A CrossFitter goes to 10-Day Silent Meditation Retreat!

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Back in February 2015 I went on my second 10-Day silent meditation retreat.  To get a general sense of what a silent meditation is read this first.

The retreat center in Joshua Tree opened its doors in 2011 so it’s practically brand new. As an ‘old student’, meaning I had already completed a 10-day retreat in the past, I got a dorm room all to myself. The dorms were comfortable and clean. I even had my own bathroom.

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One of the rules (and there are several) is to not bring outside food with you to the Center.  All meals are vegetarian and buffet style.  I was really worried that I wouldn’t get all the protein I needed to make my #gainz so I stashed protein powder, my Blender Bottle, and a couple of protein bars in my suitcase.

Breakfast is mostly carbs like fruit, bread, oatmeal, and stewed prunes. I toasted Ezekiel bread and topped with 1-2 TB of peanut butter and sunflower seeds OR butter and a layer of nutritional yeast.

Lunch is the best meal of the day!  Some items in the lunch buffet include Moroccan tagine, fried rice, marinated tofu, daal, rice, steamed veggies, and a legit salad bar.  Dinner is fruit and tea.  I drank all sorts of teas like chamomile (to calm the nerves and aid in digestion), peppermint and ginger (to prevent gas), green tea (slightly increases body temperature which increases metabolism), and a new tea I discovered called Bengal Spice.  The name says it all.

I lost three pounds (probably all water) within the first two days.  How did I know that?  I brought my scale with me.  I hid it underneath my bed and would weigh myself every morning before taking my first sip of water.

Let’s move on to technology.  No cell phones.  They have to be locked up in a closet by a staff member before the retreat begins.  I learned that you cannot be forced to give up your phone, so I kept mine in my room on silent.  Yes, I checked it.  Everyday.  Multiple times a day.  I had just started using an app called MyFitnessPal.  It tracks your meals and calories, and I was diligent/obsessed with getting my macronutrient ratio of 40% fats to 35% protein to 25% carbohydrates dialed in.  While there is a cornucopia of carbohydrates offered, you have to hunt for the healthy fats and protein.  Even though I enjoyed their marinated tofu, which kind of reminds me of eating weak ass mini steaks, I tried to stay away from soy in general.  I also checked my email often.  I sheepishly admit that I watched a ‘Ballet Beautiful’ workout on YouTube….a couple of times, listened to a Sam Harris podcast, took some photos, and sent some texts.

Walking is the only approved exercise.  The Center is even weird about yoga because they “do not currently have an approved facility for a yoga practice,” although yoga is considered compatible with Vipassana otherwise.  The Center at Joshua Tree is fortunate enough to have a walking path that is made out of rocks and sand and is about a quarter mile in length.  I went into business mode after lunch and would chalk up several laps on the walking path.  It started as a compulsion to get my cardio in every day.  After several days of that I chilled the fuck out and slowed down as there was, “Nothing to do, nowhere to go.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

With that said, I also did squats, sit-ups, push-ups, wall walks, and Ballet Beautiful (of course), when in the privacy of my own room.

Does sitting up tall with an erect spine, relaxed shoulders and slightly engaged core for hours and hours count towards exercise?  Yes, it is an exercise of the mind – possibly the hardest exercise of them all.

I definitely had an internal battle going on during this retreat.  I was defiant right from the start.  I adamantly refused to volunteer to ring the 4:00 AM ‘wake-up bell’ every morning.  I snuck in my own food and checked my phone often.  I exercised when I was supposed to be meditating.  I masturbated furiously every night in an attempt to tire myself out enough to fall asleep.  One night while I was in bed my body thrashed from side to side for what seemed like hours.  I was literally having full body spasms.  They were freaky as hell!  Ironically, my teacher spoke about this very thing the next day during the daily discourse.  I meditated when I wanted to meditate, which was about five to six hours a day.  When I sat, I sat with intention.  My intention was to let everything go once my ass made contact with my meditation cushion. I focused on turning off my internal chatter/judgements and being completely present.
Other key points to consider:

It’s so dry during the day that you’ll want to pack extra lotion, face moisturizer, and chapstick.

Bring shower shoes in case you have to share a bathroom.

Turn in your damn phone to the staff at the start of the retreat.  Just do it.  If there is a true emergency then make sure to give the Center’s phone number to your emergency contact.

If you don’t have regular ‘movements’, then consider not eating all the kale, broccoli, cauliflower, chick peas, and beans.  You’re going to be sitting for many hours in the quietest meditation hall ever with at least 80 other humans.  We hear and smell everything and we know who you are.

Dress appropriately.  You have to cover your legs past your knees and your arms past your shoulders.  No leggings or tights – Leave the Lululemon at home (unless it’s loose fitting and not revealing). Check the forecast and wear white or light colors during the summer and always bring layers.  It could be super hot or super cold outside on the same day. The temperature in the meditation hall fluctuates, so bring a lightweight, thin scarf to drape over your head.  This will give you a little more privacy and keep your head at the perfect temperature.  These conditions will make it that much easier for you to get in the zone.

Bring flip flops or sandals – you want to have a pair of shoes that are easy to slip on and off.

Bring a meditation cushion/zafu and practice on it for a few days at home before you start your retreat.

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Someone built a meditation throne.

I don’t want to reveal too much more as we’ve arrived at the actual exciting part:  the meditation.  That is for you to experience.  Now that I’ve given you the low down on what to expect at the Center you know that this is totally doable and even enticing.  It is up to you to show up, shut up, and go through a very complex, delightful, maddening, mind opening experience that is your own.  I would love to hear what you discover!

 

 

10-Day Vipassana Silent Meditation in Joshua Tree, California

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It had only been two weeks since I came back from the Amazonian jungle.  My first week home was spent recovering from traveler’s diarrhea, and with only one week left, I had secretly hoped that I would book a commercial or modeling job to get out of going to this Vipassana retreat.  I was mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted.  Under the circumstances, the thought of meditating in absolute silence for 10 days without being allowed to read, write, exercise, do yoga, listen to music, use my phone, use the internet, take photos, take drugs, or drink alcohol was unappealing.  Thank goodness I didn’t let that scare me off because it was my most profound experience of 2013.

I didn’t know a single soul at this retreat so I was essentially surrounded by strangers with at least one thing in common:  We all wanted to practice Vipassana.  I thought that the silence would drive me to insanity but instead it was my sanctuary.  All of the societal pressures to engage in conversation and make eye contact were forbidden.  This was surprisingly refreshing and relaxing.  I savored every moment of it.

Here’s the daily schedule:

4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room–Lights out

The only required activities were the three daily group sits. Based on this schedule one could meditate anywhere from 3 to 11+ hours per day.  I averaged about five and a half hours.  I had experience in different styles of meditation, but I hadn’t seriously meditated in a long time.  Every time I tried to practice in the privacy of my room, I dozed off right away.  I made the most achievements with my meditation practice when I joined my fellow meditators in the group hall.

Now, scroll back up to the first photo in this post. Take a look at the left side of the picture.  See that strange thing hanging on the wall?  I started creating that on Day 5 of my silent meditation retreat.  That was the day I began acting a little bit kooky out of sheer boredom.  On the morning of Day 5 I felt a strong urge to break out of my monotonous routine.  At this point I was wearing my dark purple, fleece robe all the time.  I practically lived in that thing.  That morning I decided to style my hair into two braided pigtails using facial tissue as ribbons in the hopes that I would look like Pocahontas, but instead I looked more like a mental patient. I was fascinated by the possibilities of tissue.  I had rummaged through everything in my toiletries bag looking for more art supplies. Bingo!  I had found a pocket-sized sewing kit and an unusually large number of hair ties.  I scavenged for the perfect dead branch from outside.  This was the final outcome of my project:

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I experienced some of the most excruciating pain of my life while I was there.  I initially blamed the throbbing pain in my left shoulder-blade on a crappy bed I had slept on while I was in the Amazon.  To my surprise, I discovered that most of my misery was coming from my mind.  I only fed the fuel of my pain by blaming it on something outside myself.  It wasn’t until the second day that I was taught how to not only neutralize but eliminate my suffering.  It wasn’t easy.  I almost screamed in agony in a room of 60 meditators at one point.  As I developed my practice for eliminating my physical pain, I went through waves of  burning discomfort and solace. By Day 6, I had considerably reduced my pain and by Day 10, I was pain-free.

I had heard of cases where people experienced such anger that they wanted to kill their teacher.  I even knew of one person who had to leave a Vipassana retreat early, because she had a mental breakdown.  And then I met a woman who had been going to retreats consistently  three times a year for nine years.  She spoke to me with the enthusiasm of an excited child on Christmas morning.  Another friend couldn’t put into words how much Vipassana had changed his life for the better.  My experience was a positive one.  This has been by far the most effective form of meditation I have ever practiced.  Vipassana not only brought harmony and equanimity into my life it also uprooted some of my suffering.  It did all of this without any religious ties or blind faith because it is based on logic, reason, and science.

My journey will look, feel, and ultimately be very different from yours should you decide to experience it for yourself, and I recommend that you do.  It isn’t about comparing, judging, or trying to make your experience look a certain way; it is about being present, non-judgmental, compassionate, and patient.   It has been one of the most profound and dare I say enlightening experiences I have ever had.

Can you believe that Vipassana retreats operate on a donation-only basis?  Believe it.  Meals, lodging, accommodations, and teachings are all free.  Donations should be based on your means and volition.  10-Day Courses run all year round and fill up quickly, so try to sign up several months in advance.

To learn more about Vipassana meditation visit their website:  http://www.dhamma.org/

To learn more about the Southern California Vipassana Center in Joshua Tree visit their website:  http://www.vaddhana.dhamma.org/

Look Within at Deer Park Monastery

“In, out.  Deep, slow.

Calm, ease.  Smile, release.

Present moment,

wonderful moment.”

I was standing outside with nuns, monks, and laypeople.  The majority of the monastics were Vietnamese.  We formed a circle and everyone started to sing, but because I didn’t know the song I listened to the words.  “In, out, deep, slow.”  My face turned bright red and I wondered if I had heard them right.  “Calm, ease, smile, release.”  I was so close to bursting into laughter, but instead I contorted my face into a bunch of weird expressions and somehow managed to not laugh out loud.  I didn’t mind the possibility of embarrassing myself – I just didn’t want to disrespect a bunch of nuns and monks in their home.

This is one of the many songs sung by the sangha (community) at Deer Park monastery.  All I could think about was sex!  I practice many of the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, but I definitely have a sense of humor.  The students of Thich Nhat Hanh affectionately call him by his nickname, Thay.  Well, when Thay wrote this song, it was abundantly clear that he had never had sex before becoming a monk (at least I don’t think he ever had sex – I’ve never asked him personally though).  Don’t get me wrong – I love this song; it just makes me giggle.

I have a very deep respect for Thay and his teachings.  His words are so gentle and his messages are simple:  Be in the present moment; breathe; practice compassion and understanding; be aware – be mindful in all that you do.  Dwelling in the present moment and being mindful in all of your actions are his 2 main teachings.  These are very simple messages, but when put into action they can be very difficult to maintain.  How many of us can say that from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to sleep we are fully present in each and every moment?  Are we in the present moment while we’re brushing our teeth?  Are we in the present moment while we are eating our meal?  Are we in the present moment while we are having a conversation with a coworker or friend?  I’m usually not, but I’m working on it.  Some days are good and my awareness is heightened; I am able to deeply listen to others.  Other days I’m just irrational, scatter brained, or a multi-tasking machine.   My lifestyle continues to evolve as I find a rhythm that makes living in the present moment natural and familiar.

Let me just give you an example of what it is like to be in the present moment.  When I was staying at Deer Park I enjoyed eating my meals with the sangha.  The process is this:  You pay your respects before even entering the dining area, and what I mean by ‘paying your respects’ is that you place your hands together at your heart, and bow.  When you do this you are coming into the present moment, and you are showing your appreciation for the food that has been prepared for you.  Next, you offer respect by bowing before picking up your bowl and your spoon.  You serve yourself a portion of the vegetarian meal that has been prepared for you while keeping in mind that there are others waiting in line behind you.  You tend to have a bit more ‘portion control’ (the amount you serve yourself) when you’re in this type of situation.  You take your meal over to a table, but before you sit down you bow and show gratitude to the table and chair.  Once seated, you wait for everyone else to take their seats as well.  Meanwhile, your salivary glands become activated (which is great for aiding digestion) and your patience is tested.  Once everyone is seated a prayer is said aloud and everyone closes their eyes and listens while their palms are together at their hearts.  Then everyone opens their eyes and each person takes turns bowing to each other at their table as a way of showing respect for one another.  Finally, you say your own personal prayer in silence and bow towards your food.  This is your time to think of the people who prepared your food, the farmers who grew the food, the sun and the rain, and everyone else involved.  Now you can eat.

This entire process is done in complete silence.  This ritual isn’t as long as it seems and it’s actually quite enjoyable.  Personally, I love it.  You really come into the present moment.   Plus, the process helps facilitate proper digestion.  Digestion improves when we are relaxed, focused on eating, and enjoying our food.

When you eat at Deer Park you eat mindfully (or at least you try to).  You appreciate each bite and chew until your food is no longer solid.  This doesn’t always happen, but this is what we strive for.  Apparently, Thay chews his food 60 times before he swallows.  I’ve never actually witnessed this and I don’t really care to.  I do not count how many times I chew my food.  I just chew until I’m done.  That’s it.

I will say that the food at Deer Park is phenomenal and it would be very easy to eat like a vegetarian if all of your meals tasted this good.  Some of the dishes include marinated tofu, oriental mushrooms, rice, soups, quinoa, beans, lentils, and a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.  I have always looked forward to their meals.

Now that we’ve talked in depth about eating at Deer Park let me tell you why I even went to Deer Park in the first place.

In the summer of 2010 I was a full-time student studying several modalities of holistic health.  I was engaged to be married for the second time in my life to a man I no longer loved.  We were going through a very long break-up process.  I knew that I didn’t want to be with him since February of 2010 and we didn’t officially break-up until September of 2010.  It became ‘official’ when he and I were no longer living together.  The romance had died out several months before that and the passion never truly existed.  I had come to a place in my life where I was no longer willing to settle in my relationship.  I knew that he wasn’t the one.

One night I was out at a bar with a girl friend.  A guy came up to me and we started talking.  He told me about Deer Park because he had just returned from a week long retreat and this was his first day back in the ‘real world.’  He went to Deer Park as a way of coping with his heartache.  His girlfriend of 3 years had just dumped him because she was on a ‘spiritual journey and needed to be free.’  He said that his experience at Deer Park was life changing, yet as I write this I can’t help but think that he was out at a bar the first night he came back from his retreat.  Deer Park doesn’t make your problems go away.  I found that out first hand.  But it does provide you with an atmosphere that is conducive to healing, and it helps you to explore the root cause of your pain.  Deer Park is a distraction-free, nurturing environment that allows you to meditate, listen to your heart, and explore the depths of your true essence.

This is exactly what I wanted to do, so without thinking too much about it I went online and booked a week long stay.  I was a little nervous about going because the idea of looking deeply within myself could be painful and could conjure up uncomfortable feelings.  I knew I needed to do it though.  I was ready to cleanse on all levels.

My belief is that you should only do things when you are truly ready.  If you end up missing out on an opportunity, then fine.  Learn from it and move on.  I was so ready to experience life at Deer Park and because I was in that state of mind I believe that it made my experience what it was:  One of the most profound moments in my life.

Deer Park is a Buddhist monastery.  The monastics practice Engaged Buddhism.   The ‘Engaged’ part means that one is able to apply these practices to their everyday life.  You don’t have to be a monastic and you don’t have to be a Buddhist to come to Deer Park.  In fact, I’ve seen clergy members of different faiths practice the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh at Deer Park.  Many religious folks come to Deer Park not to be converted, but to enhance their own relationship with their God.  Engaged Buddhism is more like a lifestyle rather than a religion.  I don’t agree with all of the teachings, but I agree with most of them.

The monastics discourage you from bringing your cell phone and laptop to the monastery.  My time at Deer Park was technology-free and I was happy to take a break from Facebook and text messaging if only for a week.  Smoking and drinking alcohol are not allowed.  The nuns and monks do their best to provide a healthy and healing environment for their guests and for themselves.  The moment I drove through the entrance gate, I felt compelled to turn off the radio, roll down the windows, and breathe in the fresh mountain air.  I drove slowly and listened to the wind; I invited the sunshine to warm my skin, and I let myself be moved by the wonder and awe of my new surroundings.  I was ready.

I stayed in Clarity Hamlet, which is the part of the monastery where the laywomen and nuns reside.  The women typically work and eat separately from the men, except during Days of Mindfulness when anyone is invited to come and partake in daily activities at the monastery.  I participated in walking meditation, the Dharma talk & discussion, chanting, mindful eating, and ‘total relaxation’.  The men and women reside separately because the nuns and monks of Deer Park have committed to a life of celibacy, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have sexual urges.  They’re human beings after all – no better or worse than any of us.  They have desires and temptations just like everybody else, and so it is important for them to create an environment that helps them to succeed in their practice.

This was my biggest qualm about becoming a nun:  No more romantic love.  And yes, I seriously considered becoming a nun.  By the end of my first week at Deer Park I was contemplating life as a monastic.  My perception of Deer Park was still romanticized, and I had not seen all that truly existed there yet.  I wasn’t so hung up on the idea of being celibate as I was about giving up my freedom to fall in love with a man and possibly get married someday.  Some of the nuns had become monastics after they had children.  I wasn’t sure at that time if I wanted to have children of my own, but I knew that I wanted to keep that option open.

I was assigned to the Mountain Lion hut.  Each of the cabins has a name and they sleep up to 6 people.  They have their own toilet and shower.  It’s luxury camping essentially.  You are provided with a bed and you supply your own linens.  I came well equipped with all of my little creature comforts to make my stay as enjoyable as possible.  I brought sheets, a blanket, and a sleeping bag.  My vitamins, books, journal, and aromatherapy sprays made their temporary home on my nightstand. I had plenty of colorful clothes and lots of delicious smelling shampoos, conditioners, and soaps.  I had earplugs for the night, a hat and sunscreen for the day, and a headlamp for walking to the early morning meditation session when the sun was still sleeping.  I set myself up for a really cozy experience and that’s exactly what I had.

I replaced my late night snacks with late night reading and meditation.  The monastics discouraged anyone from bringing their own food, but nevertheless, some overlooked that request and munched on Butterfingers.  I very affectionately called this lady “The Butterfinger Pusher.”  She was staying in my hut for a couple of days with one of her girl friends.  She would frequently ask me if I wanted any candy, and I would politely decline.  I wanted to respect the rules of the monastery.  This was their home and we were their guests.

I had 3 roommates.  Two of them were only staying for the weekend while Loulou and I were staying a full week.  I found it very interesting to witness the stark contrast between 2 of my roommates. “The Butterfinger Pusher” worked as a psychologist in San Diego.  She smoked cigarettes in our bathroom and used her cell phone.  She called everyone either “Baby” or “Sweetie”, and she snored like a bear.  During working meditation she worked the hardest in the garden.  She yanked up weeds, raked, and shoveled like a madwoman.  I got tired from just watching her.  Her body was always moving.  She cried to the nuns and they held her hand.  Loulou, on the other hand, was quiet and practiced deep listening.  She was a massage therapist from New York.  She went on walks by herself, read outside in the sun, and smiled at everyone she passed by.  Her energy was calm and wise.  She and I had deep, meaningful conversations.  Her beloved husband had passed away a few years ago and she was still healing from her grief.  These women were two very different people with a common bond:  They both felt pain and they both wanted to let it go.

I spent my free time going on hikes by myself, taking pictures, reading outside, and journaling about my thoughts.  I also spent time with my new friend, Margreeth – A Dutch woman in her late 30’s who had made arrangements to stay at Deer Park for 6 months.  There was an instant connection between us and I looked forward to having tea and good conversation with her outside of her hut.

Margreeth and I talked about what girls often talk about:  Boys.  We also shared stories about personal growth, our goals, fashion, experiences at the monastery, and wine.  Margreeth hadn’t had any wine since she’d been there and although I didn’t drink wine during my stay at Deer Park, I definitely had a glass or two or three when I was back at home.  It makes me think of what was normal for me then is no longer normal for me now.  That was 2 years ago.  I’m no longer drinking alcohol – not to prove anything and not to live by the guidelines of Thich Nhat Hanh, but because I am intolerant to alcohol.  It makes me feel bad physically, and the effects have only gotten way worse as I get older.  Margreeth is back living in Holland where she still practices the art of mindfulness.  She now has a blog of her own (pretapitu.blogspot.nl) that focuses on her 2 passions:  Style and mindfulness.  She has remained an amazing friend who I will cherish forever.

I have been to Deer Park numerous times after that initial week long retreat, but it was during that first week when I really grew as an individual.  I not only learned how to be comfortable by myself, but I came to enjoy it.  The most amazing thing about the experience was that I did not feel an ounce of anger during those 7 days.  For me, that was a pretty big deal.  I was able to be compassionate and understanding the entire time.  For the first time in my life I really loved myself.

You can learn more about Deer Park by visiting their website:  deerparkmonastery.org

Better yet, go visit during one of their Days of Mindfulness (usually held on Thursdays and Sundays.  Check the website for their schedule.)

Yoga & Reiki Weekend at Yokoji Retreat Center

I first heard about this yoga retreat from my friend, Renee.  It’s one of those “word of mouth” kind of deals, and if it wasn’t for her, I would not have known about it.  Her friend (and now my friend, too), Aline Marie, has been leading this retreat for 3 years now.  It’s a weekend long getaway (Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon).  Located in Mountain Center (very close to Idyllwild), Yokoji is nestled in the mountains of southern California.  The retreat cost me $350 plus gasoline; that price included my lodging, all my meals and drinks, and yoga classes.  I had been to a similar retreat at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, CA; so I decided to try something new.

All of the meals served are vegetarian.  I’m not a vegetarian.  I’ve tried it out in the past and I enjoyed it, but I decided not to label myself as one when I was still eating eggs, fish, and occasionally some chicken broth.  I’ve heard many people refer to themselves as vegetarians, but as the conversation continued it was revealed that they still ate dairy, seafood, and a little bit of chicken from time to time.  I’m just happy to hear when someone’s diet consists mostly of whole foods (rather than processed), fresh fruits and veggies, lean proteins, and whole grains.  I’m an omnivore, and I really enjoyed all of the meals at Yokoji with the exception of the first meal.  I’m not sure, but I think that we were served leftovers.  We were given cous cous and black beans; the food wasn’t terrible, but it was chilled like someone had prepared it awhile ago, and that was fine.  I expected the same for the rest of the meals, but to my pleasant surprise, the meals just kept getting better and better.  On Sunday we had spicy homemade hummus (and non-spicy), scrambled eggs, chopped cucumber and tomato salad, and whole wheat toast.  There were also fresh mangoes, bananas, apples, orange juice, hot tea, and coffee.  For lunch we had a delicious mixed greens salad, refried beans, and cheese enchiladas with homemade salsa.  All in all, the food was great!  As I wrote that last line, I just remembered the kale we ate for lunch on Saturday.  I’m not sure, but I think it gave everyone gas!  I heard a lot of tummies rumbling during Reiki (including my own).  It’s all good.  Ever since I started paying a lot more attention to my health, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable talking about my bowel movements (too comfortable for my husband).

The first person I met upon my arrival was Marty.  He works in the gift shop.  He was consumed in a book he was reading when I walked inside.  Only after a few minutes did he finally notice that I was there.  I found out that he is a retired acupuncturist and now works and studies at Yokoji.  He misses his acupuncturist work but feels very fortunate that he has the opportunity to work and deepen his practice at Yokoji.

Then I met Hanuman (pronounced “haa-new-maan”).  He’s originally from Kentucky and in his late 30’s.  He’s got that great southern drawl and an open, honest attitude.  He is a traveling monk.  He practices Zen Buddhism and backpacks all over the world.  I found out later that some of the residents of Yokoji call him Lex; I’m thinking it’s short for Lexington, Kentucky.  Hanuman helped me carry all of my gear to my room.  On our way, he asked me if I saw the 3 foot rattlesnake.  I hadn’t yet, but I was hoping I would!  I’m fascinated with snakes and it’s such an adrenaline rush for me to see one.  I didn’t end up seeing that particular 3 footer, but I did come across a baby rattler during a walk.  That was exciting!  My husband was a herpetologist and taught me that a baby rattlesnake can be more deadly than an adult rattlesnake because the adult may preserve its venom when it bites, but a baby tends to unleash all of its venom because it is inexperienced.

I stayed in the Rock Room.  It sleeps up to 5 people and has its own shower and toilet.  That is luxury up here and I feel that we got the best room in the joint.

I’m one of the first to arrive and so I introduce myself to everyone that’s there and start to unpack my stuff.  I set up right next to the massive rock in our room since I got first pick.

I met my teacher for the weekend, Aline Marie.  What an amazing lady – She’s so warm, friendly, and just goes with the flow.  Shortly after meeting her I could already tell that she’s one of those people who is very accommodating and likes to make others happy.  The air around her is very gentle and easygoing.

That evening we had yoga class a few hours after dinner.  I talked with my 2 roommates and we shared stories until it was time to go to class.  Our first yoga session together was more restorative poses, but I end up getting a nice glow by the end of it.  It was a perfect class for opening up the body gently and preparing for bed.  Joyce, Renee, and I weren’t used to going to sleep so early so we got caught up on each other’s lives.  It was the perfect opportunity for some girl talk!

I might’ve slept 2 hours that night.  I just couldn’t get comfortable.  I had my ear plugs in and my satin pajamas on, but I tossed and turned for most of the night.  The sound of the gong awoke us at 5:30 AM.  Surprisingly, I woke up with some bounce in my step.  I didn’t sleep much that night, but I didn’t want to lie in that bed any longer.  We joined the 6 AM yoga class and found out that most people didn’t sleep much either, but when they did, they recalled having vivid, intense dreams.  Some attribute the lack of sleep to the complete silence (no electronics humming or buzzing when you’re off the grid) and maybe our bodies have become accustomed to the noise; others think that we may not need as much sleep when we’re up in the mountains breathing in the fresh, clean air; I think I didn’t sleep well partially because I’m used to sleeping on a mattress with some support and partially because I was excited for tomorrow.

There are 2 full grown yellow labs at Yokoji named Coco and Honey.  They’re loving and sweet like most labs, and they’ll follow you around if you show any interest in them.  I heard that they’ll even join you on a hike, which is great if you decide to go solo, because mountain lions have been spotted in the area.  I used my macro lens on my camera as a binocular to see if I could spot any.  The idea of a little danger excites me – makes me feel more alive.  I haven’t always felt that way – part of it is me confronting and conquering my fears.

 The girls and I went on a little hike and we ended up stopping frequently to take pictures of bugs, flowers, and trees.  Renee and I have the same model camera and we’re both relatively new to photography, so we had fun playing.  We connected with nature.

The highlight of the retreat was the Reiki Share.  Renee and I are both Reiki Practioners and she came up with the brilliant idea of offering Reiki to our fellow yoga students during the retreat.  Reiki is so complementary to yoga and healthy living.  For those of you who have never heard of Reiki, I like to describe it as ‘spiritually guided unconditional love.’  Unlike massage and any other form of body work, there is no muscle manipulation.  Most often the recipient lies face up on a massage table, but can also lie on the floor (perhaps on a yoga mat).  The Reiki Practitioner will either place their hands gently on different areas of the body or hover a few inches above and channel the “Reiki Energy” from their hands to the client.  The purpose is to clear any blockages going on in the body, mind, emotions, spirit, chakras, and auric fields; it can also induce deep relaxation.  Some of my clients have referred to it as ‘assisted meditation.’  Are you confused?  If you are, I totally understand.  It’s a bit “out there” especially if you’re coming from a Western mentality.  I really feel that, like most things in life, you have to experience it in order to understand and appreciate it.  Because of its significance in my life, I’m going to write a blog post entirely dedicated to explaining Reiki in detail, its healing powers, and how it changed my life.

The Reiki Share at Yokoji was an utter success!  It was so pure and beautiful and energizing.  Reiki helps me to connect with others on the deepest levels.  The lack of sleep was starting to get to me, but after giving Reiki, I was rejuvenated.  We were so fortunate to have a 3rd practitioner in our group so essentially we had 3 Reiki healers giving to 9 amazing human beings.  We had a limited amount of time, so we divided the group into threes and offered 20-25 minute sessions to each person.  After finishing with our 3rd and final group, everyone seemed to glow with a sweet serenity (myself included).

After that, it was so effortless for me to talk with new friends.  It felt so natural and so perfect.  I felt so safe and free in this little community.  I’ve definitely been a lot more reserved in my past – even suffered from some social anxiety at times.  The only way I knew how to get comfortable in an uncomfortable social setting was to have a drink:  Red wine or vodka would do.  But now I don’t need any of that and in fact, I don’t really want it.  I have an intolerance to alcohol and it has only gotten worse as I age.  Eating healthy, reading healthy, living healthy…..that’s what it took to get me started on the right path – a path to being comfortable with who I really am.

But Sunday was my favorite day.  Early morning yoga class followed by a scrumptious breakfast and then on to tidying up before zazen and the Dharma Talk.  I took my first meditation class while I was in college; it was a class on zazen.  This can be very difficult for some people as it is a seated meditation that requires you to keep completely still and silent.  Also, you are expected to keep your eyes open during the meditation.  I’ve done this style of seated meditation many times before, but not when I was running on little sleep – last night was no exception.  I probably got about 3 hours of sleep at the most.  Needless to say, but entertaining nonetheless, I felt my eyelids start to drop after about 10 minutes of stillness.  Here I am in a little room filled with devotees to the practice and I’m seriously going to pass out.  I tried pressing my tongue firmly against the roof of my mouth.  Didn’t work.  I tried  focusing on my breath.  Nope.  I wanted to free my mind from all thoughts, and just simply be, but the sandman was making it very difficult.  That’s when I remembered kegel exercises.  They got me through the remaining 20 minutes of the session.  30 minutes of sitting completely still is a long freakin’ time if you haven’t been practicing!  The kegel exercises kept my mind and body focused and no one even knew what I was doing.  Up until now, of course.

Before I headed back home, I met a girl with wild, curly hair who had driven from L.A. to spend her weekend at Yokoji.  She was turning 30 the next day and she wanted to celebrate with meditation and personal reflection.  I was immediately intrigued.  We ended up having a very lively and inspiring conversation over the next hour.  That’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re open to it.  I left Yokoji feeling elated.  I came home to my husband and 2 of our friends who were visiting from out of town.  My husband said that he had never seen me so happy and excited.  All of us made art that day; we drew pictures, made clothes, and painted.  It was truly an awesome day.  It was a phenomenal retreat.

My husband urged me to start a blog over a year ago.  I liked the idea but I wasn’t ready to make the commitment.  The timing just wasn’t right.  During the retreat, Renee and my new friends, Joyce and Jackie, each encouraged me to start my blog…………and here we are.  Thank you all for believing in me.

Book Review: Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

I had some time to play before my Reiki training began so I walked over to the local library.  I hit the jackpot because they were having a crazy, used book sale.  I was  given a large paper grocery bag and told that I could fill it up with as many books as it could hold.  The price?  $1.00.  I immediately thought that they must have a bunch of crappy books that they’re trying to get rid of, but to my surprise I found that they were practically giving away gems!  I found 3 copies of “Eat, Pray, Love” (one for my sister, one for my girl friend, and one for me); 2 Paulo Coelho books, “The Valkyries” and “The Devil and Miss Prym”, “The Tao of Pooh, a couple of astrology books, a book by Thich Naht Hanh, some books on Buddhism, “A Thousand Splendid Suns”; “Shambhala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior”, and “Tuesdays with Morrie.”

I remembered hearing about “Tuesdays with Morrie” from someone in my past (maybe more than once) because the title sounded so familiar.  I finished reading the book last night.  It took me 4 nights to read.  It’s an easy read and a relatively short story (192 pages) but the words are powerful.  There is so much meaning, so much love, so much talk about the things that really matter in life: Love, human connectedness, quality time spent with others, community, compassion for self and others, just to name a few..  I was captivated by Morrie’s magic; he’s truly present in the here and now moment, and is a great listener (a rare skill these days).  Books tend to find their way into my hands at exactly the right moment.  After reading about Morrie’s life and what things he placed importance on, I feel more strongly about my own values and beliefs, which are the same as his.  I don’t always feel my emotions completely and I don’t always open my heart fully, but I’m trying.  Everyday I try to open my heart more and more. I let myself be vulnerable at times; I allow myself to cry when I feel helpless; I connect to another human being on the deepest levels when I give them Reiki.  I’m a work in progress and I’ve seen positive results over the years, but I’ve still got a lot to do.  In my youth I was programmed to be and do differently than I am and do now, but I am on my chosen path and I am so happy that reading “Tuesdays with Morrie” was a part of it.

Here are my favorite quotes from the book…

“Love wins.  Love always wins.”

“The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves.  And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it.”

“So many people walk around with a meaningless life.  They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important.  This is because they’re chasing the wrong things.  The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”

“It’s horrible to watch my body slowly wilt away to nothing.  But it’s also wonderful because of all the time I get to say good-bye.”  He smiled.  “Not everyone is so lucky.”

“As our great poet Auden said, ‘Love each other or perish.'”

“Death ends a life, not a relationship.”

After I finished the book I was curious to see Morrie talk with his hands, hear his voice, and witness his smile.  I’m glad I did; his story solidified even stronger into my heart.  Here is the interview “Conversations with Morrie Schwartz, Lessons on Living” done by Ted Koppel, former anchor of Nightline.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3863455317235235085

Book Review: Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh

The first book I ever read by Thich Nhat Hanh was called “Anger:  Wisdom for Cooling the Flames.”  I read it in September of 2010 when I stayed at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, CA for a week long retreat.  My time there consisted of practicing mindfulness through meditation, reading, and deep listening.  I was able to listen to my heart easily since I wasn’t bombarded with emails, Facebook, text messages, and phone calls.  These things are not permitted during retreat.  Most of my free time was spent connecting with others through face to face conversation, taking long hikes by myself, and lots of meditation:  walking meditation, eating meditation, sitting meditation.  This retreat happened at exactly the right moment, and I learned so much about myself in such a short amount of time.  I learned to truly love myself unconditionally, without any judgements.  I learned to be kind and forgiving to myself.  I tasted real compassion for others for the first time.  These are all virtues which must be practiced every single day, because like everything else in life – If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.  Really.  You can learn something really well and practice it phenomenally for awhile, but if you think that the learning and practice stops there – you’ve got another thing coming.  That “thing” is the return of old, familiar habits that are engrained into our minds.  Consistent maintenance is required when adopting a new way of thinking and being.

The entire book is a wealth of knowledge and valuable insight.  My favorite passages from the book are…

“Many of us begin a relationship with great love, very intense love.  So intense that we believe that, without our partner, we cannot survive.  Yet if we do not practice mindfulness, it takes only one or two years for our love to be transformed into hatred.  Then, in our partner’s presence we have the opposite feeling, we feel terrible.  It becomes impossible to live together anymore, so divorce is the only way.  Love has been transformed into hatred; our flower has become garbage.  But with the energy of mindfulness, you can look into the garbage and say, “I am not afraid.  I am capable of transforming the garbage back into love.”

“When someone does not know how to handle his own suffering, he allows it to spill all over the people around him.  When you suffer, you make people around you suffer.  That’s very natural.  This is why we have to learn how to handle our suffering, so we won’t spread it everywhere.”

“So in taking good care of yourself, you take good care of your beloved one.  Self-love is the foundation for your capacity to love the other person.  If you don’t take good care of yourself, if you are not happy, if you are not peaceful, you cannot make the other person happy.  You cannot help the other person; you cannot love.  Your capacity for loving another person depends entirely on your capacity for loving yourself, for taking care of yourself.”

“Touching suffering can help us nourish our compassion and be able to recognize happiness when it is there.  If we are not in contact with pain, we cannot know what real happiness is.  So touching suffering is our practice.  But each one of us has limits.  We cannot do more than we can do.”

“You have to be alone in order to fully appreciate the other person’s presence.  If you are always together, then you may begin to take him for granted, forgetting to enjoy his beauty and goodness.  Every now and then, take three or seven days off.  Take time away from him in order to be able to appreciate him more.  Although you are far away from him, he is more real to you, more substantial than when you are constantly together.  During the time you are apart, you will remember how important, how precious he is to you.”

“Everything must begin with you.”

“Yet you cannot force your insight on others.  You may force them to accept your idea, but then it is simply an idea, not a real insight.  Insight is not an idea.  The way to share your insight is to help create the conditions so that others can realize the same insight – through their own experience, not just believing what you say.  This takes skillfulness and patience.”

I get angry at times – more often than I would like to.  Instead of pushing that anger down deep inside of me, I am embracing it.  I am exploring it’s roots.  I sometimes let it out mindlessly.  I have years of pent up anger that are stuck inside of me.  I wasn’t able to release those feelings when I was younger.  Writing about my anger helps.  I’m starting to really understand where it comes from and now I’m doing my best to transform those negative feelings into compassion and understanding.

The Angry Truth

(A poem on anger written by Catherine S. Bradshaw)

You think you’ve seen anger?  You haven’t seen anger.

Infuriating rage pulsing and beating louder than my lion heart.  My blood begins to simmer ever increasing in temperature and depth of color.  Death red blood rises to an ever increasing heartbeat and the monster’s symphony has begun.

First I try to hurt you with black words dipped in tar.  I see that you are no longer effected by this, so it is time to reach down into the depths of my hell to find words and/or actions that will crush your heart, spirit and soul.  I spray and spit at you my venom and I succeed.  I wound you.  Deeply.  So deep that you are in a state of shock.

How could your angel, your baby, your soulmate crush you till your heart is broken into a million devastating pieces?

I do this because I know that I have the power to fix your broken love.  I do this because I want you to feel how betrayed and alone I am.  I do this because I am in an eternal pain and do not know a way out.

Your angel, your baby, your soulmate knows love like no other, but I’m still programmed to kill when you take your love away from me.

Please help me to change.

I don’t want to live this way.

“No mud, no lotus.” – Thich Nhat Hanh