Victoria and Hollyhock

by David on October 21, 2009

Well I’m in a quaint seaside hamlet known as Hollyhock. It’s an educational retreat where people go to learn meditation, green business practices, and other progressive ideas. It’s a very different place, and I’d like to tell you about it, but first I’ll recap how I got here.

I was dropped off at the Winnipeg airport by a thoughtful group of close family members (including the newest one, my beautiful month-old nephew) and had a pretty painless flight to Victoria. Since I only have carry-on luggage (a 40L backpack and a small satchel pack) I just walked off the plane, hugged my waiting aunt, and jumped in her van, all in less than one minute. Fastest airport pickup ever. Seriously, one minute.

She took me and my cousin for an excellent restaurant dinner, and dropped me off where I’m staying.

I’m staying with a friend, who had a concert the night I arrived but left a key for me. So I made myself at home, and hammered out what I think was a pretty damn good post for Raptitude. Somehow I saved over it and now it’s gone. The first painful moment of my trip.

Anyway, the next day my friend and I walked the seashore at Beacon Hill Park, overstepping driftwood and kelp. A nice, easy, goal-less day. It was so good to see the ocean again. It’s been too long. It was also nice not to be freezing cold, like it’s been in Winnipeg recently.

I took some great pictures, but I forgot the connector cord so I can’t upload anything yet. Blow #2.

The next day I began my pilgrimage to Hollyhock. It was a series of short busrides, through the seaside hills on Vancouver island. I guess I never appreciated how huge the island is. On the map it’s about as easy to overlook as a grain of rice. I figured it was just a big long hill with Victoria at its tip, and you’re either on the slope down the Pacific, or the slope facing the Strait of Georgia. But we kept driving and driving, and in the distance ahead of me I could see endless folds of blue-green hills. The island is an enormous land mass. Even the much smaller islands surrounding it are unimaginably huge things.

After reaching the notorious wandering-hippie-town of Campbell River, I wandered until I saw ferries coming and going and bought a ticket at the building there.

After a ten-minute cruise to the next island (Quadra Island) I was disappointed to find that the ferry to my destination island docks on the other side of the island. A kind islander offered me a ride, before I could even put on a sad face. Another short ferry ride later (too short — it was a beautiful sunny day) I disembarked on Cortes Island, home of Hollyhock.

Waiting alone for my shuttle to pick me up, after all the chatty islanders had hopped in waiting vehicles and scattered, I was struck at how completely still this place was. The sea was even silent, and the only sounds were animals. Birds and insects. On a distant treetop, I saw two huge birds, whose white heads could only be those of bald eagles, looking out onto the inlet. It was a postcard moment.

Hollyhock – A Very Different Place

As I mentioned in Raptitude’s Monday post, Hollyhock really surprised me. The first thing I heard about Hollyhock is that it is rather expensive and difficult to get to. With a backpacker’s standards for accommodation (multi-bunk dorms) the price is not prohibitive, but still way more on a per-diem basis than I’ve budgeted for the rest of my trip. So I suppose I expected the whole experience to be easier, to say the least.

At first, I was a bit put off by the apparent pretentiousness of the place and the guests. It felt to me like everyone was affecting an unnatural sort of peacefulness, by moving extra slowly, taking longer to speak, being overly polite and smiley. I still feel like there is an element of this “pretending” here, but I myself have come to take on a relatively extreme level of mindfulness since I’ve arrived, and I suspect a newcomer would get the same impression watching me walk around here, slowly as I do.

At the time I arrived was cranky and sleep-deprived, and just wanted somebody to be real. I wanted to see somebody else who was frustrated or disappointed or resentful. I guess it didn’t feel human enough to me. People weren’t acting the way I was used to.

Now, there is a certain undercurrent of conformity here. Especially on the first day, everyone seemed to be looking around to see how everyone else was acting before doing anything — watching to see how quickly people walk, how much food they pile on their plate, what sort of conversation they engage in. There was a strong sense of implicit shoulds and shouldn’ts. Certain behaviors are just completely completely inappropriate here, like anything betraying selfishness or wastefulness or short-temperedness, which to me felt a little like I wasn’t quite allowed to be myself.

I suppose my initial shock was just how intensive the program is. I figured we’d have two or three 90-minute get-togethers a day, and the rest of the time is ours to hike, sit on the shore, relax in the hot tubs or read a book. Wrongo.

I had signed up for a Buddhist meditation program, but did not know any details about the daily schedule. It turns out the program is virtually all meditation, in different forms but at least 50% formal sitting meditation. We are to be seated in the meditation hut — a warm, circular construction known as Kiakum — by 7:00 am, and our final session ends at 10pm. There are some breaks at mealtimes.

Five Days in Silence

We spend all five days here in noble silence, which means we’re not to speak unnecessarily, including in our heads, nor are we to engage others with eye contact except during certain meditation exercises. It is, of course, all voluntary — they don’t reprimand you or send to you bed without dinner if you break silence, but the rules precepts here are enforced by the monastery-like sense of culture here, as we each have our own personal commitments to becoming peaceful.

This takes some getting used to. I had lost track of how thick the everyday mind-chatter gets until it began to drop away. It consumes so much of the surface area of most of the moments of my day, it’s a wonder how I’ve managed to get along so far.

We walk around the place much like monks, slow and thoughtful, eyes on the path before our feet. Someone who stumbled out of the woods to see us might think we were in mourning.

After you’ve spent time in silence, the internal dialogue slows to a trickle and every moment seems hyper-potent. Watching your hand open a door can be as compelling as the climax of a movie. Encountering a deer crossing the path can be like seeing God. I suppose that’s exactly what it is.

I’ve got one more day of practice, and I’ve relinquished all of the negativity I had about this place when I arrived. I’ve discovered that this is just the beginning of a lifelong practice for me. I’ll talk more about it on Raptitude, but the inner work I’ve been doing here is suddenly of the utmost importance in my life. It’s no longer optional. I would like to take a meditation retreat at least once a year. If not here, then somewhere else.

I have a lot more to say about Hollyhock, but I’ll do that later when I’ve had time to reflect on it.

I hear Thailand has some decent meditation spots…


Gwynn October 22, 2009 at 11:39 am

Talk about jumping in the deep end with your meditation practice! Moving from a few minutes a day to 5 solid days is hardcore! :)

I’m very pleased to hear that you’ll be making this a lifelong practice. Your positive view on your experience just reaffirms that it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

I’ve been meditating consistently for a while now so I may have to try a day long retreat (maybe a 2 day retreat).

If you could do it again would you do the full 5 days or start with a shorter session?

David October 22, 2009 at 2:03 pm

Hi Gwynn, good to hear from you.

As of right now I do plan to do it again. The five days is perfect. It takes a while to get into the groove of it. I think 2 days would feel too short.

Delias Hozzlethorn. October 22, 2009 at 12:23 pm

An excerpt stolen from the journal of Draven Stormleaf.

“We awoke finding longtime companion Lucas was gone and had the feeling he would not be back anytime soon. This was going to be a great day. It was decided that I would now carry Asure’s Blade, however I handed it over to the professor at the university for further study, Funny thing though, once we left we were approached by a foul dark elf who offered us 4000 gold for the blade. We lied and said we had it still, but it was not for sale, dark bitch. We were then summoned to the captain of the guard(basically the king of the city) who for whatever reason wanted us to help some kind of “smart” goblins retrive the remaining pieces of the crown. It seemed strange to me, but if the price is right. After a lenghthy negotiation we agreed to meet up with the goblins outside of town and accompany them to the next piece.
Upon leaving the Captain, the Professors assistant caught up with us with a note and a key. The note explained that the professor and the blade were in danger, she would meet us at her place in the evening, if she was not there, the blade was hidden behind her bed in a lockbox, which the key would open.
We arrived on time but found the professor gone and the house ransacked. Someone was still there, the assistant came around the corner, no something wearing the assistants clothes, it tells us we sould have sold the sword to the dark elf bitch, bloody Wight and he brought some friends, Zombies. The battle seemed to go on forever, but we were never in danger and eventually dispatched the beasts. We checked the lockbox and thankfully the sword was still there. We set out for the inn and will depart to meet up with the goblins in the morning.

David October 22, 2009 at 2:05 pm


Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) October 22, 2009 at 3:30 pm

Sounds awesome being right-there-at-the moment~ dissociative. The times I have experienced this state I have been secluded from others, I can see how it is necessary in order to get to that point~ at least initially, and to practice maintaining it.

There seems to be a pattern with you “losing” things~ looks to me like your spirit journey will entail many experiences not meant to be shared with others, at this point in time (ever…?), at least in words and images.

I guess those who appear to “pretend” are following their path to get to the goal in their way; I get annoyed at times like that~ another learning moment for me about letting go ~:-)

Belated congrats on your uncleship~ and well done for creating a world that you want for him.

Eric October 22, 2009 at 8:02 pm

I’m glad to see that you have been able to make the most of your experience, and change your initial view. I am really looking forward to reading more about your experience at Hollyhock. I have, at times, thought about attending a retreat like this, but haven’t made the time for it.

Lisis October 24, 2009 at 5:17 am

I love your impression of these people who seemed to be “pretending” (calm, slow, deliberate) and you just wanted them to be “real” (frustrated, disappointed, angst-ridden). Having taken years of yoga, and tai chi classes, and mingled with a great many Buddhists, I know these people of which you speak… in fact, Vermont seems to be full of them.

But I don’t think they are pretending at all. They have learned to slow down and live in the present moment and, in that moment, there are no negative emotions. Frustration, stress, disappointment and anger are all tied to our own expectations and attachments. When you release those attachments, and accept everything as it is, all the negative feelings melt away. Then, as you pointed out, every moment is hyper-potent… and perfect just because it is.

I’m very impressed with your progress, young Padawan… I thought it would take you much longer to embrace the slower pace. :)

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