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6:30-7:30 am: Early meditation session.

We did 20 minutes of silent sitting meditation, then 20 minutes of walking meditation, then 20 minutes of silent sitting meditation.

Yesterday’s meditation sessions were quite “easy” for me – i.e., I had a sense of lightness, focus, and ease that I really haven’t ever experienced before in meditation – not even during last year’s 10-day experience.  But today’s meditation was full of thoughts and distractions once again – UNTIL I switched from breath meditation to choiceless awareness.  Then, I saw everything as the practice, instead of as a “distraction”.  There are no distractions; there is just the present.  This is a tremendous shift for me!  I’ve heard this before (literally tens if not hundreds of times) – but now I have experienced it; which makes all the difference.

7:30-8:30 am: Breakfast.

8:30-8:45 am: Quick guided meditation/settling in.

8:45-10:15 am: Re-integration, Question & Answer time, open sharing.

During our last 90 minutes of retreat, people basically shared whatever was still on their mind, asked any final questions they hoped to get addressed, and did what they needed to do to process that this very special time was coming to a close.  Here are the nuggets I extracted from the larger dialogue:

  • “You want to take care of the future?  Take care of the present – because the future rolls right out of the present.”  Another way of thinking about this: If I take care of the present, the future will take care of itself.
  • “Redirection *is* the practice.”  (Redirection from being mindless and lost, to being present in the moment.)
  • Let things happen; don’t force/push/strive for anything.
  • When in doubt, drop this question into meditation: “What’s called for now?”  Then, just like we did on Day 1, set the first answer aside, wait a minute, and ask the question again.  Then set that second answer aside, wait another minute, and ask the question still again. And see what comes up on answer #3.  Sometimes, “silence” is exactly what is called for; and while this may seem like “no action” to some people, it’s actually a profound act.  It’s *much* more difficult to be still and silent than it is to ramble and fill space; and yet sometimes, silence is the best gift one person can give another.
  • “Usually if there’s two, there’s ten.”  In other words, the world isn’t usually one-or-the-other, yes-or-no, black-or-white, good-or-bad, insert-your-favorite-duality-here.  Ambiguity, variations, “shades of gray” abound in life.
  • Desire versus longing: Desire is a craving for things we don’t have; longing is a craving for things we do have, or have experienced at some point.
  • Tiny things add up!  Even a few minutes of meditation every day can have a profound effect.  (Just look at snowflakes.  They are so tiny, so fragile, so easy to melt.  But when they come together and add up, just look at what power they can have.)
  • “Close the eyes – touch the breath – touch the silence.”
  • “Start the day instead of letting the day start you.”
  • Instead of looking, let the eyes receive sight just as it is.  Instead of feeling, let the body receive sensations just as they are.  Instead of thinking, let the mind receive reality just as it is.  Stop striving, start receiving.  Just receive.

In our final moments together, we went around the circle one last time, and each individual shared their parting intention.  Mine was “To play with choiceless awareness instead of working with it; to engage in my practice non-judgmentally; to hold it all lightly.”

And with that, we shared hugs, packed our cars, and drove away.

Click here to go to the postlogue.

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As today was a day of silence, I didn’t have the opportunity to take many notes; so my reflections regarding this day will likely be brief.  But, let’s see what unfolds.  :)

4:15-4:30 am: Time to wake up.

Waking this early is my own personal preference; rising at this early hour was not required by the retreat program.

4:30-5 am: Solo yoga.

Again, engaging in yoga at this early hour is my own personal preference; for me, it starts my day in a very positive way.

5-6 am: Shower, grooming, get dressed.

6-6:30 am: Walk.

Once again, walking at this time in the morning is my choice, not a requirement of the retreat.  I appreciate walking in the darkness and stillness of this early hour, when the stars are still out, and life is still calm.

6:30-7:30 am: Early meditation session.

We did 25 minutes of silent sitting meditation, then 15 minutes of walking meditation, then 20 minutes of silent sitting meditation.

I chose to do this morning’s walking meditation session inside, bare-footed.  The feeling of my toes and heels on the ground was deeply comforting; and the sound of my feet brushing against the carpet was fantastic.

I find that when I do walking meditation, my body tells me instantly when I’ve stopped being mindful.  When I mentally drift, I physically falter.  (And while I see this so clearly in meditation, it is likely true for the rest of my life as well.)

Just before the breakfast bell, we were reminded us that this period of silence is not intended to be punitive; but instead, is a wonderful opportunity for us to get to know ourselves better.  We were also cautioned against being too pious, serious, or even deadened – life *is* happening, right now; and it’s wonderful to enjoy it.

7:30-8:30 am: Breakfast.

It was so peaceful for me to dine in silence with others, especially where the expectation is silence.  I can just sit back, fully relax, and just be.  Not have to do anything, but just be.  What a gift.

8:30-9 am: Silent seated meditation.

During this session I felt my body breathing itself.  “I” wasn’t forcing the breath, “I” wasn’t consciously inhaling, or exhaling, or trying to make the breath deeper or slower; “I” was just observing the process that my body was doing all on its own, with zero influence from “me”.  It was quite amazing.

9-9:30 am: Guided visual meditation.

We all went outside, and chose an area of garden to look at.  We first focused our vision on a patch of space the size of a quarter, and settled there for a few minutes.  We then broadened our view to include a patch of space the size of a flashlight beam.  After a few minutes, we increased the visual area to the size of a floodlight.  Finally, we walked to a high hill, and viewed the entire panorama.

I am not used to meditating with my eyes open, so to practice in this way was simultaneously challenging-yet-interesting.  But if I want to engage in mindfulness more than the amount of time I spend sitting on my cushion each morning (and I do), visual meditation is a good practice to cultivate.

9:30-10 am: Guided seated meditation.

Once back inside, we were led through the seated version of “mountain” meditation.  During this session in particular, a frequently-used phrase from last year’s retreat experience sprung into my mind: “strong determination”.  And while last year’s retreat was incredibly difficult, it really did “set me up for success” in my continuing meditation practice and experiences; and for that, I am deeply grateful.

10-10:15 am: Break.

10:15-11:30 am: Guided mindful yoga.

Today’s yoga session was truly blissful to me.  My mind was so settled, and so peaceful, that I could connect with my body in a deep, helpful way.  During these 75 minutes, I got to experience just how far I have come in my personal yoga practice: how much stronger and more flexible I am.  Perhaps even more amazingly, I also got to witness  how much kinder and gentler I am with myself, physically, emotionally, and mentally.  Oh. Wow.

11:30 am-12 pm: Silent seated meditation.

At the beginning of this period of meditation, the poem “Fire” by Judy Brown was read.  The imagery was quite powerful; and I immediately connected with the noble desire to open more space in my existence.  Not a desire to do “less”; not a desire to remove “things”; not a desire to push anything away; but a desire to simply open up more fully to what is here, to what is – so that I can better experience life.  To start and sustain a good fire, the logs are certainly important; but so is the open space, the “breathing room”.  Similarly, to start and sustain a good life, the “doing” is certainly important; but so is the “being”, the calm of resting in what is right here, in what *is*.  This poem helped put into words the value (and the importance) of “doing nothing” – i.e., of meditating.

12-1:30 pm: Lunch.

During this period I also took a walk by myself; and continued to enjoy the peace of silence.

1:30-2 pm: Silent seated meditation.

2-2:30 pm: Silent walking meditation.

2:30-3 pm: Guided lovingkindness meditation.

In the several different experiences with lovingkindness meditation I’ve had, I’ve found that each teacher has a slight twist on the words they like to use – but that the sentiment of this meditation is always the same.  I’m delighted that we ended our period of silence with this method – what a wonderful way to transition from isolated introspection into shared community.

This period of meditation was very powerful for me.  My emotions were much “closer to the surface” than usual, much more accessible: my usual habitual thinking mind had been given a break, so the generation of thoughts had decreased, and the thoughts that remained had been allowed to settle (much like mud will settle to the bottom of a glass if the water is simply allowed to rest [instead of continually stirred/shaken/agitated]) – allowing the emotions to float up to a more “visible”, accessible place.  In the first round of lovingkindness (directed towards self) I was calm and content.  But in the second round of lovingkindness (directed towards someone we love deeply), I began to cry.  I was so grateful for the individual in my life, so honored that they see good in me and love me in return, and just so amazingly stunned at how blessed I am.  In the third round of lovingkindness (directed towards someone we don’t know very well) and the final round of lovingkindness (directed towards a large group, if not the entire world) I just felt… spacious.  Included.  Whole.  It was amazing.

3-3:30 pm: Coming out of silence.

To break our silence, we partnered up with one other person in the room, sat side-by-side and facing each other very closely, and whispered a 5 minute monologue about anything relating to our experience: how we felt about the period of silence, what we were experiencing right now, what we learned, what we hated – anything we wanted to share about our experience.  I basically shared that I was sad that the silence was coming to an end, and indeed that the experience as a whole was ending; I felt like I grew so much during these three brief days – I could (can) honestly feel my life transforming.

3:30-4:45: Group discussion.

We dissolved our dyads, and formed one large group where individuals shared (in a normal speaking voice) about their experiences with the period of silence.

4:45-6 pm: Break.

I spent this time on a walk with three other people.  At 4:44 pm I was in the same space as yesterday’s afternoon break – wanting to go for a walk with someone, but feeling like an outsider; so prepared to go alone.  However, a very kind woman saw me, and smiled, and warmly asked if I would like to join her and another person for a walk.  I lit up, happily said “Yes!”, and threw on my shoes.  By the time we three made it to the front door, another person had joined us, and we became four.  And it felt great.

As much as I appreciate silence, and enjoy solitude, I need other people in my life, too.

6-7:30 pm: Dinner.

I spent a good hour talking one-on-one with Saki, about his family, his meditation perspectives, his work, his personal interests… just getting to know a bit more about him.  He’s a pretty darn cool guy, and I don’t even know a full 1% about him.

7:30-9:30 pm: A buzz kill activity.

So.  Nearly everyone in the group is totally blissed out: we’re allowed to talk once again, we’ve had a great meal, we’re riding high from some deep meditation residuals… life is grand.  Then, we are hit with this activity:

Step 1: Brainstorm as many world issues we can think of that impact us as leaders.  (I.e., economic insecurity, multi-generational differences, globalization, etc.)  Our list was long, and largely depressing.  Positive energy gone.  Depression beginning.

Step 2: Brainstorm all the different entities we can influence as leaders.  (I.e., our coworkers, politicians/government, academia/schools, etc.)  Hmm.  Feeling a little better, a little more hopeful…but only slightly.

Step 3: Get in a group of six.  (Done.) As a group, come to consensus on this question: “What one unique contribution or change would have the greatest impact or effect on one of the items addressed in Step 1?”

You have 15 minutes – go.

Holy crap.

In the discussion/conversation/dialogue that ensued, I totally got to see people slight RIGHT BACK into work dynamics.  This, after three-and-a-half days of dedicated meditation practice.  In some ways, it was as if the past 80 hours never happened.  With the sound of the word “go”, people transformed from peaceful, “everyday” individuals into high-powered, high-strung business folks.  Yikes.

And with that, we disbanded, and went to bed. Thank goodness.

Click here to go to Day 5.

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6:30-7:30 am: Early meditation session.

We did 20 minutes of semi-guided sitting meditation, then 20 minutes of walking meditation, then 20 minutes of silent sitting meditation.

7:30-8:30 am: Breakfast.

8:30-9:15 am: Guided meditation on thinking and emotions.

Whenever I have tried to open to thoughts during meditation, I have been unsuccessful in maintaining awareness, and nearly always immediately get sucked into the thoughts.  Two, five, ten minutes later I “wake up”, and realize I have lost considerable chunks of time thinking instead of meditating.  It’s frustrating and discouraging, and I didn’t know what to do to avoid it – except to avoid thoughts altogether.

During this instruction period, the method for meditating on thoughts was explained in such a way that I finally “got it”: Focus on the process, not the content.  Just watch the thoughts arise; see how long they last; and then watch them pass away.  Nothing is new about this teaching – I’ve heard it and read it probably no less than 100 times (literally).  But for whatever reason, when I heard it today, it “clicked”.  I guess I was just ready now.  So during today’s sessions, I was able to meditate on thoughts (and images, which are just another way our brains represent thoughts) and emotions without analyzing them or getting sucked into them.  Oh my.  This is *big*.  I have choices now.  I only need to ask myself what I need, and then listen for the response.  Wow.  Wow.

9:15-10 am: Debrief on the thought/emotion meditation experience.

We all shared about how the previous 45 minutes went for us; and at one point the process/content distinction was analogized with a reference to my very favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz.  It was explained that when Dorothy gets a view behind the curtain and sees the “Great and Powerful Oz” is nothing more than a small, insecure man desperately pushing buttons and flipping levers, she is able to move from content to process.  Instead of being dominated by the frightening content, she is instead able to observe the crazy process – and in the act of observation, of seeing what is *really* happening, the content loses its edge; and Dorothy is able to become free.

10-10:15 am: Break.

During the break I asked a clarifying question: To get out of a “groove”/rut of thinking (i.e., to get out of rumination), should I turn toward the thought(s), or should I break the cycle by re-establishing the connection with the breath?  [Or some other option(s)?]  It was confirmed that both/either of these methods is effective; but I was also told that rumination isn’t something to break down/break through, but instead is an item that I can allow to dissolve.  Again, a small, slight shift; but a deeply powerful one.

10:15-11 am: Guided mindful yoga.

Today’s yoga session was much more thorough than yesterday’s session; today we did probably 10-15 poses, and I felt strong and centered at the end of it.  I liked this experience more than yesterday’s.  : )

11 am-12:15 pm: Calendar review.

We were told to bring a print out of “an average work day” with us to this retreat; and during the first 30 minutes of this activity, we individually reviewed our calendar page, wrote down any thoughts/ideas/notes that immediately came to mind (i.e., no censoring), and then engaged in a 5-minute mindful monologue with a partner, talking about the items that surfaced.  We then spent the remaining 45 minutes as a large group, debriefing everything that came up.

And holy crap, did lots of stuff come up.  Many, many tears were shed; in fact, I think about one-third to maybe even one-half of the participants have cried at some point in time since Wednesday evening – and who knows how many people may have cried in private.  While I felt compassion for all of the individuals who were clearly in some level of pain, I was also oddly comforted.  No, I’m not some callous bitch; rather, I was comforted that EVERYONE feels this way at some point in time.  Again, it’s not just me; I’m not weak/damaged/flawed/”bad”; we *all* struggle.  It was very powerful – and helpful – for me to see these overt emotions being displayed from very successful, strong business people.

As for my specific response to the calendar activity, I had a wide smattering of words written on my sheet of paper, including: confidence, stress, uncertainty, excitement, pleasure, ambivalence, tightness, tension, clinging, happiness…Basically, I got to see how quickly I vacillate from one extreme to the other; and this realization made me chuckle at myself.  Basically, I learned that I can talk myself in to or out of darn near anything; and that instead of “believing” my thoughts as they exist in the moment (i.e., “I want to/don’t want to…” ;“I like/dislike…”; etc.) I should instead work to see things just as they are, and above all to hold life lightly.

12:15-1:45 pm: Lunch.

1:45-2:15 pm: Silent sitting meditation.

During this session, we were told we could use our breath, body, emotions, and thoughts all as objects of meditation.  Some things that surfaced from this session:

  • In weight training, muscles are built not in the first few reps, but in the later fatigue stages.  When my meditation starts to become “difficult” (i.e., I’m getting more distracted, sleepy, irritated, etc.), that’s when my mental muscles are being built up the best.
  • That being said, I shouldn’t ever push with a “no-pain, no-gain” mentality.  Instead, work the edges; and be content to let things dissolve in their own time.
  • Meditation (and life) doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. If I’m aware that I’m not present/caught in thought/wrapped up in rumination, then there’s at least 1% of my consciousness that *is* awake and aware.
  • Let go of striving; let things just come to me; let me rest in awareness.

2:15-3:30 pm: More calendar review debrief.

It felt like group therapy.

3:30-4:45 pm: Small group meeting exercise (& debrief).

During this time, we were put into groups of four, asked a question, and then practiced our mindful listening skills to have a group conversation about the question.

The question we were asked was this: “What do you do when faced with ambiguity that more data won’t solve?”  My group’s conversation was rich; but the response I liked the best was this one: Ask a different question. Genius!

4:45-6 pm: Break.

During this time I took a walk.  I wanted to walk with someone, but it seemed to me that everyone else was already in a small clique of some sort, and I just didn’t fit in – and I felt like I was back in middle school, awkward and unpopular at times; an outsider.  Then I realized that literally half of the participants are from the same company, and already know at least 1-2 other people here already.  So it’s not that anything is “wrong” with me; it’s that most people here already have a connection that is just easier to engage in.  This situation truly is *not* personal.  Another BIG realization/awareness for me.

6-7:30 pm: Dinner, but with a twist.

This meal was conducted in verbal silence.  We all could still look at one another, and use minimal hand gestures; but no written or spoken words.

Yay!!  I truly enjoyed just sitting, breathing, eating, and relaxing in a very physical way during the meal period.

7:30-8 pm: Debrief of the silent dinner.

Interestingly, several people also liked engaging in a silent meal.  Cool.

8-8:30 pm: Choiceless awareness meditation.

Basically, “choiceless awareness” meditation is where there is no static object of meditation – i.e., no focus on breath, or body, or some other singular item to continue bringing the attention back to.  Instead, awareness is allowed to go wherever it goes, and we don’t influence the direction with our own preferences.  So if attention goes to breath for 30 seconds, fine; and then if it goes to a sound, cool; and then if it feels a sensation in the feet, okay; and so on.

This method of meditation may sound quite easy, but actually it’s *very* difficult to do. Without a single meditation object, it can be difficult to discern if one is meditating or thinking; and so usually this meditation method is taught to people who are more advanced in meditation practice.

As we engaged in this meditation, I had a realization: I’ve been practicing choiceless awareness in my own personal practice for the past several months now; but I thought I was doing meditation “wrong” because I wasn’t focused on the breath.  I now realize that breath meditation was actually holding me back; that I was ready for more space and spaciousness in my meditation; and that my body/essence just naturally took me to the place I was ready for.  Wow.  Wow!  I need to reduce my emphasis on ego-based thinking, and instead trust my body much more than I currently do.

8:30-9 pm: Walking meditation.

Nearly a year ago I read “Peace Is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hahn (a lovely brief-yet-full book of wise advice.  I believe any person of any faith/non-faith can benefit from reading it; but I digress…), and in the text he advises to engage in walking meditation by “Walk(ing) as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet…Every step makes a flower bloom under our feet.”  In this evening’s meditation session, I *lived* this experience.  I felt exactly what Thich Nhat Hahn described.  Instead of just reading it, or “thinking” about it, I fully understood it, by fully experiencing it.  Amazing.

9-9:20 pm: Instructions on silence.

At this point in the experience, we began an 18-hour period of silence.  (The facilitators called it a “24-hour” period of silence, because we started the silence at 6 pm with dinner; but we then broke the silence at 7:30 pm for a debrief; so really, to me it was an 18-hour period.  And even at that, most folks spent nearly 8 of the 18 hours unconscious [literally sleeping], so honestly it was more like a 10-hour period of silence for most of the participants.  But anyway…we began an extended period of silence.)  The facilitators explained what “retreat silence” entails; basically, refraining from communication in any form, including: speaking, gesturing, non-verbals, eye-contact, note-passing, texting, reading, writing, TV, phone, internet, Facebook… basically, refraining from all potential diversions/distractions.  The objective of retreat silence is to get comfortable “living with your own good company”.

Before we left for the evening, we were asked to respect this period of silence fully.  It was explained that while some individuals may not like this experience, others may appreciate it, or at least want to try it – but if Person A [who is trying to live in silence] sees Person B gesturing/whispering/looking/etc., Person A’s experience of pure silence is eroded.  While Person B might be happy as a clam, by using gestures or eye contact Person B has just impinged on the experience of Person A; and the break in silence is unfair to Person A.

I personally appreciated these parting words.  As soon as the period of silence began, my immediate reaction was one of release and relaxation.  I enjoy and deeply value the silence and solitude experienced on retreat; and while some people may not like it, or may be uncomfortable with/in it, I think it is inconsiderate of others to self-soothe at my “expense” (i.e., by intruding [intentionally or not] on my experience of silence).

So, I’m now entering into silence, and getting the opportunity to just be with whatever unfolds.  Aaahhhh….

Click here to to Day 4.

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7:30-8:30 am: Breakfast.

It was a standard buffet-style meal like one would find at a nice hotel: cold cereals, oatmeal, yogurts, eggs, bacon, toast, fruit, juices.

8:30-9:15 am: Exploration of clementines.

This was a riff on the Jon Kabat-Zinn raisin meditation – where you use all of the senses to examine all of the facets of a raisin, and then mindfully eat it.  Same concept here: first we just felt the clementime (eyes closed), and verbally shared everything that came to us; then added the ears (and verbally shared), then eyes (+ sharing), then nose (+ sharing), and then finally taste and the experience of eating (+ sharing).  I was already familiar with this activity, so I got bored kind of quickly; this went about 20 minutes too long for me.  (And I wasn’t alone.)  But, I was aware of my mild impatience, and I was okay with it/accepted it.

9:15-10:30 am: Guided meditations.

During this period we had two guided sitting meditation sessions (using the breath as the object of attention), with a debrief after the first one.  This was a difficult session for me; I experienced lots of obsessive thoughts, and felt frustrated and very self-judgmental. During the debrief, it was stated that self-judgment is really self-aggression.  This is right, of course.  This is something for me to explore seriously.

10:30-10:45 am: Break.

10:45-11:30 am: Guided mindful yoga.

We were led through a few yoga poses: mountain (tadasana), chair (Utkatasana), and triangle (Trikonasana).  During this period I felt very confident and comfortable; this felt like “home”.  I understand why this first yoga session was slow and not very intensive (or extensive); but I longed for more.  Another opportunity for me to investigate craving, and accepting things just as they are.

11:30 am-12:15 pm: Guided body scan.

This method/process is very similar to the one taught at the 10-day retreat I attended; but this session moved along much more quickly than the one taught in the 10-day experience – and I liked this one better.  The nearly-constant mental moving enabled me to stay relatively focused, which helped me build my concentration muscles.

12:15-1:15 pm: Lunch.

This meal was also served buffet-style, and was decent. The upside was that vegetables were served in abundance (yay!); the downside was that the veggies were drowning in fat (boo).  Poor veggies.

1:15-1:35 pm: Guided listening meditation.

We were instructed on the four-step process of mindful listening:

  1. Pause; and connect with the body.
  2. Open to what is here right now.
  3. Listen deeply.
  4. Speak the truth of this moment (with the intention to do no harm).

1:35-3 pm: Practice mindful listening.

We came together with a partner, and were each given a list of mindfulness qualities.  We were instructed to review the list, and then engage in a 3-minute monologue with our partner about both our immediate and our latent reactions to the list.  (So, Person #1 speaks for 3 min while Person #2 only listens, following steps 1-3 above; then vice versa.)

After the 3-minute monologue experience, we debriefed as a large group.  We then engaged in a 5-minute monologue exercise with our same partners, and once again debriefed as a large group.

What struck me is how quickly (nearly immediately) a significant number of the people in the room reverted to old behaviors.  We had *just* practiced listening mindfully; but once the open discussion time began, pauses were few and far between, and interruption was semi-rampant.  I found myself irritated by the larger group discussions.  I am a very good listener (it’s once of my innate qualities, and it’s also a skill I’ve been refining for literally years), and I get frustrated with people who don’t/won’t/can’t listen well.  But I guess that’s why were here; to learn.  But, still, this was frustrating for me.  Grr.

3-3:15 pm: Break.

3:15-4:15 pm: Walking meditation, then sitting meditation.

I found the instruction for walking meditation very helpful. I’ve tried to do walking meditation in the past, but it never felt like I was doing it “right” – I felt like I was missing something, like I wasn’t engaging with the practice the way it was designed or intended.  We were told to focus on gliding our feet (which I had been doing previously); to stop, stand still, and breathe before turning (which I hadn’t been doing as extensively as I now realize I “should” have been doing), and to “receive” with our eyes instead of look with them. This last piece of guidance was the one that really transformed this practice for me.  I realized I had been striving, looking, searching, efforting during walking meditation, when in fact it’s a much more receptive experience.  That doesn’t mean the practice is necessarily “calm”, and it certainly isn’t a “passive” meditation method; but it is “receptive”.  It’s difficult for me to articulate; but this shift in understanding was a significant one for me.  It changed the practice from “slowly walking around” to meditation.

4:15-6 pm: Homework and break time.

(Homework to be discussed in the evening session description.)

6-7:30 pm: Dinner.

The dinner meal was a plated event, served in three courses: salad, entrée, dessert.  Again, it was great in that I received lots of fruits and veggies (which aren’t typically offered in most dinners out, be they at restaurants, conventions, hotels, etc.), but again, the veggies were just saturated in fat.  Oh well…

7:30-7:45 pm: Silent sitting meditation.

7:45-9:15 pm: Homework review and discussion.

Just before our 4:15 pm break, we were given a sheet that had two identical triangles side by side, each with the following words at one of the points: body, emotions, thoughts.  One triangle was labeled as “pleasant”, and one triangle was labeled as “unpleasant”.  Our homework was to notice various instances/events we deemed as “pleasant” or “unpleasant”, and to then notice what our thoughts/emotions/body sensations were at each of those instances.  When we re-grouped at 7:45 pm, we discussed our individual findings as a large group.  The primary take-away point of this activity/discussion was that mindfulness (and happiness) is all about letting go of wanting anything to be different than it actually is.  Events that are “pleasant” aren’t any better than events that are “unpleasant” – everything just is what it is.  It’s all of the baggage *we* bring to an event that makes it pleasant or unpleasant for ourselves; the events simply are.

Now.  This doesn’t mean that people should become passive.  Some events do call for responses, and sometimes strong responses at that.  What mindfulness calls for is to recognize the situation just as it is (i.e., free of all judgment) so that an appropriate response can be employed, instead of a conditioned reaction.  Again, this might seem like a subtle shift, but boy is it huge to me.

Towards the end of the discussion, we entered meditation, and then the facilitator dropped in a question, something along the lines of, “If you were to really live mindfully [i.e., free of judgment of pleasant/unpleasant], what might you find?”  The responses that came to me were: 1) Living unmindfully is selfish.  (It keeps me focused on *me*; and therefore unavailable to be fully present for the people I care for and love and respect, and for people in general.)  2) Letting go is beautiful, wonderful, and helpful.  3) I’m stronger than I give myself credit for.

During the conversation/meditation period, I also had different supportive phrases run through my head:  Just let things BE.  Meet situations freshly.  (“Beginner’s mind.”)  Mindfulness gives me more options, more possibilities, more choices – which feels like more freedom; which results in more happiness.

Wow.

9:15 pm: Summary thoughts.

By the end of this long-yet-interesting day, one of the “learnings” (renewed awarenesses) I had was that I am not unique (and I mean this in a very good way): nearly all people (if not all people) have the majority of the same insecurities, fears, anxieties, worries as I do.  Many, many people are just as self-critical as I am.  Many people engage in undesired-but-can’t-stop-it rumination.  The external manifestations of all of these internal struggles might vary (for example, some people may compensate by being boastful, others by being self-deprecating); but underneath the external symptoms, the internal root causes are nearly all the same.  In the past, I’ve been able to dismiss or “explain away” this experience by finding external differences with the people around me (“XYZ group is younger/older than me”; or more/less experienced than me; or work in a different profession than I do; or have a different family situation than I do; or have different life goals than I do; and on, and on…); but in this setting, I no longer have that option – we participants are demographically pretty darn similar to one another.  If this group of talented, kind, dedicated, relational, interpersonal, smart, successful people express so many of the same internal states as I have experienced, then truly, these things must not be “character flaws” in me, but rather part of the human condition – at least to some large degree.  Now I get to learn how to work with it all, and over time perhaps even become free from it all.

Click here to go to Day 3.

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3 pm: Check-in.

I arrived at the St. Thomas Gainey Conference Center.  The retreat experience doesn’t officially begin until 6 pm, but I had no idea what city traffic would be like (rush hour, construction, flooding) – so I gave myself plenty of time.  I’d rather be early than late.

I entered the main hall, and was immediately greeted by a hostess, checked in, and handed a room key.

Already, very different.

After I brought my bags in, the hostess said the chefs would like to speak with me to fully understand my specific dietary needs so that they could take care of me in the best possible fashion.  [I have some specific nutritional issues, and I gave the retreat staff a head’s up so that they could plan accordingly.]

Wait – a personal consult with the chefs?  Plural??  You mean, I won’t have to nearly fight people to get meager servings of marginal food?  (Aka my dining experience during the retreat last year.)  Indeed, the chefs confirmed their understanding of my needs, then showed me where the snack area was, so that I could just pop in and take anything at any time.  Again, wildly different.

Everything about this experience is humongously different; here’s a link to a virtual tour of the pleasant grounds, the comfortable accommodations, and the professional tone and tenor.

Whereas the previous retreat experience felt like rehab or a minimum security prison (lots of rules, terse/mildly unpleasant staff, spartan accommodations, dreary surroundings), this experience feels like a lovely vacation.  Well, so far anyway.  The official retreat hasn’t started yet, but already, I’m encouraged!

6 pm: Dinner.

All of the retreat participants arrived at the dining hall, where the two facilitators briefly introduced themselves, then invited us to eat, and asked us to respond to a question at some point during our meal.  (The question was, “What do you rely on to make leadership decisions?”  My response: I move through a four-phase process.  First, I collect as much data/objective information as I can, and I digest it.  Then, I consult with as many other people as I reasonably can, and compare their responses to the data.  Next, I consult with my own mind, and compare that with what I have received so far.  Finally, I check it all against my past experience and present intuition, and see what my “gut” says.)  The six other people at my table were all very interesting, friendly, sociable/outgoing, and intelligent – it was a really good meal experience.

7:30-9:30 pm: The first session.

We participants made our way to the main session room, where we picked up our name tents and claimed our seats/cushions – which would serve as our permanent location for the next four days.  I found myself next to an older gentleman (mid 60s?) from Australia – as in, he arrived yesterday from Canberra (the capital of Australia).  Interestingly, there was another Aussie in the group – as well as one person from Germany, and one person from France.  (There was also a person from Canada in the group, but she was actually an ex-pat [i.e., from the US, but currently working/living in Canada].)  So – four international travelers (or five, depending on how your define “international”) made the significant effort to attend this retreat?  Wow.  I guess this is a “bigger deal” than I might have thought.

The remaining 22 of us were largely from the general Minnesota/Wisconsin/Illinois area – and half of the entire group was from General Mills. Two other people from my company were also in attendance.

One of the facilitators (Janice) is a Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at General Mills (hence the strong showing from the participant perspective), and the other facilitator (Saki) is the Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.  Saki has worked very closely for several decades with Jon Kabat-Zinn, a very well-known author and leader of the mindfulness movement in the west (as it relates to health and wellness).  Again, I guess this is a “bigger deal” than I might have thought.

We began this first session by entering into a brief period of meditation, then “dropping in” a question to our meditation session.  We let an answer to the question arise during the meditation; then let that answer move to the side.  We then dropped the same question into the meditation session again, let an answer arise, and then let the answer move to the side.  We repeated this sequence one final time, and then we emerged from the meditation and discussed our responses.

(The question was, “Why are you here?”  My answers were: 1) I forgot how much I dislike meditation retreats.  2) So why the heck do I do this to myself?  3) Because I haven’t learned enough yet; because I’m not yet enlightened.)

We also reported out on our pre-work assignment that we were given a week prior to the retreat, which was to drive without the radio/phone/external stimuli during our work commute.  (If you haven’t ever done this before, you may want to consider trying it; many individuals were surprised at what emerged during that experience.)

We ended the session with one piece of homework: to observe how the breath feels in the body while falling asleep, and while waking up.

With that, we retired to our rooms.

9:30 pm: My learnings from the day.

At the end of each day of the retreat, I reflected on my experience, and jotted some quick notes about any striking realizations/learnings/awarenesses I had.  Here’s what emerged from the brief evening session:

  • As I sat in the circle, early on I sat with my legs crossed; and then I remembered my yoga instruction from last week (see the final entry on the page, titled “Let The Energy Flow”) – and so I made a conscious effort to remain physically “open” versus “closed”.  This subtle change had an immediate (and significant) impact on both my physical and mental experience.  [A note: I maintained an open posture for the entire duration of the retreat, and I am working to retain an open posture as much as I can going forward.]
  • In general, it felt wonderful to just be me: no pretending, no posturing, no struggling, no efforting.
  • I did see how much I desire to be in control (or at least know what to expect), and how uncomfortable/unwilling I am living in the space of the unknown, and just accepting whatever comes my way.  I have opportunities to investigate this aspect of myself.  (We were not given an agenda of the weekend, and we weren’t even told much about the plan for the day ahead.  We were just told where and when to arrive to begin our day, and the facilitators “would take it from there”.  And the not knowing really disturbed me.)

Click here to go to Day 2.

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Eleven months after my 10-day intensive retreat where I began my meditation practice in earnest, I am once again on a structured, semi-intensive residential meditation experience.

However, this experience was wildly different from my previous retreat.  Here are the quick highlights (click on the links for details of each day):

Day 1: Laying the groundwork.
Day 2: Aiming, sustaining, re-directing.
Day 3: Focus on the process, not the content.
Day 4: Practice, practice, practice.
Day 5: Coming to a close.
Postlogue.

If you are inspired to try some mindfulness in your work (or personal) life, here are some methods you may want to try.

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