Retreats, defenses, & walking

Full moon, a Strawberry Moon, time to harvest wild strawberries. I’ve had a few but my plants have largely run their course.

I haven’t been posting because I’ve been pushing on with a new business with my brother called Book Driver. It’s a donation-based bookseller business in Denver and now Chicago, where I’m building up operations.

I was in Denver working on that, and figuring out what to do with the brick-and-mortar bookstore Coyote Ridge in Broomfield Colorado—to be or not to be. 

But before that, I was on retreat at Cochise Stronghold for 8 days. This beautiful canyon is situated in the flat expansive desert of southeastern Arizona, near the foothills of the Chiricahua mountains. 

View from the kitchen porch at Dharma Treasure, a retreat center in Cochise Stronghold, AZ

View from the kitchen porch at Dharma Treasure, a retreat center in Cochise Stronghold, AZ

I’ve been on a few retreats over the years, for yoga and meditation, but this one was self-guided. There was only one other student there, and I met with the meditation teacher just once. I had a few things in mind that I would focus on, things that had come to me in meditation practices leading up to this day.

They say if you are too busy to meditate then you really should meditate.

Well maybe this carries over for me in that I was so busy, I went to meditate for a week.

Still, even with a topic—defenses—I am not sure what I’m doing there at first. Okay, well it seemed the first defense is confusion.

I try to be playful about this, light-hearted. I have had enough of any sanctimony around meditation and yoga, and would rather feel very good about whatever I do, not just feel good because I think I'm doing what I should.  

So I persevere anyway, in the squirminess and discomfort of being alone with my thoughts, telling myself, it’s always tricky on the mount/dismount. This place is beautiful, and remote, infinitely explorable.

The meditation yurt.

The meditation yurt.

I start by organizing the day.

6 am meditate (I swear waking up early happens when you meditate a lot)

7 am qi gong with adorable 90-year-old neighbor/teacher

8 am food/service

9 am meditate/walk

10 am (tomorrow) meet with teacher

11 am meditate/walk.

12–2 afternoon snack, then snooze.

3–6 Late afternoon—reading and meditate. 

6–9 Evening eat, tea, 1 whiskey / 1 cig*, and sleep.

*Yes I’m a smokin’ yogi (tm?). Like Gwyneth Paltrow. The distraction for my distraction has arrived.


So while meditating, and hiking, and between other things, I looked at defenses and general protective strategies in the desert and in myself, and in my small dealings through the day.

Meditating will bring up old shit. I had memories of the indignities of school and the beginnings of a firm resistance to the rules and schedules. But I don’t sort through it, just experience the memory in real time.

Similarly, going hiking in the desert brings up bottom-line security issues right away. Sun, heat, lack of water, strange dangers. Deeper lurking defenses. 

Defenses literally everywhere! Pricks, leathery skin, dark-tanned bark, sharp points. Cacti, aloes, lizards, trees, birds. Vultures. A pair of the scavengers gave me a show of their aerial scanning technique one late afternoon as I was perched on a rock high in the canyon. You never really know if it's you they're watching, you move around to show them you're not dead. 

I wonder when the first vulture decided to go for the carrion, the low-hanging fruit, rather than hunt like eagles. Over time their food source became habitual, and their heads grew  bare, to be able to thrust into the body cavities of dead animals without having to clean their feathers.

Adaptations. We all have defense strategies and adapt to our circumstances, over our lives, and over generations. The multiplicity of life is such that our individual defenses are beautiful, and unique to us (within a larger whole of possibilities).

So, after being bit a few times, I begin to respect these defenses, be not so quick to trample on others' defenses or my own. They are sensitive places. Boundaries. Some of us guard our own but belittle others’, and some treat our own as porous and let others intrude. 

This looks like a path but the tines on the ends of these here cacti are longer than they appear and sharp. I ventured, and learned (ie was stung) and turned back. Many times. 

This looks like a path but the tines on the ends of these here cacti are longer than they appear and sharp. I ventured, and learned (ie was stung) and turned back. Many times. 

Blue jays keep a close watch from a nearby tree. Blue Jay symbolizes swallowing poison (blue) and turning it into nectar—transforming negative experiences into gold through a broadened awareness of the times of increase and recession, recognizing the whole. No up without down, dark without light, knowledge without ignorance.

Trials exist to show us what we want.

Do you really want that? Life throws an obstacle in the way to test our courage and commitment. And to grow firm defenses, limiting what’s really not important to us for what is.


Boundaries are great as they keep us safe, but if they keep us from courageous action, then they are possibly overdefined. Only we can tell for ourselves (and our close ones).

Some not so necessary, literally childish, fall away naturally, with a bit of shame. Less guarded as you feel safer, in a feedback loop. An accompanying softening of boundaries, is what it feels like, as others firm up. Safe in my own keeping. Ahhhh.

Beauty shines forth unperturbed.

How to walk.

How to walk.

There was this one thing I found very powerful for getting out of the mind and I call it “follow your feet around.” You don't need a pic of my feet, but just in case.

At first I’d do it in the meditation yurt, slowly and methodically. But my feet were happier walking quickly on the desert road. It was funny the turns I took. I was leaning over watching my feet at first, the mind telling the feet to go. Vamoose!

The eyes are the first line of defense, they are laser-focused on the surroundings, especially the more novel the surroundings. The eyes take you right into the thinking mind.

(This is why stilling and lowering the gaze calms down the nervous system.)

Being in the feet is like childhood in comparison. Eventually I could just look ahead but still mostly be in the feet. The eyes start to relax and not focus on anything in particular. 

Try it! I don’t know a better way to say it: follow your feet around. Known as kinhin in zen and chankramanam in yoga which means wandering, roaming about. Lemme know how it goes.

I was trying to post a video but I am still tackling very basic editing skills. Report back soon for You Tubarino!


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Emily Johnson