Golden brown and shimmering under the sun that touches its body after the rain, a slug makes its way across the path. Six inches long, with two pairs of tentacles, it navigates towards the undergrowth, extending one tentacle, retracting the other. Camouflaged by leaves shed by a forest of deodars, it’s easy to mistake the slug for the foliage that lies underfoot. On this particular afternoon, I watch as it makes its slow, thoughtful way to safety, away from distracted feet. A black tentacle extending, retracting, and extending again, its body leaving a silvery trail of mucus behind. A few steps up the path, I see another, then a third, fourth and fifth. Is it the rain, I wonder, or the sunshine that followed the rain, that has invited a celebration of the moment. This little gathering of slugs.
The path is lined with hydrangeas in pale blues, lilacs and pinks, bursting with life, gladdening the heart. A spider web catches the light, woven between two bushes of flowers. Light green pine cones point to the sky on the branches of the deodars, the air is crisp with their scent. I am conscious of breath, the coolness of the air, sun on my back and life forms at my feet. The last time I remember looking closely at a gastropod was as a 4-year old, no more than a few feet off the ground, watching snails and the patterns on their shells.
I’ve been tech-free the last 10 days, having chosen to share a space of silence with 80-odd people at the Tushita Meditation Centre in Dharamkot, Himachal Pradesh. One of the main commitments is to silence and in the absence of the usual distractions of technology and speech, is an expansion of time and deepening attention. Space to be present with beings of all shapes and forms — a ladybug on a leaf, ‘Daddy long legs’ flying spiders, and on this occasion, slugs.
Walking back to the main gompa, 30 fellow silence keepers are standing outside watching a family of monkeys playing with rainwater on the rooftop, their performance evoking quiet laughter. On another day, I wonder if busy feet would pause to witness them. Or if heads bowed before a screen would look up. I mutter a quiet ‘thank you’ to the universe for this moment of shared presence to something beyond the self, and for the silence that has perhaps allowed it to emerge.
There is freedom in this silence, in not having to perform, or be clever or funny. Freedom to just be. The silence on the outside is an invitation to explore its reflection on the inside. As each day passes, I find myself settling to a quieter inner world. Having the time to look at delusions, stories, old patterns and to observe the ebb and flow of emotions. With the silence also comes a softening of the insides. In teachings on compassion, Venerable Namgyel referred to the heart as a marshmallow covered in layers of hard dark chocolate. Layers used to seal off from the world, to protect the heart from anything that could cause pain, or allow it to go beyond the self to care for other beings. There’s a melting of the hard layers over the 10 days. A combination, perhaps, of this rare silence and opportunity to study what keeps us trapped in cycles of pain.
I woke up in the middle of the last night at Tushita, gripped by a wave of sadness that the time had come to an end and something precious would soon be lost. Listening to the rise and fall of breath of the girls in the dormitory, I remembered a teaching on impermanence. That everything that begins must come to an end. People we meet we also have to part with. Change in every moment, life and death seconds apart. In the sadness is also a rejoicing for having had this time. For the unheralded softening that has come with it, and the motivation to carry it into the world.