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Monthly Archives: January 2011

The roads were closing.  Outside of the Double Tree Hotel, a snow storm had swept its way across the mountains and was pummeling the quiet streets of Durango, Colorado.  I sat with my bags in the lobby, staring out of the window.  I was heading to a meditation retreat at Tara Mandala retreat center in the mountains of Colorado.  I had flown in the night before, spent the night wandering the streets by myself in a strange town.  I ate a wonderful meal at a local restaurant, then went back to the hotel in the late evening and said my goodbyes to people, as there would be no communication in the mountains.

I got picked up by a middle-aged woman with gray hair named Susie and a Dutch man named Kilian.  Susie was short, wore black pants and a sweater, and had an aged and wise look about her, like an old Native American sage.  Kilian was tall and slender and jolly.  He had a light aura about him, and offered to carry my bag.  Outside, the snow fell relentlessly on the town.  Susie’s 4-wheel drive had its work cut out for it.  We made our way up the two-lane highway.  I could barely see fifty feet in front of me, but I felt a calm and soothing energy from Susie and it made me comfortable.  We stopped at a natural food store so Susie could get some food for the trip and then began to make our way on the 60-mile drive to Pagosa Springs, Colorado.  My mood matched the weather; just as I couldn’t see my surroundings but knew the car was driving, I too had no idea what to expect, but observed myself on the way to a five-day meditation retreat.  The ride up was full of introductions.  “So what brings you here?  What brought you to a spiritual path?  Have you done previous retreats?  What do you expect?”  My answers were brief and to the point.  Because of the age difference between Susie and Kilian and me, I had to fight off a feeling of separation and make an attempt to share myself honestly and openly.

As we made our way up the mountain to Tara Mandala, the first thing I noticed was that we were in the middle of nowhere.  There was no civilization for miles, just vast white mountains and trees—Spruce, Fir, Ponderosa.  We pulled into the long driveway of Tara Mandala and I saw the temple peering from between the trees in its large red snow covered glory, reaching up at the sky.  It was beautiful, strong, silent.  We began the registration process and got the schedule for the week.

7:00 a.m. to 8:00 – session (sessions consist of a different ratio of sitting meditation, walking meditation, and teachings from Jack Kornfield and Cynthia Jurs).

8:15 to 9:00 – breakfast

9:00 to 10:00 – karma yoga (each retreatant was given a job to perform on the land—washing dishes, shoveling snow, sweeping the floor, etc)

10:00 to 1:30 – session

1:45 to 2:30 – lunch

2:30 to 3:30 – karma yoga

3:30 to 5:30 – session

5:45 to 6:30 – dinner

6:30 to 7:30 – karma yoga

7:30 to closing – session

What struck me initially was the amount of time that would be spent in session, a combined 8 ½ hours or so.  I went to my room, and prepared myself for the first night’s session.

I walked up a snowy hill to get to the temple.  It was glowing in the night sky.  From between the snow flakes and trees stood the beautiful temple, with dim light poking its head out of the windows, delicately illuminating the surrounding trees.  There was an energy to the temple that was different, that eventually I would come to know quite well.  Inside was equally impressive.  The walls were covered with intricate art; large red pillars stood strong in the main hall, pictures of the building’s architect and the Lama who founded Tara Mandala adorned the walls.  Meditation cushions and chairs lined the floor, and two seats in the front with a desk and lamps for the teachers, Jack and Cynthia.  I took my seat on a chair, took a deep breath, and prepared to see Jack, a man whom I felt a deep connection with, a man who has changed my life through his words and his voice.  He walked in the temple, dressed in slacks, a button down shirt, a vest, and a jacket.  Hardly the monk’s robe and halo that I had been picturing.  He was a tall, thin, balding Jewish man with a mustache, resembling my deceased grandfather Irving.  But he walked with a presence and attention to his steps that captured my attention.  He had a slight grin, and a light and airy presence to each step, to each glance, to each gesture.  It was as if each movement was intricately planned, carefully thought of, and perfectly executed.  It was beautiful to watch.  He sat down and began to organize a stack of papers; poems, short stories, teachings.  Cynthia then walked in in a long dress, long white hair, elegant and shamanic, like a mystic.  There was something about the two of them that was undeniable.  A peace, a presence, a beauty, a grace.

The first night was an introduction to what we would be doing on the retreat.  We would be doing wisdom practices and heart practices, through a combination of intense sitting and walking meditations and teachings.  And I was to remain silent throughout.  No communication, not even with eye contact.  The prospect of this was quite interesting to me, and I wasn’t too concerned, as I spend a lot of time in silence anyways, reflecting, contemplating, being with myself.  I did not know the depth of silence that was to come, and the immense challenges that would arise as a result.  We had some sitting meditation, and then Jack rang the bell to begin the period of silence for the retreat.  We then walked in silence down the hill to the dining hall.

During the meal, I felt incredibly awkward.  Here I was, in a room of fifty people, eating in silence.  All I could hear was the clink and clank of forks on plates and the slurp of tea entering mouths.  I was nervous and I did not know what to do with myself.  Do I look around at people?  Do I stare at my food?  Do I eat slowly so people think I’m deeply contemplating the nature of squash?  My mind was a mess.  I gulped down my food and got the hell out of there as quickly as I could, smiling to myself on the way to the room, thinking, “This is gonna be a weird fucking retreat.”

The first session consisted of some more seated meditation and some teaching on mindfulness from Jack.  He described the nature of the retreat, the purpose of the retreat, and some of the challenges we may face.  He told us that we live in a culture that is afraid of solitude, and condemns the sacred.  It’s a culture that tells us through advertising that we are not good enough as we are, that encourages the accumulation of materials, and denigrates the gathering and cultivating of kindness and spiritual wealth.  We come on retreat to find what is true for ourselves.  We create a container within which our natural compassion, loving kindness, and wisdom can flourish and begin to peer through the veil of advertising and material gain and separation and violence and weapons.  We face our humanity, both the immeasurable suffering and the unbearable beauty, with an open heart and mind.  We don’t hide from it.  We don’t search for answers outside of ourselves.  We turn our focus and our gaze inward, to see what is really true, to find out who we are.  We do this in silence.  We do this to wake up.  We do this to slow down.  We sit in the center of our suffering and our joy, equally open and present for both, ready for what they have to teach us.

That night, I didn’t sleep at all.  My roommate, Kilian, was a snorer.  The bed was as big as my body.  I was in a strange place with strange people.  I was nervous.  I didn’t sleep.  The last thing I wanted to do at 6:45 in the morning was walk up a hill in 0 degree weather and pouring snow to go meditate for an hour.  I begrudgingly stumbled out of bed, and half-consciously slipped my clothes on with my beanie and walked outside.  It was still dark, and the snow was now feeling oppressive rather than gorgeous.  I entered the temple and took my seat.  We began a visualization practice.  I didn’t even come close to having the energy to visualize anything other than my warm bed at home.  I thought to myself, “I wish I drove my own car here so I could leave and end this hell.  What was I thinking?  Meditating all day in the freezing cold weather?  For five days?  Great Zack, another brilliant idea.”  Needless to say, the morning meditation was awful.  I walked down the hill to breakfast and sat again in awkward silence while shoveling oatmeal into my face.  I was bitter.  I was tired.  I was judging every single person.  “What a fake bitch.  God that guy is ridiculous.  I saw him last night rocking back and forth while meditating.  He thinks he’s so great.  You should relax buddy.”  It was nonstop.

It was then time for my karma yoga.  My job was to wash and dry the dishes of all fifty retreatants.  I had a team of about six people to help, and we were to perform this job in silence.  We all picked a station and began to work.  It went incredibly smoothly, and for the thirty or so minutes that I was cleaning, I felt really good.  We had great teamwork, and silently washed the shit out of those dishes.  We finished very early, bowed to each other, and I made my way back up the hill to my room.  In the dorm rooms, there were fellow retreatants sweeping the floors, vacuuming, cleaning the hallway sinks and toilets, shoveling snow outside.  It was beautiful to see.  All of these people happily and silently working, contributing to this beautiful land.  Then it was time for session.

It was the longest 3 ½ hours of my life.  Sitting meditation, walking meditation, listen to a teaching.  Sitting meditation, walking meditation, listen to a teaching.  I was unable to be present.  My judging thoughts kept racing.  My back and neck were throbbing already from the sitting, and I knew I wasn’t going to make it through the whole trip.  Outside, the snow was relentlessly falling.  I wanted the snow to stop.  It reminded me of being in Berkeley, where it would rain nonstop for weeks, and I would sit in my car cursing the clouds.

After another awkward silent lunch, it was time for afternoon session.  I had spent thirty minutes in my room stretching my body and my back was feeling a bit looser.  We continued with the foundations of mindfulness; mindfulness of the body, of the feelings, of the mind, of the dharma (dharma meaning the truth, the way things are, that things arise and pass, arise and pass).  This is a practice I have been engaged in for some time now, and I relaxed into it.  I began to get more present.  My judging mind quieted down a bit.  I realized I was sitting ten feet from a man whom I had listened to in my car every morning and every afternoon for months now.  I’d read his books.  I’d adopted his teachings.  He’d changed my life.  And here he was, sitting ten feet away, meditating with me.  And here these fifty people were, sitting quietly, looking inward, deepening their wisdom, dedicated to waking up, to living peacefully, to loving kindness.  And here I was, on a mountain in Colorado, not knowing anybody, ready to bring in the new year by being present and awake, by facing life in its entirety.  I became overwhelmed by the enormity and the beauty of it.  My breathing became more spacious, more expansive.  The space of awareness grew larger, and larger, and soon the small things that were affecting my perception began to melt into the background, completely extinguished by the presence of the moment, by the attention to the breath.  And I remembered why I meditate.  I remembered the many times over the past years when I sat with silence and the little things melted away.  I remembered my perspective growing, and the suffering and pain of my life shrinking to something almost negligible.  “Small potatoes,” as Jack would put it.  A smile appeared on my face.  I became lighter.  I continued to breathe.

Before dinner, Jack let it be known that it was Cynthia’s birthday.  “I’d like us to do something for Cynthia’s birthday.  Maybe we should sing a song.  We could sing happy birthday but that’s so corny.  I’ve got it.  We’re going to sing a wise song, a nursery rhyme.”  Jack then began to sing, “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.  Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily.  Life is but a dream.”  Soon, all fifty of us were singing.  “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.  Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily.  Life is but a dream.”  We sang with care.  It was beautiful.  Cynthia sat and wept, listening to us.  We naturally faded out, and Jack, so wisely, looked at Cynthia and said, “A teaching for you on your birthday.”  It was brilliant.  Though I had had a breakthrough, I was sure it wouldn’t last.  And I was right.  The evening session dragged on and Cynthia guided some visualization meditation that I didn’t connect with.  I was ready to go back to the room and go to bed, and I removed myself completely from the last portion of the session.  I went to bed again a bit bitter, clinging on to those few moments of peace I had, though there were already far out of reach.

That night, I slept a bit better thanks to two Benadryl and shoving the ear plugs so deep in my ears that I felt them in my brain.  The following morning, one of the retreatants decided to shovel snow from the entryway at 5:00 a.m.  Though we were in silence, I considered breaking it to go outside and ask the guy if he was serious, or if he was just joking about the whole shoveling at 5:00 a.m. thing.  I was curious to know what the hell could be going through his mind, and if he needed some help, perhaps some medication.  But, I didn’t.  I lay there with resentment and flushed face.  I attempted to use the sound as a practice.  I heard Jack in my mind saying, “The sound isn’t doing anything.  Just being a sound.  Who is upsetting you?  What are you attached to?”  I told Jack to shut his mouth and slammed the pillow on my face.  Soon, it was time to go to morning meditation.  It was New Year’s Eve, but that didn’t matter to me at that time.  Again, I was upset, tired, dry from the Benadryl, groggy, and wanted to go home.  I slept through the morning meditation.  It was still relentlessly snowing.  I trudged down the hill, ate my silent breakfast, silently cleaned the dishes, and stumbled again to the next session, thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe what a waste this is.”

The long session that day was loving kindness practice, another practice I had been working with for some time.  Hearing Jack teach it was amazing.  His voice flows, so smooth, such ease, such calm.  Each syllable is its own lullaby.  When you’re present for it, you melt into this space where you are a child and your protector is singing you to contentment.  He began to lead a loving kindness meditation.  Halfway through, I opened my eyes to look at him.  His eyes were closed as he was guiding us.  His hands danced through the air as he spoke, like he was the conductor of a beautiful orchestra of words.  And he was.  I looked at him in awe.  I could see how deeply he felt each word.  It was effortless.  The words released themselves from inside of him with such ease.  When you live what you teach so truly, with such dedication, your teachings have their own dance.  All you have to do is create the dance-floor, to make the space.  And he is a master at that.

I proceeded to have a wonderful period of meditation, where I was present with the breath, with the body, with the feelings, with the mind.  I was sending loving kindness out to my family, to my friends, to the woman I didn’t know at the natural food store on the way up, to the people that have hurt me.  Again, I was able to break through the judgment, the bitterness, the pain in my body, the cold, to reach that place in me that is secure in every situation, in every moment.  My mind quieted down, my heart opened up.  I laughed again at the dance, the ups and downs of the two days, the extreme highs and extreme lows, all in silence.

After dinner it was time for the New Year’s Eve ritual and meditation.  We would be in the temple from 8:00 until after midnight.  I was eager to see what Jack had planned.  By this point, the two days of meditation had begun to take effect.  I was feeling open, present, aware.  There became a space between my environment and my reaction to my environment.  There was a gap of mindfulness that created a sense of care and tenderness with each movement.  If I had an itch, my arm didn’t shoot up in an unconscious reaction to make it go away.  I paused, noticed I had an itch, and, if I wanted to, decided to scratch it.

As I walked up the hill to the temple, the mountains were beginning to look more majestic, more beautiful.  I stuck my tongue out and let the snowflakes gently fall into my mouth.  I smiled and played.  If my mind began to judge or complain, I chose not to pay attention it.  At the front of the temple, Jack and Cynthia had created a giant bonfire.  Bright yellow flames shot up out of the snow.  Pillars of gray smoke slithered into the sky.  My fellow retreatants were gathered around the flames, and I joined.  In silence, we stood and watched the fire for some time.  I knew in my gut and in my heart that it was going to be a special night.  Once inside, Jack gave a beautiful talk about the new year, about the changing of seasons, about renewal and making vows.  We had a wonderful period of silent meditation, followed by walking meditation.  When it was time to start the ritual, I was feeling as calm and centered as I ever have.  Jack dimmed the lights in the temple, and began to play a record of a Lama chanting in a beautiful tone to the background of a soft piano.  I closed my eyes and noticed the lump in my throat.  When you are present, truly present, truly quiet, your environment has a profound effect on you.  You can hear with great detail the intricacies of someone’s voice.  You can hear the delicacy of the fingers that press the piano keys.  It is quite moving.

Jack asked everyone to line up just outside the main hall.  We would enter the hall, one at a time, and he would bless us to begin the ritual.  The blessing consisted of Jack dipping a piece of a plant into a bowl of water, and touching you with the water and wishing you New Year’s blessings.  I began to get nervous.  Jack Kornfield was going to bless me on New Year’s Eve.  My heart began to race, and I was thinking of what I could do to impress him.  Perhaps I would bow incredibly low, or walk up with this amazing presence that he would inevitably feel.  He would have to be impressed.

It was my turn to receive his blessings, and I approached Jack and Cynthia delicately and we bowed to each other.  We looked into each other’s eyes for a brief moment.  Jack smiled and began to rub the plant on me.   “Many blessings.  New Year’s blessings.  Happiness blessings.”  What he did next took me completely by surprise.  He took his hand and put it on my chest, then patted my chest gently, smiled, laughed, dipped the whole plant in water and poured water in my face and on my head, all the while laughing his light and airy laugh, like a feather falling from the sky.  I closed my eyes because of the water, and laughed with him.  I then went to my seat.  I felt the cool water all over my face and on my head.  I heard the Lama’s voice and the soft piano.  I began to cry.  I could not stop crying.  For ten minutes, I wept.  I was not sad.  I was incredibly moved.  I don’t know what Jack did, or what the pat on the chest was about.  Part of me thinks he saw right through me; saw right through the muscles and the effort, the bending and the pulling, how hard I am on myself.  He pat me on the chest, as if to say, “There there.  You know everything is fine.  Everything is totally fine.  Don’t try too hard.  Just be you.  It’s more than enough.  There there….”  And then, dipping his entire plant in water, spraying me in the face.  “Lighten up.  Be light and airy.  Do your dance.  There there.”  I had never experienced such a moving moment, one that moved me to so many tears.  I’ll never forget it.

Soon the tears stopped flowing, but the intensity of that eight second interaction stayed with me.  Jack then led us through a period of silent meditation and instructed us to be quiet and allow our vows for the new year to emerge without our effort or our judgment.  As the vow let itself be known, we were to take out our special paper that he had given us and write it mindfully on the paper.  Jack and Cynthia then gave us each a candle to light.  We lit our candle and got into small groups.  Each person would step in the middle of the circle with their candle, announce their vows, and each member of the group would bow to them.  We then placed our vows with our candle anywhere we wanted in the temple.  Then began another period of meditation, followed by a chant to ring in the new year.  Everyone was given a bell to ring, and one member sat near a large drum.  After the chant, everyone rang their bell, or beat their drum.  It was a cacophony of sound, a barbaric yawp from a rooftop.  Jack signaled for us to stop.  It got incredibly quiet.  And in his light and airy way, with such care, with such tenderness, with such presence, he said, “Happy New year.”  It was the best New Year’s Eve I could have ever imagined.

The following day, I woke up to sunny and clear skies.  The vastness of the landscape made itself known.  Mountains and trees and snow as far as one could see, leading their way to more mountains, stretching themselves beyond the horizon.  The snow sparkled in the sun like a jewel.  The sparkle would follow you wherever you go.  It looked fake.  It looked like a movie set.  I went for morning meditation feeling happy and present.  It was January 1, 2011.  Happy New Year, Zack. After breakfast and washing dishes, Jack let it be known that there would be no teachings during session.  He wanted to allow us to contain the immensity and beauty of the New Year’s Eve ritual.  For the entire 3 ½ hour session, we would do 40 minutes seated meditation, 40 minutes walking meditation, one after another.  You would think I’d be daunted by the idea of 3 ½ hours of straight meditation.  I wasn’t.  I was open.  I was raw.  I had Suzuki’s beginner’s mind.  My meditations were deep and clear.  My judging mind had vanished, replaced by the ever-present rising and deflating of my belly, by the dance of emotions in my heart, by the experience of the moment.  The thoroughbred mind had been tamed, and I sat and walked in great peace and ease.  I went back and forth between mindfulness wisdom practices and loving kindness heart practices.  May you be safe and protected from inner and outer harm.  May you live your life with ease.  May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.  May you be truly happy and deeply peaceful. After the 3 ½ hours were up, I found myself not wanting to stop.  Each moment felt so precious.  I let go, and walked out into the snowy mountains singing softly in my head.  Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.  Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily.  Life is but a dream.

It was the last night of the retreat.  We had more teachings from Jack and Cynthia, and more in-depth and challenging meditations.  Jack introduced a teaching about natural compassion, that we each have inside of us a natural care for each other that gets swept under the rug of cultural differences and hatred and fear.  He talked about love and compared it to gravity, being this force that holds us together.  We try to fight it, and create ways to make ourselves different; political parties, us vs. them, all Arabs are terrorists, stereotypes, generalizations, all out of fear.  He spoke beautifully about the creation of the universe, how life started from a big bang from which all the materials that make up our bodies exploded into space.  We began together, as one, and love is the force, like gravity, that attracts us back together.  It was beautiful.  And we began the next practice.

As soon as he said, “Turn your seat to face your neighbor,” I just about hopped up and ran out of the room.  We began a twenty-minute period of meditation in which I stared into the eyes of the man next to me, who happened to be my roommate, Kilian.  Every atom in my body was screaming at me to run and hide.  From only a couple feet away, I sat and looked deeply into this man’s eyes.  I was so frightened.  I instantly went right back to childhood, where I spent my days hiding from the gazes of others, sinking into a feeling of separation and isolation.  I was right back there.  And then Jack’s voice came in, like an angel, like a God of compassion, and I felt the delicacy and tenderness of his voice like a gentle breeze, and I remembered the previous night, how he reminded me to do my dance, that I am okay.  And his voice continued, “I want you to look into the eyes of this person.  I want you to look as deeply as you can, with as much care and presence as you can.  I want you to contemplate the deep suffering in those eyes, the immeasurable suffering in those eyes.  I want you to see it.  Behind those eyes is a being that has struggled, that has fought, that has cried, that has shame, and guilt, and remorse.”  And within me, this great sense of compassion floated like a slow cloud through my heart.  It completely drowned out any self-centered fear that I had.  I looked deeper into Kilian’s eyes, and I felt his suffering, his immeasurable suffering.  I saw the shame.  I saw the guilt.  I could feel it.  I felt this amazing sense of care and concern, and I wanted to hug him, to tell him that it is okay, to tell him to do his dance.  My heart reached out to him, and I saw something beyond just a human body, beyond just two eyes.  I saw his soul, his spirit, and we sat there, present with each other, sharing the unison of a spirit that has suffered.

“Now, I want you to realize that behind those eyes is a being who has experienced immense joy.  A joy that is untouchable by any measure of suffering.  A pure, innocent joy.  A laughter.  I want you to contemplate that in those eyes, behind those eyes, is a being who has celebrated, who has rejoiced, who has given and received love.”  And all of a sudden, a tender smile emerged on my face, and on Kilian’s face, as our spirits now danced in the unison of shared joy.  I saw his joy.  I felt it.  And he felt mine.  For twenty minutes, I sat gazing into this man’s eyes, witnessing the spirit that is within each of us.  There is, inside of us, a natural compassion, a natural care, a deep sense of love.  Here I sat, with this absolute stranger, feeling such deep compassion and care, feeling so connected on a spiritual level.  When you strip away the advertising, the noise, the judgment, the clutter, and the fear, all you’re left with is this immense sense of interconnectedness, this profound sense of care and love for each and every person, because, really, they’re no different than you are.  They exploded from the same singularity that you did.

After more intense practices that night, where we touched our own suffering, re-lived moments of extreme grief and pain through meditation, and brought with us our sense of compassion and forgiveness that we had cultivated throughout the retreat, it was finally the end of the night.  My back was on fire.  It felt like there was an anaconda wrapped around my heck.  All of the sitting had taken a huge toll on my body.  Jack said goodnight to us, and welcomed any of us to stay in the temple and sit for as long as we wished on the final night.  I decided to do so.  Many people left, and I stretched for a bit and took my seat.  I planned on using the silence and the energy in the temple to investigate my pain, to sit with it for as long as I could, not resisting, not fighting, just being with it.  I was going to touch the pain with the same compassion I felt for Kilian.  I began to meditate, bringing a softening and presence to the pain.  I must have sat for at least an hour.  I became so focused that I could sense a thought coming before it actually came, and stop it in its tracks, going right back to the breath.  One of my teachers uses animals as an analogy to thoughts.  She says that to an untrained mind, thoughts are like elephants.  They come and sit on you and you’re weighed down for a long time.  To the trained mind, thoughts can be like fleas, appearing for the briefest second on your body, weightless, only to be brushed away with a simple gesture and presence of mind.  I continued to sit with the pain in my back that was now like a hundred daggers piercing my bones.  I sat with a smile, breathing in and out of it all.  I bowed, and concluded the meditation.  I looked up and saw one other person in the temple.  It was so quiet, and there was an energy in there that is indescribable with words.  As soon as I got up from my seat, I was made aware of the amazing amount of pain I was in.  My back clenched up and I fell to the floor.  After a period of stretching and groaning, I hobbled my hunched back out of the temple.

The snow was illuminated a beautiful white, and I imagined I would look up and see a full moon.  Quite the contrary, there was no moon visible in the sky, only a splattering of stars, like a celestial artist dipped a planet-size paint brush in silver and white and sprayed the sky.  I had never seen so many stars.  Bright, shimmering, gorgeous.  They twinkled and danced their dance.  I stood there in the freezing cold, neck tilted back, mouth wide open, in love with the dream of the sky.  I saw one shooting star after another.  I saw the Milky Way galaxy in its gray glory.  For a moment, I had the feeling and the thought that I was racing through space on a celestial ride.  And then I remembered that I was.  Stars above me, stars below me, no up, no down.  I stood there in the phenomenal silence; a silence so deafening that it made me lose my balance, a silence so vast that the sound of my eyes blinking was piercingly loud.  If I die right now, that would be perfectly fine. I began to spin around in circles, all while staring at the stars.  I had the feeling that I was in a funnel, spiraling through space, mouth and arms wide open.  I spun around, letting the stars make me dizzy.  I stumbled around in my dizziness, laughing out loud.  I was a kid playing.  Jack, I was doing my dance.

I went to sleep that night with a deep sense of calm and happiness.  In my head, a song played.  Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.  Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily.  Life is but a dream. I awoke the following day, sad to leave Tara Mandala.  After breakfast, we had more meditation and teachings from Jack and Cynthia about leaving the retreat and returning home, how we would bring the silence, the compassion, the presence back with us.  We were given saffron colored threads that had been blessed by Jack and we began a departing ritual. They were saffron to represent the color of the monks’ robes in Thailand, where Jack trained.  We would return to the world with our robes, to remind us of our practice.   We tied one knot in the thread to remind us to see the good and the spirit in everyone, just as I had seen with Kilian.  Another knot was tied to remind us not to harm ourselves or others with our actions, our words, our intentions.  And a third knot was tied.  Jack asked us to contemplate for a moment what the final knot would mean and it would be our own.  The third knot reminds me of my vows that I made on New Year’s Eve.  I placed the thread on my wrist and allowed a fellow retreatant to tie it, all the while chanting, “Namo,” a word symbolizing the recognition of the spirit in everyone.  We then bowed to each other.  Simple.  Humble.  Silent.

On the way home I contemplated the whole week.  It was almost too much to contemplate at once.  My heart was overflowing with raw joy and love and peace.  I wasn’t upset to return home.  I was looking forward to it.  I was eager to see how my world in Los Angeles would appear to me after the retreat.  I had didactic and the dentist the following day, and it didn’t matter.  The spaciousness that I cultivated on the retreat was infecting my whole soul.  “Small potatoes,” I kept thinking to myself.  During the ride to the airport, Susie, Kilian, and I shared our experiences.  We shared the extreme highs and the extreme lows.  We shared the joy of sitting with Jack Kornfield and Cynthia Jurs, and how special they are.  The three of us shared a deep connection, though we had only spoken a handful of sentences with each other on the way up and on the way down the mountain.  It was a connection beyond the type we were used to.  It was larger, more expansive.  It didn’t require language.  At the airport, we hugged, exchanged contact information, and said our goodbyes.

After a brief flight home, I walked out of the LA airport to a stream of loud noise and chaos.  People were being rude to each other, screaming, cursing, honking.  It was absolute madness.  I felt my pulse quicken and I sensed my heart getting smaller and tighter, protecting myself from Los Angeles.  I breathed into it.  Do your dance.  Everything is fine. I saw my father pull up in his 1985 Mercedes.  I had a wide smile on my face.  Jack told us, “Feel your joy even in the presence of hateful people.  Feel your calm even in the presence of chaos.  In a sinking ship, if everyone is panicked and scared, it is doomed.  But if even one person has presence of mind and calm, it is enough to carry the whole ship to safety.”  I got into the car, as a parking monitor screamed at us, “Get outta here!  This is for taxis only!”  angrily waving his hands in a gesture of hate.  I smiled, bowed to him, and waved my hand back, in a gesture of calm, non-reactivity, and kindness.  He looked at me for a brief second, then turned his head and looked the other way.

What a gift this life is.  This human life, filled with immeasurable suffering and unbearable beauty.  We all feel it.  We all know it.  We’re not different.  We all exploded from the same big bang. We’re made of the same stuff.  And here we are, with these hearts and these minds.  What, oh what will you do with yours?  Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.  Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily.  Life is but a dream.

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