I just woke to the sound of tiny people running around on the roof of my cottage screaming, "Hey! Hey! Hey!" through kazoos. After a confused second I bolted out of bed and rushed to the window, because of course the tiny people were actually vervet monkeys. And the "Hey!" was their word for "leopard."
I think I saw the cat through my bathroom window: two dark ears on a compact golden head, gliding through the grass. I got the electric jolt I always feel around leopards. They're magical, appearing and disappearing at will in their charged silence. A tracker once told me that if you see a wild leopard, it isn't because you find the animal but because it decides to show itself to you.
Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa is one of the few places on Earth where that happens often. Maybe it's because leopards are the shaman-healer's magical assistant, and Londolozi is all about healing. Once a bankrupt cattle farm, the land was restored to a thriving ecosystem by two teenage brothers who inherited it when their father died suddenly in 1969. They named it Londolozi, a Zulu word meaning "protector of all living things," and by God, they healed it. Now Londolozi seems to return the favor by healing the humans who visit it.
I realize this is an odd claim. I could best defend it by bringing you here, something I do for the small groups that accompany me to Londolozi for what I call Self-Transformation Adventure Retreats (STARs). I once read an interview with a sangoma—African shaman—who was described as a "lone leopard" and who said his job was "to clean people so that they shine and find their true jobs in this world." Though I'm no shaman, the STARs share that lofty goal. In case you don't get the chance to join me on one of these retreats, I'm keeping this journal, hoping to pass some of the trip's healing energy on to you. And I must say, starting day one with a visit from a four-footed lone leopard feels like a blessing from nature.
Next: The coaches have their first meeting
My stalwart coaching team is meeting on the deck at the stone lodge built by Dave Varty, one of the brothers who rehabilitated Londolozi's ecosystem. It's such an extraordinary part of the world that Nelson Mandela came here to relax after his release from prison. Master life coach Bridgette Boudreau, the CEO of my small company, is here to help guests who uncover emotional wounds we can't process in a group setting. Unofficially, she's also here to help me manage my own distractible self, which would happily follow a butterfly 100 miles if nobody stopped me.
Bronwyn and Boyd Varty, who are also trained as master coaches, grew up at Londolozi. Their father and his brother John were just 16 and 18 when they took on the unimaginable challenge they call "restoring Eden"—turning a parched land into the lush savanna that surrounds us now. The Vartys became friends of mine through a series of weird coincidences (that's a tale for another time). Now Bronwyn, poised and elegant, coordinates the logistics of the STARs, providing deluxe lodging in a place where hippos wander and hyenas steal food from dinner buffets. Boyd, my STAR cocaptain, has the bush skills of a wild animal and the soul of a poet. Like me, he tends to wander.
Sitting under the trees, we review our ten guests' advance questionnaires. This group of STARlets (as we privately call them) is exhausted. Four, by chance (or is it?), are struggling with chronic pain conditions. Several are caring for aging parents. Three have battle fatigue from teaching or counseling at inner-city schools. Lillian is worn out from trying to choose a career path while working as a chef and filmmaker. Angela is coping with her daughter's severe depression. Cassie married the love of her life, only to see him sent off to war over and over. As the poet John Milton wrote, "They also serve who only stand and wait," and Cassie is drained by so much lonely service.
All of this plays right into our plans. Every STAR follows a loose curriculum we call the "four Ps": peace, purpose, power, and practice. Most people think that once they've found their purpose and the power to practice it, they'll finally be at peace. Actually, though, it's only by starting in a place of peace that we find our purpose and power. Peace is the first step and the final lesson this group of STARlets needs to learn.
Next: The coaching process begins
Bridgette, Bronwyn, and I pace nervously on another deck, a huge wooden platform built around a massive mahogany tree. This is the center of Tree Camp, which also includes the private cottages where our guests will sleep. We'll do much of our coaching over meals on this deck, as herds of antelope graze below us and monkeys try to help themselves to fresh fruit from our plates. Beyond the deck lies a landscape from the Garden of Eden: a riverbed flush with palms and rushes, golden savanna stretching to the horizon.
Boyd has gone to Londolozi's tiny airstrip to collect the STARlets. A small plane is bringing them from Johannesburg, on the last leg of ten separate journeys that began all over North America and Europe. Bronwyn scrutinizes the lunch setup while I curse myself for trusting giraffes and warthogs to show up and help these guests transform themselves. It always sounds great during long-term planning, but right now it seems insane.
"Drop in! Drop in!" whispers Bridgette as we hear the Land Rovers approach. This is life coach shorthand; she's telling us to shift our nervous systems from "fight or flight" mode into "rest and relax," using deep breathing and meditation techniques. (Take three long breaths, exhaling totally on each, and you'll get a taste.) This may be the most important skill we'll teach the STARlets. Just in time for their arrival, we drop in.
It's our first all-female STAR—ten guests ranging in age from early 30s to mid-60s—and the ladies are obviously impressed. They gasp at the beauty of the high-ceilinged deck and the landscape beyond. Their eyes, though hollow from jet lag and fatigue, are shining with excitement.
Over lunch we introduce ourselves and the coaching process that begins now. I ask each woman to tell us what she hopes to get from the five-day retreat. Lillian is frustrated by her lack of career direction. Sophia is hoping to find new ways of dealing with fibromyalgia. Lucy needs help switching from high school counseling to private practice. But any seminar could address these issues. All these women share another goal, one that in our culture might seem odd: They want to regain a sense of connection with nature, with animals, with the ancient magic of the Earth.
And in fact that magic is already working. As the STARlets describe the complex lives they've left back home, the other coaches and I gently point out that nothing they're worried about is present here at Londolozi except as a story, a mental narrative that causes suffering. The only step necessary to achieve the STAR's first goal—peace—is to release all such stories from their minds.
Now, back home I'll spend years coaxing a client to drop even one mental story. Here I can be much more aggressive, because Londolozi is the real coach. To slow their overactive minds, the STARlets need simply open their senses to the soft symphony of the African bush: the smell of fresh grass and running water; the whisper of wind and insects; the interwoven songs of mousebirds, bush shrikes, and drongos. As the immense peace saturates them, the women visibly relax. By the time lunch ends, they look years younger than when they arrived.
Next: Experiencing their first game drive
It's time for our first three-hour "game drive." The STARlets climb into two open Land Rovers that lack sides or roofs. Most tourists chatter continuously on safari, but this group is completely silent. Instead of talking, they've been asked to feel for their own heartbeats. They've left their cameras behind, too. There'll be time for photos later, but for now our priority is establishing a deep connection with the wilderness.
If these limitations bother the STARlets, they get over it quickly. With no phones, no e-mail, no small talk allowed, we begin to drink in the fresh, cool air and what Bronwyn calls "the light that makes everyone beautiful." And we begin to see things noisy tourists never do. Shy dwarf mongooses, rather than running away, climb a termite mound to examine us quizzically. Antelope and zebras move closer, as if amazed by this unusual phenomenon: humans being quiet.
We park to watch the full moon rise, huge and red, as the nocturnal animals begin singing their evening chorus. Sharon turns to me, tears on her cheeks, and mouths one word: home. I don't know whether she means Africa, or the animals, or the silence, or the moon. Maybe all of the above.
Mon. 7:00 p.m.
After the drive, we gather for dinner and coaching in an enclosure called a boma, a circle of sand some 50 feet across, ringed by tall logs. The glitter of crystal and silver in the lantern light turns the dark space into a miniature galaxy. Beyond the wall, hyenas whoop. The chef brandishes a large spoon in case one of them ("the Gorgonzola female") decides to sprint in and raid the buffet for her favorite cheese.
Sophia, who has braved the pain of fibromyalgia to be here, seems perplexed by the peace she's feeling.
"Everything seems so benevolent," she says. "I mean, I knew we'd be protected, but I always thought nature was a sort of seething mass of violence—you know, 'red in tooth and claw' and all that."
I can relate. Until I came here myself, media images and nature documentaries had me scared of the whole African continent. In person I've found undeniable dangers outweighed by an unbelievable sense of peace.
Sophia can't make sense of this. "But the world is violent," she insists. "Think of the Middle East." I know this trick: Since she sees no trouble here, she's finding it elsewhere. (Which is one reason her body hurts so much; she's continuously tensed for flight, her system exhausted by stress hormones.) This isn't Sophia's unique problem; it's human nature. Any high school English teacher will tell you that a story needs conflict to hold our attention. If you don't believe it, consider what's on TV: conflict in relationships, business, sports, politics—even, for God's sake, cooking. Turmoil draws and holds our attention. But any Zen master will tell you that where our attention goes, so go our lives.
This constant mental trafficking in conflict leaves us vulnerable to harm. Take the bus driver who drove straight into a bridge, in broad daylight, while complaining on a cell phone, going attention-blind to real danger as he focused on the "seething mass of violence" in his own mind. This doesn't happen to animals. Animals live in the alert but quiet mind-set of a meditator. When danger appears, they notice it immediately. When peace is available, they accept it. Always.
I invite our STARlets to list every peaceful thing—and every violent thing—they observed on our drive, then compare the lists. Peace wins by a score of infinity to zero.
Next: What a pebble can teach you about your life
As we coaches await the STARlets in the gray light of dawn, I tell Boyd there were lions calling near my cottage at 4 A.M., and feel unseemly pride that he slept through it. We agree to start the morning drive by looking for the lions.
When the STARlets arrive, I ask them to pick up a pebble. "Let it represent a problem you're facing in your life," I say. "Keep it in your pocket; we'll deal with it after the drive." Then we settle into the Land Rovers and wordlessness. The women are already "dropping in" faster and deeper than they could yesterday. A day at Londolozi is like a year of yoga.
Almost immediately, we find a couple of lions, and I do mean "couple." They make boisterous, shameless love about five feet from the Land Rovers. Then two other lionesses rush in like porn stars. We're treated to an extensive ménage à quatre; lions getting it on—loudly—left, right, and center. I glance at Sophia, thinking many tourists would find this scary, but all the STARlets look deeply relaxed. From within their own silence, they sense that the lions have no interest in harming them.
Tues. 9:00 a.m.
Over a breakfast of granola, fruit, yogurt, scones, eggs, and salmon, I invite the STARlets to discuss the problem-pebbles in their pockets. I'm thrilled when most of them look annoyed.
"I don't want to waste time talking about that," says Angela, who has spent years in mental anguish over her daughter's depression. She drops her pebble on the ground and gives a small whoop of liberation. "I can't bring my daughter into peace unless I go there first," she says.
"I was trying to solve a problem at work," says Lillian, "but actually, I think I'm going to quit my job. It doesn't allow for peace, and you know what? I really like peace."
Elizabeth is still laboring over her pebble-problem: exhaustion from perpetual overwork. "But I have to work hard if I want to succeed," she says. "That's just a universal reality, isn't it?"
Bridgette jumps in. "Do you think we're working hard?" she asks, indicating me, Boyd, and Bronwyn.
Boyd starts panting, feigning exhaustion, then bursts out laughing.
Elizabeth considers us and laughs herself. "Actually, you look like you're having fun."
"Ya think?" Bronwyn grins.
"We're having a blast," I assure her. "That's why we're here and it's why you're here. To learn to have a blast 'working.'"
"And as far as universal laws go," Bridgette adds, "name one part of nature—one plant, one animal—that you see working hard. They'll rev it up for fight or flight, but mostly they are seriously chilling."
We can almost see the gears turning in Elizabeth's head. "You know," she says, "now that I think of it, every big success in my life happened when I was having fun."
I'm not surprised. Contrary to our culture's most sacred beliefs, it's when we're doing things we love—with people we love, in places we love—that good things happen. I would hesitate to voice such blasphemy in work-ethic-obsessed America. But with Londolozi coaching her, Elizabeth is going there all by herself.
When it's Lucy's turn, she chucks her pebble over the edge of the deck. "I'm a counselor," she says. "I've been analyzing other people and myself for years. I'm done. I just want to see more animals."
And...cue elephants! Two herds emerge from the thick brush in the riverbed, meeting in front of us with much twining of trunks. It's impossible to fully describe what it's like to be in the presence of wild elephants. They project an almost palpable energy—and not just the infrasonic rumbling they make when they communicate. Something closer to telepathy.
Lawrence Anthony, a South African "elephant whisperer" who once saved a herd of pachyderms from extermination, died three months ago. Shortly after he died, elephants he'd saved began arriving at his home. They stayed, filling the area with their strange magic, for about two days. Then they moved on.
Tues. 3:00 p.m.
Our STARlets are now so deeply at peace that the evening game drive almost turns into a trip to the petting zoo. Zebras, giraffes, and Cape buffalo by the hundreds mill around the Land Rovers. A mother hyena watches placidly as her pups toddle up to us, their adorable stuffed-animal faces bright with curiosity. As we leave their den, Elizabeth (a.k.a. She Who Must Work Hard to Succeed) whispers, "On the left!"
There, on a fallen tree right at eye level, a leopard is watching us. We pull up close enough to see her supernaturally beautiful eyes, circles of deep space inside circles of emerald inside circles of gold. They seem quite capable of looking into other worlds.
"Well done, Elizabeth!" whispers our tracker.
"Thanks," Elizabeth says, beaming.
"You know why that happened," Bridgette tells her. "It's because you were working so hard."
Elizabeth looks confused, until Bridgette adds, "Not."
Everyone chuckles softly, the peace of wordlessness suffused with celebration.
Next: Finally finding purpose
Today we move on from peace to purpose. Deep purpose, a life's purpose, requires peace in order to thrive. And there's no better metaphor for finding it than animal tracking.
Most safari-goers never leave their cars, much less track rhinoceroses, but that's what we're doing today. First Boyd locates a perfect, crisp footprint in fine sand. Then each guest takes a turn following the trail. Wherever the rhino crossed grass or rock, the track suddenly disappears. Everyone loses it sooner or later. When the trail runs cold, we go back to the last hot track.
"Think of your purpose as the rhino," says Boyd. "The 'ground' where you track it is your body. A clear track is any sensation of joy or liberation in the body. Now, if you're far from your purpose, you can't expect to pick up the trail right there. You have to go back to the last hot track—to the last time you felt really joyful. Then you keep going from there. Don't worry about losing the track. It's the rediscovery that makes the whole process so fascinating."
The STARlets look more frustrated than fascinated. I just wait.
Wed 4:30 p.m.
As predicted, something amazing is happening to our STARlets: The rhino track is beginning to "pop." This is like when you "get" an optical illusion and what was inscrutable suddenly becomes obvious. It feels as magical yet as natural as learning to read.
Something else is happening, too. Some-thing strange. It happens on every STAR, on Purpose Day afternoon. Though we set out with the goal of tracking rhinos, we've ended up attracting them. These rare, endangered animals keep showing up everyplace we go. We literally can't find a rhinoceros-free location where we can safely follow their tracks.
I call this the Jiminy Cricket effect. ("When you wish upon a STAR...anything your heart desires will come to you.") You may know it as "the secret" or "the law of attraction": the belief that just imagining what you want will bring it into being. You may also know that this usually doesn't work. The problem is, most folks try to "manifest" things from an anxious, grasping mind-set. But the magic clicks only if we let our desires originate from a place of peace, then sustain them without attachment. Which is exactly what happens when the STARlets pursue rhinoceroses without much wanting to find one—they turn into frigging rhinoceros magnets.
Due to the rhino convention, we give up on literal tracking and start sleuthing around the STARlets' lives. We ask about moments when they felt hot on the track of their deepest purpose, and when they lost the track. Back at Tree Camp, as we feast on salads and cheesecake, Alexandra the doctor is up for coaching.
"Find a hot track in your past," I say. "A moment of pure joy."
Alexandra remembers her drive to learn in medical school, the joy of seeing a patient heal. But she loses the track—the feeling of joy—when she thinks about the dehumanizing aspects of the medical system. When I ask her for another hot track, she recalls the adventurous travel of her youth. And suddenly she's toying with the idea of joining a medical-aid mission to developing nations.
"How does that track feel?" I ask.
"Definitely warmer," Alexandra says.
Other STARlets find "hot tracks" in neglected areas of their own lives: art, entrepreneurialism, hospice service, forgotten friendships, languages they haven't spoken for years. They begin spotting trends and patterns. The track is beginning to "pop." In one short day—well, one long day—they've become the purpose-hunters all humans were born to be. I just hope the rhinoceroses don't follow them to bed.
Thurs. 7:00 a.m.
It's Power Day, when STARlets learn to follow their purpose at maximum intensity. This day used to include a forced march in heavy backpacks, but we've dropped that idea. All four of us coaches have found that when we ground ourselves in peace and track our purpose, good things happen with less effort and more fun. It's the Jiminy Cricket effect—damn if it doesn't actually work!
"We need to change 'Power Day' to 'Play Day,'" says Bridgette. "Truth in advertising."
We all agree, then spontaneously break into the chorus of a song Boyd made up yesterday: "Be Kind to Your Inner Rhino." It's a terrible song. We sing it lustily.
Of course, by "play" we don't mean lying around drinking. We mean following your purpose the way a musician plays the piano, or an athlete plays football. The objective of this morning's game drive (key word: game) is to have as much intensely purposeful fun as possible. It turns into a kind of antelope-heavy roller-coaster ride, Boyd driving like a maniac, STARlets laughing like little kids. The animals catch our mood; some of them dash around us in circles, kicking and bucking in what looks like pure joy.
Instead of heading back to camp, we drive to a small forest of fig trees, where a circle of shrubs has made a lovely glade dappled with leaf-filtered light, and Bronwyn has organized a surprise picnic breakfast.
Ellen is stunned as she walks into the grove. "I've had this exact scene on my vision board for a year!" she whispers. She has stumbled into a three-dimensional version of her playful fantasy. As we eat, everyone begins recalling similar instances when their dreams materialized magically, effortlessly, or through fun. We need force only when we start from someplace other than peace, and serve purposes based on external judgments rather than internal joy. (Think of three times something came easily to you—a relationship, a subject in school, a skill. Remember how much fun it was? That's what I mean.) I want all the STARlets to remember how creation through play feels, because if they can remember this feeling, they can replicate it, and if they replicate it, nothing can stop them.
Next: The final days of the trip
We drop in on Kate and Maureen Groch, who run the learning center in the village where most Londolozi staffers, members of the Shangaan tribe, live and work. Kate and Mo, a mother-daughter team of brilliant educators who left other jobs to work in impoverished rural Africa, positively glow with purpose. Their work is part of the Vartys' overall program for healing ecosystems. Aided by computers and the Grochs, the villagers are creating ways to husband nature and thrive, rather than depleting it to survive.
"I was 60 when I decided to commit to this cause," says Maureen, known to the villagers as "Gogo Mo" (Gogo is a respectful Zulu term for "grandmother"). "You're never too old to start following your purpose."
"Never too late" is a good catchphrase for Power/Play Day. We describe to the STARlets how Londolozi is based on a passionate belief that it's not too late to heal nature in a way that includes humans and wilderness interacting in never-before-seen ways. We tell them how each of us—the Grochs, the coaches, the trackers, everyone—is pursuing our own personal purpose as joyfully as we can, and how, magically, all those journeys are interweaving to continue "restoring Eden."
"Start playing," I beseech the STARlets. "Find your joy and follow it. If enough humans do that, we may just create enough real power to save the world." It's a modest little goal, but I like it.
Fri. 10:00 a.m.
After their final morning drive, the STARlets are dropped off at Londolozi's "intention circle." It's a round patch of sand scattered with crystals, encircled by strands of wire that rise in the shape of two elephant tusks to form a gate 23 feet tall. The wire comes from fences that once cut off migratory routes, leading to the death of thousands of animals. The Vartys spent years working to get the fences removed so that nature could restore herself. Today, when you look between the wire tusks, you can see the elephant migration route that once again flows unimpeded to the distant mountains.
This place is dedicated to establishing intentions, and we ask each STARlet to think of one that might somehow heal a part of her life. It doesn't matter whether an intention is small or large. "We can't heal a broken world from a broken place within ourselves," Boyd tells the group. "But when we heal ourselves, even a little, the world heals, too."
Each guest picks up a crystal to take home, a little piece of Africa to replace the problem-pebbles they dropped earlier. They commit to a daily practice they'll use to remind themselves of what they learned here. The practice should be simple. My own is to silently contemplate nature every morning over a cup of coffee. Cassie says she'll play for at least half an hour each day, whether her soldier husband is home from war or not. Lucy will walk the beach by her home every morning, feeling for the "hot tracks" in her life.
It may sound flippant, or naive, or just plain crazy, but I mean it with all my heart: This is the way we save the world—one peaceful cup of coffee, one loving gesture, one gift to our true selves at a time.
At the airstrip, everyone gets a little weepy. Though I know we'll stay in touch, I can't imagine a lovelier group of people, and it's hard to believe that the next group of STARlets, due in just a few days, will invite as much enchantment as these brand-new old friends. Luckily, this bighearted place has magic enough for everyone.
Martha Beck's latest book, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World (Free Press), contains detailed instructions for doing STAR exercises at home.
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