CC BY-SA 2.0 Ken Wieland from Philadelphia, USA 
Omega Institute Lake Drive 

I have been meditating for twenty years and felt the need to go deeper – how about a five-day mindfulness retreat? The nearby Omega Institute in lovely Rhinebeck, New York featured one led by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Will Kabat-Zinn (Jon’s son). I heard Jon speak before and was impressed by his approachability and his academic credentials with degrees from MIT and Harvard. Jon, age 74, is one of the founding leaders of the mindfulness movement.

The retreat began with a discussion around setting a “safe container.” We all agreed to confidentiality, to stay off our phones, and to approach with the “lightest of touches as if your life depended on it.” This phrase – with a great dichotomy – is one that Jon came back to over and over. The goal of the retreat is to get to know yourself better. We are human beings and yet we spend most of our life as human doers. We are trying to develop a wise and compassionate relationship with ourselves. I immediately felt that I made the right choice in attending this workshop.

Mindfulness, Jon says, is a love affair with yourself. I just love that idea. He said that we all create stories in our minds that cause suffering, and may or may not be true. Most importantly, they are not the whole story. Our thinking minds are unreliable at best. I felt as if he was speaking to me, given the negative tapes that have been circling in my mind forever.

Then, we all set goals. Why did I really come? To learn mindfulness techniques to deepen my practice and provide tools for my coaching clients. What I found wasn’t quite what I expected.

My first full day of meditating from 6:00-7:30 am, 9:00-10:30 am, 2:00-3:30 pm, and 7:00-8:30 pm seemed like one of the longest days of my life. I wondered, “When is this going to end?” Six hours of meditation, exhausted and asleep by 10:00 pm, all so I can get up at 5 am to “do nothing” again. In my mind, I see my husband smiling and saying, “Really, Kath? You are a Mayer at heart – talker, doer, achiever.”

After one day, I struggled to stay in the moment. Jon said that it’s normal. Thoughts jumped in and out of my awareness—most with underlying negative emotions. But the meditation practice will build capacity to handle these emotions. We learned that dampened emotions indicate a dampened life force. I see this in myself and my clients—it seems more socially acceptable to just go through the motions in life. The biggest challenge is that our minds are judging machines. How do you turn them off? How do you find the sweetness in life?

Recently, I have been noticing that I am leaking negative emotions with people that annoy me. When one of the tennis players in a drill class stormed off the court, I found myself furious at her. Why? Why is this bothering me? Then, many days later, I expressed my angry emotions toward her, which led to feelings of guilt and I apologized. I realized that I have more grieving to do.

Then Jon said something that really hit home, “By attending to the present, we can create a new future.” It seems so simple yet elusive.

The meditation practice followed a rhythm: of 30 minutes of sitting, 30 minutes of walking, and 30 minutes sitting. While I have a sitting meditation practice, I always wanted to try walking meditation–but couldn’t figure out how to accomplish that on the crowded streets of New York City.

At Omega, walking meditations were the most challenging. The directions are just to walk–you are not going anywhere. At first, we looked like zombies – walking excruciating slowly step-by-step. I tried an exaggerated walk and it felt stupid. I felt like I was constantly almost falling. Then, I said, “Screw this, I am just going to walk around.”

I started moving more slowly around the beautiful Omega campus, stopping to watch the birds search for worms or smell the glorious aromas of the trees in bloom. Then I tried walking in a playful manner–swinging my legs around in a circle before landing or taking tiny steps. I kept mixing it up. Walking in different areas – sometimes in a field, vegetable garden, or up a hill. I made a few people smile with my playful walking. I don’t think we were supposed to be entertaining, it was better than walking like a zombie. I did enjoy being outdoors and feeling the wind on my face.

On day two, Jon gave a prompt before our afternoon walking mediation that got me thinking. He said, “You don’t want to miss your life. Some people go through their entire lives and they miss it.”

In that moment, an image arose of my late father. He missed it. At 87, he apologized for the many ways he had failed and let me down. Then, six months later he accidentally drove into a tree and died two weeks later. I was so angry. He had been an absentee father for my whole life. When he finally became the dad I wanted him to be, he died.

I realized in that moment I had not fully grieved the future that my father and I missed. I walked to a large rock and sobbed. One of the other participants seemed to arrive out of nowhere, put a hand on my shoulder, and asked if I was all right. I nodded and kept sobbing.

Jon presented an interesting definition of healing—it happens when you acknowledge your wholeness in the present and accept what is happening in the midst of challenges. Learning to come back to the breath and fully accept yourself can help you break through. I realized that this retreat has a rigorous meditation schedule to create a safe place to experience discomfort and work through it, building confidence.

Can I face all those negative judgments? Can I form new relationships with my pain and ultimately myself? Can I feel good enough? I continued to allow the sadness, the anger, and loneliness to flow through me versus avoiding it or obsessing over how horrible everything is. When I surrendered and allowed the emotions to flow through without judgment, I felt better, lighter.

Jon read poetry throughout the retreat in his wonderful, calming voice, conjuring peaceful images. He read a poem by Rumi about viewing negative feelings as house guests–welcome them in and get curious about them. I love that image and experiment with it when painful thoughts and memories arise. I started to accept myself and my parents. More generous and expansive thoughts of myself and of them arise. I slept more peacefully.

The next 36 hours were spent in silent meditation. We sat, walked, did Hatha yoga, and ate all meals in noble silence. At first it felt boring and pointless, but as time went on, I appreciated the luxury of not having to interact, respond to emails, have difficult conversations, or whatever. I could just live moment to moment.

The next day we talked in pairs to share our experiences. As I began to speak, I sobbed again. I shared that I was still grieving a deep wound that I didn’t realize was the cause of my negative emotions. The silence gave me the opportunity to go deep, very deep. I visualized sitting at a giant table with all my negative feelings about various family members. Once I could just accept them, they seemed to loosen their grip over me.

During one of the walking meditations, I saw a woman sticking her nose into the beautiful pink, tulip-shaped blooms on a tree. I walked towards the tree and stuck my nose into the flowers. The aroma was sweet and lovely. That became my new walking meditation – coming back to the sweetness of this gorgeous tree again and again. The scent became a metaphor for the goodness I received from my father and for life in general.

After the period of silence ended, I bumped into my dorm neighbor. I had not officially met her, just friendly smiles. She stopped and said that my face looked brighter, and wanted to find out what happened at the silent meditation.

As we continued to debrief the silent meditation, Jon passionately spoke about the importance of having a silent and intentional mindfulness practice in your life – even if just for 10 minutes a day. He said that it is a source of compassion and wisdom in the world. I felt the urgency in his voice and agree that the world is facing huge challenges. We need leaders who are operating from a place of mindful responsiveness versus mindless reacting.

Other retreat participants included teachers who are influencing young children and health care workers who are showing patients how to use mindfulness to manage pain. They made me realize the power of these tools. For me, I am hoping that I will be able to act from a place of discernment and compassion for myself and others. Instead reacting to other people’s behavior, I will pause first and breath before opening my mouth.

We ended the retreat by sharing our key takeaways and how to use this new awareness in the world. When someone asked how to find time in a busy life, Jon shared that he used to get up at 5:00 am just to have 30 minutes of intentional silence. He asked the group, “How badly do you want it?” It reminded me of my experience as a competitive tennis player, if you want to win, you need to do the work. It is a discipline. No excuses.

Jon reminded us that we are not leaving as enlightened beings—rather we are aiming to have more enlightened moments. I realize that is why I admire Jon. He walks the talk. He acknowledges that he is no more enlightened than any of us, even the beginning meditators.

I accepted that my blind spots and imperfections need to be welcomed to the table like those annoying house guests. They are critical to my story and credibility.

To close the retreat, all 200 of us stood in a giant circle and looked at each other. It reminded us that we need each other. I was inspired by all the stories, the tears, the laughter, the fragility, and humanity in the room. It was a heartening experience. I left feeling a calmness I have never felt before.

Back home in busy New York City, I started to get annoyed by the incomprehensible subway announcement, then took a deep breath and smiled. I reminded myself that the more I act from a place of awareness, the more choices I have, and more the confidence I feel. I smiled and asked a friendly face on the train, “Is this going uptown?” Which led to a amiable NYC conversation sharing our favorite neighborhood haunts. I left with a small list of new restaurants to try…

 

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