Scrunch…, scrunch…, scrunch… I look down at my feet as they gently pad the snow covered trail along the near frozen Des Plaines River in Thatcher Woods. It is frigid cold and I can see my breath. Just 24 hours earlier I had been walking the high desert in Joshua Tree California, a final amble around the grounds of the Joshua Tree Retreat Center where I had just completed a five-day silent meditation with 69 other people. Both places felt exactly right; blessed mother earth– the ground, support and possibility of all living things.
I had come to Joshua Tree to begin a curriculum in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a medical practice that was begun in 1979 by molecular biologist Jon Cabat-Zinn. MBSR was conceived of and functions as a “public health intervention” that, along with more traditional medical strategies, aims to “transform the individual and culture from the inside-out, a way of being and seeing that helps us understand our minds and bodies in such a way as to alleviate suffering and catalyze wisdom and compassion, in ourselves and society at large.” In the Fall of 2017 I had taken the MBSR class at Rush Hospital in Chicago, and found a wonderful practice, based upon the foundations of Buddhism, that initiates an alternative approach to meeting the demands and stresses of everyday life. Daily meditation is the focal point of the practice, and in the operation of following our breath, we are able to cultivate an inner space in our minds that exists between stimulus (the world, out there, our experience), and response (the way we perceive, read, react to that stimulus, as a thought, emotion etc.). The greater space we develop in our minds, the greater ease and inner calm we grow in our being and interaction with the world and relationships. Throughout the eight-week course we practiced different types of meditation, i.e., walking, sitting, body-scan, eating. Fundamental to this was our experience during these exercises. For meditation is not a magical switch with which we are able to flip at any moment and turn off our thoughts and the world. Rather, it is learning to be present to ourselves and our experience, open-hearted, and awake to appreciate the world as our fundamental area of experience and meaning. This moment is the ‘object’ of mindfulness.
Each day at JT we met at Perceptory Hall at 6:30 a.m. for our first “sit”(meditation). Just 20 mins long, it was a very relaxed way to begin the day; immediately followed by 70 mins. of guided movement and yoga. From 8:00-9:30 we had breakfast, and it was suggested that we employ a “mindful state” in eating. For myself, it was always first acknowledging the “hands, minds, and bodies that, through their goodwill and effort, made it possible to enjoy this food and nourishment, never forgetting mother earth and father Sun.” From here I attempted to make 20 (or more) chews with every bite full. What followed was a sensory experience the likes of which I’d never imagined. In simply slowing down, the experience of food expands; more of the mouth and taste buds engage with the food and its amazing how much there “is” in one almond, for example. Additionally, I was able to feel the food in my stomach more acutely, and more accurately judge how full I became. The food during the retreat was all vegetarian/vegan fare (lentil soups, arugula salads, curries, frittatas, oatmeal, noodles, etc.), and I am not exaggerating in saying it was the finest food experience of my life. Incredible.
(Great thanks to chef Cathy and her entire staff:)
From 9:30 to 12:30 it was back to the hall, for alternating periods of sitting (30 mins.) and walking/mindful movement (25mins.). It may sound like a lot of doing “nothing”, but in fact, the experience feels anything but. Key for me was the surrender… once I accepted the fact that there was nowhere else to be, nothing else to do, I was able to really focus in on my breathing and from there, sit calmly and watch the operation of my mind–naturally and inevitably– conjure memories, thoughts, and emotions. Time itself became amorphous; there were periods of sitting that felt like a minute had passed, or an hour… sometimes ‘surfing’ the breath became filled with a child like wonder of stillness and curiosity, even blissful. The idea behind walking meditation is focusing on the operation of walking, i.e, what the experience of your feet and body, connecting with the ground and moving forward, actually feels like. It was interesting to notice scores of people walking impossibly slow in the desert landscape. Walking becomes very different when the idea of “getting somewhere” is pushed aside. Your ‘presence’ becomes the ‘present’. During one of these periods I stayed in the hall and in between planks and downward dogs noticed a young woman slowly working through a yoga routine that became sublime and utterly entrancing, as if I were watching a ballerina. Another day I set the task of remaining standing while putting on, and taking off my shoes (no shoes in the hall). Cross my leg at the knee, bend at the waist, deliver shoe to foot, stabilize, tie shoe etc. It tool me 20 mins. one day to complete the operation (!). In fact, the bell for Lunch sounded just as I had made my umpteenth, and finally, successful attempt. I felt like Vladimir from Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” It was wonderful.
Lunch ran from 12:30-2:30. Everyday I would hike after the slow, leisurely intake of food. JTRC has 400 acres and a series of main buildings, and scattered cottages and residences throughout the grounds. While a bit rough around the edges, there are fountains, a labyrinth, lookouts with benches, a covered Oleander walkway, and all sorts of hidden areas to explore. The desert feels infinite, and mysteriously alive… I never saw any snakes, and very little re: critters, although there were holes in the ground everywhere. The California sun and warm weather felt luxurious coming from the frigid midwestern winter we’ve had. On the north side of the property was an area of curiosity–random structures, a fire pit, a high ropes course… I saw a sign: “Frontierland”. I never found out if “Frontierland” was part of the property. Anyway, it made for fascinating discovery and wandering.
Back to the hall from 2:30-5:30, dinner from 5:30-7:00. Each night after dinner we would meet in the hall for a sit, a short walk, and then 75 mins. of a Dharma (teaching) talk until 9:00. Afterwards, I would walk slowly back to my cottage, noticing the stars and distant sounds of the desert, and cars swoosh on the road nearby. My cottage was small and cozy, with two single beds and a small bathroom and shower that had an old school heat lamp in the wall. I was tired after the days, but curiously, slept very short hours during my stay. Yet, I did not become frustrated or really exhausted. I just lay awake most nights, feeling my breath and really relaxing. Each morning I would have some tea and a few bites of something, and then meditate for 20 mins. before heading out and walking up to the hall in the emerging daylight.
On the fourth morning of the retreat, after breakfast, I was beginning a sit, and Hugh, one of the retreats leaders, was speaking during the meditation of distraction, and being gentle with ourselves. I was listening, and then, following my breath, it suddenly dawned on me that I was feeling the most incredible sensation of peace that I had ever felt in my life, and in fact, if I were to die right now I would be totally fine with it… and then it happened: the tears started flowing and the feeling of gratitude I had for my life, my loved ones, the world, and this moment, overwhelmed me. So much so, that I had to keep myself from losing it all together and weeping out loud in what would of been, a challenging moment for all! Anyway, it went on… the sensation of the tears on my cheeks became comforting, and… OK. These precious minutes passed, and I completely let go. The three rings of the bell signaled the end of the session, though I remained seated, with my eyes closed for another 10 mins. When I opened my eyes I looked down and saw two lines of moisture down the front of my vest. Making my way outside, the sun felt comforting, and I realized a feeling of openness, and a deeper insight: I had found my path.
The next morning was the last day of the retreat, and after the morning sit and yoga, I sat in the lunch room, savoring the food, and bathing in the light and warmth of the sun over the desert. I was emotional again, knowing this experience was coming to an end, never to be repeated again in quite the same way. We had a closing circle, with everyone introducing themselves and saying a few things about their experience. It was quite incredible to hear the voices, and names (!), of these brave people. Everyone was genuine, and funny, emotional, and open; the collective feeling of comfort, and love, was something extraordinary that I never imagined going into the retreat. Our collective silence–alongside one another–had actually worked in bringing us together. It was as if one, giant, harmonious breath had been let go and we all were left smiling, filled with love.
As it happened, Beth Ann Mulligan, along with her husband Hugh, sponsored and ran the retreat. Beth Ann has been a Physicians Asst. for 30+ years and a mindfulness practitioner and teacher. She had copies of her new book, The Dharma of Modern Mindfulness on hand, and I was eager to get a signed, first edition. The book explores the “Buddhist Teachings” that underpin the practice of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. In fact, it chronicles the experience of teaching the eight-week MBSR course, and the experience of the individuals who participate. Beth Ann and Hugh have been operating their company, Mindful Way for many years, hosting retreats, workshops, and teaching mindfulness and MBSR all over the world. The love, passion, and compassion they showed each other, and all of us, throughout the retreat was tremendous.
“It takes big stones… because there is no one else to blame” –Hugh O’Neill
The last few hours before departing had everyone chatting and sharing, with a sort of inebriated stillness and wonder. This felt like true fellowship, understanding, and hope. Before jumping in the shuttle to travel back down to Palm Springs and fly out, I was sitting on a bench, near the Buddha that sits on the main walkway into the property. A young lady, Annette, came by and we and both smiled, saying hello. I had shared a Nietzsche quote in the closing circle she enjoyed. I told her how inspiring it was to hear her share that she had quit her corporate lawyer job, with the intention of teaching mindfulness to lawyers instead (!). If this isn’t the “experience” of mindfulness, and following your heart, and passion, to help the world, I’m not sure what can be. What an inspiration. We shook hands and said goodbye, each voicing the desire to see one another again. Back at home a week later, I was overjoyed to learn that Beth Ann is hosting another retreat in Racine, Wi. in May. Space available 🙂
Ps. Big thanks and shout out to the ladies from Rush Hospital and the Road Home Program who shared, and traveled, to and from the retreat with me. Julia “#1!”, Rebekah “Sunshine”, and Elizabeth “Cross-Country”–my new girl gang!