The authors sitting on a dried lava flow on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Joyce and Barry sitting on old lava flow with the lava eruption in the background. Photo provided by author.

When leading a retreat, Joyce and I most want to create a safe container for the deepest personal growth work. It is this feeling of safety that allows participants to really open up.

Unfortunately, that is NOT what happened in January, 1989, at a seven-day retreat on the Big Island of Hawaii. The universe stepped in to create the biggest challenges possible. Often, we don't get what we want; but we do get what we need. But we can still create real safety.

The first evening of the retreat, getting to know each other, setting our intentions for the week, went fine. The next morning's session allowed everyone to be vulnerable, something we highly value.

The First Challenge

After lunch, with beautiful sunny weather, we decided to take everyone to the local black sand beach. Joyce, being six months pregnant, stayed back to swim in the pool.

However, when we got there, and looked down from the edge of the cliff, we saw no one on the beach or in the water. The waves were huge, covering the entire beach and crashing into the walls of the cliff face. The locals told us emphatically not to even go down to the beach, let alone go into the water.

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Before I could gather everyone together to explain the situation, a few of the young men from our group scampered down the trail to the beach. Many people yelled for them to come back, but the deafening sound of the waves prevented them from hearing us.

A few of the locals chased down after them, but they were too late. It was between wave sets, and the ocean looked inviting, so two of the men from our group jumped into the ocean. Big mistake! The next huge set of monster waves rushed in. The two men, accustomed to the ocean, hurriedly swam out past the break to safer water. But safer was a relative term.

The swells and turbulence proved too much for one of the men, and we could all see that he was in trouble. A young man from our group, who happened to be a lifeguard, grabbed a surfboard and swam out after the big set was complete. He approached the man in trouble, just as he slipped under the water, and was able to grab his arm and pull him to the surface. Everyone around us cheered to see this miraculous rescue.


Meanwhile, the second man from our group did the unthinkable. Rather than trying to reach shore between the big wave sets, he scrambled up on the ocean side of a truck-sized boulder, hoping to be safe. Above the beach, we watched in horror as a monster wave rose up from the depths, at least ten feet higher than the boulder, and bore down to crush him against the boulder. To everyone who watched from the cliff, it looked like certain death for this unfortunate soul.

The wave crashed down on him, burying him under thousands of tons of water. He was gone for what seemed like an eternity. Then the wave receded, and there he was on the beach, without a scratch on him. Not one of us could explain how he got carried up and over the boulder, and deposited unscathed on the beach.

The Next Day

The next day, we decided to avoid the beach and instead, go to see the lava flow into the ocean from the most active volcano in the world, Kilauea. We had done this before, and it had always been safe. The type of lava flow is called Pahoehoe, a term describing slow-moving, oozing, sometimes ropey, lava. But when we arrived near the flow, the ground started to shake.

Someone took a video of me telling the group to go no closer. I'm not a volcanologist, but it appeared there was an obstruction in the lava tube system, causing the quaking. While I was talking, you could see on the video the group filing past me, ignoring my warning. Then you could see me throwing up my hands in surrender and chasing after the group to keep them as safe as possible.

Then the ground exploded, and a fountain of red lava shot a hundred feet into the air. I yelled for everyone to run, which we did. When we were far enough away, we turned and saw one man staying behind, taking photos of the eruption, while 2000-degree lava splashed down around him, and all of us screamed at him in alarm, fear, and anger at his stupidity.

To our relief, he finally joined us. Some of us hugged him. Others yelled at him.

Are We Safe Yet?

But we were not safe yet. A cloud of smoke and ash enveloped us, and we felt our skin begin to burn from the acid in the air. Again, I yelled for everyone to run. Was this a retreat, or was it a movie?

That evening, there was intense processing. People were scared, even traumatized. A few people were angry at the men who put their own lives at risk. But most people were also grateful for the angels' protection of all of us.

For the following day's afternoon outing, Joyce and I decided on something soothing and nurturing, a tiny gem of a pond named Pohoiki, slightly bigger than a large hot tub, surrounded by jungle, and delightfully warmed from underground steam vents to about ninety-eight degrees.

About twenty of us, including Joyce, made our way into the pond, and were relaxing and singing, when we looked up and saw another member of our group approach the pool. This man had late-stage AIDS, had not much longer to live, and his positive attitude about life and death was an inspiration to us all. However, he had a cut on his shin that was bleeding profusely down his leg, and he seemed completely unaware of this injury. He entered the water, and we all watched his blood diffuse into the water.

That evening, most of the people who were in that pond shared their fear about getting AIDS. As a medical doctor, I knew the chances of getting infected by the AIDS virus from blood in the water were miniscule. A member of our group just happened to be a medical doctor who specialized in AIDS, and he was finally able to reassure the group.

And, Finally...

Oh, and finally, on the fourth day of our "retreat," a newly pregnant woman suddenly developed severe lower abdominal pain, and was rushed to the emergency room in Hilo with possible ectopic pregnancy, a life-threatening emergency. Luckily, it turned out that she was fine, and came back late that night.

So, would you call this a relaxing retreat? I don't think so. Growthful? Absolutely!

We don't believe that any other retreat, before or since, bonded the participants in this way. To this day, we sometimes hear from people who were at that retreat. Each person vividly remembers the intensity of the events that united us all in a special way. Each person opened to a spiritual dimension of life, a deeper awareness of heavenly intervention, and their lives were changed for the better.

Living On The Edge

Would we have chosen this kind of retreat? Of course not. But this is life! Sometimes it's incredibly difficult. We always have a choice in our reaction to the challenges. We can grumble, or we can be thankful.

By the way, the official title of the retreat was "Living from the Heart." Sometime during the retreat, the name became changed to "Living on the Edge." And, reflecting on this, I realize that truly living from the heart is exactly living on the edge. We can step off this edge and fall, or we can spread our wings and fly.

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Book by this Author(s)

A Couple of Miracles: One Couple, More Than a Few Miracles
by Barry and Joyce Vissell.

book cover of: A Couple of Miracles by Barry and Joyce Vissell.We write our story, not only to entertain you, our readers, and certainly you will be entertained, but more so to inspire you. One thing we have learned after seventy-five years in these bodies, living on this earth, is that all of us have lives filled with miracles.

We sincerely hope you will look at your own lives with new eyes, and discover the miraculous in so many of your own stories. Like Einstein said, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Click here for more info and/or to order this book. Also available as a Kindle edition.

About the Author(s)

photo of: Joyce & Barry VissellJoyce & Barry Vissell, a nurse/therapist and psychiatrist couple since 1964, are counselors, near Santa Cruz CA, who are passionate about conscious relationship and personal-spiritual growth. They are the authors of 9 books and a new free audio album of sacred songs and chants. Call 831-684-2130 for further information on counseling sessions by phone, on-line, or in person, their books, recordings or their schedule of talks and workshops.

Visit their website at for their free monthly e-heartletter, their updated schedule, and inspiring past articles on many topics about relationship and living from the heart.

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