My Birthday Celebration, Part I: Miracle on the Mountain

As my 60th birthday approached, I wanted to do something different that would help prepare me for this next decade ahead.  For me turning 60 – an age that seems old to some, is new and exciting.  I truly believe that this will be my best decade yet.  I’m old enough to make decisions that make sense for me and still have the energy to do them : ) When I heard that our temple was doing a meditation retreat beginning on my 60th birthday, that felt like an invitation sent directly from above : )

I’ve only been meditating a couple years, so in the scheme of things I’m a newbie to meditation.  I do love it though, meditate daily and find that it gives me an opportunity to know myself and be Peaceful in a way that I hadn’t been before.

I had heard about meditation retreats and when our temple announced they were having one in the mountains I was excited.  The retreat would combine both Shabbat (our traditional Sabbath from Friday night at sundown until Saturday night at sunset) and the Jewish perspective for meditation.  My husband who doesn’t meditate wanted to spend his wife’s birthday with her, so being a good sport, he opted to go along.  I was concerned however, when our Rabbi sent out the itinerary.  My husband came barreling into the room, waving the email in his hand saying, “Have you seen the itinerary?  Has the rabbi lost his mind?  It says here that we have to be silent for 18 hours!”  Well, I have to tell you that I nearly wet my pants laughing, which blew any opportunity to realistically demonstrate much compassion : (  I did try however, to remind him that I had to be silent too during that time, which meant no kvetching (complaining) to him, which seemed to soften the blow : )

When my birthday finally arrived, we were off on our adventure to a retreat center in Running Springs, California. Our son was happy because he got to spend time at his best friend’s house for the whole weekend.   I looked forward to the beautiful trees and the smell of pines. We had opted to travel just the two of us in the comfort of our car, rather than on the bus – our private birthday escapade.

As we drove up to the lodge, we could see the beautiful trees and the snow on the ground.  The weather report accurately predicted that we would have rain and not snow during the weekend : (  Upon our arrival, we went to check out our lodging – shall we say the cabins were rustic.  Our “reward” for reserving a private room, were bathrooms at the end of the hall : ( Not horrible, but definitely not the Ritz.

Our rabbi, who would be our guide through this weekend is especially equipped to lead this journey – he has meditated for years.  His light shows in the sparkle in his eyes and his inviting smile.

When the bus arrived late with our fellow retreat members – describing the meshuga (crazy) bus driver, we hurried to begin the festivities.  We said the traditional prayers over the candle lighting and blessing over the wine.  The camp turned out to be owned by a Jewish family and had a four foot, freshly made, braided challah for us to enjoy.  We had a plentiful buffet dinner and enjoyed our mealtime chatter.

My husband had kindly ordered me a cake to celebrate my birthday – but in his anxiousness to get to the retreat center, he had forgotten to stop on the way to pick it up.  No matter, our host Dave to the rescue.  He arranged a tiny four-inch, round cake for me, that I divided into bite-sized pieces for everyone to have a little sweetness. My comrades sang Happy Birthday and then Yom Huledet Sameach – the Hebrew version.  One of the group started chanting a kids’ song, whose words suggested singing until the birthday girl skipped around the table.  So in the spirit of the moment, I skipped around the table to the smiles and laughter of the others.

After dinner, the rabbi set the tone for the weekend by asking each person, “What do you want to learn about yourself this weekend?”  I was moved by what everyone said.  Their answers came from their hearts and it was clear that this would be a unique weekend.  Even my husband surprised me with what he choose to share. I was grateful that after being together for more than twenty years, I was still able to learn new things about him.

It was time.  At 7:30 pm, the silence began : )

During the Friday night service, the rabbi reviewed with us several texts from Mysteries and Pathways of Shabbat.  It made me pause to consider the purpose of the weekend and Shabbat itself.  Shabbat instructs us to:

  • Adopt the boundless values of the spirit
  • Everyone should refrain from work – and even God rested on Shabbat.
  • We are all equal and One.

We prayed:

Open up our eyes

Teach us how to live

Fill our hearts with joy and all the love you have to give

Gather us in Peace as you lead us to your name

And we will know that you are One


Then, the Shema – one of our most sacred prayers:

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad.

Hear O’ Israel, The Lord Our God, The Lord is One.

 The rabbi discussed with us much of what would be the backbone of our Shabbat services, the Map of the Four Worlds. Its basis comes from 13th century, Kabbalistic texts. They divide the world into four dimensions:  1)  Body/Physical – Assiyah, 2)  Emotions/Energy – Yetzirah, 3) Mind/Thought – Beriyah and 4) Spirit/Presence – Atzilut.  Our meditative practices represented each World utilizing mantras and prayers focusing on the groundedness of the body, the love and openness of the heart, being mindful of our thoughts and the sacredness of surrendering our boundaries to the oneness that we are all part of.

I went to bed feeling a great sense of community and bond with my fellow travelers. I woke up happy and grateful to share this experience with my husband.  We began the morning with an optional choice to do meditation and yogalite, some simple stretching. This seemed just right – no pretzel poses and a gentle meditation  : )

Our breakfast was our first in silence.  Our rabbi instructed us in the ways to be mindful and present through each bite.  He advised staying aware as much as possible to the flavors, smells and even how the food felt on your tongue.  Staying present through each bite I found took immense concentration and effort.  It was a patience-challenge, and definitely was a slowed down experience of eating compared to the usual gulping down of our food in modern life.

After lunch, we turned to this week’s Torah portion which was Yitro – when Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.  We studied some ancient rabbis’ teachings.  One part especially spoke to me.  It seemed to invoke my next decade and reminded me of my marked transformations over the last several years…When the category through which you now serve grows old for you, you will be able to switch it for another garment, finding a place for it in your soul.

During the weekend we would have 6 guided meditations to enjoy.  My husband attended all but one – sleeping in was too tempting for him that morning.  To my surprise, he actually seemed to be enjoying the meditation : )  Saturday afternoon after our third meditation, we took a break for silent, free time.  My husband and I were 98% compliant with the non-speaking request – sometimes hand signals just didn’t work : ) We used texting for the most part, to check on our son at home.

However, by 4pm, we were ready to end the silence.  I think many of us felt a bit surprised that it wasn’t as difficult as it had sounded at first.  After our uniquely individual, introspective journeys, we moved to the next exercise and down The Path of Inquiry.  We were guided to understand ourselves more deeply and encouraged to share that experience with someone that we didn’t know well.  For seven minutes, we asked our partner a simple and yet complicated question:  Who are you?  Your partner would respond and then you would ask again, “Who are You?”  The natural response was to grow increasingly deeper in our answers.  After seven minutes we changed parts.  Afterwards, we talked about the impact of the experience with our group.

After dinner, we enjoyed a Havdalah (ending of Shabbat) service and had an interesting discussion as we reviewed a Tu B’Shavat Haggadah.  Tu B’Shavat is the Jewish holiday celebrating the trees and it seemed so appropriate as we were surrounded by trees on this mountain to celebrate their beauty and bounty.  It is a holiday that is sometimes celebrated as an ecological awareness day and trees are often planted.  I love trees and each year they hold an increasing fascination for me.  Whenever I see one, I can’t help but wonder how old it is – so many live far beyond human years.  What moments of history occurred during the breadth of its lifetime?

We finished off the evening, making an art project utilizing the Four Worlds, Star of David Mandala. A IMG400x391_6731guideline of The Four Worlds previously discussed were distributed to us showing where they would typically be designed on a Jewish Star.  The Body (Assiyah), for example, would be represented in the center of the star and Spirit (Atzilut) was in the area outside the circle.  We were provided different types of paints, tiles, beads, rocks, etc. to decorate our mandalas.  It was lots of fun and when we were finished, we each had an opportunity to explain our creations.  Each was unique and reflected our own world that we inhabited.

One of our attractions to art as creative humans is because we can’t help but put our hearts into our work.  I formed a blue and white (the colors of Israel) Peace sign where my heart is, in The Body of my Jewish star which was in the center.  I also attached a butterfly symbolizing the changes that we all go through arriving ultimately to be our most beautiful selves.  The six smaller triangles, formed by the corners of the star represent Emotion/Energy. I chose to represent the most important emotion – Love by a single, heart-shaped rock that I had found amongst the rock supply.  The yellow area is for the Mind and I chose to paint it yellow, since that is my favorite color and I spend so much time thinking.  It’s my comfortable, happy place.  Finally, the Spirit, located in the outer edges beyond the circle is represented in a bright, beautiful blue.  I chose this color because when I’m feeling connected to my inner self – my spirit, during meditation, this is the color I’m gifted to see.

Our rabbi challenged us to commit to a ritual or practice that we had learned during the retreat for seven days and to let him know how it was going.   He also advised us of the myriad of opportunities available at our temple and in our South Orange County Jewish communities to continue these practices whether your interests focused on Torah study or spirituality.

On Sunday morning we arose and for those who wanted, began our day again with meditation and stretching.  We ended our meditation by clapping out a nigun (wordless, rhythmic prayer with periodic pauses) and interjecting our words of gratitude…as we saw the rain falling outside. I interjected, “Thank you for replenishing the Earth with rain and the opportunity to replenish ourselves.”

We finished our last buffet breakfast and returned to our final meditation of the retreat.

The rain was pouring down and the wind was blustery – we too, were sad to be leaving. Finally, we said goodbye to our temple family feeling a deeper connection to even those that had been strangers just a couple days before.

Before we left, our rabbi asked us if my husband and I would take the Torah back with us to protect it from IMG_6513 400x533any possibility of damage on the crowded bus.  We were surprised and honored.  What a unique experience – to carry our sacred text back home.  My husband, asked concernedly, ”What would happen if I accidentally said a curse word driving, while in it’s presence?”  The rabbi reassured him that everything would be alright although I’m not sure my husband was convinced. Wanting to avoid any bolts of lightening, no such words were uttered on the drive : )  It was extraordinary to have the Torah strapped into our seat belt for protection in the back seat – the living, breathing body of our people.  When we got home, we put it gently on our dining room table and showed it to our son.  My husband was so moved by the experience that he wrote to our rabbi thanking him and suggesting that other congregants be given the opportunity to have our Torah be honored in their homes.  After all, it is our living text for our people that has traveled with us throughout the centuries : )

This meditation retreat lived up to my grand expectations and more.  It was a combination of extended introspection, learning and the opportunity to meet new temple members and also deepen relationships with others. I learned both more about myself and my husband.  I felt like I was starting out on the yellow brick road to my new decade of adventures on this Earth.  Surprisingly, a miracle happened along the way – my husband, now that we are home has continued to meditate : )

Join Me On My Journey…