Slow Fast: A Retreat
by Donna Henes
Today is the 14th day of my fast for fall. One day
for every month that has lapsed since I have last
fasted. During my summer solstice fast/retreat, I
received (that is, I heard, as if someone were
singing in my ear) my most recent chant, "You Can
Heal Yourself." Since then, I have sung it with
thousands of people all over the country who have
attended my seasonal rituals and workshops on personal
But how often have I sung it for myself alone? The
chant says, "You can heal yourself, cure yourself,
change yourself..." I sing it, but do I do it?
This fast is intended to center me, slow me down. It
is my birthday gift to myself and is in no way conceived
as any sort of self-deprivation. Au contraire. It is
very much about reward. Fasting is not not
eating. For me it is a superior sort of nourishment. It
is a physical effort toward a metaphysical goal. The
process, an ecstatic spiritual experience.
The first two weeks have cleaned me out internally. I
have flushed my system with fresh water and teas.
Drinking and peeing constantly. I've polished my skin
and my thoughts. I have cleared my cobwebs; opened my
channels and charged my senses. I feel lighter, body and
And now, I am ready to retreat totally into/out of
myself for one final week before I resume the normal
hustle bustle of my life. I leave in the morning for a
week alone with myself on top of a mountain. Just me
between the brown rock and the blue sky.
My goals are simple: I want to learn how long a day
is; how long is a night. I want to see the sun rise,
travel slowly across the sky, and set. I want to watch
the moon, following in its turn, traverse its nightly
course. And the stars. And the wind. I want to simply
sit still. To witness and to wait.
By noon I had packed the car, and Sarah and I were
off. We stopped to fill six gallon size containers with
wonderful mountain spring water for the week. We left
the car at a parking area and packed in with all we
could carry: tent, sleeping bag, a gallon of water, and
my other supplies. It took my last ounce of energy to
climb that trail with my pack. After struggling along
those hot, heavy miles first along the Appalachian
Trail, then the Lichen Trail, we finally reached the
9/16 late night
At first light we trekked back down the trail,
retrieved the other five gallons of water from the car,
and returned to camp with tremendous effort. We located
a fresh water source, in case I need to refill my
bottles. I'll drink the spring water and use the other
to make tea, as it should be boiled.
After setting everything straight, we climbed to the
main rock outcrop above my camp. I lay down, wrapped up
in my sleeping bag, looking out over the valley. And
that's where Sarah left me. I dozed awhile and when I
woke, she was gone — until the equinox when she'll
return for me.
Imagine! Finding myself alone in all the world like
my dream come true. I wandered around these rocks
exploring my domain, delirious with joy. Look at me!
Here I am, alone. Finally, really alone. Up here on this
mountain, with the whole valley below me and the big
sky, which I miss so dearly in the city. It made me feel
like singing. But I suddenly felt very shy in such a
vast horizon. I couldn't make a sound.
I surveyed my supplies and was satisfied. I should be
fine. What I brought: five heads of garlic, two ginger
roots, one lime, four lemons, blackberry concentrate,
cayenne pepper, bee pollen, five orange and five mint
tea bags, some powdered vegetable broth, soy mineral
bouillon, and a small vial of honey. And six gallons of
water. That's it. Enough, though, for nourishment,
energy, and purification.
The clothes i chose are all green, black, and gray. I
wanted to be warm and comfortable, but also, somehow,
subtle. I didn't want to stand out from my surroundings.
It's not a matter of camouflage, but of merging
mentally. Green is the color of healing and black is the
color of nuns.
So, feeling sufficient, even a mite confident, i set
about building a fire. I put a big pot of ginger to boil
and went back to the rocks to wait. For tea. For the sun
to go down. For my heart to stop racing. I enjoyed a
drawn out evening drinking long cups of ginger tea,
watching the dark and stars swell to surround me.
Exhausted and thrilled and completely at home.
9/17 late night
Sleep came early and deep last night; I sank into
it's bottomless pit. I staggered out into the day,
nauseous and headachy, only when I got too hot in all my
sleep layers. I washed myself and sat in the sun sucking
a lemon for awhile. Finally, when I could no longer
resist, I went back to sleep.
I woke when the sun was all the way west. Took some
broth, my canteen, and notebook and went out on the big
view rock to watch the sun go down. I wandered around
exploring. Beginning to let myself sing. I gathered
wood. And then I bundled myself up and went back to the
rock to wait for the stars to come up.
Eventually I got hungry enough to start a fire and
make soup and tea. Spent the night at my kitchen rock
which is less spectacular but more intimate than the big
view rock. Staring into space. Silent. Sipping tastes.
Sitting by the fire, I opened my new deck of tarot
cards and went through them one at a time, introducing
myself. I turned up a card to signify my retreat: the
hermit! And so I am. After starring into the coals a bit
longer, this hermit retreated into her tent.
The sun was still low when I woke. Breezy and cool.
Started a small fire and brewed ginger and soy broth
which I carried to the main rock. I am drawn to sit on
this particular rock, like the morning mist sits on the
valley. We sit together.
After sitting for awhile — who knows, who cares how
long? — I washed and dressed in my hiking duds and
headed down the trail like a good girl scout to the
waterfall for a gallon of water. Being in the woods
seemed odd and confining. The trees felt tight after all
this time in the open on the rock edge of the mountain.
Up there, the wind is the biggest thing. Since there
are no trees, there is nothing between me and the
breeze. Wind is newly alive for me, less abstract.
Earth, fire, water. These you can touch and taste. But
air. . .
Carrying the water up the hill to camp about killed
me, and I was thrilled to be back home. I made a big
fire, put on water to boil, stripped, and went to lie in
the sun. Where I am now, stretched out on the rock,
basking in it's healing heat.
So far, I have spent the greater part of every day
stone naked, dressing only when I travel the trail or
when the evening chills. I have become completely
unselfconscious. Now I sing, shout right out. Every
little thing makes me joyous. I sing all the time. Like
the birds. My songs belong. My spirits soar.
After a long sun-saturated while, I got antsy. Kept
jumping up and moving seats. Trying on different rocks,
viewing possibilities. Toured the blueberry patches that
comprise the extensive ground cover on this outcrop. The
more I walked, the more blueberries I found. As i
watched the last light leak into dusk, I ate several,
savoring each delicious one.
Back at camp i peeled garlics until I couldn't see,
then lit the fire and cooked garlic, ginger, and
cayenne. Now, hours later, i am sitting solo at this
fire drinking hot, spicy soup. Watching the lights in
the night. The wind has been building all day. Now the
fire has begun to blow sparks. I'll extinguish it and go
9/19 late morning
Rain woke me in the middle of the night. I got up,
spread the tarp, brought in the food bag and sealed the
tent. Nothing leaked and it stopped by morning. When I
woke I was glad to see the sun and relieved that the
wood wasn't too wet. My birthday present!
Boiled leftover broth with soy and went up to observe
Chilly. The sun, as intense as always, but the wind
was wild and clouds began to gather.
I dressed warm and went back down the trail for more
water, as the boiling of it consumes about half. The
walk back with the gallon jug wreaked havoc on my heart.
I think I have finally let go my control over my will. I
am actually allowing myself to feel weak.
Napped while the water was boiling. For the first
time today the wind made it too cool to be naked, so I
sucked in the sun through my cozy sweat clothes. Woke
while the sun was still high. Gathered my things and
went to the big rock for the afternoon on my favorite
chaise-lounge-ledge. It hugs my body in a perfect fit
and is luxuriously comfortable for hours.
At dusk I put on all my remaining clothes. I gathered
loads of firewood, more to keep warm in the collecting
than in the burning. This has been a great day.
Energetic. High. I bundled by the fire and drank
bouillon with cayenne and made a birthday treat of
boiled-down lemon peels, blackberry juice, and honey.
An extremely dark clear cold night. The deep chill on
these rocks drove me to an early bed, where I lay with
all my clothes on — jogging, running, jumping in place
— trying to generate some heat.
Morning light filtered in and I finally began to
thaw. When I got up to pee, I saw that I had gotten my
period during the night. No wonder I felt so lousy. Went
back to bed to sleep away the cramps. I hadn't expected
to get it until Sunday. Amazing to realize that my
breasts did not swell and get tender. Of course they are
so tiny now!
Hunger got the best of me and I dragged up to deal
with it. If I sleep all day I'm afraid I won't be able
to sleep at night and the night is so long. I made
garlic soup, and a toddy of lemon peel with an orange
tea bag and bee pollen. I cannot think of taking a walk
or getting water today. I can't move. I am like these
rocks. Just here on the edge of the mountain in the sun.
This viewing place is a zen garden. Thick pads of
acid green moss placed just so on the steely granite.
Bleached grasses growing out of the cracks. Blueberry
patches turning purple for autumn. Boulders scattered in
considered arrangements. Some few trees. In the
distance, undulating green mountains, one early red
It is never truly quiet. There are lots of singing,
chirping creatures. Insects and birds, my only
companions. Lots of planes, too, which are welcome at
night for their moving lights.
I piled on all the rest of my clothes, made an
enormous pot of mint tea, which I took back to the view.
Tonight was the best sunset. Psychedelic day-glo skies
with slender clouds, like geese, skimming through. Even
after the fire was lit and it was dark, these streaked
white formations arched above me. I'd never noticed
clouds at night to be so vivid.
I chanted the night's coming on and chanted the sun's
leaving and chanted myself onto the clouds and sailed
over my valley.
I found this written in an old notebook: "I
really am coming to depend on these fast retreats to
soothe my soul and erase the lines the city leaves
around my mind: all the little wrinkles that catch the
litter and clog my processes." Here, I am as smooth
as the sky.
9/21 early afternoon
I woke knowing it was going to rain before I even
unzipped the tent. Light came in, but there was no sun.
I should have been able to interpret last night's
exceptional sunset. Got up, prepared for rain and
crawled back in just in time. It's been raining all day.
I tried to stay asleep until it stopped.
By mid afternoon, hunger drove me awake enough to
take the half lime to suck on. Later I had some honey
and blackberry and water. I should be fine. Even with
all this damp cold, and even though my resistance is
supposedly low, I'm sure I won't get sick. Everything i
imbibe is especially good for preventing and curing
colds: citrus, ginger, cayenne pepper, and good old
It's coming down harder now. I want to be able to
slow down my system like a yogi. I tell myself to leave
my body here until the rain stops and go someplace
nicer. I can't quite. This is where I am and need to be.
Stuck in this tiny tent, flat on my back in a mummy bag,
zipped in for all eternity. No books, no art supplies,
nothing at all to distract me. I lie watching the light
ever so subtly change. Waiting for the dark as a mark of
time passing. Day is done, gone the sun.
Now comes the night, but no sleep with it. And this
stormy night, two days from the equinox, will be equally
long as this blustery day. Trying very hard to be calm
or I won't make it through the night. I breathe into my
fear and panic, guessing what was later to be confirmed
— that I was stuck in the tailwinds of a hurricane. I
chant up my courage. I pray for it to stop by morning.
I'm afraid the tent will leak. Terrified that the wind
will blow it right off the mountain with me swaddled
Finally, mercifully i slept. And out of my potential
danger, my very real terror, I dreamt my power. I
visioned myself victorious over the trials of this rite
of passage. I saw myself emerge empowered and
A lucid dream: I am lying here in this sleeping bag,
in this very tent with the flap unzipped. A large
Doberman Pincher enters and sniffs at me. Soon, he is
joined by his master and a second dog. The man then
crawls into the tent and tries to rape me. I break away
and tell him he better be careful. That I'm a witch.
"See: smell my breath." I exhale in his face
and yellow exorcist-snot comes out of my nose. I warn
him: "You better be careful! You can only hurt a
witch once." In so doing, I seize my own
response-ability and celebrate my calm, confident
Thankfully it did stop by morning. It's dark and
gray, thick with fog. But at least it isn't raining and
I’m in the tent.
I washed in rainwater, which was lovely and revived
me some. Of course I couldn't start a fire. I climbed to
the big rock to watch the day, and I was struck! The
silver air and intense, vibratory look of everything!
The fog rising and swirling around me!
After being so long in the closed tent, the scope and
majesty of the mountain and valley suddenly overcame me.
I felt myself being carried away, lifted into the mist.
I very nearly flew away forever. My head swimming, I
sank down and held onto the earth with both hands. I
drank some honey for grounding. It was all too much, I
had to return to my tiny nylon abode for some centering.
No sooner did I climb in and manage to breathe some
warm air into the tent, when it started to rain again.
Oiy. Another day and night in dark confinement until
Sarah and Anne, my civilian rescue team, come to collect
me on the autumn equinox. I doubt that after another
bout of rain, after this much more time on my back, I'll
even be sane.
But I will surely be ready to leave. Anxious to get
home, I'm dying to look at myself in a mirror before I
wash. I want to see this hermit — what she looks like.
I'd love to luxuriate in a long hot bath. Oil my rock
skin, my mountain body. Then eat my re-entry meal. But
first this day and this night in this capsule cocoon in
this tent in this rain.
The equinox. My last day here. And miraculously,
unexpectedly, joyfully, the sun woke me. The first time
in three days I'd seen the sky. I got right up, wanting
to savor these last few solitary hours, and went to sit
myself one last time in the sun on the rock to watch the
valley and evaluate.
So what have I learned here alone on the mountain?
What have I never done before or could never have
learned in the city?
I learned how to sit. How to look. How to listen. How
to lie. How to rest. How to wait. Mainly, i think, how
to wait. But hence, how to proceed.
A new chant came to me earlier this week. It has been
the theme song of this retreat and has rarely left my
head. I hum it all day with each step I take. And have
belted it out loud on more than one occasion for the
birds and the planes to hear:
"Put one foot
in front of the other
and test the ground
and if it's sound
Lesson enough, if I remember and use it.
© Copyright 2004 Donna Henes. All Rights
Donna Henes, Urban Shaman, is the editor and publisher of the highly
acclaimed quarterly, Always In Season: Living In Sync with the Cycles. She is
also the author of Moon Watcher's Companion, Celestially Auspicious
Occasions: Seasons, Cycles and Celebrations and Dressing Our Wounds In Warm
Clothes, as well as the CD, Reverence To Her: Mythology, The Matriarchy & Me.
In 1982, she composed the first (and to this date, the only) satellite peace
message in space: "chants for peace * chance for peace."
Mama Donna, as she is affectionately known, has offered lectures, workshops,
circles, and celebrations worldwide for 30 years. She is the director of Mama
Donna's Tea Garden & Healing Haven, a ceremonial center, ritual consultancy
and spirit shop in Exotic Brooklyn, New York.
For further information, a list of services and publications, a calendar of
upcoming events and a complimentary issue of Always in Season: Living in Sync
with the Cycles. contact:
MAMA DONNA'S TEA GARDEN AND HEALING HAVEN
PO Box 380403
Exotic Brooklyn, NY 11238-0403
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