Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Retreat Morning Schedule

So, how did I spend my semi-silent retreat? This one was a little unusual in that usually retreats either allow speaking, or they're conducted in silence. In this one, we were in silence from 9 p.m.- lunch the next day, with silence always maintained in the dormitories. Most people spoke during the non-silent times, but a few retreatants chose to maintain their silence and the group respected that. Here was our weekday schedule through lunch, with some explanation. The afternoon and evening schedule will be my next post.

6:00 a.m. Wake up: Because I was fighting for a spot amongst eight other women in a tiny bathroom, I roused myself around 5:45 a.m. to allow adequate time to use the bathroom, wash my face, and brush my teeth. I'd dress and mosey over to the main lodge, where all of our retreat activities took place. I had a couple of glasses of water and a cup of coffee, in silence, before I settled on my meditation cushion.

6:30 a.m.  Meditation (aka "Sit"): This was seated meditation. Some people sat on cushions that they brought. Others fashioned impromptu meditation seating with pillows, blankets, towels and yoga mats. Some people always sat on chairs, and people who spoke with instructors about it first were allowed to meditate laying down, if appropriate. I had to do this, especially by the end of the day: my back isn't strong to begin with, and the 3-4 hours of seated meditation we did every day really took its toll on me. The first night I was there, I needed a narcotic to calm my pain enough to sleep. The original purpose of yoga asana, poses, is to give yogis the strength they need to sit in meditation for hours. I never really understood that until this retreat!

At one point I asked an instructor when would be a good time to leave programming to lay down on my heating pad to soothe my back and neck pain. He said, "What would keep you from bringing your heating pad to meditation and laying on your back?" I said, "Nothing!" As someone who has chronic pain, I have learned how to meditate laying down. I have tricks to ensure I don't fall asleep, like not practicing this way when I'm too sleepy, keeping my eyes only 3/4 of the way shut, putting my knees together, or holding my hands in such a way that if I fell asleep I would jerk to attention. I think I only came close to falling asleep once in this position. My preference is to sit on a meditation cushion with blankets supporting my knees, but I utilized the cushion, a chair, and laying on my yoga mat at different points in the day, depending on what my body needed. Usually, I started the day upright and ended up laying down late afternoon before returning to a chair or cushion again.

7:15 a.m. Chanting: One of the most amazing gifts that came to me from this retreat is the knowledge of how much chanting moves me. This is a common Eastern spiritual practice, but instead of Sanskrit, we chanted Hebrew. We did three chants from the morning blessings in the schacharit service (see below) every morning, and then did a few other chants based on other Jewish sources. There was something tremendously powerful about living in an intentional, albeit temporary, community, our voices joining together in praise of God. Four things resonated with me: the meaning of words we were chanting, the beautiful tones of the chants we were singing, the group nature of the activity, and the vibration of my voice inside my body. All of those elements combined to make it a powerful spiritual technique for me.

At home, I have continued my chanting practice after my morning meditation, and although it's not as potent as it is in a group, it's still useful. It's a meaningful way for me to give thanks to God and to set my intention for the day, and the verses have become mantras for me. Sometimes I'll find myself humming them throughout the day, which of course reminds me of their meaning. Verses from schacharit like, "My God, the soul You placed within me is pure," are things I need to remember, especially when I get drawn into the Trance of Unworthiness. Reminding myself that God made me in God's image is one antidote to the Trance.

7:30 a.m.  Shacharit: This is the Jewish morning service. Other than on shabbat [sabbath], all of the prayer services were silent, so people could pray in the style most appropriate for them. We had a huge range of religiosity from people completely a-religious and Jewishly uneducated, to people who were Orthodox and had learned in yeshivot for years. I think it was easier to have unstructured prayer time than to try and conduct a service to make everyone happy, and that kept us in our silence, which was particularly nice after a night of silence and 30-45 minutes of seated meditation. During prayer time, some people prayed, some went to get cups of coffee, and others did yoga or meditated.

8:00  a.m.  Breakfast (silent)

9:15 a.m.  Sit & Instruction: The instruction was basically Vipassana (insight) meditation 101, where the instructors explained the basics of meditation. The first day they gave instructions on posture and using the breath as an anchor. Other days they talked about using alternate anchors (like sounds or sensations), how to handle emotions that came up during meditation, etc. We also had instruction on topics like the five hindrances to meditation, which will certainly come up in most people's meditation, and some of the antidotes to those hindrances. We covered the traditional Buddhist lovingkindness (metta) meditation; I didn't love the way the teachers taught that one, but since I was already familiar with it, I just practiced the form I'm more comfortable with.

When I went to Tara Brach's talk and guided meditation class the other night, I loved that she led us in a body scan and relaxation exercise before we started to meditate. It really provides a nice transition from "up and active, engaging with the world," to "on my cushion now, settle down." I need to start incorporating this in my home practice, and if I had experienced it before the retreat, I would've let the leaders know on my evaluation form that this would've been awesome.

9:45 a.m. Walk: this was walking meditation performed in the room we were using. It's just another form of mindfulness where instead of using breath or something else as an anchor, you are very focused on your feet hitting the floor. After 45 minutes on my butt on a cushion, I was always very eager to walk. I really zoned out and got into this, and I could see why Thich Nhat Hanh encourages this so enthusiastically (there are videos on You Tube of Hanh and others teaching this). I have tried to make one of my daily dog walks one where I practice walking meditation.

10:00    Sit

10:45    Yoga: The daily asana practice was so amazing it's getting it's own post later.

11:45    Sit + Group Interview: For more details on what transpires in group interviews, please see my earlier post.

12:30    Eating Instructions: This was only on the first day of retreat, but it was instruction in mindful eating. The teachers passed around a bowl of different foods, including different types of nuts, raisins, and granola. The guy with major food allergies practiced this with an apple. We were instructed to first smell the food; touch it to the lips; put it in our mouths and slowly move it around, seeing how it tastes and feels in different regions of our mouth. It was really enlightening for me to see how mindless my impulse to swallow is: the teacher said, "notice the impulse to swallow," after I had already swallowed my raisin. Oops! After mindful, deliberate chewing and experiencing all these bites of food had to offer, we were instructed to swallow in our own time.

I had heard of this "raisin meditation," and after hearing a friend's jeering review of it, I was skeptical. However, I liked it and found it put me in the right head space to both of my daily silent meals in mindfulness. After all, that was the point: not just not talking for the sake of not talking.

12:45    Lunch (silent)

After leaving dining hall, continue silence or enter speech.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Retreat Logistics

Most of my friends haven't been on meditation retreat, so I'm getting a lot of questions about logistics that I wanted to address.  I attended Pardes' "Awakening to the Divine" retreat. They first hosted this in 2011 for college students. The 2012 one was broadened to include "young adults," but apparently the scale has shifted: the retreatants this year were between 20-40. There were 21 women and five men.

Location: I was retreating at Pearlstone Retreat Center in Reisterstown, Md., outside of Baltimore. This is a really lovely, hilly, wooded property with lots of places to duck away and take walks. There is a central housing unit that has has single, double and six-bed dormitory style rooms. All of the activities took place in the central lodge, or outside. Kayam, an educational farm, is connected to this facility, so every day I tried to spend some time hanging out with the goats and chickens.

Food: Luckily for me, Pearlstone has a strictly kosher kitchen under the supervision of the Star-K supervising agency of Baltimore. They are so strict that they don't allow in any outside water bottles into the lodge building. Small amounts of food can be kept and consumed in your bedroom. I was a basket case about this part of the retreat: I follow a strict food plan that eliminates gluten and sugar, and requires that I separately weigh everything that I put in my mouth. That means foods like casseroles don't work so well for me. Most of the time, I handle this by bringing my own food, but Pearlstone's strict kosher standards meant I couldn't do that.

I had to contact the dining coordinator and tell him all about my restrictions. I called, emailed, and even sent him a copy of my food plan. He assured me everything would be ok, but didn't actually provide answers to specific questions I asked, like, "When you serve pasta with cheese at lunch, what protein could I get at that meal?" Ultimately, I had to just jump in and know that I did my best to get my dietary needs met, and that I would have to turn the results over to God. I knew I wouldn't eat compulsively, which is the reason I am so guarded with my food in the first place. To my delight, everything worked out beautifully and deliciously! They had separate foods for me that I could weigh at any meal like chickpeas, tofu, hard boiled eggs and plain tuna fish. We had three scheduled meals a day. Every night I eat one protein and one fruit serving as a snack, so I always grabbed a hard boiled egg and fruit for later before I exited the dining hall after dinner.

Every meal had a large garden salad and fresh fruit. They even got us gluten-free and sugar-free challah for shabbat [our Sabbath observance]. Typical entrees included hearty bean soups, stir-frys or acorn squashes stuffed with quinoa and tofu. We had fish twice. No meal except Shabbat dinner had meat, and when there was meat or fish there were always vegetarian entrees. They made delicious veggie side dishes like eggplant salads and ratatouille, and one lunch was falaffel, homemade hummus (to die for!) and Israeli salad.

Everyone was surprised at how awesome the food was. Pearlstone puts a lot of emphasis on fresh, healthy meals. They try to use seasonal produce when available. Furthermore, there is always hot coffee, a tea station, and a basket of fresh fruit in the lobby. I loved that the dining hall is green: they provide compostable to-go containers if you request them, but otherwise we ate on real dishes.

Accommodations: I was expecting to share a room with one other woman. As it turns out, I had four other roommates. I have to say, I'm glad I didn't know that ahead of time; if I had, I probably wouldn't have gone, and thus would've cheated myself out of an awesome experience. When I realized I had four other roommates, I initially freaked out: I'm 35 and used to doing things my way, turning out the lights when I want to, etc. I took a deep breath and realized that this would be a good opportunity to stretch my comfort zone and prove I can be flexible when circumstances require it. It turns out my roommates were really cool, nice women; if anything, I inconvenienced them more than they bothered me, because I was usually last to sleep and first to wake up.

Sharing a bathroom was probably the hardest part of the accommodations. There were 9 women sharing one primary bathroom; you could duck into others on the floor if they were empty, but each small bathroom -- containing one sink, toilet, and shower -- was basically shared between one or two rooms. I have big issues around bathroom cleanliness to begin with; if nothing else in my house is clean, the toilet is. People were slovenly in the bathroom, leading me to tape a little note to the mirror kindly asking people to clean up after themselves to make the experience of sharing a bathroom as pleasant as possible. That made an immediate difference.

This is going to sound ridiculous, but I was inordinately proud of myself for handling the shared space issue so well. Before I left for the retreat, someone told me, "I'm very set in my ways; I wouldn't be willing to share a room." I decided I didn't want to be that way, personally. I didn't like sharing a room, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it if I wanted to. That said, if I go to another retreat at Pearlstone, which I hope to do, I would spring for a private room if I had an option to do so. It would be much easier to maintain silence in solitude at night. Having my own room would be essential for my Sabbath observance in a group setting, but on the Pardes retreat, everyone agreed to be Shabbat-observant in public spaces and in dwelling quarters.

In forthcoming posts, I am going to write more about how we spent our time on retreat.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On Honesty, Openness, and Vulnerability

I just came back from a six day meditation and spirituality retreat. We were silent from 9 p.m.-1 p.m. daily, and during the afternoon we had religious study related to mindfulness and transformation, and were able to engage in mindful speech if we chose to. We had a lot of opportunities to share our personal experiences with the whole group, and I took advantage of that.

If you look at my blog from 2011, you'll see that I have virtually no posts. It was hands-down the worst year of my life. Here's the summary: February, massive pain flare leading to huge setback in physical ability; April, my husband gets very sick with mystery illness I; May, lose my 59 year-old father to cancer; June, lose my nine week old baby to God-knows-what; August, my husband gets terrifyingly sick with mystery illness II; October, major depressive episode; December, husband needs emergency surgery. The whole year, since May, was set against a backdrop of the after-effects of my father's poor estate planning, which left me with a lot of emotional pain, anger and resentment. I was so raw, I didn't want to write about anything going on, and I didn't feel able to write about anything else. I also really struggled with the idea of how open to be on this blog. My readership on my blogs has always been highest when I'm raw, transparent and vulnerable. That's a scary place to be among loved ones, or just yourself, let alone on the void of the Internet where the crazies loom.

Anyway, I decided if I was going to get anything out of the retreat, I had to be honest about where I was. The group of people I retreated with made a really safe space to do that in, but even before I knew them, I took the leap. For example, the first group interview on the second full day of the retreat was a little intense. The background is that six of us were in a circle, and each of us, in turn, had a personal conversation with the meditation instructor about our practice (we had individual interviews at other times) while the others just listened. Most of the other participants said things like, "I can't keep following my breath during seated meditation. What do I do?" or "I get really sleepy." Some delved a little deeper, touching on the general nature of their distractions. Finally, James gets to me and I pour out the following:

"I'm anxious. The focus of that anxiety during my meditation is how many needs I have, and how terrified I am of not having those needs met. I'm scared of there not being food here I can eat, I'm scared I won't be able to sleep with four other women in my room and how badly that will make my pain flare, I'm scared of there not being an available bathroom when I need one. I'm scared of having to wait 25 minutes for a shower! Worse, I hate that I have all these special needs, and I'm just so aware of how fucked up that makes me feel. I feel fundamentally broken, screwed up, weird and unlovable. And I hate it."

Tara Brach, a popular D.C.-based meditation teacher, talks a lot about the "trance of unworthiness" that people, particularly Westerners, feel. This was at the heart of what I was expressing to James in that group interview. I heard this come up in other guises at the retreat, and was shocked to learn that even seemingly perfect people, like Demi Moore, feel this way. In a February interview in Harper's Bazaar magazine, Moore described her greatest fear: "What scares me is that I'm ultimately going to find out at the end of my life that I'm not really loveable, that I'm not worthy of being loved. That there's something fundamentally wrong with me ..."

But back to me. James says in his lovely James-ian voice (now permanently etched in my head), "It's ok to have needs. The first thing I want you to do is acknowledge that you want things: you want to have food to eat. You want to sleep. You want to shower. That's ok. The second thing is, when you encounter this, I want you to say, 'not me.' It's not you. You may have needs and you may have anxieties, but they are not you." I'll have more to say about this in another post about Jan. 6, but in the meantime, I'll leave this with a comic illustration of this proposition.

I felt so odd after I spilled my deepest-held feelings about my trance of unworthiness in front of five strangers. After our interview, two retreatants who were there came up to me and thanked me for sharing so openly. They said it took guts and helped them. Emboldened by the votes of confidence, I started putting out really personal, embarrassing things during our afternoon group discussions if I thought it could help other people, or would otherwise be relevant to our discussion.

At the end of the retreat, when we were saying goodbye to each other, the feedback others' consistently gave to me was how thankful they were that I shared such intimate things. That it helped them immensely, and gave them hope that they could be resilient and make it through some pretty awful times. After about 15 people said that to me, it really reinforced for me that I am most myself when I am open and honest, especially on my blog. I don't do inauthentic well. It's not that I'd share everything (ok, I would share almost everything...), but I am going to just try and be myself and accept the consequences. I also take a lot of inspiration in this from Heather Armstrong, who was so open about her mental health problems, especially as they concerned her second pregnancy, and has taken a huge amount of crap from the true Internet crazies for it.

So, I hope that 2012 is a much more active year for this blog, and that I can be myself, make myself vulnerable, and hopefully enrich someone else's life because of it.