Silent Retreat

I have been thinking that I need a retreat from the world. With the grief that’s accompanied my dad’s passing, my worries about my husband’s health decline, and my general malaise with the current leadership in these United States, I need a break. The long, cold Northeastern winter does not help.

A fantastic think piece this week in the Wall Street Journal about Tapping Into the Sound of Silence by Anne Kadet who took a silent retreat within the framework of her own day-to-day life, got me thinking, ‘Hey, I don’t have to actually do any big whoop to retreat. I can simply turn down the volume.’

Incidentally, since getting hearing aids, I can literally turn down the volume. During the school day as I help to monitor middle school lunches, this turning-it-down feature really benefits me in the noisy dining hall. I can still hear boys’ conversations near me, but I don’t have to take in the whole big din. The dining hall becomes a bit more civilized when it’s not so loud.

When we get silent, there is a “freedom from self-preoccupation,” according to Richard Rohr. His message popped up in today’s emails. It is as if the world is trying to tell me something.

When we recognize something as beautiful, that knowledge partly emerges from the silence around it. It may be why we are quiet in art galleries and symphony halls. If something is not surrounded by the vastness of silence and space, it is hard to appreciate it as singular and beautiful. If it is all mixed in with everything else, then its particularity does not stand out.

Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation
From the Center for Action and Contemplation

To get quiet, one needs to focus, to control the kneejerk reaction to respond to every stimulus — whether it’s the red flashing breaking news update or the ping of a new email hitting the inbox.

The reward for this focus, this silence, this mindfulness, this absence, is the gift of noticing the world around you — be it the beauty of this winter season or the humor of children.

I know that I can be a little chatty. I love to joke around with my coworkers and family. But by freeing myself from the need to make noise, I am giving myself the gift of focusing more deeply on the natural world and on the people in my world. I am opening myself to all that is beautiful. I love to look at art and appreciate the specificity of words.

I’m tuning out, but not to drop out; my purpose is to drop in, go deeper, take time, listen better. Create a silent retreat right where I am.

Join me on the winter writing retreat where we will spend time in silence, in looking at art, and in noisy meal times.

I’ve been having a lot of fun playing around with acrylics and mixed media this winter.

Coffee at the Spa

A few years back, it was my first night at the New Age spa. A silver-haired woman sat across from me at the communal dining table; she slipped me something, very sly.

“You’re new here right?” she asked.

“How did you know?”

“You’re wearing a cashmere sweater and pearls. Look around — Everyone else is in sweats.”

I looked around. She was right. I smiled. I could see I was going to like this this place.

“I’m checking out tomorrow morning,” she said. “But you can have my packets. Don’t let anyone know.” She looked around, eyes squinting. I looked at the packet — Sanka.

I went cold turkey for the next couple of days. I never used the packets, but just to remind myself they were there, I’d occasionally tap them in the pocket of my sweats.

Just the idea of coffee comforted me.

Coffee was there for me if I needed it. And I do need it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere have been times my family, friends, colleagues failed me. But not coffee.
Coffee loves me unconditionally.

Studies show that coffee keeps women from depression. The Consumer Report Study on Coffee says Four or more cups a day? Fine, you’ll be 20 percent less likely to be depressed. So, go ahead. Have another cup of coffee. Better yet, have four. I dare you. Yea, try to keep up with me!

Not that I’m competitive. Okay, yes, I am a competitive person. I blame the fact that I have three brothers. I have even found I can be competitive in a spa-like setting – in yoga class or a moment for meditation.

How fast can you get into a meditative zone? Oh, yeah! I can meditate and relax twice as fast.

This summer I went to Kripalu, a wonderful, place. The breakfast is a silent meal. And guess what? I am more silent than anyone. I am also the slowest and quietest eater there.

In this political season, you may hear some politician brag of having good words or the best or hugest plans. Yes, well. I have the best silence. I have a huge mindfulness practice. The hugest.

I have trouble letting go of my competitive drive even while receiving a massage. I am probably the most relaxed person the masseuse has ever laid hands on.

Oh, God, who am I kidding? I am never able to relax. I am so tense. It is from the coffee. Or maybe the chai tea latte. Yes, they serve that at spas now. I had that at the quiet breakfast at Kripalu. I was bursting to tell someone — anyone — “Wow this is some good chai!”

But everyone was so quiet — unlike the old days when we chatted and discreetly passed one another little Sanka packets. Coffee tasted better when it was forbidden.

Still. Coffee’s perfect. With conversation or with quiet. Communal or solitary. The world may bring you down. But coffee and chai and a few days at the spa? They lift you up.

I read this tonite at noson lawen, translated as “happy evening” at the Welsh Church. 

My Commute: Bordering on Joy

Commuting by bike to the Upper East Side from the Upper West Side is a pleasure. Last year at this time, I was working two part-time jobs and commuting between Morningside Heights and the Financial District. I spent way too much time on the subway. I tried to remain centered and calm despite the subway crowds. I tried to follow a path of mindfulness.

I’m not alone. I dig this story from today’s New York Times on how to meditate on your commute by Jonathan Wolfe:

Can you listen without attributing a positive or negative emotion to the sound?

Take it one step further, Mr. Gelles said: Practice metta, or lovingkindness, meditation by silently wishing well to the people around you.

Sometimes the subway’s too hot; people get cranky. My daily bike commute, riding through Central Park, is just lovely. No one’s in a bad mood.

I try to practice lovingkindness from my bike. I mentally say “Good for you” to the people I pass. (Or the lycra-clad bicyclists who pass me!) I find it especially easy to say ‘Good for you!’ to the birders, the children walking with their parents, or the old people.

And occasionally I hit a solitary patch on my ride, especially if I ride through the Ramble. It is totally quiet and peaceful. It is as if I am in the country woods, not in the center of the hustling bustling city.

Ladies, if you want to start Citibiking, you can link to Women’s Bike Month for a free ride. Once you try commuting by bike in the city, it’s hard to stop. But sometimes it’s hard to start and you need a nudge. Take it from me. When December and January roll around, I will not be so lucky to ride so much. Until then, I’m enjoying every minute.

one-fifth

via Daily Prompt: Border

Mindful Teaching

Just home from watching the Martian, a fun 3-D movie, suspenseful and relaxing at the same time. It’s been a long day. I started with my 80-minute 10th grade English class — our current topic is Magical Realism — then I subbed the rest of the day in Kindergarten.

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At the end of the Kindergarten day, the children had choice time. They got out their leggos or coloring supplies. And one boy, high energy, wanted me to read him some Frog and Toad. Always good. Then another girl joined us. We read a few more books and then the boy passed me Mindful Monkey; Happy Panda.

“Oh, I like that one,” the girl said.

I liked it too. The message was keep your mind at the same place as your activity. Monkey is not happy because his mind is always on something beyond his activity. But happiness comes from thinking about what you’re doing. When you walk, think about walking. Eat? Think about eating. Play? You get the idea. It was such a happy reminder to keep your head where your feet are. Tomorrow and yesterday are not here. Do not think about them. Think about now, this moment. It was an excellent way to end a busy and satisfying teaching day and work week.

I have been blogging every day of October. I am trying to see this ritual of writing as a mindfulness practice. I realize I have to write what interests, helps, inspires me. And not find this blog burdensome. My husband Chris is in Florida, I am working teaching, editing and writing. I have turned down a couple of substitute teaching jobs. And I am trying to be present and organized for my daughters.

Even my self-imposed challenges, like this blogging every day of October, can be a chance to practice panda mind, not monkey mind. I can keep my mind on my activity. And be alive to the present.

Last week, when I substitute taught French, I told the kids my last name was similar to the French word for present, cadeau, and today when they saw me again, one boy said, “Hi Ms. Cadeau.” And he told another teacher, “You can just call her Ms. Present.” Not a bad name. Because sometimes Ms. Present is actually in the present. There she might get lucky and find Magical Realism.

Loving Kindness

It was time to line up and one kindergartner was pushing another.

“Hey, be loving,” I said.

So he made a kissing mouth to the other boy, “I’m loving. Love. Love Love.” Getting in his face, annoying, now with excessive kindness.

I was going to post about extreme kindness, but then this happened. And I realized sometimes you can go too far in the loving business. An excess of loving can be intrusive.

I forget this. I try to make my children be friends with other children — my friends’ kids or coworkers’ kids. They hate this. I do remember my mother doing this to me too. Any child that was roughly my age — at a church function or the playground — “Why don’t you go play with them?” Did she not realize my own right to choose? My own autonomy? To make my own friends?

Fortunately, I have become someone who can make friends with anyone. I can find common ground with just about any person I meet. I don’t really want to thank my mother for this, but she is the same way.

Maybe I learned it at St. Joan of Arc Kindergarten class. Maybe my teacher told me when I was wiggly, “Hey, be more loving.” I’m trying, God knows, I’m trying.

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Such a gorgeous fall day in Riverside Park today.

Gratitude

The kids and I say this to each other, especially when times are tough:

“Is this heaven?”
“Yup.”
“Sweet.”

I learned it from Carlos Anderson’s sermon at Unity.
I love Unity Church, my New Age church. Lately, I feel more spiritual than religious. I am among the 20 percent in the U.S., according to Pew Research, to call myself spiritual, above religious.

My theme today is gratitude.

I am grateful for
– the wonderful grocery stores in my neighborhood
How can cucumbers and blueberries be so delicious and so good for you? Crazy, right?

– Today’s my daughters’ birthday. How lucky we are with these two darlings. Yes, those first years were a handful. And yes, in some ways, they still are. 😉

catherinechar 2

I was at the theater the other day. It was an okay play, Cut Throat, at the Abingdon with my friend Sandy. Her daughter is expecting twins in a couple of weeks. And she doesn’t know their gender — but if they were both girls, “We’d win the lottery.”
Yes, we won the lottery with our twin girls. Not because of their accomplishments, but because of their temperaments, who they are – kind and funny.

Also grateful for

– this apartment
While I am not a home-centric person, I love our space. Enough room to eat together, play cards, watch TV, burrow down in a couch or bed and read the paper.

– my parents
Both still engaged in life, very creative, smart.

– my siblings and their spouses
They are all hard-working. And we love each other so much — if we needed anything, we’d be there for each other.

– my work
I love my colleagues, love the mission, feel a sense of challenge, mastery, meaning.

– my optimism
I have worked with complainers. I have occasionally complained about my situation too; it’s true. But, in general, I love my optimistic disposition. I believe tomorrow will be better than today. And today’s pretty good. (Especially because of the above-mentioned — my girls’ 16th birthday.)

What are you grateful for today?

10 Minutes of Nothing

I sat outside for 10 minutes at lunch time. I did nothing. I closed my eyes.

This video inspired me. Taking a 10-minute break connected me to my senses. I felt the sun on the back of my neck. I heard hip hop music from a car stopped at a traffic light nearby. I opened my eyes and saw a sparrow, a few feet away, tilt its head.

I thought about the mastercard bill I have to pay. I strategized about meeting my daughter before one play practice today and after another. I wondered if it would be good enough if she had only a slice of pizza for dinner.

I felt some things. I thought some things. But I did not get bogged down in my thoughts or feelings. I hopped from thing to thing like the sparrow.

There may have been a few moments when I entered a state beyond thinking or feeling. I drifted into the sky. I saw a gold frame against the sky. What happens when you frame infinity? I thought, How funny – that there are stars in the sky during the daytime too. I don’t see the stars, but I know they’re there.

I thought, I have to work on my Magical Realism curriculum for the 10th grade World Lit class tomorrow. I added that to the part of my mind that contains the long To Do list.

I slowed my breathing. I glanced at my phone 9 minutes had gone by. One more minute to sit. One more minute to think about nothing. Closed my eyes. Heard a strange tapping. Then, I heard footsteps crunching. I opened my eyes. A mother and her teenage son walked in front of me, serious, going somewhere.

Meditation is watching a movie in my mind. Being a bystander. Not hopping on stage. I am not the star of the film; I am a witness.

Focus. Calm. Clarity.

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I learned about this video and 12 others that inspire at Let Why Lead. We are part of the 31 days of writing campaign.

My Irish Relations

I don’t know why I love the Irish. Maybe it’s because I halfway belong to them on my mother’s side.

I snapped this pic from the train to Belfast from Dublin this summer. The countryside is so delicious.
I snapped this pic from the train to Belfast from Dublin this summer. The Irish countryside is so delicious.

But I also belong, halfway, to my father’s Scandinavian side. And the two sides of me are occasionally in conflict. But there is one thing they agree upon. Traveling expands you. My people are a traveling people. My ancestors set sail and did not look back.

In the U.S. most of us are halfway something. And even if we came from this soil, this fertile soil of America, we too, are nomads. Travelers.

So, too, are our relations – the gazelles leaping across the Serengeti or the Monarch butterflies flitting towards Mexico. All of us belong to a branch of the biological family that is on the move.

And we do not necessarily travel fast. Consider the sloth. They are part of our family too. And I don’t want to stretch this metaphor until it snaps back on me, but my husband who has Parkinson’s is a bit on the sloth spectrum. Yet he hangs on to the family tree. And still, he travels. (Heading to Florida for a month and a half to direct a play.)

Still on the go.

The difference between us and our biological family is that when we return from our distant adventures – down the branch of the tree or across the vast plain or swamp or ocean – when we return from our journeys — we tell the tale. We huddle around the campfire, the Sunday dinner, the AA meeting, the bar, the water cooler, the back of the bus. And we regale our friends and family with stories of our successes and failures. We make something out of an ineffable nothing — that place that only resides in our memories — our distant homeland, our Ireland, our watering hole, our home.

And that is why I love to travel. And I believe it comes from both the Irish and the Scandinavian. It is not that I love the journey — the uncertainty of where I’m going. But it is that I love to return and tell the tale.

So today, look up from your computer, glance into the eyes of your officemate, your lover, your daughter, your spouse. Ask:

Where have you been? Where are you going? When you return, will you tell me all about it? And then that place — your place, your story — will live in my memory, as a story, too.

Why Be Mindful?

This October I’m going to blog every single fricken’ day.

I tried this last year and missed a few days. Because my darling Charlotte was in excrutiating pain and we landed in the emergency room with her fibroid cysts for a day. And well, you know, a trip to the ER can ruin a few days.

This year I’m back in the blog game. And my theme is mindfulness. Sure, it’s trendy. What’s wrong with that? I’m trendy. What are you saying? I’m fat? (That’s an inside joke — apropos of nothing, my sister and I like to say that. It’s funny. Trust me. The way we say it. It’s funny, okay?)

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In the West Village. Balloons over the steps of Alma Mathews House, a short-term residence for faith-based professionals. The house is being sold. Change is inevitable. Mindfulness reminds us of impermanence. 

Be mindful. Breathe. Notice. Be present. Not so funny? Maybe. But fun, and as previously mentioned, trendy.

Seriously. I came up with this theme when I realized I was just madly cycling through life. Ever feel like you’re just riding your bike in place? Not going anywhere? That’s called spin class. Also, trendy. I like to ride a bike, sure, but I like to go places. I realized at the end of September that I was restless. And I thought I would pursue a month of mindfulness to center myself. Figure out where I am and who I am. And what’s important.

And remind myself to be. here. now.

That’s it. Join me.

Stop a minute to breathe. That’s all.

Blue Cliff Monastery

On the mindfulness walk, I took out my phone to snap this picture. The Buddhist sisters were ahead of me on the walk. I looked at my phone and realized that I had email. And so at a Buddhist monastery on a sunny daylong retreat I found myself checking my email.  (I had to resist posting my status on Facebook and Twitter. “On a walk in the woods with my Buddhist sisters.”)

I like to be inundated. I like to be overwhelmed. I like MORE. I came to Blue Cliff Monastery for less. For a few hours one day to let go of the swirling storm of my life.

In the morning, I sat cross-legged in this beautiful, big, bright, meditation hall. I love rules for life. And while I noticed I could not sit as still as the monastic brothers and sisters on the mats near me, I got so much out of the message. 

This was the dharma talk from the teacher and founder of the monastery, Thich Nhat Hahn. It was a message videotaped a few days earlier from his talk while traveling in Thailand (I think):

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1. Be aware of breath
2. Follow breath
3. Be aware of body
4. Release tension
5. Generate joy
6. Generate happiness
7. Be aware of pain
8. Release pain

The first four focus on the body; the next four on feelings. If pain is great, practice five and six. How to create happiness and joy? Let go. It is possible right here and right now.

Happiness can come when you 1) let go and 2) are mindful. 

Mindfulness is the energy of the Buddha. You can be mindful of your eyes. With your eyes you can see the paradise before you (all of the colors). You can be mindful of your heart, beating all the time. With awareness of your heart, you can be grateful for it.

But they do not sell mindfulness at the market, you must generate it.

Joy and happiness can always be possible.

Pain is like the baby, crying. We do not hit, suppress, fight with baby. We embrace, we hold the baby with tenderness. It will lessen the suffering, the pain.

There is no reason to be afraid of strong emotion. Strong emotion is like a storm. It will come. It will pass. Young people need to know this. We are more than one emotion. Bring attention to the “in breath” and the “out breath.” Give attention to the abdomen. Touch the rise and fall of your breath. Go down there. Breathe in and out. In a storm, the tops of trees sway, but the trunk (the belly, below the naval) stays strong.

Practice five minutes of deep breathing every day for two weeks. It will then become a habit.

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This was the guidance from Thich Nhat Hahn’s talk. The 30 of us then stood in a circle outside and sang a few songs with hand motions. We took the mindfulness walk. We ate a warm vegan meal in silence. Then the bells tolled (I thought of visiting the Taize monastery and the tyrrany of the bells! https://mbcoudal.wordpress.com/2009/10/28/taize-service-my-guys/).  

After the bells, we could talk a little with those sitting near us. Then I sat alone in the sunshine. And yes, I checked my email again!

Then we, the group from the United Methodist Church, sat in a circle and shared the meaning of the day so far. How Jesus was like Buddha. How to practice compassion and Christianity. How to live in community. How to and of what to let go.

The sharing was deep, powerful, honest. It was a wonderful day. The brothers and sisters invited everyone to come again for the weekend or for a day of mindfulness or for a holiday. I would like to go again. But next time, I will leave my phone in the car.  

This retreat was organized by the wonderful Mandy Iahn, a United Methodist pastor who has found peace visiting the monastery. She is a part of the Commission on Christian Unity and Interfaith Concerns, CCUIC.

I saw this retreat listed in the New York Annual Conference newsletter, which promised, “This opportunity is being offered to promote peace and understanding between ourselves and our Buddhist brothers and sisters.  You will learn about Buddhist traditions and practices, have a silent meal with the monks and nuns of Bluecliff, and connect with God and yourself as you spend the day at this peaceful place.” 

http://bluecliffmonastery.org/