Is going on a meditation retreat something that’s on your bucket list or something you ponder whether or not you should try? These are my musings on our temple’s recent meditation retreat. Please forgive the length — I know long from me is nothing new, but you might want to put your warm snuggly socks on, put up your feet on the couch, and settle in. I wanted to capture our experience for those who couldn’t attend, or might be curious about what a meditation retreat actually is.
I’d highly recommend it although I understand for some, the thought of being quiet for 18 hours might seem like torture. My husband also attends but I suspect since he’s not a regular meditator, the thought of me not being able to speak for that length of time is too much to resist, and seems like heaven on Earth : ) He showed up for his own Peace.
This year’s meditation retreat was a combination of some of what we had done before, and other new components in unfamiliar surroundings. The weekend was a blend of traditional and unique. Time was spent praying, meditating, doing gentle yoga and expressing gratitude — for good experiences and even what we think is bad — at first glance.
It’s so important to accept what life brings us — sometimes hidden beneath the disappointment of something not working out the way we planned. Only in retrospect do we see — it was exactly what we needed. Remember the definition of F.A.I.L. I spoke about in one of my previous articles? My new favorite definition is First Attempt In Learning : )
The thought of being silent at a meditation retreat may have scared some temple members away, but in actuality, we only were supposed to be silent from 8:15pm Friday night until Saturday at 4:00pm, so with sleeping in the mix, the hours were tolerable. But did we accomplish it?
Shhhhh…not exactly when in private, but we didn’t do too badly in public. As parents, we needed to check on our seventeen-year-old son. My husband would drive off the property to check that things were fine at home. Both of us trying to get used to our reality that in a few months he will be going off to college, and the fact that my husband’s clients don’t want to wait for a meditation retreat to be over to get their answers.
We weren’t trying to be “sneaky” some people’s cell phones worked there, ours didn’t. However, if we were following what had been requested, we wouldn’t be using any electronic devices — a particularly weird situation for a blogger and writer — trust me, I needed those deep breathing exercises to stay away from my phone and computer. I knew it would be good for me, but staying connected is so much a part of my life that I felt like I was going through withdrawals — which I suppose was the point. Mostly, even in private we behaved.
Combining being Jewish and meditation is something I’m still getting used to. I’d been meditating for several years but thought of meditation as solely a spiritual, eastern thing. Not until our temple held its first meditation weekend in 2016, which happened to coincide with my sixtieth birthday, had I ever associated being Jewish with meditation. Now this being our third, its become the birthday present I want every year. It’s a time to reflect, share some time with my husband and my temple family — and led by our amazing rabbi, K’vod Wieder.
Once again this year, I realized like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, … “if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I shouldn’t look any farther than my own backyard.” I’ve studied with famous teachers from many different places who I love and admire, and yet I haven’t taken enough opportunity to study with our beloved rabbi who is right here. Maybe there’s something beyond religious observation that keeps drawing congregants back every Saturday — something to consider.
Oey. He’s meditated since his twenties, practices many of the spiritual teachings that I’ve learned, such as staying present and being “in the flow,” and now understand and happily live, and he even has attended seminars with world-renown meditation practioners like the famous Thich Nhát Hánh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and Peace activist.
The retreat was held at the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of the American Jewish University — as an adult, I finally got to go to Jewish camp! It was special for me to be surrounded with decades of Jewish fun, learning and sensibilities such as instead of our building name being, I don’t know, Smith, it was Fligelman. Do you also take comfort when you’re around your own tribe?
For those of you who aren’t a minority, you might want to give it some thought. What is it like to always feel that you’re other than? Not necessarily a bad thing, but to minorities, in general we often feel different, frequently with pride, but still not what society considers normal. Nor are our needs and concerns necessarily considered — the power in numbers creates sometimes an unintentional, sometimes intentional, disregard for those who are different.
The grounds were tree-filled pathways with buildings sprinkled along the sides. The vegetarian, vegan food (we had to have vegan because of another group that was staying there at the same time) was surprisingly delicious. Any nutritionist would be proud of what we ate— vegetables, grains and more vegetables. It was flavorful and filling. I was surprised the main dining hall seemed very nice, similar to any hotel with buffet lines sans the scraping your own dishes and putting them in the grey, plastic bins.
I enjoyed the various modes of meditation that our rabbi taught, from breathing a count of six slow deep breaths in, holding for a count of six, and releasing slowly for a count of six — to our meditative eating.
How often do we eat while watching TV or reading a book oblivious to how quickly we pile the food into
our mouths, without a thought to how it tastes or feels on our tongues? Meditation is surely a practice that any weight loss program should consider. We concentrated not only on the food we were eating and all of the chewing sensations, but we were encouraged to be mindful of when we had enough, and that it was alright not to finish everything on our plate. I amused myself with each squirt of pineapple that shot into my mouth as I bit into the triangular section as I chewed. Eating this way was definitely a preventative technique to avoiding excess calories.
I took pause once again that all around the world on Shabbat, Jews would be holding this time sacred. Time to pray and deeply contemplate meaningful passages and ask how they related to you. Do you believe them verbatim in your heart? Are they metaphors? Each person free to make their own decisions. There are many different flavors of being Jewish — many are religious…Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Ultra-orthodox, Kabbalist, and Hassidic or surprisingly to some —non-religious Jews who view themselves solely from the eyes and heart of a strong tradition and culture.
Still others see themselves as a combination…maybe you feel like part of the people and enjoy some of the traditions, but feel the religious aspect has too many rules. And of course, there are those opinionated, often ultra-religious (of any religion), that don’t make room for others to choose their own path and believe their own choice to be the only correct one. Oey, can’t we get along and live and let live? Anyway…
This being Shabbat, for the morning prayers and meditations we concentrated on the Map of the Four Worlds, an intertwining of traditional prayers and meditations that come from Kabbalistic traditions. The Four Worlds cover every aspect of being human, each emphasizing a unique dimension of our humanity:
- Assiyah The Human Body or Physical — accepting the circumstances of the moment, rooted to the ground and reality.
- Yetzirah Emotions or Energy — embracing our moments with an open heart —You are loved.
- Beriyah Mind or Thought — clear focus on the entire experience — being present to the symphony of Life. Our holy prayer — the Shema was chanted here:
“Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad.” Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
- Atzilut Spirit or Presence — The Holy One, Silence, God, Shabbat.
Each “world” had its own emphasis and hit home with me. In Assiyah, I enjoyed the feeling of groundedness and attention to the awareness of how your body was feeling and sensations. Yetizirah holds a special emphasis for me since I live (and write) from my heart. Once again this year my husband and a friend were able to help use drums during the prayers adding a rhythmic heartbeat. We meditated by imagining our hearts with open windows in every chamber — to breathe in and out with openness and love.
I recognized Beriyah as where I was on my life’s path. I live my life today from the belief that I am doing what I was put on Earth to do…to teach Peace. There are so many unexplained synchronicities that adorn my life — well it’s always amazing, yet become so common place, not as surprising.
I may not know what my next steps are, but they come to me in mysterious yet assured ways. I’ve written in many articles about how strangely yet beautifully my life has unfolded — not only since our fateful trip to Israel, but as I recently discovered, my entire life. First while writing my book, I learned I had been working on Peace all of my life, but it had been internal, and then recently…
I’m now enrolled in another class with my mentors Jean Houston and Claire Zammit. They’re world renowned teachers — look them up if you are unfamiliar, it will be the best present you ever give yourself to become deeply immersed in their teachings. It’s called “The Influencer’s Masterclass.”
A recent exercise was for us to look at our past careers and life experiences. I was surprised to remember my college degrees had been in change management (give me a break — I graduated from U.S.C. in 1980 with my B.S. and 1996 with my M.B.A. — it was a long time ago) and I had spent years transforming corporations doing system implementations, different than world change, but change nonetheless.
Another revealing question Claire asked us to ask others was —what are your gifts? I think this is a question we all should take a deep breath, perhaps grow appendages most often associated with the male species, and ask our close friends and relatives. It might feel extremely awkward, but it’s a profound question that I’m sure to which you deserve to hear the answer.
Their responses were a profound gift. Not only those from close relatives, but I’ve always known friends are the family you choose. Given what they said — well I could die tomorrow and know my being here on this planet made a difference in their lives, and I’m grateful to Claire for having us pose the question.
While on break something funny happened — although my husband would describe it in another way. I walked over to the window and looked up, and through my sunglasses I saw a rainbow — no small accomplishment on a bright sunny day. I got excited because in our family, whenever we see a rainbow it means my deceased mother-in-law is saying hello. I ran over to my husband, “Come see this, it’s amazing! Honey, I looked out the window into the sunny sky and saw a rainbow. It’s your mom saying, Hi!
My husband shook his head, “Did you ever hear of polaroid sunglasses?” Well he can think what he wants and so can I. I was glad Lucille had come along on our retreat with us : )
During the final World — Atzilut, we started with a prayer that spoke to me in many ways. It called up our
ancestors, nature and the beauty of creation. The following lines rang so true for me they seemed that they had been carried by angels:
Bring to your mind one thing you want to offer to the world.
Imagine holding it up above your head, and the universe taking it
And spreading it everywhere.
Think of three things you are thankful for.
Notice the perfection of the moment.
Feel its completeness.
Feel its Peace.
I couldn’t help but think of my book and my hope to bring more Peace — another synchronistic gift arriving during the service. It also sounded strangely like another Jean Houston exercise from my class called the Terma. As I said, synchronicities in my life abound.
During the Amidah, the Silent Prayer I always do my own thing, it’s my private time with the Universe. I always first begin with what I realized fairly recently was my own prayer:
Please heal my body mind and soul,
Let me see clearly with my eyes,
Let me smell anything fishy,
Let me listen intently to the other person with my ears,
And let me always live from my heart.
Let our blessed ancestors help me.
Let my life be a benefit to generations to come.
Keep the bond within my family strong.
Then if I have anything else on my mind, I ask for guidance. This is how I choose to spend this sacred time for prayer, with my own rather than reading one from our prayer books.
This being the final “world” where one recognizes God — I wondered if I ever would “reach” this surety. I knew I had changed and grown over the years, but would I ever be able to be confident in my heart that I knew God existed? Never would I believe in a male-depicted figure with a white beard, but could I believe in my kishkas (insides) that such a Universe of spirituality was real?
So I asked the rabbi the question I had been struggling with and his answer was that for all of us it was a process, not an end game and whatever it was, it was just right. I took a sigh of deep relief — I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re on our own path…
The Torah passage, Parshat Yitro, “Understanding Revelation and Receiving Torah” was discussed both from a biblical context to a more modern interpretation.
How do we open ourselves beyond our own boundaries? Living as finite beings, how do we open to the Divine? In meditation, we want to disidentify with our boundaries and go deeper…In our prayers can we go beyond the separateness of our bodies and expand to connect with each other and the world beyond?
Did God give the Torah to humans so He/She could experience a relationship with us? Is Godliness in each of us? The danger of boredom is that it makes us stop paying attention. As we seek the top of the mountain, we will find the beauty is in the journey.
After our meditative lunch, we did a walking meditation. Individually choosing a short path and carefully, very slowly, taking small steps concentrating on each movement — the rise of your leg from the ground to the air, the feelings of the stretching of your leg out and the planting of your foot and toes on the next spot on the ground…lift and repeat…to the end of the path you had chosen then turn and go back again, and then repeat. It was an interesting experience that took patience to achieve. Our rabbi had commented that it was at a seminar that he had the pleasure to watch the grace of Thich Nhát Hánh as he practiced his own walking meditation. By the reactions I heard from a few of our fellow participants, this was a more difficult exercise to accept gracefully.
Afterwards a number of us chose to go on a long 1 ½ mile (one way) steep hike literally the “High Road,” up to what is called “House of the Book,” the largest hall on campus — the futuristic, cylindrical building serves as a performance hall and library.
Once I heard that Star Trek had been filmed in the hills at the top, I was committed given our family’s history with the series. It turned out “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” and Lore’s Borg compound in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Descent” were filmed here. It was hot, sweaty and a difficult ascent, but doable.
In the afternoon Shabbat study, we spoke about God hiding in the “hindrances.” Once again I took note of the good often found in our difficulties. We also discussed the five Buddhist hindrances and how they confronted our attempts at meditation:
- Desire: not content with what one has and wanting something else.
- Aversion: not wanting what one has.
- Sleepiness: wanting to check out due to tiredness, not wanting to deal with something or habit — as soon as we get tired, we want to nap.
- Restlessness (Shpilkes): Can’t settle in —nervous energy as a way to avoid.
- Doubt: Is this meditation thing really going to work and is it worth my time?
We further discussed the belief that the lowest of low who struggles and has to reach for God, gets further than the person who is already spiritually uplifted and doesn’t have to struggle.
Saturday night’s dinner was admittedly not as consciously consumed as proscribed (oops, it’s hard to keep that awareness going when you finally can talk after a long drought : ) Then Havdalah (the service ending the Sabbath). I always love seeing the smoke and hearing the sizzle from the braided candle as it goes out as it is dipped in the wine.
Afterwards, our temple member, Ellen Prince, who is a professional choreographer led this group of Jews in a meditation of movement. Can I add we all took comfort that as we moved we were instructed to keep our eyes closed : ) What was amazing was the ease, freedom and safety we all felt as we were instructed to feel the music according to Gabriel Roth’s Five rhythms:
- Flowing — Connect to the Earth
- Staccato — Expressing the heart
- Chaos — Emptying the mind
- Lyrical — Awaken the soul
- Stillness — Embodying the spirit — still point
I was personally relieved that none of us crashed into one another. It was a gathering of joy, spirit and safety…L’Chaim (To Life)!
On Sunday, when we entered into our final session, there was the rabbi and a few others sitting on his
meditation pillow, wrapped in Tefillin — a tiny leather box affixed atop his head and arm, and another leather strap wound around his arm — something that always takes me aback and is out of my normal comfort zone. It always seems to me, and I hope a lightning bolt doesn’t strike me down, more appropriate for a heavy metal concert than an extremely pious, religious act. But nonetheless, the rabbi explained the Torah portions placed within the boxes and the meaning, and it once again at least made more sense to me.
Finally, we had our Closing Circle, filled with personal discoveries and deep gratitude and we were bound for home.
I suppose after reading this very long article, some of you feel as if you were actually there all three days. I hope you can come on our next meditation retreat and as always, I invite you to Join Me On My Journey…