A CrossFitter goes to 10-Day Silent Meditation Retreat!

IMG_0357

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.

IMG_0339IMG_0340

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.

IMG_0350

IMG_0347
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!

 

 

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.)

Agreements on Love, writing influenced by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh

I finished writing when they announced that my flight was now boarding.  The night before my flight my best girl friend, at the time, unleashed her cruelty on me……in public.  It was her 30th birthday and she didn’t have any plans for celebrating, so I convinced her to find a babysitter and get ready to go out.  2 of our friends agreed to join us.  She decided to go.  We went to a trendy, little sushi restaurant and bar that offered drink specials and attracted a crowd in their 20’s and 30’s.  We waited in line outside to get in.  A guy who I had just started dating showed up and offered to get us in through some side entrance.  We were in.

We got the birthday girl some red wine and we started to mingle with the crowd.  A lot of my attention went towards the new guy I was dating.  Dean’s spirit was happy and his energy, high.  I checked in with my friends from time to time and made sure the birthday girl had a drink.  That’s what we enjoyed at the time:  Drinking wine and socializing.  Later on in the night, my girl friend asked to speak with me in private.  She gossiped about things she had just heard from some random guy at the bar.  This is when things started to get bad.  The night ended with my girl friend making a scene in front of everyone at the bar.  The scene was this….A 5’1″, 90 lb. girl in high heels threatening to physically beat me up (I’m 5’8″, 130 lbs) for telling Dean about the gossip that was being said about him.  I told her that I would wait to ask him about it until after her Halloween party (she wanted to make sure that no one would get upset and would still go to her party).  So I agreed.  Then I realized how silly it all was and just asked Dean about it.  He casually told the birthday girl that none of it was true.  Then all hell broke loose.  She demanded her belongings back from me, which I was holding for her and that’s when the threats of violence became publicly known.  I was stunned and then saddened by her rage.  She was out of control and wouldn’t stop yelling things like, “Scarlet letter, bitch!” (more about that later).  I tried apologizing right then and there but it was no good.  Our friends looked just as helpless as I did and so I said good-night to Dean and I followed the birthday girl and our friends outside.

I tried to apologize, but her threats of beating me up would not relinquish.  I finally realized that she was unapproachable at this point so I stopped trying to talk with her and my friends took her home in a cab.  I sent her a few text messages later that night because I felt terrible that her birthday ended this way.  I tried to make amends and told her how much I loved her, but none of this soothed her.  She continued to hold on to her anger and sent me nasty words in response.  I would try again tomorrow.

Those nasty words did not stop, however.  She wrote a long, cruel email saying terrible untrue things about me – things you wouldn’t even say about your worst enemy.  She ended the letter with, “Scarlet letter, bitch.”  She sent that email to all of our mutual friends (and we have quite a few).  My immediate reaction:  Deep sadness.  I saw how utterly sad the whole situation was and I deleted the email without reading most of it.  It was a letter of pure hatred.  My roommate received the email as well and he didn’t even bother reading it.  He deleted it.

Now, I’ve read the book, The Scarlet Letter, and I’ve watched the movie.  I’m pretty sure the meaning of the Scarlet Letter is a symbol of adultery.  Here’s where it gets weird:  She and I had a friendship that was more like a relationship – you know, the boyfriend and girlfriend type.  Or in this case it was the girlfriend and girlfriend type.  We weren’t lesbians or even bisexual for that matter, but I remember us fighting like people who were in a romantic relationship.  It was weird. Oftentimes I felt like the guy in the relationship – I would piss her off and not know why.  I found that apologizing even though I didn’t know what I was apologizing for, would make her happy.  You may be thinking, “Why the hell did you continue this relationship?”  The answer is I don’t really know.  There were parts of her personality that I really liked, but overall, she was extremely unhealthy in her body, mind, and emotions.  Plus, we had been friends for over 15 years.  She was like a drug (and that wasn’t the first time she had been described that way by someone).  I knew exactly what they meant.  It was time to handle my “drug addiction.”

I should have learned from our last experience traveling together.  Approximately 1 year earlier we were invited to D.C. to spend time with a mutual high school friend.  The tickets had been bought and the preparations had been made.  We got into an argument (I can’t even remember what it was about) but she backed out at the last minute and didn’t get on the flight.  I went alone and had a great time.  When I came back, all was forgiven.  She was fine again.  But for how long…

So, here we are again, 1 year after that D.C. trip we’re planning on visiting our mutual friend again….together.  What happens the day before?  Everything you just read about at the sushi bar and the nasty email.  That’s right – the very next day we were scheduled to board a plane together and fly to D.C.  Surprisingly, she showed up to the airport, but not surprisingly, she was telling fellow passengers about our skirmish.  How do I know?  I heard her – everyone heard her.  I continued to breathe and practiced being compassionate.  I even tried to make amends again but that ended in her yelling at me in front of everyone.  So, I distanced myself and gave her space.  During our layover she got drunk at the bar outside the airport.  I was sad.  That’s when I wrote, “Agreements on Love.”  I don’t know why, but after I wrote that she started talking with me – not about the other night, just small talk.  We were making progress.  Without going into too much detail about the D.C. trip, I will say that the trip was a weekend of non-stop drinking, smoking, crying, and sex for my friend, while I abstained from any alcohol, ate healthy foods, and went to sleep when she stayed up.  I had a great time and so did she.  By the end of the trip, she was talking freely with me again and planning things for us to do when we got back home.  But I knew in my heart that I needed to end this friendship.  And that’s what I did.  I politely distanced myself from her – I didn’t agree to any future plans together and didn’t engage in deep, meaningful conversation.  We kept our conversations positive, but light.  She knew.  She knew that I was done.    We haven’t spoken since that trip.  I miss her sometimes (mostly when I’m having a bad day).  I hope that she is happy and enjoying life.

I think that loving people and beings friends with people are 2 very different things.  I can love certain people, but not spend any time with them.  I can love them from a distance.  I can send them love through thoughts and prayers, and that can be enough.  The reality is that we don’t have to be friends with everyone.  We should choose carefully who we decide to spend our precious time with, because there are so many people who lift us up, make us smile, and share their beauty and inspiration with us, while some others……..not so much.  There are people who constantly bring us down and are taking, taking, taking.  Real friendship is about reciprocity.  If you are constantly taking, talking, needing and not listening or giving, then the relationship becomes one-sided, out of balance.  I know that at times some friendships may feel like this, and that’s normal, but when it continues like this for years and years (maybe sooner), it may be time to rethink the friendship.

I wrote “Agreements on Love” on Friday, October 8, 2010 while I was at the airport in Denver waiting to board my flight to Washington, D.C.  This was written 1 month after my first retreat to Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, CA.  The teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, Don Miguel Ruiz, and Eckhart Tolle influenced my writing.  These are the thoughts that came to my mind as I sat alone at the airport.  After I finished writing, my girl friend and I found each other and we began talking again.

Agreements on Love

“Love should be kind, generous, unconditional, compassionate, start off as easy, trusting, and respectful.

A romantic relationship, for me, should be between myself and my partner (no swinging, threesomes, cheating, or open relationships – that’s just me.  I have friends who are into these things and I cannot judge them for feeling differently than I do.  I would only hope that they don’t judge me for my own beliefs).  Being intimate is very special between 2 people who love and respect each other.

Love is not jealous or needy.  Love is first loving yourself and being kind to yourself.  Love is acceptance of yourself – every single part of you and loving every “flaw.”  Love is reflected in how you treat others.  If you are kind to yourself, then you will be kind to others.  When conflict weighs heavily on our minds and hearts, we are out of balance.  There is an internal struggle, a constant tug of war.  We lose sight of what our true beliefs and values are because our minds are so disorganized.  The mind looks like a rose garden laden with weeds.  The garden needs regular tending to.  We must pull out the weeds from their roots.  If we do this, then we will allow our roses to grow stronger and more beautifully.  The initial weeding will take some time because this may be the first time you looked deeply at your garden.  You have the tools to start weeding.  Take your time and do your work mindfully.  Pull out the weeds from their roots.  Breathe in and out while you work.  Always go back to your breath when you need a rest.  This will help you to relax and bring your attention back to the present moment.

You should also take time to look at your lovely roses and smile at them.  See yourself in your roses.  Notice the incredible power that they contain.  Their essence is very healing and nurturing.  Once you start weeding, you’ve taken action to harmonize your heart, mind, and body.  No one knows how long you’ll be weeding and it doesn’t really matter.  This could be a lifelong process and that is perfect.  It could go quickly and that, too, is perfect.  It is truly about the journey.  It’s about living in the present moment responsibly.  This type of living is like eating healthy, organic foods; it’s like getting regular exercise, spending time in nature.

This process of cleaning up the mind is another important component to being healthy.  It is the most important!  Your thoughts and beliefs drive your experiences.  They paint your world with roses of every color.  They can also infest it with weeds and litter.  What you believe determines what you choose to put into your body and mind:  The foods you eat, the drinks you drink, the people you spend time with, the conversations you engage in, the music you listen to, the movies you decide to watch, the types of art that you hang in your home, everything!  The mind determines everything, unless you are somehow able to bypass the mind and make a decision with your heart (which can be very difficult to do).  That’s pretty powerful stuff.  Why not have the mind and heart more in sync?  The good news is that our minds are malleable.  We can change our thought processes.  We can not only pull out the weeds, but we can also plant new seeds, new beliefs.  Your garden needs regular maintenance and care.  You must tend to it every day, even if only for a few minutes.

Just as we can reinforce our suffering everyday, we can and must uproot those long practiced behaviors and plant the seeds for those beliefs that harmonize our mind, body, and soul.  To do this we must break our habitual patterns and behaviors.  We must be courageous; we must be brave.  We must take that first step into the unknown.  Your reward for being so daring, for giving yourself the chance to change, is empowerment.  You will feel a powerful energy coursing through your veins that is surging with vitality and spirit.  You will feel an energy that must be experienced and not just talked about.  It’s similar to quitting smoking or not drinking alcohol anymore in that it may and will most likely be difficult – very difficult – but it all starts by taking that first step.  You stop the habit and embrace the feelings that come up.  Depending on how strong your habit-energy or addiction is you may need support from family members, friends, a support group, and a counselor.  You may need to take your first step in a safe environment where support is there for you whenever you need them, such as a monastery, or in the case of an addiction, a rehabilitation clinic.  For those of us who want to start this journey on our own, you will benefit most by having the support of a community (or sangha):  A group of like-minded individuals who are on a similar path working towards similar goals, who support each other along the way.  It only takes you and 1 other person to form a group.  This can be like therapy for the soul.  It is a reciprocal relationship where everyone involved receives nourishment for their spirit.”

I wanted to see if I still feel the same way as I did almost 2 years ago.  The answer is yes – without a doubt.  The most important thing in my life is love – love for myself and love for others, because ultimately there is no separation between self and others.  We are one.

I have love for all.  Love for humans, animals, plants and minerals.  I have respect for every thing.  Do I still grapple with my anger that is based on fear?  Yes, I do.  I see my anger for what it really is…….fear.  Fear of being abandoned, fear of not being loved, fear of not succeeding…..this is the type of thinking that does not allow me to move forward, to progress.  I recognize this more and more each and every day.  I see fear at its roots.  Not only am I recognizing my fear, but I am starting to truly understand that it is not serving my highest purpose:  Love for all.  To read something or to say something is one thing; to repeat it over and over and over again and to really believe it is another.  I know that I now believe in the stronghold that my fear has over me and that is why I am more motivated than ever to undo that bond; untie the rope that fear has wrapped around my heart many times over.  That is why I started this blog.  I want to expose my heart to the world and love unconditionally.  I want to let go of judgements that I have about myself and others, and instead, feel compassion and understanding.  I want to inspire others to do the same.  I welcome your thoughts and invite your own stories.

These are a couple of photos from my first stay at Deer Park monastery in Escondido, CA.

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