By Erica Miguel
I’ve been living in one of the last remaining old-growth redwood forests of California for thirty years. I sit in silence practicing The Path of Stillness for five hours a day. The rest of my time is spent deciphering the sacred language in the pages of The Totality of Truth. After thirty years, I am finally able to read it without the help of Retsam-147. Retsam-147, who is ninety-one years old, told me that The Totality of Truth can’t be understood by only studying the texts, but it must also be experienced through The Path of Stillness. He said that anyone can be a word collector, but few become wise enough to attain Complete Knowing. Others call The Path of Stillness meditation, and although the word falls short of describing what it actually is, for simplicity’s sake I’ll refer to it as such.
Retsam-147 warned me that the words written in the Totality of Truth have the potential to be dangerous if they are spoken without a pure heart. “Even when we think we are speaking with good intention, it is only when we wait long enough to deeply listen, can we understand how to communicate. Learn how to use your breath only for truth, then you can speak without harm. You will know when you achieve Complete Knowing: both body and mind act as one, without the burden of thinking and feeling everything and nothing together. Understand the power of your own mind and you will understand the meaning of The Totality of Truth.”
Each time I sit still, I’m brought inward, unlocking parts of my mind that teach me something new about myself. Retsam-147 told me that I should never search for those doors to unlock, just be still and doors will open without effort. It’s true, the more I try to search, the more labyrinthine the pathways become, but when I am still, the doors appear and open before me. It is often painful, but there’s always something to learn if I’m still. At first I didn’t think I had the constitution to sit for long periods of time: fixed like a mountain while the pain, like skilled climbers, maneuvered themselves into hidden spaces throughout my body. I grew thirsty for answers to questions that arose with each period of sitting. Where does the pain go when I can no longer feel it? Why does it return in a different area? Why is sitting still so difficult?
When a mother tree has fallen, the offspring of clones grow into a perfect circle around her stump—a quality that is unique to coast redwoods, Sequioa sempervirens. Underneath they communicate through a vast and intricate root system to feed, heal and protect each other from danger, while also being sustained by the mother tree’s underground supply of nutrients. This sophisticated support system allows them to claim the title of “The Tallest Trees on Earth”. A dome structure built from the wood of the ancient fallen mother is nestled at the base cathedral tree circle. Her stump, a totem inside the dome, also marks the axis of these trees. Looking up through the dome’s glass ceiling was like looking into a kaleidoscope, trunks narrowing upward to create a geometric starburst. At the right time of day, I could watch delicate needles sparkle as they pass through scattered rays of sunlight on their way down. Retsam-147 and I met here for two hours every day to meditate together. In the beginning I found it difficult to keep my eyes closed and my attention inward instead of looking through the giant kaleidoscope. With eyes remaining closed, he said with a steady voice, “Frustration is the teacher of patience. The answers will come from within, not out there.” Was it a riddle that I was supposed to solve? His words were too simple for the ensuing mental turbulence. A few minutes later he followed with, “You must be patient learning how to be patient.” As a student, I always wondered if he could read my mind.
Before being still, I used to run eight miles every weekend through this same grove of ancient redwoods, gathering mist in my hair as my feet crushed twigs and cones under me like pestling seeds into a mortar. It was coming to a forest of this magnitude that made me feel human again, a simple being among the tallest indomitable beings on earth. They were the last of their kind, surviving three thousand years, despite the increasing instability around them caused by our doing. I can see their history told through the deep crevices and burls in their glorious trunks pulling energy three hundred feet up into a canopy rich with its own secrets. Inside their world I am small, but they still know I’m there. They feel my breath in our invisible exchange of molecules, a rhythm that was mastered long before the potency of language divided us. When I run through the beams of sunlight strong enough to cut through the darkness and into the understory strewn with dewy chartreuse moss and filled with car-sized ferns, I am reminded that each living organism has its place and can adapt to thrive if given the chance. In this forest, I ran fast like my ancestors did: not for pleasure, but for survival. I had been existing in a liminal world going to work each day, then going to the forest to sort out why. I felt like my choices were being replaced by algorithms and I was no longer making my own decisions.
When I purchased my new generation car, I was required to submit my DNA to the manufacturer. This, they said, will allow me to take advantage of all its cutting-edge features. My risk of genetic disease, exposure to environmental toxins (tracked by my GPS), and my lifestyle would be analyzed to offer the best in-car care. They were going to offer me every option for longevity tailored to my DNA. I was convinced that I needed prescription coffee dispensed into an insulated cup below the control screen of my car each morning. My chances of succumbing to disease would be curtailed by fifty percent just by adding an elixir of herbs, vitamins and enzymes to my espresso. Sensors on the steering wheel would monitor my pulse and alert me if it exceeded the measured rate that should get me to a hundred years old. The driver’s seat could mold itself around me to support my spine while also applying heat or cold where necessary to make my driving experience not only more comfortable, but therapeutic. According to the ads, It’s a Life Catalyst. Not just a car. The ads permeated every channel of social media until I bought my very own Life Catalyst.
I would be cruising into my hundredth year with a steady heart rate, but at 100 mph. The manufacturers not only had to keep cars more interesting, but also increase their speed to compete with the bullet train that connects Los Angeles to San Francisco at 250 mph. Speed limit signs became irrelevant because all cars were self-driving and highway speed was controlled by the County Control Center using an algorithm that could measure S (Safety) x L (Lifestyle) to yield the most P (Productivity). This speed would then be uploaded into each car and drivers could just sit back and wait for blast off. A mechanism for transport had been successfully marketed as a mechanism for survival. We were navigating life in our cars and we couldn’t slow down.
Every morning for the past sixty years Retsam-147 walks slowly through the forest of old-growth redwoods, the primeval skyscrapers. He said that living among these trees was the only way for him to really hear the world. Thirty years ago on a day that I decided to detour from my running path to explore the inner forest where sunlight is scarce, is when I encountered him for the first time. I almost ran right by him had he not been sitting next to a white tree emerging from the base of a redwood. I thought he would’ve heard me, but he sat without movement; his eyes were closed and his hands were rested in his lap like fallen leaves atop each other. A dark green robe obscured his body, making him barely distinguishable from the ferns, clovers, and moss that surrounded him. I quietly made my way behind one of the smaller trees to watch him. Against his stillness, the forest was animated: ferns seemed to dance, the birdsong in the canopy grew louder and the white tree pulsated like a neon sign. Was this a flashback from the inPsytu I took last weekend?
At the time I took the inPsytu mycorrhiza, a substance harvested from the roots of Sequoia sempervirens, my coworkers were regularly using it when they needed to boost their performance at work. They were taking minute amounts that didn’t cause hallucinations, but activated ideas. It was no longer a fringe tool reserved for tech CEOs; everyone from entry-level engineers to copywriters were using inPsytu to increase their creativity, focus and energy. We were in the business of developing technology, but we were also in direct competition with it. If we wanted to keep our jobs, we had to justify our worth by increasing innovation at every turn. We talked fast, ate fast, walked fast and drove fast. During our breaks at the coffee truck on campus, we talked to each other using minimal eye contact and limited our socializing to the wait in line. We mainly talked about the other people at work (gossip), things we wanted to buy (cars, gadgets), and where we were going to travel to really unplug for our next vacation (…only to see vacations thoroughly documented on social media in real-time).
I decided I needed to take a stronger amount of inPsytu than what my coworkers were taking. I never needed it for work, but I had accumulated a decent amount from colleagues over time. I took it right before my run in the redwoods not knowing what to expect, but hoping for some perspective to my life. I emptied the powder into my espresso, drank it down and sat in my new car to wait for it to take effect. After thirty minutes I started to laugh uncontrollably. I laughed at my steering wheel for just existing. I couldn’t stop. The airtight metal bubble that I was sitting in seemed absurd. I didn’t care how much hard-earned money it took to buy it; my mind couldn’t process its value. After the long fit of laughter, I noticed words from the radio were distorted and soon became sounds without meaning. I even struggled to grasp the concept of the numbers displayed on the clock on the control screen. Linear time was just a construct that my mind couldn’t reconcile as I was experiencing expansion and contraction in all directions. Looking around the streamlined interior that once enticed me, now felt insignificant. My Life Catalyst had its limits: it was not alive. I fled the machine for the forest.
When I entered the forest, it felt like I was dissolving into it, atom-by-atom. I wasn’t separated by my thinking brain, but allowing a different kind of intelligence to guide me. Words were subordinate to this moment, so with humility I let them go. An area deep in my chest was cracked open and released, allowing me to see this connection as a continuum, unbroken and pure. I was not only able to acknowledge the numerous trees and plants that I previously ran by each weekend, I could actually feel them without touch. Nothing was inferior in the forest, as everything worked together to function as a whole. My sense of wonder was that of an infant seeing everything for the first time – with curiosity and pure delight. I couldn’t run because I was too conscious of the living network that I was now a part of. I had to slow down to take everything in, to feel everything. It was the homecoming and heartbreak. It was the removal of boundaries that separate us from the truth of our interdependence. What the forest told me was: Without division, we become whole. This is how we thrive. I wept for all that I had been disconnected from and for the suffering of each species that communicate without words and which we have been deaf to for so long.
I was too overcome by strong waves of feelings emanating from my chest and filling every cell of my body, that the only thing I could do was to stop, sit firmly on the ground, and accept whatever sensations came through me. It was as if joy and sadness were stitched together, joined as allies or even friends. Was that area of my chest—my heart, the universal symbol of love? Was this feeling the purest form of love to experience or was this a feeling too dynamic for the word love to capture? I let go of everything, released it from every pore like the stomata of redwood leaves release everything that doesn’t serve the tree. I wept until I felt light again. I disagree that inPsytu causes hallucinations, as what I experienced was closer to any truth that I could fathom.
Encountering Retsam-147 on my run that day didn’t feel like a coincidence, but the answer to why I kept returning to the forest every weekend. The inPsytu had awakened me to a new relationship with all living beings, but even with this new awareness, I was still looking for an answer. All the research I did to make myself an expert in my field was now put into question, and nothing could prepare me for this undoing. I spent most of my life studying how to save humanity through technological innovation. It seemed to be the answer to any chance that our species had at survival, yet I didn’t see how we were accomplishing this as more cultures were being added to the Endangered Peoples List. Life was getting faster, our bodies and minds were hooked to devices, but we were so disconnected from each other that it seemed like we forgot how to be human. For those fortunate enough to not be endangered, we were going to outwit life by engineering ways to circumvent its natural cycles. But at what cost? What was the purpose of living to one hundred years old if getting there meant sacrificing our humanness, our soft spots? The scaffolding of my life was coming down and underneath it was something far superior to my current reality. There had to be a different way to live….
From behind one of the Douglas fir trees abundant in the shadows of the redwoods, I watched Retsam-147 sit in stillness. How long had he been there? How much longer would he sit there for? If he wasn’t in such an upright position, I would wonder if he was still breathing. The sunlight was fading fast, but I was too curious to head back to my car. After an hour of resting my gaze on him, he slowly began to rise and I noticed his feet were bare as he placed them gently on the rich soil surrounding the base of the tree. I kept a safe distance following him as we climbed over fallen trees and ducked under the fronds of giant ferns. He moved deftly through the forest, synchronized with the natural world around him. In his early sixties at the time, I could barely keep up with him as a healthy thirty-year-old.
I began to worry that I wouldn’t know how to find my way back after following him deeper into the forest where my GPS signal dropped off. This was unusual as there weren’t any known locations that signals couldn’t reach. Even in the most remote places, people were able to livestream their lunch. The satellite signal was no match for the ancient redwood forest. For most of my life, the device on my wrist told me where I was; so it was the first time I couldn’t locate myself. My fear quickly turned into excitement. I felt completely free: untraceable to any device. My Life Catalyst wouldn’t be able to find me; I had outwitted my car.
I followed Retsam-147 to the ring of Sequoia trees. I watched as he carefully dusted off his feet with a cloth and made his way inside the dome perfectly centered in the middle of the cathedral trees. The sun disappeared and a soft light illuminated the structure from inside. Like a flame lures a moth, I was drawn to the flickering yellow light becoming brighter in the darkening forest. I left the cover of my tree protector, and made my way to the wooden path leading to the arched wooden door made from massive burl. Halfway down the walkway, the door swung open, but no one came out. Moth-like, I fluttered to the doorway and my only immediate concern was whether or not I should enter the dome with muddy shoes.
“I’m glad you found me. I’ve been waiting in the forest for you for a long time. The Sequoias guided you here and they asked me to teach you what they know. If I teach you The Totality of Truth, once you attain Complete Knowing you must teach others outside of the forest. It is not my role in this lifetime to leave the forest, so I will trust you to do this,” he said. Maybe this wasn’t a flashback, but another inPsytu journey so strong that I can’t remember taking it. There was a man in a robe, not a plant in a robe. I was surrounded by walls and beneath my feet was a floor made of wood displaying the sweeping waves in the grain of the ancient mother tree. I could trace the lines with my finger and feel the softness with my fingertips. Everything seemed more tangible. And then he said something that I did not expect: “The inPsytu you took last week opened your mind to be able to see me, but I’ve always been there. You ran past me every weekend. I am not an illusion, but the reason you’re here. You don’t need inPsytu to see me. You just have to be still.”
Today I use the name I earned, Retsama-5. I am the fifth woman in my lineage to hold this title after nearly three millennia, and the only woman of this millennium. Why am I only the fifth woman to earn this name? People have said that the men of my tradition have intentionally made this path more elusive for the women. Retsam-147 has assured me that our tradition was never based on gender, sex, or caste, even from its inception. I took a vow of silence to practice The Path of Stillness. It’s not until recently that I attained Complete Knowing as described in the Totality of Truth. I have been silent for thirty years, I have listened deeply to the forest, and now I can speak without harm. I will tell you what I learned.