I attended a daylong mindfulness retreat on Friday at my favorite mindfulness center. I am always renewed when I go there. The peaceful and rejuvenating atmosphere, the inspiring workshops, the wholesome meals, the lovely concerts, the restorative yoga and meditation classes, the beautiful woods hiding the stone labyrinth, even the little gift shop with unique books and items—everything leads me to contemplation and reflection. I have attended two Zentangle weekends, a mindful knitting retreat, and now this day of immersion in mindfulness and meditation, which I attended with my good friend, Mommy Goose.
I think the day was just what I needed. I’ve had a meditation practice for about 8 years now, starting with the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) meditations I learned during my first and most severe back issues in 2010 (when I couldn’t sit—or function for long periods of time--for almost 2 years because of chronic pain from spinal issues and a tailbone dysfunction.) I still find the MBSR approach to chronic pain one of the most potent tools I have when my back and tailbone issues flare. From there, I studied Buddhism and found that it really resonated with me—the focus on presence and compassion, the approach to suffering and the alleviation of suffering. I integrated a regular breathing practice and later a metta or lovingkindness practice.
But with the recent challenges of CPE, when I probably need meditation the most, my practice has been slipping. I have not volunteered for so many hours in a week since the children were born; it’s essentially an unpaid part-time job. Nor have I been engaged in coursework (with papers and readings etc) like CPE since I finished my classes for my Ph.D. almost 20 years ago. And I can see the obvious effect on our home life—laundry goes undone, as does the grocery shopping. We’re eating more take-out. And I’m struggling with issues of guilt—I’ve been late to take kids to activities, I’ve been gone on snow days, I had to rely on friends to pick up a child who missed the bus, which I know are issues that working parents regularly deal with, but it is new to us. While Mama and the kids are handling it all in stride and aren’t disappointed or critical, I am struggling at times.
As for the workshop, which I think both Mommy Goose and I really needed, I sat, watching my monkey mind, observing my breath, and could feel the anxiety pass away. I did a body scan and felt tight muscles relax. I practiced an alternate nasal breathing technique and felt my mind clear. I did a mindful eating exercise and paid attention to a meal for the first time in weeks. I was familiar with all of these exercises but hadn’t practiced in awhile, despite it being one of my learning goals. I had been sitting daily at hospice, breathing in the pain and grief of the patients, breathing out love and peace (the practice of tonglen), but I needed something different.
My favorite part was a mindful listening exercise with a focus on empathy. First, we sat with a partner and alternately shared a story while the other person listened deeply—no interruptions or advice, not even therapeutic nods or “uh huhs.” At the end we simply said, “I will remember this for you.” To be heard is such a deep gift. Then we stood, with one person’s eyes closed while the other looked into her face (we were all women) and gently touched her arm or shoulder while the teacher read, slowly, something like this: "This person, like me, has been happy and sad. This person, like me, has had hope and despair. (It went on like this for a bit) May this person, like me, be happy, healthy, safe, and free from suffering." To be seen by another and to see another, to acknowledge our shared humanity reminded me of why I was drawn to hospice work in the first place and why the first UU principle (about worth and dignity, a la the UU Golden Rule) is my guiding light.