“One of the major sources of our spiritual consciousness is found in our earliest life - the benevolent oneness of existence in our mother’s womb. Then, as an infant, we experience the freshness of seeing, feeling and touching the world for the first time, the immediate physical presence of our senses and our own needs. Reawakening this intimacy, recapturing a spontaneous unbroken trust in what we know and feel, is essential to finding our spiritual ground in later practice.”
- Jack Kornfield
Children blend deeply with nature’s spirit. They reach out; a blossom reaches back. Trees talk. Plants sing. Owls appear, wing tips blazing, at the sound of children’s voices. This, of course, only occurs in special places – the one’s you must be taken to. Hawaii is blessed with many of them: cliffs and upland meadows, valleys, mountain trails, and beaches whose sheer beauty touches us, and we feel whole.
One such place, called Ahu Pohaku Ho’omahluhia (Gathering Place of peace-giving stones), lies in North Kohala, at the northern end of Hawaii Island. Within it, a gentle presence catapults us back into childhood magic. We see more. We hear more. Here, as in other sacred places, we discover –like children- what Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield calls ‘the freshness of seeing, feeling, and touching the world for the first time”. This quality of early life, if recaptured, he says, enables us to find once more “our spiritual ground”. For my friend and colleague Jeanne Sunderland, this “ground” includes daily talks with a stone named Tutu.
“Nature is alive in Hawaii, “she says. “We live at peace with that knowing.”
A long-time therapist, visionary healer, and student of native teachers, Jeanne is building a retreat center at Ahu Pohaku. Here, she is known as kama’aina, a “child of the land”, or one who has lived close to the island for many years. All kama’aina – like all who believe in the magic of life – are open to possibility, expecting to hear the voice of spirit on the land.
You don’t just’ discover’ that spirit here” Jeanne tells us. ”It finds you, the way certain outdoor places find in us their human family even after lifetimes of our living elsewhere.”
Ahu Pohaku did that years ago. It reached out to Jean through the voice of her teacher’s guardian spirit. “I didn’t’ plan to come here,” Jeanne recalls, gesturing along the edge of a small bay. “But then you never do. One day, I was cruising the coast with Uncle Tommy, my Hawaiian teacher, when he swung the boat around and headed for the valley. He said his Aumakua (guardian spirit) insisted that he take me here. We landed on the cobbled beach, paused before the canoe house, sat in silence on the grassy plain. Then we left.”
Twenty years later, Robert, Jeanne’s land partner and husband, brought her unknowingly back to Ahu Pohaku “This is it!” he had told her. “It’s perfect! Even Mike Gomes calls it ‘the prettiest place in Kohala’”.
Jeanne hiked with him to the beach. “I’ve been here before,” she mused. They hacked through tangled weeds back into the valley.
“Land’s been empty for ages,” Robert told her. “No one, not even Uncle Kindy Sproat, knows anything about this place.”
An hour into the undergrowth, the ground opened up. Grass slopes rose around them. Mangos appeared, kukui tree, native noni, ti plants, and…stones.
“Pohaku,” Jeanne says, speaking the Hawaiian word for stone. “The stones there weren’t scattered about, but set with purpose. Some, as if in council, formed a circle on a grassy mound. Others stood guard at the base of the cliff. One huge stone sat alone at the foot of a ridge, presiding over the valley floor. I felt touched by her. We’re home, I thought.”
“Then I heard the voice of the stone whisper in my mind,” Jeanne said, “I knew I was to live here. I knew we were to build the retreat center on this land. Later, when I asked the stone, she told me that the land was called Ahu Pohaku ho’omaluhia, The Gathering place of peace-giving stones.
“The pohaku’s name is Tutu. It means grandmother in Hawaiian. She is very old. She is also wise, caring, and strict. She has guided our steps since I first met her.”
Jeanne’s talks with Tutu are often deep and intimate: “She helps me understand where I am anxious,” Jeanne says, “She sees into me. She guides my thoughts when they are wandering.”
Others are purely practical: “Tutu told us to build the main lodge above the south end of the valley,” Jeanne remembers. “We planned to build it on the other side. We ran into conflicts. Nothing was working. Than I asked her, and she told us.”
“The land knows what it wants,” she continues. “All of it. The Mangoes
have their opinions; the council stones their recommendations; the stream it’s preference.
But Tutu seems to speak for them all, if not in words or pictures, in our ‘knowing’ where to build the pond, or just where the lodge’s entrance pool and waterfall ought to be.”
When greeting Tutu, I pressed my forehead against her northern edge, as Jeanne always does. Words rose in my mind, as Tutu spoke. Thoughts emerged. Later, she sent me images: a new planting off the main lanai; groves of fresh papaya; and flower gardens on the upper road. She showed me crystals in the entrance gardens, a yoga studio, and outdoor yoga classes. I asked after those.
What about yoga here, Tutu?” She paused. I waited.
“I am yoga.” she said.
I nodded, and sat beside her. Of course. She was right. She is yoga. Grounded, rooted, sweeping skyward, she is asana. Beneficent and friendly, she is love. Silent, she is meditation. Humming in the center of the valley, she is tan’tien.
Touching Tutu is like touching the whole earth. It’s joyous and caring. I lean (with permission) against her, and I too am rooted and humming. I feel happy. Tutu’s yoga - the yoga that is her- feels like the “asana of childhood” we long for as adults: to sit at the feet of Nature and talk to life with the openness and wonder of children. Tutu’s willingness to speak inspires within us that clearest quality of both childhood and of spiritual experience: what Kornfield calls that “spontaneous unbroken trust in what we know and feel”.
Many of us have known this trust. We were childhood yogis. We talked to birds and dragons, pocketed snakes, chased rainbows, and searched for woodland fairie. We built kingdoms in the flower garden, held court amid the roses, sang to flowers, sobbed on tree trunks, hugged pines, played mermaid, dove as dolphins, and drifted, on our backs, among the clouds overhead. We knew what it was like to feel one with something other than ourselves. We all have, somewhere in our fondest childhood memories of nature, a place like Ahu Pohaku.
But how do we recapture that? How do we talk with stones? How do we live in sweet intimacy with the earth?
“Start with wilder places,” says Jeanne. “Visit them. Stay there. If that feels scary or unfamiliar, find a guide, someone skilled and at home in nature, from whom you can learn. Or even places built with the spirit of the land in mind. Go where and with whom you can relax outside, and open to the wonder. Most of all, wherever you go, be mindful and reverent.”
“Mindfulness above all,” Jeanne says, “being present to what is.”
That quality of mindfulness, what Kornfield calls bringing “our full attention to life”, leads us naturally into reverence. Mindfulness was part of life in ancient Hawaii. People watched. They listened. They understood. They had a name for every nuance in the wild: the smell of rain, its feel in the skin; the changing tides, a bird’s path, the colors of stone.
When we bring that kind of attention to life, life shines back, sharing its secrets. We discover then that nature’s deepest secrets are so like our own. We discover one “mana”, one Spirit indwelling in all.
To find that spirit, to be mindful, we need to quiet the mind: through yoga and other meditative practices. It doesn’t do to enter Tutu’s valley deep in thought of a conference call. You need to breathe, slow down, and let go.
“You also need to believe,” says Jeanne, “or at least be open to the possibility of a natural connection between you and the earth.”
We also need to stop listening to others and heed our own hearts, as Jeanne did years ago when she let her knowing guide her. We couldn’t do that in childhood, when those ‘in power’ scoffed at fairie and made us empty our pockets. Somewhere in our youth, we were told to put away our fairie crystals. We stopped talking to trees.
We need to unpocket our magic stones, and reclaim our childhood knowing. When we do, we discover that even Tutu is not the end point of Nature’s journey, but a gateway into the glistening, humming world of spirit and magic the lies (and has always lain) beyond the first veil of nature. This is the world that children play in; the world they recall in their waking dreams.
It’s real. We can see it. But to do so, we need to sit across from Tutu, barefoot and reverent on the council mound. We need to breathe, eyes open and soft. Then we’ll hear the breeze whisper across the beach. We’ll hear the doves call, bees drone, and later –as the wind comes up - the full voice spirit. We’ll smell the salt and the sweetness of grass. We’ll feel –like some sweet pressure in the chest-a sense of Tutu’s joy.
Shimmering, the outline of the council rocks will soften, merging with the grass. Or, perhaps it’s our outline that shimmers, as mine seemed to do, prompting me to ask if I am, not flesh, but the slow deep humming of stone. Tutu smiles in my mind as I write this. Even here, I can feel her presence. I can feel the breeze, the soft whine of dragonflies, and the “meltdown” among the rocks.
I feel her smiling. Once touched, there is no turning back. The lava soil of Ahu Pohaku is now part of my “spiritual ground”. For, where I truly touch the earth –or talk with stones - the earth touches back, and then we are one.
Now Tutu’s voice comes to me unbidden - with the scent of cut grass, or the kiss of a breeze. It anchors me in a deeper sense of a spirit indwelling not only in nature, but in myself – in my “pohaku self”. Often, when I sit with her in person, or walk along the cobbled the beach, I hear a verse by aikido master, Morehi Ueshiba, who must have had a “Tutu” when he wrote of Nature:
“Do not fail
To learn from
The pure voice of an
Ever-flowing mountain stream
Splashing over the rocks.”
“The heart of a human being,” he also wrote, “is no different from the soul of heaven and earth.”