On Friday, we went into the Carlsbad Caverns.
750 feet below the surface, deep in the earth. So close to her heartbeat. I could almost hear it – and I sure could feel it. The air was cool, but the energy was warm, welcoming. I felt a sense of here you are, child, at last. My heart filled further with each foot we sank in the elevator that dropped so fast the rocks up against the tunnel were blurred.
We went on a guided tour of the Left-hand Tunnel. The tour was a bit fast for my liking – maybe it was because this was the first time I’d ever been in a cave; I had yet to get a good look around, and being part of a group made it difficult to stop and stare in wonder as long as I’d’ve liked. I did take a few opportunities to stop and gawk at the amazing shapes, and I certainly asked our tour anti-guide (the guy at the back of the line to make sure no one wandered off (read: me)) – Jake – to shine his light in several holes so I could see deeper still. But the general pace of the tour felt hurried to me.
I’ll come back to this in a moment. It’s important.
After a winding walk through the heart of the tunnel, we came to a little alcove known as “the beach”. Surrounded by rock, the beach is a little spot of sand big enough for a small group to sit in a semi-circle – which we did. There were ten of us, including the two guides. We sat in the sand together, and one by one we blew out our candles, until we were in total darkness.
And I mean total darkness.
We sat for a moment while Ellen, the actual guide, talked about the darkness, and then she said, “I’m going to stop talking for a few moments. Let’s sit together in silence and witness what the cavern’s natural state is like.”
And then she fell silent.
And I was plunged into a state of sensory deprivation, washed over with peace and contentment, and, I will admit, a little unease. Never in my life have I experienced darkness like this. I waved my hand in front of my face, and to my astonishment, I could almost see it – almost. I realized that my brain must be generating an image of my hand, because there was no way I could actually see my hand – and later, Ellen confirmed this. She said that, because our eyes are trained to see and our brains are trained to interpret, that when the darkness is so deep, our brains flip out – and because we’re so intimately familiar with our own selves, our brains can almost see our body without light. Almost. And if it were someone else’s hand waving in front of my face, I’d be right blind to it for sure.
In the total darkness and near-total silence, I learned something about myself.
I can be at peace.
I don’t need to think. I don’t need to worry. I can turn the firehose of stimulation off for a few minutes and nothing epically bad will happen. It’s quite peaceful and enjoyable. I felt a deeper connection to myself than ever before, and I found myself relaxing, breathing deeply, slowing down. Slowing down.
And then the moment passed. Tour Guide Ellen relit her own lantern and the chatter resumed, and the tour resumed, and we were briskly walked through the rest of the tunnel and led back out into the huge main cavern.
We broke for lunch; Pace, Dru, and I went up to the cafe and devoured fabulous veggie burgers. We rested for a bit, snagged an audio tour guide baton thingie, then headed back down, down, down into the caverns.
This time, we went on a self-tour of the Big Room. The map at the entrance said that the trail would take, at most, 1½ hours.
We made it through in three hours.
We wandered, meandered, and strolled. We stopped and gawked at the coral-esque formations. We were dazzled and entranced by the sheer size of the caves. We stood in awe for moments at a time, sometimes longer, at the beauty that surrounded us. We talked to each other in hushed tones, keeping the sacred quiet peacefulness. We cried at the magnificence. There were several times when I felt called to embrace one of the columns (which I never did; touching them is prohibited because the oils on our hands coat the rockfaces and alter the course of the water flow, and I certainly didn’t want to negatively impact the caverns in any way). I leaned in close, though, and inhaled the rich, earthy, watery scent. There were times when I felt as though we were underwater rather than underground, so like coral do the formations appear – and somehow, my brain thought I could just lift off and swim across the gaping rooms.
And all through this, group after group, couple after couple, family after family passed us by. People rushed past. People came up behind us and waited, their impatience wafting over us, until we shifted out of their way so they could pass. People passed us quickly, pausing only briefly to take a picture of some formation or other before dashing onward to the next snapshot-worthy spot. I wondered what they were doing; taking pictures so quickly they were missing the natural beauty so they could go home and look at the photos on their computer?
Over and again, we were passed by people in a hurry. We were 800 feet below the surface of the earth, so deep, so close to the heart of our mother – and people were rushing through, blind to the sacredness all around them.
There were other forms of disrespect, too: there were those who had conversations loudly, irreverently, breaking the awe-inspiring silence. There were those who threw pennies into the crystal clear pools, completely oblivious to (or worse, ignoring) the signs that implored restraint.
And the thing I kept wondering was, why?
Why would you go to the trouble of going to a natural park, pay the fees, spend the time – and be in such a hurry that you miss the beauty all around you?
And right there, in that moment, in the deep dark earth, I had an epiphany.
Our lives are like the caverns.
Everything around us is filled with beauty. Every moment of our lives is precious and sacred. There is no going back; once we rush through something, it is gone. We only get one chance.
If we rush through the caverns – such a sacred, peaceful place most of us might only get to see once in our lives – what are we doing in the rest of our lives?
And, more importantly, why?