Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Journey inward: six days of silence in the Santa Barbara mountains!

"Life unfolds chaotically and magically."
~ Dina Amsterdam, yogini and spiritual teacher

"All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt."
~ Charles M. Schulz

I spear a piece of fruit, and lift it to my mouth. Papaya. Another bite. I name it: Blackberry. Slowly I chew and swallow. The California sunshine warms the air and my bare skin. I am up above the cloudline, and I gaze out over the Pacific Ocean at the foot of the cliffs below me. More slow, delicious bites.

I name them: Pineapple. Nectarine. Green apple. Raspberry. I have drizzled whole milk yogurt and coconut on top of the fruit. I have sprinkled California raisins on top. How can there be so much sweetness and flavor in one bowl? Each bite is a small burst of pure pleasure in my mouth.
What could be more sensuous ~ and sensual ~ than a silent yoga and meditation retreat?

Six days of silence, yoga and meditation has a way of awakening the senses that have been dulled by busy-ness, the buzz of too much thinking, too much living in the mind. Re-immersion, my friend Will called it. Re-immersing yourself in the true life, the world beyond the confines of our thinking mind.

There is something about practicing zazen (sitting meditation) and yoga for six hours a day that shakes you out of your thinking mind so that you re-arrive, expectant and overly sensitized, in your physical body. Everything tastes better. Your nerve endings come alive. Frankly, being on retreat is sexy. At least, this is how it works for me.

It seems paradoxical because the Buddhist path also teaches that overindulging in sensory pleasures is one of the ways we can distract ourselves from our true purpose, one of the ways we bury our feelings and "escape."

Yet feeling truly present in the body and the moment makes every moment beautiful, the pleasures of simply being alive intensified. I truly feel and experience the world around me. I am not anasthetized to its pleasures. Hallelujah, Amen!

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the grounds where we are practicing on this retreat are rolling, green, flourishing. We are perched on the cliffs above Santa Barbara, California, with panoramic views over the city and the Pacific Ocean.

Jane Fonda once owned this land, years ago, and the current owner graciously makes the land available for retreats like this one, providing the opportunity for people to reconnect with silence, peace, themselves - their own sense of inner stillness and expansiveness.

We are practicing on sprawling acres of green land, laced with flowers, trees, breathtaking cliffside sunset views. There is a pool near the edge of the cliffs, and a hot tub perched right on the edge where you can contemplate the cosmos at night while soaking in bubbles, muscles massaged by firm hot jets of water.

There is a pond on the edge of the grounds where you can lie on a raft (clothing optional!), letting the sun warm and dry your bare skin, and where you can swim right up to a patch of lotus flowers and drink in their sweet fragrance. I plucked one to decorate the altar in the meditation room, adding my own perfumed offering symbolizing the Buddha, to the collection of flowers, rocks, and scraps of papers scrawled with handwritten notes that were already there.

Here on this lush land, 30 of us circle each other in silence every day, on the same grounds, sharing the same yoga practice room and teacher, but each locked in our own inner world. Some happily, some not so much so! We all ride waves of bliss and a spectrum of other emotions here, from sadness to numbness to anxiety to fear. Our teacher, Dina, talks us through the periods of daily yoga and meditation to guide us, but we remain in silence for a full four of the six days we are here, dipping into it again briefly on the last day.

Incidentally, many, many people who have known me over the years, who know that I am a Myers-Briggs ENFP (a big extrovert!) might wonder, and justly so, how I could possibly remain totally silent for four full days. Amazingly, to me as well, it is much simpler than I ever imagined, and more replenishing. It is peaceful and calming to be in such a quiet space, and to work on continually quieting the mind. It is wonderful to see what arises in such a space.

Sometimes I step outside myself briefly to watch all of us here, and imagine how odd we would look to someone just visiting - we walk around in silence, eat meals at round tables without making eye contact, circle around each other as we make our way to hike the trails or lie in the hammock, never greeting one another. No waves, no hellos, barely even the faintest of smiles dancing on someone's lips. We exchange no signals to indicate that we are in communication with one another.

Because we're not - for these six days, our job is not to relate to the world, as we incessantly do on the outside, but to relate to ourselves. To journey inward. I wish everyone could have the chance to experience this at least once in a lifetime.

It is not all fun and games here. When entering deeply into silence, we are often forced to force whatever unwelcome companions we've been locking away inside. What fear don't you want to face? What part of you feels most unloved? Chances are, it'll float right to the surface while you're sitting cross-legged on your meditation cushion, or upside-down in Downward Dog.

On this retreat, for me, that meant facing the fact that I tend to avoid emotional confrontations. Perhaps from some deep-seated desire to make everyone happy around me, to be liked, to have everything be "okay" all the time, I have had a tendency to procrastinate sometimes on dealing with issues that instead percolate underneath the surface, until they reach their eventual boiling point and spill out into the world.

Of course, when I avoid dealing with troublesome situations or emotions, I instead have to live with fear and anxiety in the interim of how things *could* turn out. Often, these "meantime emotions" are much worse than whatever happens once I actually face my fears, as I have seen borne out time and time again, when I confront things and what was a source of anxiety resolves itself, melts away.

Suddenly, facing myself in silence here at the retreat, avoidance just doesn't feel like any kind of solution anymore.

I also face the fact that I have not always been great at loving myself no matter what. I profess to want to practice unconditional love in this world, and the truth is that if I am to do that - it has to start with me. I have to love myself even when I'm tired, down, sad, angry, blue, worn out. I have to love myself when I'm performing at the top of my game, when everything is going my way, AND when it's not.

This means changing patterns of aspiring toward impossible standards of perfection, and then beating myself up when I (of course!) can't reach them, which has been a long-standing pattern of mine. Retreat brings me face-to-face with myself again and I see what I need to do. Love myself first. Love myself completely, no matter what.

It is clear that this is what I am to learn right now, what life needs me to learn in order to take the next steps in my life, and be transformed... Who knew it could be so hard to be truly tender and kind to yourself, when it comes so easily for many of us to love others?

It is like I am developing real intimacy with myself for perhaps the first time ever by being brutally honest with myself, but at the same time doing so with gentleness and kindness. I am looking at myself in the mirror with love, but am also able to say - this is how it is, this is who you are, accept yourself, love yourself!

I find myself wondering why it can be such a challenge for women in particular to love ourselves completely. Of course, we are bombarded with voices in society that would have us believe that we are not enough, we need to be skinnier, prettier, we don't look like this or that model or have the thighs of a sixteen year old anymore, and therefore are not truly beautiful, not enough.

The truth is the opposite -it is our unique qualities that truly make each of us beautiful. Why can't we all learn that sooner? Why so many years of suffering?

Retreat becomes a place where we are tested, where we learn to sit with our own uncomfortable edges, face our own fears. It can be difficult to sit with unpleasant emotions.

We are so accustomed, as a society, to fleeing from them by turning to television, alcohol, food, sex, or anything else that will numb us from truly feeling deeply whatever most hurts, whatever feels shameful. There is a sudden liberation in learning to accept the wide range of human emotions we all experience, and not only to accept, but to embrace this range.

First, we have to learn to sit still. "No fidgeting," says Dina, her voice floating disembodied from somewhere in the front of the room. "I am the fidgeting police."

I am still. My eyes are closed. My hands are resting gently, palms face down, one on each knee. I am sitting cross-legged on the edge of zafu, or meditation cushion, my coccyx bone raised about three inches off the ground to give my spine more length and elegance. My left ankle is positioned snugly in front of my right ankle, knees wide, in a sort of modified lotus position.

There is a small gnat buzzing around my head and I resist the urge to swat at it. This time is all about stillness. Turning inward. Not giving in to the sometimes intense desire to move, shift position, itch. The body sometimes sends out tiny red flags of urgency. Move now! Scratch me now! Here, our job is to not move. Not to fidget.

Of all the perils of meditation, perhaps the most treacherous is the foot-falling-asleep. When you sit for 45 minutes in cross-legged position, the foot can become a numb lump, something that feels heavily attached to the body, but not of the body. Pins and needles. A dull sort of tingling. It can overtake you so that you feel that you will not survive your foot falling asleep.

This is where you learn to conquer your mind, where you learn that sitting with discomfort actually will not kill you. We can endure discomfort. We can endure unpleasant emotions. We can face all of this with equanimity. (Who knew?) After all, it's temporary.

And we are not the emotions that surge and swell through our body, but something deeper, the container that holds them, the peace at the core. We are not even this body! It too is a vessel for the spirit that we are. That is what the great sages tell us, and it is what I believe, and it is what this practice ultimately teaches us.

Soon enough, Dina rings the bell to end the meditation session. The foot, with some shaking to restore blood flow, slowly wakes up again. And the rewards of sitting still and training the "monkey mind" to be still are so great.

For me, it is the way I return again and again to the center of peace inside me (we all have it!). It is how I train and remind myself to listen to my intuition, to feel what my body is telling me to do when making key decisions in my life, vs. just analyzing everything, turning possible solutions over and over anxiously, with my overworking, thinking mind.

In this place of spaciousness, in stillness, real love and beauty can arise. On this retreat, during our last meditation sit, just before Dina rings the bell to end our second of two 15-minute sits, this vow rises up inside me: "LIVE WITH MY HEART WIDE OPEN." It is what I take as my instructions from myself to live out in the world once I leave Laurel Springs Ranch and return to everyday life.

At the end of the meditation, I also visualize flowers blooming inside of me. It brings to mind the beautiful poem by Galway Kinnell that Dina often reads on her retreats which features the line: "Everything flowers from within of self-blessing."

I flower from within of self-blessing. I bow to honor the divine in me, and in all of us. Namaste. Shalom. Peace.


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