Divine Daytripper Freelance Travel Writer


Santa Cruz Mountains, California

Daily yoga and meditation is available
for retreat students


The Way of the Universe
 by Ingrid Hart

 “We are stardust. We are golden. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

—Joni Mitchell

“What are you up to this weekend?” my former husband asked when he came by to pick up our son. ”I’m going on a retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains,” I replied.  “And what is it about?” he queried.  I told him the retreat was called The Way of the Universe.  At this point he gave me that curious, sideways look that said “you’re-a-kook-and-I’m-glad-I’m-no-longer-married-to-you.”  In defense I whined, “How can I ever find the meaning of life without first understanding the way of the universe?” Under his breath I could hear him whisper “yeah, right.” Out loud he said, “Good luck with that universe thing.”

I’ve been a seeker of enlightenment for the past eight years.  My search has taken me to readings by intuitives, meditation classes, angel workshops , creativity seminars , fasting retreats and spiritual healings by alchemists.  In the “new age” realm, I’ve explored almost everything out there.  I’ve been “vibed” by a machine, placed my feet in an “Ion-Pro” foot detox apparatus and had my body’s chemistry analyzed while holding a copper rod in my hand.  Some of these healing modalities have been helpful;,others have been laughable.  All of them gave me insight into the human condition, which I believe is one of struggle.  Life is complex.  I believe we are here to learn, grow, inspire and teach, and that all of us are divine beings with something unique and individual to offer the world.  That is why I think it is so important to develop and express our true selves—this is our greatest gift to humanity.

 Mt. Madonna sunset over the Pacific Ocean

After all these years, I finally realized that my search so far has been an inward, personal journey.  This was probably because I was schooled in humanities. You know, those soft classes with less lab and more gab?  Clearly I had a grasp on philosophy, language and the arts.  Maybe now I should explore the external world of science and physics.  What exactly are protons, neurons and atoms?  Why didn’t I pay attention in high school science?  Does hydrogen gas really create life? What about quantum theory, space-time foam and all that stuff in the What the Bleep movie?  Now I was on to something.  Why not look at the bigger picture?  In the grand scheme of things, is there anything more vast than the study of the universe? I was about to find out.

Mountaintop Retreat with a Panoramic View

Ceremonies are held on site at this temple

I am at the Mount Madonna Center, a 355–acre paradise of mountain-top redwood forest and grassland overlooking Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz in Northern California. The feeling at this spiritual retreat center is pensive and contemplative.  On my morning walk, I see a man meditating next to an oak tree and a young woman sitting in a trance with her back resting on a moss-covered boulder.  A bright red ceremonial temple complete with painted statues sits in the middle of the property.  In the background, I hear the gentle sound of running water and am delighted to see a two-story high stone lion, with water pouring out from its mouth.

Mount Madonna has been an internationally recognized retreat center for classical yoga since 1978 with a dedicated yogi in residence. Baba Hari Dass is a monk who has not spoken in almost 50 years.  He communicates by writing on a small chalkboard.  A small, spry man dressed all in white, this spiritual master is quick to smile and exudes a gentle radiance.  In his book, Silence Speaks, Babaji writes, “Silence is an austerity.  By talking, people try to impress others and attract others, which you can’t do if you are in silence.”

 This tree swing brings out the inner child at play

The food at Mount Madonna is all vegetarian.  For my first meal, the all-volunteer staff served fresh green beans with mushroom sauce and a protein meat substitute over mashed potatoes.

Complimenting the entrée was a green salad, brown rice, and bread.  This organic vegetarian fare was perfect, especially since my last meal was from In-n-Out Burger. The next day’s breakfast was savory quinoa porridge.  There was a smorgasbord of granola, cereal, cottage cheese, yogurt and different types of bread.  Coffee became a distant memory, but a delicious alternative was a spicy warm chai tea that I ladled into a clear glass cup.  I am confident that if I stayed at Mount Madonna any length of time, not only would I become healthier, but I would lose weight as well. 

13.7 Billion Years In 3.0 Days

Our Professor Brian Swimme


Brian Swimme, Ph.D. is our leader for the weekend.  He is a tall, affable man in his fifties with a gorgeous head of gray hair.  For over 30 years, he has worked in the sciences of relativity, quantum physics, evolutionary cosmology, and complexity science. 

We were 34 classmates all eager to understand the way of the universe.  Very quickly I gathered that the brain power in the room was high-frequency and of stellar caliber.  In our learning circle were scientists, mathematicians and biologists.  Much to my delight there were also writers, poets, artists and even a self-proclaimed fallen Unitarian.  In short, a diverse bunch of well-educated, accomplished, progressive thinkers—a tall, cool drink of water for this parched soul.

Here are some NASA facts: the universe is 13.7 billion yeas old and expanding.  There are at least 125 billion galaxies.  To estimate the number of stars, imagine the number 10 to the 21st power. If you write that figure out it looks like this:

1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.  We’re talking vast, vaster, and vastest.  Human beings have been part of this cosmological process for only the past 200,000 years.  That’s one second to midnight on a 24-hour metaphorical clock.  “The universe is not only more mysterious than we know, but more mysterious than we’ll ever know,” said Professor Swimme, as he led us into the luminous zone of wonder.

 Life is about being awake to our choices

Buzzwords, theories and questions were tossed in the retreat’s Seminar Room like atoms in nuclear interaction mode.  Quantum vacuum; relativity; implicate and explicate order; ten-powers of the universe; EPR Paradox; Cartesian vs. Gaian philosophy.

We pondered seeming paradoxes, such as: the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth, and contemplated how many stars blew up to create the carbon atoms in our bodies.

After we examined, dissected and quartered most of the fundamental questions of the universe, the class conversation turned into a philosophical, introspective group therapy session.  “Why are we here?  What is our purpose?  How can we live our lives in alignment with the universe?”  Professor Swimme said that we are partners in the midst of a vast, complex community.  “We are profoundly connected, yet overwhelmingly unique.” 

Laurie and Bob are happiness incarnate at the retreat

Everyone agreed that a change in consciousness must emerge in order for human beings to continue our brief existence on Planet Earth.  In the end, my burning question “what is the meaning of life?” led me to this conclusion: we choose the meaning we give to our lives and at any one time, that meaning can change based on our circumstances.

After this cerebral aerobic workout, my brain was in pain. I would have gladly given away the secrets to the universe for a pint of chocolate Hagan Daaz ice cream! 

Are The Stars Out Tonight?

At the end of class that night, I walked back to my room with a mother and her adult daughter on a very dark, Mount Madonna road.  We stopped and looked up at the stars—each one brilliant and alluring.  A hidden treasure of the retreat center is its mountaintop proximity to the night sky, bringing us closer to the wonders of stargazing.  The daughter remarked that she was once at Mount Madonna for a yoga retreat during a meteor shower.  A group of her friends lay on their backs in the middle of this very same road watching the universe’s top-hat and cane dance.  “We all sang songs about stars,” she said.  We ventured a few of our own: good morning starshineyou don’t have to be a star, babyare the stars out tonight?  The conversation dwindled and we were left with only our thoughts, imagination and an incredible lightness of being.

It’s Deja-vu All Over Again

On my drive home through the farming community of Watsonville, past fields of strawberries and wineries, I turned on the radio.  I caught the tail end of a mature, husky-voiced Joni Mitchell singing a sultry, somber version of her song Woodstock.  “We are stardust, billion year old carbon.  We are golden, caught in the devil’s bargain and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”  Indeed Joni—we are golden and I feel now as if I am one step closer to the garden.

Namaste: the god in me sees the god in you

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