When was the last time you took 3 slow, deep breaths? The stress of daily life keeps my breaths shallow, and my stomach tight. Although I'm semi –retired, I still lead a busy 21 st century westerner’s life. I drive in traffic, surf the net, fight to get to the checkout in Trader Joe’s, pay bills, pump my own gasoline, yech! This summer things just weren’t working in my life. I had a disappointing love affair, my friends were unable to keep social plans, I was lonely, stuck with a property I couldn't sell, two-and-a-half years into a self -imposed five year austerity program. When I became aware of how tight my stomach was, I decided to enroll in a 10 day silent meditation retreat at Vallecitos Mountain Ranch in New Mexico to avoid a future diagnosis of acid reflux.
When an old master artist like Di Vinci decided to paint over a part of his initial composition, it was called pentimento, which means to change your mind. Life is just like that; sometimes we paint a composition and then change our minds. Thus, we alter our lives. I went to meditate on order to look deeply into my life composition and alter what needed to be altered.
Set in a pristine mountain forest 9,500 feet above sea level, Vallecitos has nine ponds, flowered valleys, an old restored hunting lodge and private cabins for participants. I joined about 37 like-minded people from various parts of the U.S. and two teachers to explore 10 days of being with my own thoughts, feelings and sensations. Here are some of the awareness’ I garnered.
There is no such thing as silence; sounds are all around us. While in the meditation room my stomach growled so loudly I was afraid it would shatter windows; outside hummingbirds buzzed my head; wind rustled leaves; chipmunks chattered; trees rubbed trunks and made squeaking noises; cattle bellowed; people sneezed, coughed and passed gas; rain pounded the skylight in my yurt; lightening and thunder raged. When I refrain from verbal dialogue I am in touch with a symphony I usually ignore. Listening grounds me and connects me to nature.
As I settled in to the retreat my breathing deepened. As my breathing deepened I became more relaxed. As I relaxed I found that I had more energy. I yielded to the call of the mountains. With each passing day I climbed higher with more ease. I felt as though all living things were breathing too. The earth was breathing, trees, grasses, tiny insects and the granite-mountains were expanding and contracting just like my diaphragm. It felt as though life was breathing me, which filled me with gratitude.
Body sensations can be a real distraction from meditation. Sitting or walking with an aching back or an itchy nose is uncomfortable. Human beings are conditioned to avoid discomfort, and I am no exception. My back was not used to sitting without support. I compared myself to others who seemed to glow as they sat up straight, in a cross-legged position. Rather than make my meditation about misery, I surrendered to a back pillow. Thus, I learned to be more patient with myself. The uncomfortable sensations pass as do the comfortable ones. However, if I became uncomfortable to the point of distraction, I made it OK to move and make myself more comfortable with as little disturbance to others as possible. The idea is to notice and be aware but not to suffer. As time passed, my body became calmer and sitting was easier. Some of my wisest perceptions came while walking after a sit. The day consisted of alternate periods of sitting and walking.
Taste. Wow, I slowed down enough to taste my food. I noticed as days passed that I took less from the buffet table and that because I actually tasted, smelled and chewed, I ate with appreciation and gusto. I was able to taste all the subtle flavors in a salad. Although I am a hippocritarian when it comes to my diet, I wish I could only eat fruits and vegetables but my body needs fish and fowl proteins. I faired well with the generous portions of fresh vegetarian cuisine. Imagine, there is no need for water filters at Vallecitos. I drank pure clean water and imagined it was cleansing every cell in my body.
With only a small mirror in my yurt, I stopped looking at my imperfections. Instead, I was noticing more of my surroundings. I began finding one inch cocoons during walking meditation periods. Later, when I had a private interview with one of the teachers, I described what my life had been like over the past several and she replied, “Oh, you’re in a cocoon.” Finding puffy white cocoons on forest walks was an outward confirmation of an inner experience. Some call it synchronicity. I call it liberating.
On one wooded walk, I found a butterfly at my feet. Colors seemed more intense. I noticed the purple and green of sunsets and the ruby throats of hummingbirds. When it wasn’t storming at night, I watched the night sky from my yurt’s sky bubble. Stargazing escorted me back to the wonders of childhood.
Each day I became more focused and concentrated. Creative ideas that flourished the first few days now gave way to a stability in the present moment, a capacity for stillness along with sharp attention. For example, I was standing on a rock slab feeling the sunshine on my head and a breeze caressing my cheeks, when a teal hummingbird came to my gently fisted hand. Three times it stuck its slender beak into the opening as if to suck out nectar. Had I not been so still, so concentrated in the present, I doubt the little bird would have mistaken my open fist for a flower. The hummingbird was a reward for my effort.
With that much focus and concentration, strong memories and emotions surface. Some are welcomed guests and many are difficult. Like all thoughts, they eventually pass, often leaving behind new awareness. It’s not something that happens once or twice: it’s a lifetime work. I noticed that each time the memory of a painful event arose, if I offered myself forgiveness, even if it was another person who injured me, I felt a sense of peace. Then, the memory would pass with ease. If I did not offer myself forgiveness it persisted until I made the offering. By imagining I was breathing into my heart, difficult thoughts melted. I grew more aware of the constant flux of thoughts and emotions. That gave me the grace to stay in y heart and not always get caught up in the feelings. By staying in my heart I remained in the present more often, rather than rummaging around in the past or fantasizing about the future. I found I had more internal room for creative envisioning in order for a shift to occur.
I also came to realize that if I lower my expectations, I can be a happier person. During rainstorms, sleeping in a yurt with an outhouse I couldn’t reach without getting soaked may not have been an issue for most of the retreatents. For me it was. It reminded me of a bad experience at Girl Scout camp when I was eight, my first separation from my mother. This time, I was in my 60s. Not about to be wet and cold (in July the temperature drops to high 30s at night), I found an empty white plastic bucket that I kept in the yurt at night, a blissful relief. I didn’t have to pee outside during the deluge and the daily New Mexico rains rinsed the bucket day. I was happy with less. Creative problem solving replaced emotional turmoil.
Finally, I returned home ten days later like a child returning from a wonderful time at summer camp. I was tanned, fit, eating healthy foods, breathing more deeply, appreciating the little joys of the day, sipping a cup of my favorite beverage, savoring the scent of it as I brought it to my lips, hearing the sound of my backyard fountain, appreciating indoor plumbing, resolving to take good care of myself.
Do I continue to meditate at home? Yes, I curl up in a window seat looking out at yellow-pink roses, my back comfortably supported by a pillow I take long slow breaths while I imagine I am sending oxygen into my heart. When my mind wanders I gently come back to my breath. My simple practice is to send kindness to myself. Then, as I feel anchored, others come to mind like at the cleaner’s ( a neutral person); a beloved friend (that’s easier); my former employer (not easy); and I focus on their well-being. I say silently to myself, “Just as I wish to be happy may s/he be happy.” I remember to breathe. Sending my wishes for my happiness and the happiness of others brings me peace and refreshes my ordinary life. It gives me a sense that I am able to contribute positively to the flow of life.
It’s been five weeks since my return. Demands and distractions clamor for my attention. Few things have changed on the outside. Although I know that with the way my life is going, I have not reached the end of this difficult period. My house didn’t sell. I’ve had to rent it. Some friends continue to make plans and then break them. I’m making new friends. It’s the same life. However, I am more accepting of it. By accepting the changing nature of all life, I know that the cocoon that still shelters and confines me will pass. The daily practice of simply being aware of my breath while walking, sitting or lying down seems to soften my life’s tensions. It provides me with a greater ability to respond intuitively when a response is needed. I’ve lowered my usually demanding self-expectations and my heart inclines toward more joy, more gratitude. Loneliness has matured to sacred silence. I’m clearer in my artful vision for pentimento.
I leave you with a quote by Sri Nisargadatta
“Love tells me I’m everything
Wisdom tells me I’m nothing
Between the two my life flows.”
Andrea Campbell, PhD. Is a licensed mental health counselor practicing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She uses ancestral contact in helping individuals understand their lives. She is a certified couples counselor and art therapist. She has been practicing Insight Meditation since 1983.
[photography by Andrea Campbell]