Sometime back in 2005 I went on my first mindfulness retreat, though it wasn’t the first retreat I ever attended. That first retreat happened when I was in 11th grade at an all-boys Catholic High School. My first two years there had been painful; looking back I was likely in a depressive episode. I had a life-changing traumatic experience shortly before starting 9th grade and I did not really begin to recover until that retreat in 11th grade. But I’ll save that story for another time.
My next retreat did not occur until I was in my mid-30’s and I was the retreat co-leader, not simply an attendee. In hindsight I realize that I did not really know what I was doing, but fortunately my co-leader did, and we pulled off a good retreat. From that event in 1989 until 2006 I either led or was the co-leader in four or five retreats per year, all to support people making a religious conversion to Catholicism. These retreats were good experiences for me as well and clearly instrumental in my decision to leave my corporate sales career and begin graduate work towards an MS and PhD in Pastoral Counseling starting in 1995.
After I completed my Masters in June of 1997 I was preparing to begin my PhD work when my mentor at Loyola College in Maryland, Dr. Joe Ciarrocchi, handed me a copy of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book “Full Catastrophe Living.” He smiled his quiet smile and said “You might like this. I’m not into this Buddisty stuff, but I know you are.” I devoured the book and concluded that mindfulness training, the topic of the book, would become an important part of my clinical work both as a therapist and, a few years later, as a counselor educator. Mindfulness also had a tremendous impact on my spiritual journey, and continues to be an important part of daily living.
I spent a lot of time and energy learning to teach mindfulness along with cultivating a regular practice. An important part of this training was attending meditation retreats. The second mindfulness retreat I attended, seven days of guided silence and stillness at the Omega Center in Rhinebeck, NY in 2005, led to an important realization resulting from an unexpected experience, which is the initial subject of this essay.
The first full day of the retreat began on a warm summer morning at 6 am in a large meditation hall filled to capacity with about 90 people. We spent six hours in a combination of sitting meditation, walking meditation, yoga/stretching meditation, and lying on the floor doing body scan meditation. As my mindfulness practice was pretty new to me it was a demanding morning. At noon we were instructed to remain in silence for the next two hours, including while in the dining hall. Our silence was to include “modesty of the eyes;” that is, avoiding making eye contact along with avoiding all speech. This didn’t phase me, though, as I had begun to truly cherish the silence of our meditations that morning and the inner stillness I was experiencing. However, I was about to learn that the retreat you expect is not always the retreat you get and, perhaps, need, and my teacher was an octogenarian whose husband of many decades had recently died.
Barbara was a psychologist practicing in a large mid-Atlantic city. She was short; actually she was small in stature, someone you might miss in a crowd if you didn’t look carefully. Tastefully dressed, noticeably so for a meditation crowd, she walked up to me as the crowd filed out of the meditation hall as if she already knew me. It was a very intentional approach, or at least it seemed to be. I felt her presence immediately; she was strolling alongside me, close enough that we could have held hands. After only a few steps she looked up and said softly “hello, my name is Barbara.” I think if it had been anyone else in the crowd breaking the silence I would have reacted in some way, but for reasons forever unknowable to me I did not react at all, except to look down toward her face, smile, and say softly “hello, I’m Jim.” We did not speak again while walking the short distance to the dining hall, but we walked together and I understood that we would be sitting together.
After going through the buffet line and finding a table Barbara began to tell her story. She had spent the better part of her life working as a therapist and had never retired in the formal sense of the word, only slowing down in her later years. Her husband had died a few months ago; her grief felt overwhelming. She was nearly whispering to me throughout that long lunch together. Her husband, also a psychologist, had been her lover, the father of their children, her work colleague, her best friend. I thought of a quote from Montaigne: “One soul in two bodies.” It was that kind of relationship.
We were back to the meditation hall by 2 pm and moved our cushions and mats to be next to each other. Each day we meditated in close proximity, and at each meal we told our stories to each other, always in hushed tones out of respect for the intention of the retreat to practice silence and stillness. Gradually during the week we were joined by others, who listened and told their stories as well. This small, emerging group shared intimacies, many joyful, some sad, all meaningful to each of us. Our shared stories were illustrations of our humanity, and naturally a deep connection was formed, one brimming with affection. Oddly none of us felt in violation of the retreat strictures, though clearly we were. Looking back I suppose that we were committed to a sort of quiet authenticity that simply felt congruent with the intention of the retreat.
After six days the silence of the retreat was broken. It felt as though the 90 attendees filled the meditation and dining hall with peace and joy, which spread throughout the pathways and open areas of the retreat center. Barbara and I now laughed out loud together, and joined a group slurping ice cream cones at the convenience shop on campus. The next day we said our goodbyes without pretending that we would stay in touch. What we shared needed the context of a retreat, and we both were returning to the lives and circumstances we had left behind just one week earlier.
Two nights ago, roughly 16 years after meeting Barbara, I went walking in the dusk hours of a late autumn evening. It was cold and breezy. I’ve grown to love my afternoon and evening walks. In the morning I walk and trot for exercise; aerobic activity feels good to me and is likely good for my health. But later in the day, especially in the late fall and winter, I walk without any particular purpose. I stroll along; the French word flâneur comes to mind, usually translated as a “stroller, a loafer, or a saunterer.” Naturally, since it is a French word, it has additional connotations, including being seen as “an ambivalent figure in an urban setting, wandering as if detached from society in order to be a keen observer of contemporary life.” I’ll admit to the intention to be a keen observer, however neither detached nor ambivalent. I suppose I just like the sound of the word.
In any case I wandered on the grounds of a nearby high school campus, walking slowly and enjoying the feeling of the cold air on my face and the soft light of the early evening. Autumn light has a milky quality to it; the low angle of the sun throughout the day refracts through the clouds, which seem to be smeared across the sky, hanging lower and darker than summer clouds. The light is comforting to me, more of a glow than a shine, and when the moon is out its reflected light creates an aura that veils its visible contours and edges. I want to walk slowly in this chilled air, this softened light; I want to be able to remember it for days afterward. If life presents moments of loss and despair, and with them feelings of isolation, it also offers us moments of transcendence and fulfillment, with feelings of deep interconnectedness. These walks present this possibility to me: that the moment of connectedness is now.
There is a hill on this property. From this hill, looking east, the lights of a long suspension bridge many miles away shine. Further south you can see a refinery at work; not a pleasant place but its lights are still an attraction and draw the eye. Standing on this hill the breeze became the wind, and the coldness stung but also made me more aware of how pleasant the warmth of my insulated jacket felt; there are always reminders of the inherent balance in all lived experiences.
As I walked through the north parking lot of the school, having turned west with this hill behind me, my eye was drawn upward by a movement framed against the orange tinge left by the already set sun. It was a bird, a large bird, flying low with wings fully outstretched but quite still at the same time. At first I thought it might be an owl or a hawk, but there was no way to tell as it was only seen as a blackened outline against the night sky. The tips of its wings were like outstretched fingers; though it was gliding quickly there was a complete stillness of its body at the same time. It seemed to float. It moved quickly above and past me toward the east, toward the hill and the lights of the bridge and refinery. As it reached the break of the hill it moved its “fingers” ever so slightly, as if gesturing softly and silently, to effect a slight change in direction. It flew on into the night. I stood and observed as keenly as I could.
Then my mind resumed activity; my first thought was “how exhilarating it must be for that creature to soar aloft on the breeze, into the night sky, unfettered by gravity and time.” But that was an error on my part, for to be exhilarated requires some element of novelty, perhaps even the occurrence of something unexpected. For me, soaring into the sky on a commercial flight is exhilarating, but walking along slowly, though pleasant, was not. Could it be that the familiarity of the experience of soaring flight for this bird had taken away any semblance of exhilaration for it? Perhaps this bird looked down at me and thought “look at how smoothly that creature strolls along, how quickly and easily he masters bipedal movement. If only I could do the same!” I realized this all in a moment while standing in the parking lot, and when I resumed walking I noticed my walking with new eyes, and for a moment I knew what it takes to be a flâneur of the inner world. My mindset had shifted from passively noticing my surroundings to actively noticing and embracing what if felt like to walk, as if I had never walked before. This “walking for the first time” experience was, in a way, exhilarating. I can’t remember when I’ve felt more connected to all that is within and outside of me than that moment.
Thomas Merton began his spiritual classic “Seeds of Contemplation” with these words:
“Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.”
As I walked toward home two nights ago I began to think about meeting Barbara so many years ago. I had been reminded of that meeting when talking with my sister earlier that day. She had just completed a retreat and had experienced the “retreat you need, which may not be the retreat you expect.” Like my time with Barbara, my sister had spent much time with a beloved friend and though neither of them maintained the silence of the retreat, they found the inner stillness they sought in the communion of their hearts. Hearing my sister’s story brought back the memory of my retreat years ago and the communion of hearts that Barbara and I had experienced. The feeling of that connectedness with Barbara was waiting for me in the moment of experiencing that soaring silent bird, and then my own strolling, silent walking. These moments appear spontaneously, as Merton points out. These moments are waiting, but not waiting for our arrival, but rather waiting for our awakening. And that awakening is not only the awareness of what is happening, but it is awareness in the mind filled with curiosity, openness, and acceptance.
Today I walked again. The air was cold, but it was my morning walk and my intention was task-oriented. I walked quickly, elevating my heart rate and breaking a sweat. It felt good. Later today I will walk again. I will not be looking for any birds flying along or another meditator waiting to join me in my strolling. I will not be looking for anything, but I will be open to seeing everything and practicing this art of “seeing with new eyes.” And whether I notice them or not, in each moment of my walk, indeed in each moment of my life, “germs of spiritual vitality” will be present.
A final thought to share. If you look up the definition of “retreat” you’ll find a curious collection of meanings. First, it is both a noun (“the retreat of the army was well organized”) and a verb (“the army retreated rapidly in the face of strong opposition”). It has a military connotation, as evidenced above, but also a spiritual connotation. Isn’t that curious? While a “retreat” can be an escape to fight another day, it can also be withdrawal into a quiet or secluded space for prayer and meditation. In either case one is renewed and fortified after retreat. In the case of the army in retreat, the soldiers are rested and ready to fight anew. In the case of persons on retreat, they return rested and ready to engage the world with openness and compassion. Quite a range of meanings for one word!
What would be the effect in your life if you looked at each day as having opportunities to be on retreat? Could a short walk at lunch be experienced with “new eyes,” noticing the “germs of spiritual vitality” that are omnipresent for us? Might a quiet lunch, consumed alone, become a time of solitude and thoughtful prayer? Is it possible to quietly meditate on the breath while driving home or even sitting on the bus? What is possible in your one short amazing life? The germs of spiritual vitality await your awakening!