In the state of Washington, there is a spectacular rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula. Climate, terrain, and geographical location have combined to make it one of the few temperate rain forests in the world. Approximately twelve feet of rain fall there every year. Everywhere you look in that forest, there is life . . . . There’s a real fragility to the things that live in that rain forest. They are all in a delicate balance of interrelationship . . . . We are like the living things in that forest: We flourish when we live out of a profound sense of interconnectedness with one another. We don’t have life outside of that relationship to one another. Without one another, we have no hope of becoming the people we were created to be. We do harm to ourselves when we try to live under the illusion that we are separate individuals (p. 101-102).
– Excerpt from Terrance Grant’s chapter, “The Illusion of Separateness”, in The Silence of Unknowing: The Key to the Spiritual Life (1995).
During the week of March 5-12 my teaching partner, Martha, and myself took 20 students from Hong Kong International School to join the Yaowawit School community in southern Thailand, a 45-minute drive from the Khao Lak area that was decimated by the 2004 tsunami. Our primary activities were teaching English to the students, and building a labyrinth as a tool for personal growth for the students, all of whom had come to Yaowawit due to some misfortune. For some, the cause was losing a parent or both parents to the tsunami, while for others a dysfunctional home life or poverty brought them to the school. In Part I of this entry I explained why I expected this trip would provide an opportunity for spiritual growth among my students. In Part II I share my own experience at Yaowawit School.
The trip made a deep impact upon me, but not as I had anticipated. In searching to make sense of my experience, I found myself thinking of Gustav Klimt’s iconic painting, “The Kiss.” Some years ago I had the opportunity to view this work at the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere museum in Vienna. I remember when I turned a corner in the museum and first approached the painting, I was struck mostly by its brilliant gold frame, which was appropriately illuminated by museum lighting. In my mind’s eye the frame combines with the stars in the background, highlighting a breathtaking night sky backdrop behind the two lovers’ embrace in the foreground. The woman’s feet are nestled in a flower garden, while the lovers’ heads are surrounded and lightly haloed by the starry sky. The star-strewn design weaved into the woman’s hair and galaxy-like vortexes on her dress connects the two lovers to the sky behind.
This archetypal linking of heaven and earth made a deep impression upon me. If, as Einstein stated, our most important question in the modern era is, “Is the universe a friendly place or not?”, then the implicit message of “The Kiss” is that human love resonates with the cosmos. The universe smiles when love is present in human relationships.
Meditation and the Rainforest
Yaowawit School is a 45-minute drive from the sea at Khao Lak up into the verdant mountainous region of Phang Nga rainforest. We awoke on our first morning to a dense fog, similar to pictures that I had seen on the school’s website. Asking about this, I learned that fog blankets the area every morning. By mid-morning the sun burns off the mist, but to my surprise the temperature seldom becomes oppressive. Around mid-day clouds gather, leading to rain showers and even occasional deluges in the afternoon and early evening. Later into the evening the skies cleared, revealing a starry host above. Overnight the air would cool, depositing thick dew on the foliage, initiating the daily cycle once again.
If the rainforest at Yaowawit can be likened to Klimt’s starry sky, then our nightly meditation was the lovers’ intimate embrace. Every night my students would join the Yaowawit high school students in the Thai Buddhist temple just below the school for a time of meditation. The principal would lead the time, sharing a story to set a contemplative mood, and then we would meditate in this simple, but well-appointed space. Sitting on the floor in silent meditation with only the nights sounds of the forest as background chatter gave our minds a chance to focus inwardly following our busy days at the school. Even during the day, however, I frequently found my gaze being drawn to the temple’s stately beauty. Its simple, dedicated presence as sacred space affirmed and refreshed my spirit. How I wish my own school had a similar holy space whose very existence stands as a testimony of the importance that the spiritual dimension plays in our lives. Just as importantly, the sacred space of the temple was matched by the setting aside of a sacred evening time given over to spiritual practice. The harmony and vitality of a natural cycle combined with regular spiritual practice provided a sense of wholeness for me in my time at the school.
Our Work at Yaowawit
Being ensconced in a rain forest for a week brought to mind a comment made by Australian aboriginal teacher, Bob Randall, in the video, “Kanyini.” In the film, he explains, “Our role is to join the perfection that already exists.” Sensing the sanctity of this natural system, I felt encouraged to live lightly on the earth and use only the resources I needed, appreciating the abundant gifts provided for my food and shelter. In this context of cosmic generosity, teaching disadvantaged Thai children felt natural, a proper repayment for the debt incurred by living on the planet.
Building a labyrinth also reflected this macro-micro wholeness. We painted the feet of every student, teacher, and HKIS visitor and pressed their footprints onto the floor of the outdoor play area. Like the mountainous rain forest surrounding the school, the labyrinth is a circular symbol of wholeness. Like meditation, each of us was invited to participate in creating and walking the labyrinth path. While we had a common map, each person’s experience of this spiritual practice was particular to each person. The different size and colors of footprints also served to preserve a sense of individuality of this communal spiritual practice.
A final resource that has helped me process my experience came from Cynthia Borgeault’s The Wisdom Jesus. She begins her insightful book with the concept of “recognition energy” (p. 8), which is “the capacity to groundtruth a spiritual experience in your being. The gospels are built on it – and so was the early church – as the powerful liberation energy of the Christ event spills over and travels forward, moving from recognition to recognition.”
My week at Yaowawit school provided me with such a “recognition event.” Whereas I had expected to be (and was) deeply touched by the directors, faculty, and, of course, the Thai students at the school, the “groundtruth of my spiritual experience” came in the form of a macro-micro reciprocity of communal contemplation within nature’s fecundity. This living matrix of connectedness produced a joy of aliveness that asked me to do my part in bringing health and healing to the Yaowawit community.
As we were pulling out in our bus to head to the airport, a group of the Yaowawit students yelled out, “We love you!” We yelled back, “We love you, too!” Like Klimt’s lovers, our week created bonds of intimacy that we will not soon forget. Like the painting’s starry night, the tropical rain forest’s living interdependence suggested that such relational intimacy is part of nature’s design. Responding to the bounty of nature with purity and righteousness seemed wholly appropriate. In my own spiritual context, I thought again of the Psalmist’s words:
“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaim his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge . . . . Let the words of my mouth and meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalms 19: 1-2, 14).
I feel a sense of gratitude for the gifts of this week. Special thanks goes to Sabine Kraus, PiWit, and Bill Jarusathorn, whose commitment to the work is exemplary. Your willingness to work with us so closely in making this a memorable week for our students is to be highly commended.