat leaders put it, we didn’t need to “be someone” for this retreat. As a singer-songwriter, multilingual speaker and very verbal person, I was apprehensive about the noble silence in particular. What would it feel like? How would I come to know myself and others more deeply without the tool of spoken language, something that I rely on so profoundly in my work, my art and my play?



pen sketch of quaking aspen and sundown rock, Vallecitos

As a structure, each day we did multiple sitting meditations (typically 30 minutes each), walking meditation (typically 45 minutes), attended “dharma” talks (talks about different teachings of the Buddha as they relate to our everyday lives), took our own walks in nature, and ate some of the most delicious vegetarian food I’ve ever been fed, with a menu designed to support and nourish our different forms of meditation practice on retreat. When prepared with love, food-- as my mother Helen Jane taught me from a very young age--can be so soul nourishing! There was west African peanut stew with fresh greens, croutons and bagel crisps, mushroom miso soup and jicama, watermelon and mint salad, strawberry oat ‘love’ bars, golden oats,fresh berry compote and toasted coconut, and so much more. In additoin, we each had a “yogi” job, or a job we performed each day for about an hour to assist in the running of the retreat center (mine was washing pots after dinner). And, amazingly, we did all of this, together, in complete silence, with the exception of occasional spoken instructions and talks given by our instructors, for five days, with a remarkable amount of harmony, goodwill and group cohesion.


While on this retreat, I also began reading Terry Tempest Williams’ Finding Beauty in a Broken World. In it, Williams reflects on human and animal community-building, interspecies connections, and the concept of “mosaic” as it applies to art but also to human and nonhuman ecosystems. She travels to Ravenna, Italy, to apprentice with mosaicists, and then goes to Bryce Canyon, where she lives in a prairie dog colony for two weeks, observing prairie dog behavior for twelve hours a day from a rickety wooden watch tower as part of a prairie dog conservation project. As someone who knows nothing about prairie dogs and little about mosaics beyond a trip to Ravenna as a teenager, I am surprised by how deeply moved I am by this book. It is both the courage and vulnerability of the writing, her brilliant interspersing of personal letters, random thoughts, and recounting of conversations on news, poems, and family histories, but also the broad-ranging, deeply humanistic ways that Williams sees the world, both her own and all those around her. This includes the love and compassion she shows for the men of her family, all pipeline workers, whose work and family company in many cases directly contributes to the destruction of prairie dog habitats.



cover of Terry Tempest Williams' book, "Finding Beauty in a Broken World"
"Finding Beauty in a Broken World," Terry Tempest Williams

Of the female prairie dog nicknamed Head Wide Apart, she writes: “It’s easy for me to project my own thoughts onto her, but I dare anyone to sit in this tower for two weeks, fourteen hours a day, after you have watched them wake up each morning, forage, kiss, survey, dig, play, fight, copulate, forage some more, kiss, call, then disappear underground for ed, and not be touched by their inquisitive and vibrant character.”


She then expands this observation to discuss interspecies connections and specism, and the ways in which prairie dogs and currently endangered due to development in the southwest:


“If those who poison them, drown them, gas them, and shoot them for sport considered them as sovereign being with their own evolutionary consciousness and intelligence, would their actions be different?


To regard any animal as something lesser than we are, not equal to our own vitality and adaptation as a species, is to begin a deadly descent into the dark abyss of arrogance where cruelty is nurtured in the corners of certitude. Daily acts of destruction and brutality are committed because we fail to see the dignity of Other” (Finding Beauty…, p. 127).


I, for one, will never see prairie dogs—there is a colony just fifteen minutes from our house in Albuquerque, on a little strip of land on the freeway entrance to I-40—in quite the same way.



a light brown prairie dog munching on a leaf
Photo by Dušan Veverkolog. https://unsplash.com/@veverkolog

I also think about this insight—seeing the dignity of the Other—in regard to the teachers I just finished meditating with. In a strange way, knowing nothing about peoples’ cultural specificity—their names, their family of origin, their homes, their job titles—allowed me to simply be in community with each person, without any of the stories we create about other people, ourselves, and our perceived differences. It allowed me to drop that identity almost entirely for those five days, a time in which I wasn’t Kristina the performer, the professor, the traveler, the pilgrim or anything else, I was simply Kristina, the silent human who walks in a certain way, sits in a certain way, washes pots in a certain way and sometimes smiles in a certain way. That was it. And this was, in fact, tremendously refreshing.


And, like Williams in her prairie dog perch, I also learned a tremendous amount through observation of myself and others over multiple days about ways of being. Without any language to ‘frame’ the observation, I found myself leaning in much more to other cues: the way someone’s body was leaning, eyes and eye contact, corners of mouths turned up or down, and the way someone walks and sits in their own unique way. Perhaps most significant, I came away with a very clear sense of who each person was as a human at their core, or put more simply, how it felt to be in their presence. This doesn’t mean I know everything about my fellow meditators; quite the opposite. But instead that what felt like it really mattered was the ways we were all connected—prairie dogs included—in the ways we each experience loss, grief, intense joy, and in the way that each of us will eventually also pass.


This sense of seeing and being seen was also reflected back to me by others at the end of the retreat (silence was lifted for the final breakfast), in a poem that a participant[1] wrote as she watched me walking in the Vallecitos meadow, wearing a white dress and my favorite fuzzy orange scarf as a set of wings while I walked. She shared it with me on our final evening:


handwritten poem written and shared by retreat participant; blue ink on white paper
poem written and shared by retreat participant

Retreat leaders Erin Treat and Kate Munding also offered some really beautiful guidelines for exiting retreat that I wanted to remind myself of, and share with others here, as well.


In no particular order:


~retreat stories: don’t form a retreat ‘narrative’ too soon—let it evolve and grow into what it needs to be (hence my blogging about this here before I share/talk to anyone about it in spoken form)


~technology: exit slowly back onto our phones, commuters, and other parts of our live that cause us much of our business and often much pain. That is, ‘titrate’ how we re-enter: perhaps, before turning our phone back on, we simply hold it in our hands, and then put it away again. Next, we turn it on, but don’t look at the messages. A few hours later, we perhaps read a message or two, but wait to respond, and so forth. Similarly for the computer, or any other triggering pieces to our daily lives that we want to engage in with more intention.



~thank our loved ones, and all those who held space for us, took care of our home, pets and children, so that we could attend the retreat.


~when someone asks how our retreat was, refrain from telling the whole story. Often times, “it was great” is all people really need to hear. They want to know you’re ok, and they want to know they were missed.


~save the experience for ourselves/keep key parts to ourselves, so that we don’t give others the power to either invalidate or allow a seed of doubt to be planted within ourselves about how it really was. Sharing too much weakens the power and integrity of what we know in our bones we experienced.


~Re-entry: Build in time before, and time after, the retreat, to digest and reacclimate to our ‘real’ life: typically, it takes a number equal the the retreat (five in this case) to fully re-enter our world out of the retreat space. Build in this space with intention so that we set ourselves up for success not just during the retreat, but also afterwards.


~plan your next retreat on the heels of the one you just finished: otherwise, ‘life’ easily gets in the way, and the next retreat doesn’t happen. We empty the well and forget to refill it.


And one final takeaway, for me as a retreat leader that is something I’ve come to one my own: for every retreat I lead, I need to take a retreat led by someone else, for an equal number of days. This is the idea, as Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way refers to it, of filling the well. Going on retreats fills the well. Offering retreats empties the well—in the most delicious way!—but it must be filled up again before the next one.



quick pine cone sketch with ball point pen, Up River Trail, Vallecitos
quick pine cone sketch with ball point pen, Up River Trail, Vallecitos

So, one retreat story might be about love and care and being held by land, food and intentional space, and another might be about learning to hold space for others, just as they are, and seeing/feeling them more fully in their truest essence, without a single word shared or performed, between us. Language can connect, but it can also be an armor, a divider, a way to parse and parcel human experience that allows us to live in our heads more than in our hearts. As Williams put this idea of spending time together with strangers, “time is intimacy. It’s that simple” (p. 155).


And so I’ll close this post by sharing a song I recorded, this morning, in my sunlit studio in Albuquerque, for a dear dear friend and the human with whom I spent the most time during my childhood years. I recorded it for Arielle and her young son, Owen, because lately she’s been singing with her son. It’s a song we listened to on Harry Belafonte records in the living room of my family’s shingled New England farmhouse with Norwegian blue trim, lying on our bellies on the faded wall to wall musty tan carpet. The recording is raw, and a little rough, and so I’m sharing it as a private track only, for readers of this blog. But, after so many days away, it felt great to sing and use my voice again, and a hummingbird hovered by my open window in the middle of the chorus as I recorded, which I took to be a blessing.





[1] Since I don’t have their express permission to share in written form and do not have their contact information, I will keep the poet anonymous, here, but I thank them for sharing their beautiful poem with me.

[1] Teachers: this retreat is eligible for fantastic scholarship support through the Hemera Foundation. Check it out!

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