meditation retreats

Undoing exhaustion: Enjoy a meditation retreat

Some of us go to the beach or camping by a river or lake for our holidays.

Some of us stay home and read books.

The really exhausted ones, the spiritually exhausted ones, go on retreat.

That’s what I did between Christmas and new year.

It was billed as a yoga and meditation retreat.

On December 27, I loaded up with two unknown fellow retreaters and hitched a lift to Healesville, deep in a valley where prayer flags fluttered in the breeze, to a higgledy-piggledy arrangement of old wooden rooms that I suppose once constituted a mountain guesthouse. Buddha, in various statue forms, and a few of his followers have since moved in.

Each day began with a gong at what seemed to be some time around daybreak.

We did asanas (yoga poses) and pranayama (breathing exercises with meditation), yoga nidra (lying down yoga for feeling into the body), inquiry, some chanting and lots of eating – very healthy tucker.

And we could talk. And lie under vast mountain trees in waist-high grass and watch the clouds float by and the butterflies dance.

Fortunately renunciation was off the agenda.

The Buddhists served very nice coffee and cake on-site and outdoors overlooking the valley.

This wasn’t religion.

This was true spiritual experience.

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Over the six days we stretched our bodies to open the knots held there by habit and found new spaces inside ourselves.

And I met some very extraordinary people.

The daughter of a migrant, whose mother had fled Latvia after her brother and father were tortured to death, and who was carrying her mother’s grief.

A young man grieving the loss of his unborn Down Syndrome child.

A mining professional who had fled his native England in the wake of his marriage collapse and found himself alone and ill with no name to write as next of kin on his hospital entry forms.

A woman, freshly widowed.

An IT expert who, when two, had been left in her aunt’s care while her mother went to work and study in another country.

Her aunt left upon her mother’s return, leaving her confused about who her real mother was.

She had struggled to stay connected with people since.

A writer whose marriage had crumbled and who was trying to deal with his obsession with his new girlfriend.

A doctor who had worked with indigenous communities.

A trauma expert working with boat people.

The expert said boat people had nothing yet came to their appointments bearing biscuits made in the microwave with milk powder and whatever they could scratch up in the detention centre.

There was the yoga teacher who had danced until her ligaments were ruined, the former ministerial media adviser, the newly married (for the second time) mining lawyer and his wife who said they were pathetically joyful, the hoola hoop dancer who doubled as a telemarketing trainer in her working life. (I almost swore I’d never be rude to a telemarketer again after I met her.)

What grace and wonder we found in each other when spared the time to discover.

And come New Year’s Eve and the final night of the retreat we sat under the stars with nothing but the mountain air, two guitars, some hoola hoops and space and night to fill our souls.

It was a most glorious evening.

One of the best new year beginnings yet.

And this is what I learnt.

The answer to exhaustion is whole-heartedness.

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At Vermont meditation center, there is no ‘me’

Channing Gray, Providence Journal: I arrive early that first overcast day, so I can pitch my tent before dark. Then it’s off to a quick orientation session the night before the start of a weeklong meditation retreat.

I have come to Karmê Chöling, a 700-acre Buddhist meditation center in northern Vermont, about 10 miles south of St. Johnsbury. Many of the 50 or so retreat participants (two are from Amsterdam, one is from Italy) are here for a month, but time and money have held me to seven days, just enough for some serious letting go, I hope.

There are few diversions here at Karmê Chöling. The library has DVDs, but we are discouraged from checking them out. This is a time for contemplation and study. Computers are scarce, and restricted to the dining room. My cell phone is useless in this remote spot.

Days begin at 7 a.m. with morning chants and the taking of precepts, or vows not to take life, lie, steal, engage in sex or take drugs and alcohol for that day. Long stretches of meditation fill our days, which end around 8:30 at night with more chanting.

Most of our time is spent on red-and-yellow meditation cushions in a spacious shrine room with sparkling lights dotting a deep blue ceiling. Even meals are taken sitting on cushions in the shrine room, in the highly ritualized practice known as oryoki, or “just enough,” from the Zen monastic tradition. We eat in silence, engaging in an array of elegant bows and hand gestures to indicate thanks or more food. At night, people sleep on the shrine room floor, on foam mattresses stored in a loft, although rooms are available. Tenting at Karmê Chöling is popular in the summer, but now in that first week of November I am the only one braving the elements.

I am tired that first full day of sitting. The excitement of being here and wind rustling my tent made for fitful sleep. But during a walk before breakfast, snowflakes melting on my nose wake me up to the stillness of the woods and a small river rushing in the distance.

The idea is to pay attention to what I am doing, to be mindful no matter what I’m up to. If suddenly in my head I am whisked back to the newspaper, I become aware of that and return to the shuffle of my feet on the dirt lane and the sight of clouds enveloping the hilltops.

The whole week, in fact, is an exercise in mindfulness. In formal meditation, we follow the breath and try to stay present. When thoughts arise, we notice them, say “thinking” to ourselves and return to the breath. And we don’t judge or analyze thoughts. Even the most pious insights are just “thinking.”

I make a game of this, of just trying to stay in the room, and not get swept up in fantasy. As I breathe in, I am aware of my posture, erect but relaxed. As I breathe out, I dissolve into space. I watch sunlight dance on the shrine room floor, take in the colors of the cushions, then find myself worrying about work and have to return to the room. As I continue this process, thoughts begin to lose their sense of concreteness.

I am relaxed, yet alert, and feel that I am making progress, until I meet with my meditation instructor, Allan Novick, a retired psychologist who spent his life in the New York City schools. I tell Novick that my mind seems stable, and that I am experiencing an “acceptable” amount of discursive thought, to which he replies that all thoughts are acceptable. He reminds me of a line from the morning chants: “Whatever arises is fresh, the essence of realization.”

But I want to do a good job, I say. I want progress and I want it now, I tell Novick. “Patience,” is his advice. And drop any opinions about whether my meditation is going well or not.

Later, I see a quote from the late Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan meditation master who founded Karmê Chöling 40 years ago, tacked to a corkboard. It seems to sum up what Novick is saying. The trick, said Trungpa, is to “develop complete acceptance and openness to all situations and emotions and to all people, experiencing everything totally without mental reservations and blockages so that one never withdraws or centralizes into oneself.”

The goal of meditation, if there is one, is to see how the mind works and to accept that. It is not to become blissed out, but as Novick says to “see the truth.” In fact, getting high from sitting is just another addiction, just another trap. But the Karmê Chöling staff makes sure we don’t get too blissful. Just when you think you’re making headway, someone taps you on the shoulder and reminds you you’ve got kitchen duty, or that it’s time for stretching exercises or a talk, all chances to take what we’ve learned on the cushion and apply it to everyday tasks. It’s a chance to look at your mind even when you’re scrubbing pots.

Nowhere was that more evident than during the third day, when we observe total silence. We have been bound to “functional” silence so far, but now we are asked not to speak at all, leaving us only to listen to our thoughts rattling around in our heads. “Noble Silence,” as the practice is called, is like holding a mirror to yourself, watching as you react to people you don’t even know and can’t feel out with polite chitchat. I have only my empty projections and opinions to deal with, from which I learn just how judgmental, how emotionally closed-down I can be.

After a couple of days of drizzle and intermittent snow showers, the skies clear and I wake to a glistening skin of frost on the inside of my tent. I trudge down the wooded path to the main building and get ready for another day on the cushion. I realize that what is supposed to be a relaxing retreat is actually hard work.

By afternoon, my mind has slowed to a crawl. Now there are just stretches where there is nothing but the breath, no mental chatter, just naked awareness. It is at this point that adept meditators see that our interior lives are nothing more than momentary bursts of consciousness that arise uninvited and melt away just as mysteriously. They see that there is nothing behind this stream of thought, no I, no me, no mine. The notion of an inherent self is considered by Buddhists to be just an illusion that results from our strong attachment to the mind-body process.

But what about that “truth” we are all seeking? Even that must go, said retreat director John Rockwell, one of the senior teachers in the Shambhala Buddhist community. Let go of the truth, he said, or “you’ll kill it.”

On the evening of the final day, we gather in the dining room for a festive Western-style meal of salmon, rice and salad. There are toasts and songs, and bottles of wine. We are told that morning that anyone planning to drink should not take the fifth precept, which deals with abstaining from alcohol. So few people took that precept, the room was nearly silent.

After the shindig, I trudge up the hill in the rain for my final night in my tent. I am exhausted as I slip into my sleeping bag, as I prepare for reentry into the world, when I trade clarity for the path of confusion. I pray that I not forget what I’ve learned.

Karmê Chöling, which holds regular retreats and programs, is in Barnet, Vt., or visit

The cost for a weeklong retreat is $440 to sleep on the shrine room floor, and more for a private or semi-private room. Although many people in the retreat are Buddhists, you don’t have to be one to attend.

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Explaining why meditators may live longer

The image of the ancient but youthful-looking sage meditating on a mountaintop might be closer to reality than you think, according to a new study that found that after a three-month stay at a meditation retreat, people showed higher levels of an enzyme associated with longevity.

The study is preliminary and didn’t show that meditation actually extends life, but the findings suggest a possible means by which it could.

Researchers led by Tonya Jacobs of the University of California-Davis compared 30 participants at a meditation retreat held at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado with matched controls on a waiting list for the retreat. Participants meditated six hours per day for three months. Their meditation centered on mindfulness — for instance, focusing solely on breathing, in the moment — and on lovingkindness and enhancing compassion towards others.

After the three-month intervention, researchers found that the meditators had on average about 30% more activity of the enzyme telomerase than the controls did. Telomerase is responsible for repairing telomeres, the structures located on the ends chromosomes, which, like the plastic aglets at the tips of shoelaces, prevent the chromosome from…

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unraveling. Each time a cell reproduces, its telomeres become shorter and less effective at protecting the chromosome — this, researchers believe, is a cause of aging. As the chromosome becomes more and more vulnerable, cell copying becomes sloppier and eventually stops when the telomeres disintegrate completely. Telomerase can mitigate — and possibly stop — cell aging.

“Something about being on a retreat for three months changed the [amount of] telomerase in the retreat group,” says Elizabeth Blackburn, a study author who has won a Nobel Prize for her previous work on telomerase. “We didn’t prove that it was meditation [that caused the change]. A lot of things happened during the retreat. But the interesting thing was that the changes we saw tracked quantifiably with the change in people’s psychological well-being and outlook.”

In other words, people with higher levels of telomerase also showed more increases in psychological improvement. In retreat participants who showed no psychological change, telomerase levels were not any higher than in controls. (Researchers were unable to compare telomerase levels in the groups both before and after the retreat for logistical reasons.)

“It’s a very good study with interesting results in terms of health implications,” says Alan Marlatt, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington who has studied meditation for decades but was not associated with this research.

Of course, the relationship between health and telomerase is complex. In a recent study in mice by Harvard researchers, they found that boosting levels of telomerase reversed signs of aging, restoring graying fur and fertility, increasing brain size and sharpening scent perception. Too much telomerase activity can also be a problem, however. A cell that reproduces endlessly sounds like a good thing at first — that cell would be immortal. But this is exactly what happens with cancer cells — infinite replication. “If telomerase levels go too far up, that’s [associated with] cancer,” says Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the University of California-Davis Center for Mind and Brain and a co-author of the new paper. He notes, however, that the difference is one that is orders of magnitude higher—so that meditation could not possibly cause cancer.

So how does meditation affect the machinery of cellular reproduction? Probably by reducing stress, research suggests. Severe psychological stress — particularly early in life and in the absence of social support — has been linked with poorer health, increasing risk for heart disease, stroke and some cancers. This is likely due to the negative effects of high levels of stress hormones on the brain and body. By reducing stress hormones, perhaps meditation contributes to healthier telomeres.

In a study published a few years ago in Lancet Oncology, researchers compared 30 men before and after adopting lifestyle changes following a diagnosis of low-risk prostate cancer. The patients started meditating, switched to a healthy plant-based diet, exercised and attended a support group. Like the new study, the Lancet Oncology paper found increases in telomerase linked with reduced psychological distress.

“The mind has a big influence on the body. If you get anxious, your heart beats faster and your stomach churns,” says Blackburn. “But we don’t know yet [if meditation is linked to] a reduction in stress hormones. The physiology is very complex.”

Recent evidence supports a connection: a study published this month in the Archives of General Psychiatry showed that mindfulness meditation can reduce relapse in patients who recovered from depression just as well as antidepressants.

Of course, the increases in telomerase seen in the current study could be due to some other unknown factor that separates the meditators from the controls. That’s another reason why it’s too early to suggest that stress-reducing mind-body interventions like meditation be prescribed as a treatment for any diseases or disorders. The study also did not show that meditation actually extends life, only that it may increase the activity of an enzyme that is associated with longevity.

Still, research on meditation is expanding dramatically, with studies finding it helpful for pain, depression, addiction and many other conditions. “There’s a very exciting dialogue going on,” Marlatt says of the research. “It works for many different kinds of clinical problems. It’s very promising.”

That noise you hear in the background? Millions of new meditators chanting, “Om.”

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Mumbai: Terror, horror, forgiveness

wildmind meditation news

Natasha Korecki, Chicago Sun-Times: In June 2008, Alan Scherr traveled from the United States to Mumbai in search of a place where his meditation group could hold its fall spiritual retreat.

One month later, David Headley, of the North Side, also traveled to Mumbai — but he was in search of the best place to kill as many people as possible.

Both men picked the Oberoi Hotel.

“They couldn’t have been there for more different reasons,” Alan Scherr’s wife, Kia, says now.

It was in the pristine, five-star setting of the Oberoi where Alan Scherr and his 13-year-old daughter, Naomi, were eating dinner the night of Nov. 26, 2008, when terrorists stormed in and began rapidly shooting anyone in their sights.

The father and daughter were slain in a massacre that rained down on Mumbai in a series of coordinated attacks that eventually killed some 170 people, injured hundreds more and branded that date — 11/26 — as infamous in the city as Sept. 11, 2001, is the U.S.

Headley, whose birth name was Daood Gilani, has admitted that he traveled to Mumbai on multiple scouting missions and relayed information to a Pakistani terror group about the Oberoi, the Taj Mahal hotel and other prospective sites as targets. He has pleaded guilty in a deal that allows him to avoid the death penalty. Now in prison, he is expected to be a critical witness in a federal trial in Chicago early next year in which another Chicago man, Tahawwur Rana, is charged in an alleged conspiracy to aid Headley’s efforts in planning the attacks. Rana denies involvement.

Alan and Naomi Scherr were among the six Americans killed in the attacks and are named as victims in Headley’s plea agreement.

Kia Scherr, of Virginia, was in the U.S. when her daughter and husband lost their lives.

Now, for the first time, she’s traveled to the very place they were killed. She plans to be at the Oberoi for the two-year anniversary of the killings, which is Friday.

But she brings with her a message that continues to stun people:

She’s forgiven the terrorists.

“My life ended in that moment. Life as I knew it ended,” says Scherr. “Everything ended. It’s like dying while I’m still alive.”

Scherr, who earlier this month met President Obama in Mumbai, helped form the not-for-profit group One Life Alliance, which advocates peace and forgiveness. On Friday, about 1,000 people will meet at the hotel to memorialize those who lost their lives in the massacre.

Scherr condemns the attackers but said harboring hatred toward them would not allow her to heal.

“Forgiveness has nothing to do with terrorists. It has to do with me,” says Scherr. “If I hold on to anger, revenge, hatred — I’m basically choosing their experience. That’s like taking poison and hoping your enemy dies.”

But Scherr as well as survivors of the attacks say they don’t want people to forget the absolute horror of the attacks.

• •

It was after 9 p.m. on Nov. 26 when the doorbell rang at a hotel room at another five-star hotel, the Taj Mahal. Inside, retired Cook County Judge Benjamin Mackoff and his wife, Carol, were trying not to make a sound.

Mackoff, a prosecutor for seven years, was in his room packing to go home the next day, Thanksgiving, when he heard the rapid gunfire.

He knew what was happening.

The couple, who had already blockaded the door and muffled the room phone with pillows, sat motionless until the door buzzing ceased.

In other parts of the hotel, terrorists pried open guestroom doors and threw in grenades.

At one point, Mackoff peered through the peephole. He caught a glimpse of one of the terrorists pacing outside, talking to his handler on his cell phone — a conversation caught by Indian intelligence.

In all, Mackoff and his wife were holed up in their room for 42 hours, all the while they listened to gunfire and even screams.

Earlier that night, the Mackoffs dined with friends from Australia whom they had traveled with through India for three weeks. The couples left the open lobby at the hotel for their rooms about 9 p.m.

Minutes later, armed men stormed in and shot up the lobby.

The Australian couple was inside their hotel room where smoke from a fire that was set above their floor began to pour in.

They stepped into the hallway for air — and were shot.

The husband fell first; his wife’s body then dropped on top of his, Mackoff said. But she was able to get up and make it to a stairway and eventually to safety. Her husband, whom Mackoff described as a “dear friend,” perished.

Mackoff has a different take than Scherr on the tragedy and the 10 terrorists involved (nine of whom were killed by authorities during the attack). The only one who was captured alive was prosecuted in India and sentenced to death.

“I don’t forgive the terrorists. But I don’t hold them solely responsible. I think they were used,” Mackoff said. “But they had to know they were killing people.”

Like Scherr, he’ll probably return one day to Mumbai, he says. Not to hold a memorial, but to continue pursuing his love of traveling and photographing the world.

“We’re not going to let those bastards . . . ” Mackoff says, his face becoming flush as he pauses to collect himself, ” . . . tell us where we can go.”

• •

Back at the Oberoi, smoke filled hotel rooms so that those inside could barely see.

Charles Cannon, who headed the spiritual group the Scherrs were traveling with, was holed up in his hotel room as instructed, listening to terrorists battle police.

“We could hear these explosions; volleys of gunfire that just rippled through the whole place,” Cannon said. “When we came out of that hotel [room], it was unrecognizable.

“It was a bombed-out war zone.”

Cannon was asked to identify Alan and Naomi Scherr, a task Cannon described as one of the toughest of his life.

“I had to go into that restaurant, stepping over all these bodies and pools of blood and debris,” Cannon said. “And there were the [Scherrs’] bodies. There they were.”

• •

Headley is accused of funneling intelligence to Lashkar e Taiba, a Pakistani-based terror group that wanted to make a worldwide splash with the siege.

The Chicago case, and Headley’s cooperation, has gained worldwide attention. In recent weeks, controversy has surfaced in India after U.S. authorities admitted they had some intelligence on Headley prior to the attacks.

“I would think he is more culpable than the 10 [terrorists] that landed,” Mackoff says of Headley, who will evade the death penalty in exchange for his cooperation. “But I understand there is need for evidence and he may be the only one who has it.”

Not surprisingly, the event “is something I think that has shaped our lives,” Mackoff said. But, he declares, “It has made us stronger.”

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Hospital to become a meditation centre

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The Whitwell House Day Hospital in Saxon Road, Saxmundham [Suffolk, England], used to look after mental health patients but closed last year.

Planning chiefs at Suffolk Coastal District Council have now given the thumbs up for the building to be used as a silent meditation retreat centre subject to a number of conditions.

It will be run by the Vipassana Trust, a charity which was formed in 1988 and has its headquarters in Hereford.

Most of the the residential courses on offer will be no more than three days long, although some could eventually last for up to 10 days.

Last night Patrick Elder, from Walpole, near Halesworth, who acted as an agent for the application and practices the meditation technique, said: “Vipassana is based on the techniques taught by the Buddha more than 2,500 years ago. It is not in any way religious – it is open to everyone.

“The courses are quiet retreats and the participants will enjoy silence for the majority of their stay.

“It will certainly bring people into the town and we are excited about the project.

“There is a bit of work that we still have to do but we would be disappointed if we were not up and running before the end of the year.”

Some concerns were raised about the lack of car parking, the risk of flooding and the poor access for disabled people but these have been addressed by the applicant.

The charity is run through donations and there are no charges for any of the courses. “People may or may not give a donation,” Mr Elder continued. “It depends if they feel they have benefited from what they are doing. It is entirely up to them.

“It means the courses are available to absolutely anybody from whatever walk of life, religion, creed or nationality.”

Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient forms of meditation.

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101 Places Not To See Before You Die

An Overnight Stay at a Korean Temple

In theory, an overnight stay at a Korean temple sounds like the perfect activity for anyone struggling to escape the pressures of modern life. You’ll meditate, you’ll learn about Buddhism, you’ll go vegetarian. Concerns and cares will slip away as you drift into a blissful state of conscious awareness.

Unfortunately, that’s not what it’s like.

I signed up for one of these sleepovers through a program called Templestay. Created in 2002 by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism — the largest Buddhist order in Korea — the Templestay program aims to allow visitors to “sample ordained lifestyle and experience the mental training and cultural experience of Korea’s ancient Buddhist tradition.” In other words, it’s a chance to test-drive life as a monk.

The meditation center I visited, about two hours from Seoul on Ganghwa Island, seemed like the sort of place that could inspire calm. The grounds are nestled between rice paddies and a leafy forest, and the center’s brightly painted temple sits several stone steps up from a gentle brook and a small pond stocked with lotus flowers and koi.

When my friend and I arrived — several hours late, thanks to trouble reading the bus schedule — the Templestay coordinator introduced herself in fluent English and led us to the room where we’d be staying. It was empty except for sleeping pads, blankets, and small pillows stuffed with plastic beads. After we’d dropped off our bags, she handed us our clothes for the weekend: two identical extra-large sets of baggy gray pants and vests, along with sun hats and blue plastic slippers. We looked like we’d stepped out of a propaganda poster for Maoist China.

I’d assumed that most temple life involved sitting still and cultivating enlightenment, but instead our first activity was community work time. Clad in our Mao suits, we followed the coordinator to the garden, where eight other Templestay guests squatted between raised rows of dirt, piles of potatoes scattered around them. They gave us hostile glances as we approached — thanks to our late arrival, they’d been forced to harvest potatoes for three hours in eighty-degree heat. I couldn’t blame them for their animosity; if I’d been digging in the dirt while some assholes took the slow route to Ganghwa Island, I’d be pretty pissed off too. But such negativity seemed to go against the spirit of the retreat. I adjusted my sun hat and joined them in the field.

After we’d assumed our squatting positions, the coordinator explained that we were supposed to sort the potatoes into piles of small, medium, and large — and then left without demonstrating what the Buddhist definition of “small” was. After a half hour spent tossing any potato smaller than a golf ball into a nearby box, I looked up to find a monk standing above me, examining my work. I smiled. Expressionless, he picked up my box and emptied it onto the ground.

It was time for meditation.

Once we’d learned the correct way to arrange our shoes outside the temple door, the Templestay coordinator demonstrated how to prostrate according to the Korean Buddhist tradition: kneel down, touch your forehead to the floor, and rest your hands, palms upward, on the ground. Then do it all in reverse, like a movie playing backward. Repeat, ideally several hundred times.

To me, the main value of the prostration practice was as a quadriceps exercise, but any improvement in the shape of my thighs was mitigated by the pain it caused in my arthritic knees. I had plenty of time to reflect on this discomfort when we followed our prostrations with a meditation: sitting in silence for a half hour, a slight breeze blowing through the open doors at our back as if beckoning us to escape.

After a slow walking meditation through the temple grounds, a vegetarian dinner, calligraphy practice, and a discussion on meditation led by the temple’s head monk (I spent most of the time killing mosquitoes and then feeling guilty about the karmic implications), we were sent back to our rooms to get rest before our 3:30 a.m. wake-up call. Lying on the floor, still dressed in my Mao suit, I fidgeted till 1:30.

Two hours later, the sound of the mokt’ak — a wooden percussion instrument played every morning to start the temple’s day — jolted me awake. I pulled myself up from my floor mat and stumbled through the predawn darkness to the temple, where pink lotus lanterns illuminated a small group of people inside, creating the kind of picture you would send home to friends to make them feel jealous about the exotic experiences you had while on vacation.

There is a difference, however, between postcards and reality. For example, no one sends postcards at 3:30 in the morning. Nor do most people’s vacation plans involve getting out of bed in the middle of the night to sit for a half hour in silence with their eyes closed. I watched through cracked eyelids as the Templestay coordinator repeatedly jerked herself awake just before tipping over, like a commuter on an early-morning subway train. I was close to succumbing to the same fate myself when I noticed something that kept me awake: a gigantic beetle crawling on a lotus lantern hanging above my head. This beetle was easily the size of a large fig; having it fall on my head would have been the equivalent of being smacked by a mouse. I began to focus my attention entirely on the beetle, sending prayers into the ether for its secure footing.

My prayers worked — the beetle remained aloft, and we were eventually allowed to go back outside. After sneaking a cup of instant coffee with a Venezuelan couple, I pulled myself through another walking meditation and followed the other participants to the main room for a Buddhist meal ceremony. A highly choreographed process of place-setting, serving, and eating, it included a final inspection by a head monk to see if our bowls were clean. “You do not want to disappoint him,” said the coordinator. “Doing so would reflect poorly.”

She then walked us through what would take place during the meal ceremony, including a final cleansing: we were to take a piece of pickled radish and use it to swab our dishes. This caught the attention of a young Canadian woman.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said. “But how is wiping my bowl with a radish going to make it clean? What about germs?”

“We fill the bowls with very hot water,” said the coordinator, sidestepping the question. “So when you use the radish, the bowl is already very clean.”

“Is it, like, a hygienic radish?” asked the Canadian woman.

“Yes,” said the coordinator. “It is a hygienic radish.”

Things went downhill from there. Exhausted and cranky, one by one we began refusing to play monk. If one of the whole points of Buddhism was to cultivate acceptance, why, I asked, did we have to go through such an elaborate meal ceremony? The Venezuelan couple went a step further: they left.

Wishing that we had the same kind of courage, my friend and I instead counted down the hours until we returned to Seoul, and upon arrival treated ourselves to a bottle of wine. Several days later, the Templestay coordinator e-mailed the weekend’s participants and invited us to a workshop to perform three thousand prostrations to “inspire yourself into practice.” The idea sounded horrifying, but it reminded me how difficult it would be to live like a monk. Which, as the coordinator suggested, may have been the point.

Excerpted from 101 Places Not To See Before You Die by Catherine Price.

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Thich Nhat Hanh to visit Malaysia

Renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk and poet Thich Nhat Hanh, 84, leads retreats worldwide on the art of mindful living. He believes that we can learn to live in the present moment through “mindfulness”, rather than in the past and future. That is his key teaching.

“Dwelling in the present moment is the only way to truly develop peace, both in one’s self and in the world,” said Nhat Hanh, a Zen master and Nobel Peace Prize nominee.

Fondly called Thay (Vietnamese for teacher) by his students, Nhat Hanh, who’s also a peace and human rights activist, lives in exile in Plum Village which he founded in 1982 in southwestern France. In this Buddhist “meditation community”, he teaches, writes and works to help refugees worldwide.

He will be in Malaysia for the first time to conduct a Mindfulness Retreat: The Walk Of Peace And Joy at Tiara Beach Resort in Port Dickson, Negri Sembilan, from Sept 15 to19; a free public lecture entitled This Is A Happy Moment, from 8pm to 10pm at Phor Tay High School at Sungai Dua, Penang, on Sept 21; and a Mindfulness Retreat: Becoming Truly Alive at Tunku Abdul Rahman College, Setapak, Selangor, on Sept 24 ( Nhat Hanh will deliver his keynote address on Living In Harmony: When Things Fall Apart during the World Buddhist Conference at Hotel Istana, Kuala Lumpur, from Sept 25 to 26.

Born on Oct 11, 1926 in central Vietnam, he became a Zen monk at the age of 16 and was ordained in 1949. Nhat Hanh founded the “Engaged Buddhism” movement in which he practises meditation and dedicates his life to helping others. He coined the term in his book Vietnam: Lotus In A Sea Of Fire.

In the early 60s, he founded the School of Youth Social Service (SYSS), a relief organisation in Saigon that rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools and medical centres, resettled families left homeless in the Vietnam war and organised agricultural cooperatives. With some 10,000 student volunteers, SYSS based its work on the Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassionate action.

Despite government denunciation of his activity, Nhat Hanh also founded a Buddhist University, a publishing house and an influential peace activist magazine in Vietnam. He created the (non-Zen) Order of Interbeing in 1966, establishing monastic and practice centres around the world.

After visiting the United States and Europe on a peace mission, he was banned from returning to Vietnam in 1966.

His lifelong efforts to generate peace moved Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King Jr to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. Subsequently, Nhat Hanh led the Buddhist delegation to the Paris Peace Talks.

In September 2001, just a few days after the suicide terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, he addressed the issues of non-violence and forgiveness in a memorable speech at Riverside Church in New York City.

In September 2003, he addressed members of the US Congress, leading them through a two-day retreat. He is recognised for his works with Vietnam veterans, meditation retreats and his prolific writings on meditation, mindfulness and peace. Nhat Hanh has published more than 100 books including more than 40 in English. Among his best-selling works are Call Me By My True Names, Peace Is Every Step, Being Peace, Touching Peace, Living Buddha Living Christ, Teachings On Love, The Path Of Emancipation and Anger.

On long-term exile, he was permitted to make his first trip back to Vietnam in 2005, where he has returned regularly since. He continues to be active in the peace movement, promoting non-violent solutions to conflict.

[via The Star]
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Living the Dharma

As many of you know, I was away on a month-long meditation retreat during July. I have to say it was the most valuable thing I’ve done in years. It will take me a long time to digest and write about it, but here’s my first stab.

The retreat was at the Jikoji Zen Center ( in Los Gatos California. It’s about an hour south of San Francisco in the Santa Cruz Mountains, in the middle of acres and acres of nature conservation land ( My favorite spot, pictured, was along a west-facing ridge that overlooked vast tracts of mostly uninhabited mountains. The sunsets were gorgeous. Deer, wild turkey, and all kinds of wildlife roamed in plain sight. To say I fell in love with the place doesn’t go far enough. I know my feelings were influenced by my retreat experience, but I have to say the place inspired me down into my bones.

The memory that stays with me most is of the utterly exquisite silence. I blogged about silence a few months back, but this was of an entirely different magnitude. For an entire month, I was out of contact with the world. No phone, email, radio, etc. No contact with my husband (and he hated that!). All my roles and identities — wife, friend, coach, meditation teacher, etc. — all drop away. I was there as just plain old naked me. We were even asked not to keep track of the days, or the day of the week. We lived in three-day cycles called Buddha Day, Dharma Day, and Sangha Day. So we even dropped our connection with calendar time. In every way we could, we untethered ourselves from the manmade constructs of society and mind.

And of course there was no talking. I also went with the intention to be as fully present as I could for the entire month. I voluntarily refrained from reading or bringing any “projects” to fill up my mind. I didn’t do anything other than the retreat program, daily chores, self-care, and walks in the hills. For four weeks, I was completely with myself — immersed in the moment and flowing with each experience as it arose.

What happens when we do that is all our inner busyness dies down. And when we don’t fill our heads with “rubbish thinking” (as one teacher put it), something magical emerges. Here’s a little piece I wrote somewhere around the second week:

I feel as though my body is opening up and receiving the world. And filling with quiet awareness and spaciousness. Space not in the sense of a void, but an aliveness and sensitivity that fills every one of those spaces. With a real lightness of touch. It’s almost like my body is transparent. My body/awareness seems to extend outward infinitely in all directions. I’m particularly sensitive to sounds. Birds singing, forest sounds all pass right through me, leaving only their echoes and ripples as a sign of their passing. It’s like I’m not there, but I AM still there as awareness. There’s no boundary between me and everything beyond me. And I’m steeped in a groundedness – a feeling that all is right with the world.

The retreat brought home to me – again, I felt it deep in my bones — how alive and real the truth of the dharma is. I lived it for a month. When I let go of all the ways I throw my “self” up against the world, I see that I really am inseparable from that world. And to recognize this brings tremendous relief. The only thing that stands in the way is me. My own resistance, my compulsion to close down and isolate. The more I open up to these forces, the more they take me where I need to go. It’s not always where I WANT to go. But it’s where I NEED to go. I can put my trust in that. It was a real deepening and awakening experience.

Now don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t exactly floating in bliss for the entire four weeks. Like everyone else, I hit a few brick walls, too. Like excruciating physical pain and periods of complete and utter BOREDOM! But those, too, were gifts of the dharma. Lessons in letting go. But I’m going to leave that for another time and another post.

For now, let me leave it at this. We can read about the dharma, debate the ideas, and use it for personal development. But there’s SO much more to it than that. On this retreat, I felt it as a force of the universe — and a life-giving one at that. To ignore or resist it does nothing but create my own suffering. But if I open up to it, it leads me to places that my blinkered little ego hadn’t even imagined.

This quote came into my email a couple days ago, and I thought it was apt so I’ll close with it.

Many people are doing shamata meditation. This is a kind of resting meditation, also called “calm abiding.” This is good, but in Buddhist training you must go deeper than this. It is important to go deeper into emptiness—not nothingness, but into understanding emptiness as the nature of mind. This is where wisdom and compassion come from. And when you apply the method of this kind of meditation with nonjudgment, then lovingkindness and devotion and faith arise and work together to liberate one from suffering.

– Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

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Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

I made three resolutions for this year’s summer trip:

· be extra patient with my partner
· don’t drink wine every day
· meditate

By the end of week one however, wine bottles were chinking in campsite recycling bins, I’d shouted GET ON WITH IT several times and had only meditated once, on the first morning.

Something about good resolutions makes me do the exact opposite. I want to be a better person. But it’s as if my definition of ‘better’ doesn’t always win the rubber stamp of approval from some mysterious internal committee. And this committee has a habit of voting with its feet.

Earlier this year, for example, I booked onto a two-week meditation retreat where the norm would be to meditate 6-8 hours a day. I usually meditate for half an hour daily, so I decided in the weeks leading up to the retreat to ‘build up’ my practice a bit. In came the goal-setting: I would add an evening sit and extend the morning one to forty minutes.

I didn’t even do it once. In fact, in the run up to the retreat, I stopped meditating altogether.

Once on the retreat, I planned to eat mindfully. A golden opportunity. Others might be doing something similar and if they weren’t, no one would be able to say anything because we were all in silence!

The plan lasted until day three. Surrounded incessantly by mindful eaters, the deliberate way they cut up their food drove me mad. And the way they chewed! The way they put their knife and fork down between mouthfuls. GET ON WITH IT I wanted to shout. I had to go and sit next to some big blokes who shovelled their food down any old how.

My aims often fail in this way. Perhaps I don’t have enough self-discipline. Perhaps I should cultivate aims that are less off-the-peg. Perhaps my motivation is wrong – too self-focussed. Or maybe my goals are too ambitious and I need to break them down into small, achievable outcomes. All of that sounds plausible.

And yet, I don’t know. Robert Frost’s ‘Mending Wall’ comes to mind, in which the poet talks to his neighbour about mending their dividing wall. ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down. I could say ‘Elves’ to him/But it’s not elves exactly.’

Well, something there is that doesn’t love a goal either, I reckon. That wants it to fail. I could say ‘resistance’. But it’s not resistance exactly.

It’s probably closer to elves, and I’m interested in elves. I can’t shake off the feeling that they have friends on my internal committee and that those friends might be trying to tell me something.

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Meditation retreat brings balance

Annelie H. Pelaez, a nurse in Plainview, NY, writes about going on a meditation retreat in order to cope with the stresses of her work.

…At the end of my shift, I was exhausted. With blood spots on my uniform and waste stains on my shoes, I went home. That night I signed up for six-day meditation retreat for healthcare providers with Susan Taylor, PhD, which promised stress reduction through focused awareness.

I had seen the ad in Nursing Spectrum more than once. Although tempting, I thought six days was a bit long to be away from the “madding crowd.” But now I was feeling empty, worn out and longed for personal equanimity. I realized that I am my most important patient, and certainly deserving. I knew this retreat would not only make me a better healthcare provider, it also would serve as an intervention for self-preservation.

What attracted me was the promise of stress reduction, clarity of mind and learning to become more aware of my internal, emotional states. That sounded like a prescription for restoring balance when I am bombarded with sensory overload at work and think, “This is it! I cannot spend another day working as a nurse.”

Breathing and attention are the key principles to focused awareness. I learned that, when the breathing is calm and peaceful, the mind and body become calm and peaceful, too. Delivering more oxygen to the cells has a profound effect on the autonomic nervous system. Besides the therapeutic feeling of serenity, it also infuses vital energy. As nurses, we know that, but remembering and putting it into practice when we feel the pressure mounting is another story.

Now, when I have an intense, stressful moment at work caused by unstable patients, busy assignments or demanding family members, I can take two minutes out, establish calm diaphragmatic breathing, focus on my breath, and bring my awareness into the here and now. This reminds me that I am not the chaos around me, and I am not the demanding thoughts that bombard me. I am me, fine enough doing the best that I can, one thing at a time. This brings a sense of peace and stability most of the time.

Common Goals
Another great pleasure of the retreat was having the opportunity to spend time in a group, learning, exploring and seeking common goals. Everyone was there to learn techniques to improve their practice and patients’ conditions, but it also became a road to self-healing and empowerment. “Be true to yourself, know who you are, then commit to a lifestyle that supports your inner balance and well-being.” That was the message I received.

We cannot experience peace and joy trying to make the world what we think it should be, but rather by experiencing life as it already is. Remembering this at work and in daily life provides me with yet another great tool to relieve stress. Although the daily demands of nursing have not changed, my response to them has.

Sometimes we get so involved with mundane daily activities that we forget who we really are. This retreat was a chance to reconnect to my true being. We strive to serve our patients at an optimal level. Yet, since we cannot give what we don’t have, serving ourselves must come first.

Annelie H. Pelaez, RN, works in the ICU at North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System in Plainview, N.Y.

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