Photos by Zeena Schreck
I’ve just returned from my biannual meditation retreat focused on Phowa, a Tibetan Buddhist practice that prepares you to consciously transfer your mind stream from the body at the moment of death.
The Phowa lineage I'm from is called the Mahasiddha path, which is a solitary, non-monastic discipline wherein yogis, or yoginis, receive a specific transmission or teaching from their guru. This transmission is to be perfected over many years until certain signs appear, which are then reflected upon and confirmed.
The solitary retreat I took wasn't removed from my familiar environment. Its only separation from worldly affairs, time, and space was through the power of mind and the discipline of daylong practices over several weeks. Ideally, a proper retreat shouldn't be interrupted. It should be regarded as your own temporary death while living—an unhooking from all worldly routines and concerns. The only interruptions allowed are sickness or death.
Sickness and death are two things I'm not a stranger to. Aside from being an artist and meditation teacher, I’ve worked in hospitals and mortuaries for over a quarter-century and have aided many humans and animals through their last vital moments. I recognize the signs of imminent death.
While I'm not at liberty to describe the exact practices that occurred throughout my retreat, I can share an unprecedented anomaly that took place.
My retreat began with an early autumn breeze gently brushing the curtain back to wake me. The distinctive aroma of my favorite season carried on the Berlin air. I checked that there were enough sunflower seeds on the windowsill for the wild birds that arrive each morning. At breakfast, after the first wave of visitors flew away, one ragged bird that was perched in the corner of the window didn't leave with the rest. I sang the usual mantras to it, but it stubbornly remained. The bird didn't look well. It had trouble eating and kept wiping its beak against the wood. It stayed until night. Assuming we’d never meet again, I tried documenting the experience, photographing it just before the sun finished setting. My camera only had a few exposures left at the end of a black and white roll of film, and the dim light made it difficult to shoot. I didn't want to disturb the bird by turning on a light, but the sound of my shutter scared it away. I was certain it would die that night.
After three days, the bird returned and I was relieved to see it. Again, it remained as the day grew dark and the other birds fell asleep. It allowed me to get close to it. I left the window open, telling it that it could stay as long as it wanted. It returned for three consecutive days huddling near the window until it was late enough to fly back to the nearest tree.
One morning, about an hour before I was to wake, I felt something on my left wrist. Surfacing from deep sleep, I thought I was dreaming when I saw the bird on my hand. I remained still, focusing my eyes. The sick bird had come inside, and is now on the bed with me. I watched it hop down on the floor to peck at fallen sunflower seeds. Determined, he hopped along the floor to a closed door, pecking at the crack to get it to open. It seemed to be familiar with the layout. Why would it want to venture into the apartment instead of flying back out the window? I approached it slowly, reaching out to stroke its back. Rather than skittering away, the bird hopped into my hand, and curled in my palm. I felt blessed.
I carried it back to my bed, and told the bird that it was welcome to stay as long as it liked. First it sat on the covers, and then came up to my chin and nestled under my neck. I cupped my hand around it until it became restless and wanted to burrow under the covers. It was the hour when birds normally awaken, so I knew this behavior was odd. I allowed it under the covers. Laying on my right side, the bird struggled to get under my arm, burying its head into the fabric folds of my pajamas. I knew what was happening, I just didn't know how long it would take. I sang the Dewachen prayer and began to recite the "Liberation by Hearing" mantra while we laid together for a half hour. Then, its little tail feathers flipped up and down, like a beached shark, adjusting to a more comfortable position. After the last flip, all was still.
I remained motionless as to not disturb it. I completed the prayers for its release, and promptly fell into a healing sleep for it. I dreamt, and when I awoke, I carefully wrapped the bird in a linen cloth, keeping it on my shrine for seven days, until new life formed from within. I'm grateful it trusted me to protect it through death. After I buried its remains in the forest, a blue moon shone down upon us.
Three days later, again at twilight, another bird of the same species landed near my window, unable to fly. I took it to the neighborhood veterinarian, where he and his wife found a laceration on its head probably due to some form of impact while flying. With swelling around the brain, the bird might not survive the night. They told me to keep it in a dark, quiet place.
For an hour, I repeated mantras to the bird. Then, I went to sleep.
The following morning I was awoken by the usual sound of birds chirping. I was apprehensive since the sick bird wasn't roused from its sleep by the familiar clamor. As I tiptoed toward it, I was elated to hear a sudden fluttering coming from the cloth carrying case. The bird had made a complete recovery, and was strong enough to escape! I held it near the window and watched it shoot like an arrow across the street toward the nearest tree.
One dies. One lives.
Š-L-M = Peace
Zeena Schreck is an artist, musician, animal rights activist, Tantric Buddhist, spiritual leader of the Sethian Liberation Movement (SLM), and co-author of Demons of the Flesh: The Complete Guide to Left-Hand Path Sex Magic. Her most recent music release is Radio Werewolf's The Vinyl Solution - Analog Artifacts: Ritual Instrumentals and Undercover Version.
Visit Zeena Schreck's website.
Check out the official Zeena Schreck Facebook page.
And watch Zeena Schreck's YouTube Channel.
Previously - Zeena Schreck Knows a Thing or Two About VICE