Trusting the Path

by Nancy Murray

Recently, I was lucky enough to spend a weekend hiking in the beautiful Pocono Mountains. I love to hike as I am nurtured by being outside and I love to move. I have logged many miles in many different places, and each trip brings a different flavor. When I walk with friends or close family members, I feel complete connection, both to nature and to those I am with. Other times, I might be leading a group and am more concerned with the group’s safety and experience.

On this occasion, I was hiking with my husband, Hugh. We had been together for many miles, and my mind was able to slip into a meditative place. I noticed how hiking is so much like moving through life: some challenges, some easy parts with amazing beauty at every step if I just chose to pay attention. Also, if I simply settled down to notice, the path was so beautifully marked. Nothing to worry about, everything taken care of.

I was leading, as my pace is slower than Hugh’s, and he doesn’t mind going whatever pace I do but doesn’t want to leave me behind. This particular path was clearly marked by little arrows pointing the way – unlike most paths I have walked that require one to look carefully for painted blazes on trees or stacks of rocks above the tree line. As I was flowing up and down along this path, my mind in the zone, I looked up and laughed. In front of me was the funniest trail marking I had ever seen. One arrow going one way, the other pointing the other, so that it truly looked like we were being told to just stand still. What to do?

Well, just like when flowing through life when guidance is unclear, we stopped and we breathed. Slowly going up to the signs, it became clear that one set of arrows was for me and the other was simply for the people going the other way on the path. So, we continued on, the path leading us to more beauty and adventure.

Nancy Murray is the founding board chair and senior faculty at Copper Beech Institute, the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice. Copper Beech Institute offers more than 40 transformational retreats and courses, as well as mindfulness practice and mindfulness at work offerings to help you awaken to the beauty of your life.

If you are interested in being in nature as a spiritual practice, consider attending a hiking retreat with Mark Kutolowski , Earth and Spirit: Engaging with Nature as a Spiritual Practice, on October 23-25, 2015.

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A Vast and Enduring Love

by Angela Martin

My husband Rob and I have been traveling up and down the east coast this past week taking our two sons to college, and are now at Cape Cod for our annual August vacation. We are alone here, just the two of us, for the first time in twenty years. We are officially empty nesters – a title everyone is greeting us with, as August at the Cape is where the Martin family and our Cape Cod Clan have been migrating for more than six decades.

For us, Cape Cod is located 40 minutes east of the “Cape Cod” sign that is neatly trimmed into an evergreen hedge after the Bourne Bridge. Our Cape Cod is a cluster of simple cottages nestled on the edge of the bay on the Upper Cape. Without TV, wifi, or landline telephones, this place represents a deep connection for us: to our family and friends, to ourselves, and to the earth.

At summer’s end, Our Cape Cod serves as a place of renewal and a harbinger of fall. You can feel the cool air on your skin at night, you can see the earlier setting of the sun, you can sense in your very being that something is ending and something else is beginning. This year, these shores are ushering Rob and me to a new way of being. We are learning to love our youngest son as we do our oldest – from afar. My heart literally aches at the thought that life with our children as we once knew it is gone.

Breathe, I tell myself. Just breathe.

As you can see, I am not comfortable with this new role of empty nester, nor do I like the term, bristling every time I hear the words like the sound of nails on a chalkboard. I acknowledge that it is truth, but at the moment, I don’t exactly know how to be who I am now.

Well, that’s not it exactly. I haven’t changed – just my circumstances have.

The weather forecast for the upcoming week here at the Cape is a welcome parallel to my fluctuating emotions: a mix of sun, clouds, and some rain. Rob and I have just come in from a walk on the sandbars, the tide on its way in, and the foggy mist giving way to showers. This unsettled sky is how I’ve been these days: joyful at the thought of John’s new life one moment, a good soaking cry missing him and Ryan the next.

My spiritual life has been a safety net for me so often in life and it continues to be there for me now. Although my typically detailed prayers over the protection of my children in the classroom, on the field, in the car and on and on, have given way to a simple one-word prayer inspired by the writer Anne Lamott.

Help, I say with all that I am. Please, help.

It is hard for me to pray this way, as many of my friends are dealing with much tougher life experiences. But I see that I am hurting – and it feels good to acknowledge that. I am buoyed by my friends at Copper Beech Institute who remind me that the best I can do is be true to myself. To feel whatever it is I am feeling.

Rob summarized our circumstances best on the sandbars a few minutes ago when I asked him how he’s doing. “It’s like a piece of us is missing.”

“Yes, that’s how I feel too.”

And in the next moment it came to me here on this shore where Rob grew up as a boy and a generation later so did our kids – where we are growing up all over again as parents right now: “Do you know why it hurts so much, Rob?” I asked, the mist turning to a light rain. “It’s because we love them as deep and as wide as this bay – and we always will. That will never change.”

As I sit here now in our cottage, typing away and looking over the bay, the rain giving way to brightening late afternoon skies, I remember another lesson of love John taught me in the moment he came into this world. I worried when I was pregnant with John that I might not love him as much as Ryan.

How could I possibly love another child the way I love my first?

But the instant I held John in my arms I knew I could have 10 children and love them all equally.

A mother’s love is vast. A mother’s love is endless. A mother’s love can endure anything.

Today my love is stronger than the pain of separation. Today love wins.

How grateful I am for this awareness, for the love I feel and for the pain, for the gift of my husband and our two boys.

Thank you, my sweet men, for the gift of each of you.

Angela Martin is a writer, author, and director of marketing communications at Copper Beech Institute. She writes about the power of friendship and compassion – and her new journey as an empty nester.

Copper Beech Institute will host the retreat, “Mindful Parenting: Helping You Focus on What Matters Most,” to help parents, grandparents, and caregivers discover practical mindfulness tools to navigate and manage every age and stage of parenting. Commuters and overnight guests welcome.

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An Internship in Mindfulness

by Marah Warhaftig

“Ding…” the sound of the singing bowl reverberates throughout the room signaling the end of a group meditation. Sliding my glasses back onto the bridge of my nose, the shapes surrounding me come into focus to reveal the smiling faces of my co-workers. After sharing one more breath together, we discuss the first item on our agenda, “joys, concerns, and questions.” Whether our “joys, concerns, and questions” pertain to our workload, a review of the awkward moments of a recent vacation, or prayer requests for a sick family member, this agenda item is never constrained by its relevance to the rest of the meeting. We relinquish the pulls of the past and future so that we can be more fully engaged with the task at hand. In doing so, there is a heightened sense of connectedness in the group and our individual passion for a common cause fuels creative energy. This ritualistic opening to our status meetings is just one of many ways that Copper Beech utilizes mindfulness in the workplace.

When I first began working at Copper Beech, one of the first tasks I mastered was answering the phone. While this task seemed trivial for an individual who is qualified to do some rather sophisticated jobs (yes, I am talking about myself), I soon learned why it was awarded to the intern. During the height of retreat season the phone rings constantly and every call that goes to voicemail represents another item on the Retreat Administrator’s already long to-do list. As such, I got down my opening of “Good (insert time of day), Copper Beech Institute, this is Marah speaking” and was off and running.

After my first week, I began to anticipate that a large portion of my calls would have a similar theme: “I heard about you guys and I’m wondering, what is this thing called mindfulness?” After some trial and error, I refined a concise response to this question: “Essentially, mindfulness is the idea of being aware of the present moment, so instead of thinking about what happened in the past or planning for the future you can focus on what you are doing right now.” This reply worked pretty effectively because most people want more of this thing in their lives and to come to a place where they can get it! However, the question of just how to “do it” is a bit more complicated.

As a long time practitioner of meditation and the mindfulness teachings of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh I applied for an internship at Copper Beech because I was seeking answers to a similar question: how could I do more to incorporate mindfulness into my daily life, and more specifically, into my impending entry into the world of work as a counselor?

One of the great ironies of the work we do at Copper Beech (and many American workplaces) is engagement in an ongoing process of reviewing past results and planning for the future. Discussions revolve around how a retreat went, plans to promote upcoming retreats, and the constant pressure to fundraise and budget. Then, when a retreat is underway, a team of people forms what I like to call the “Great Copper Beech Machine.” I imagine that this machine looks like Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat, balancing a cup and a cake on the top of a hat, a fish bowl, a toy ship, some milk on a dish while hopping up and down on a ball (but that is not all!). While one volunteer is passing around the microphone in the Public Chapel, another volunteer is cleaning up the yoga mats in the Third Floor Classroom, the Retreat Administrator is preparing for a day retreat that is happening that same weekend, and the logistics go on…

In the midst of this hustle and bustle, it would be easy for faculty members and volunteers to leave the mindfulness learning to the retreat attendees and abandon the practice during work hours altogether. Fortunately, my time at Copper Beech has taught me that to do this would be not only terribly hypocritical, but it would actually decrease productivity. The simple practice of starting meetings with meditation and sharing exemplifies how Copper Beech utilizes mindfulness as a tool to shape the working environment. Reflecting back on my internship I know that my time at Copper Beech is meant to serve a larger purpose in my life and the life of others. As I enter a new workplace I will carry my mindfulness practice with me and use it at moments throughout the day to give myself a chance to breathe and reflect. I also hope to offer my co-workers and clients the same opportunity I was given as a member of the Copper Beech community – the space to be my most authentic self, experiencing my feelings, connections, and surroundings in the present moment.

Marah Warhaftig is a 25 year-old graduate student who will be finishing her Master of Science degree in Professional Counseling at Central Connecticut State University this spring. She is very grateful for her six-month internship experience with Copper Beech Institute.

Copper Beech Institute offers more than 40 transformational retreats and courses, as well as mindfulness practice and mindfulness at work offerings to help you awaken to the beauty of your life.

Learn more about Copper Beech Institute  l  Follow our Awaken Everyday Blog  |  Subscribe to Our eNewsletters  l  Come to a Retreat  l  Friend Us on Facebook  l  Follow Us on Twitter

Holding on to Summer

Summer is often the pause between the noise in our busy lives. We revel in the anticipation of vacation, of warmer weather adventures, and of days ruled only by a softened pace.

One of my favorite moments each summer is watching the sun sink lower in the sky while allowing for one last dip in the waves as they crash against the shore. I know these vacation days will all be memories soon and summer will come to a screeching halt. Soon, I will find myself packing lunches, helping with homework, and managing schedules. Soon, I will be calling for decent bedtimes instead of calling the kids out of the pool.

Meals will stop being thrown together with what is on hand or from the garden, like this year’s abundant basil, cucumbers and tomatoes. Instead, dinners will be calculated, planned and squeezed in between sports and ballet practice. Outfits and jackets and socks worn with shoes will take over. The outdoors will become less expansive within the shorter, crisp days and seem just out of reach from our busy lives filled once again with school, work, and other activities.

One of my favorite pauses this summer was writing letters to my teenage daughter at camp. I was able to share all the things in my heart that are sometimes difficult to say between nagging her for the third time to put her dishes in the sink and reprimanding her about draining our cellphone data plan. In these letters, I was able to share the pieces of me that I don’t often reveal to her, like letting her in on a secret club. I wrote about her many strengths and how much I love her. I delighted in taking time to sit and read her letters back to me, full of wide-eyed wonder at the world she is just coming to know.

As she begins her high school experience, I know the expectations, demands, and pressures will increase. I hope to remember to pause and take the time to write her a letter, simply as a reminder of all the wonderful things I love about her —maybe even writing to her when the air is thick between us and we each could use a moment of connection to get through a challenging time.

With the days of summer now numbered, my hope is to invite this pause into the hectic days ahead. I want to invite this stillness in. Make room for it. Welcome it and take a piece of summer with me through the months ahead.

I wonder what shape this pause could take in each of our own lives. Maybe it will be the deep breath needed before responding to a young child or the pause that teaches us to not fill uncomfortable silence during a difficult conversation. Perhaps we’ll learn to sit with undigested emotions that keep bubbling to the surface, or maybe we’ll skip the indoor sports practice to pause and enjoy a glorious autumn day as a family. Maybe it’s taking time to sit down for every meal, instead of eating in the car or leaning against the kitchen counter. Maybe the pause will be a blocked-off space on the calendar to schedule in that weekly yoga class that lets our heart sing.

What will your pause of summer look like in the cooler days ahead? I think mine will be setting aside time for the things that I love with a pace that reminds me of summer’s carefree attitude. I know I will need to continually invite stillness in to my life, though. This will allow me to find the pause I need before making a choice — those thousands of choices I make each day as a mom! Each decision will bring me closer to who I want to be in the moment, while evoking that feeling of sand beneath my feet, firmly connected to my days in the sun.

Kimberlea Chabot is the founder of a hyper-local resource for holistic living called LuckyPennyFound. Please visit www.luckypennyfound.com for more information. Kimberlea lives in West Hartford, Connecticut and considers her husband of 18 years and their three children to be both her greatest blessings – and her greatest challenge to living mindfully. Kimberlea is a regular contributor to the Copper Beech Institute blog, Awaken Everyday.

Copper Beech Institute is the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice located in West Hartford, Connecticut. We offer more than 40 transformational retreats and courses, as well as mindfulness practice and mindfulness at work offerings to help you find the calm, compassion and true happiness you seek.

Learn more about Copper Beech Institute l Follow our Awaken Everyday blog

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Learning to Fall

by Susan Nappi

“Mind and Body were originally one. Do not think that the power you have is the power you ordinarily use and moan that you have little strength. The power you ordinarily use is like the small, visible segment of an iceberg. When we unify our mind and body and become One with the Universe, we can use the great power that is naturally ours.”

— Koichi Tohei Sensei

I am sitting in seiza, an upright kneeling position traditionally assumed for meditation. My body is sore, a reminder that after a year of studying Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido, or Ki Aikido, I am still afraid to fall.

My formal aikido journey began last September when I learned that a nearby martial arts center, known as a dojo, was offering Ki Aikido, or “the way of harmonious spirit.” There is much written about the origin of this art but simply stated it is the unification of mind and body. In the western world, we have developed a false conception that mind and body are separate, but from the perspective of aikido, they are considered one and the same. Body and mind cannot exist independently, and living as though they are creates all kinds of problems for us.

It was a dream come true for me. As a child, I watched my older brother study martial arts and being his only and younger sibling, I was used for his practice (“grab my hand” would elicit an automatic wince). He told me about aikido, an art form particularly useful for girls, he said, because a smaller person could use the momentum of a larger opponent against him.

Maybe it was a deep-seated desire to finally be able to throw my older brother rather than a thirst for a deeper wisdom, but for years I kept a watchful eye for an aikido dojo. Having never taken a martial art (or done anything “martial” other than being a practice dummy), I was excited but completely intimidated. For the first few months, I came to class in yoga pants and a t-shirt, listening hard and spending much of my effort trying to perfect the movements by copying my teacher (my old dancer habits die hard). I wanted to be a good student. I learned quickly that Ki Aikido is less about the doing and more about the allowing.

My teacher, Mort Melman Sensei, is extremely patient and a very keen observer. He immediately emphasized our need to learn how to keep ourselves safe. I am not sure what I expected when I entered the dojo, but I assure you that rolling head first from a standing position was not what I had in mind when thinking about being safe. I reached a new level of petrified when I learned that this part of the practice was not optional but rather an essential part of the art. A proper fall is one of the most important aspects of safety – going with the flow of the energy in an attack rather than resisting, allowing the body to be guided by natural forces. At the beginning, this fall is performed very slowly. We were taught to position our hands in a circle, one hand facing the other, and roll over from the shoulder continuing to the hips, avoiding floor/head contact. Early slow and deliberate practice is essential so the movement becomes natural when techniques become more potentially dangerous.

Universal principles, Sensei says as he demonstrates. I watch him roll gracefully, blending with the force of gravity. His fall is devoid of flourish, an act of going with rather than excessive effort. I have spent a good portion of the past year falling, clunky and hard falls that have just started smoothing out with practice. That is until this evening when the familiar grip of fear crept in.

Rather than rolling on my own, a new technique requires that I roll while physically engaged with another student. My body seizes and my mind races. I am cloudy in mind and I forget. Sensei’s observant eye watches my arm attack stiffly, prime for a break. He reminds me to stay safe, to bend rather than hold my arm rigidly out. The bend, he says, will save my arm so I can do this for a long time. I continue to attack stiffly, rolling incorrectly in order to brace the fall. My mind and body are as separate as they can be – my mind screaming at me to keep myself safe but not allowing my body to execute movement that will do this.

On the mat, I fear the fall for many reasons: the fear of appearing foolish, of failure, of pain and being uncomfortable, and maybe even fear of myself. Beyond keeping me safe, the fall is essential to my study. Each time I fall I give in to the natural flow of things, resisting the urge to change what is happening. Off the mat, I resist the metaphorical fall, fearing I will not get back up again from failure and of being vulnerable to the unknown.

Fear is a complex thing. At its best it helps me avoid real danger. In the absence of real and immediate threat, however, it paralyzes me. Richard Carlson, author of “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff,” defines fear with the acronym False Evidence Appearing Real. Although we know intellectually that moving through fear requires us to face it, we typically use avoidance when dealing with it. Each roll presents an opportunity for me to stay with it, to feel fear but do it anyway. Practicing building a harmonious relationship with my fear creates transformation. In this way, fear can be the prelude to power.

Sensei has more confidence in me than I do. He knows my capabilities and is quite sure that this roll is no different than the many I’ve done before; my mind alone, he says, keeps me from doing it safely and correctly. I am the sole cause of my discomfort and increasing pain as my rolls turn into uncomfortable break falls. Sensei gets close while I practice with another student. Just before I roll, he takes the arm I am using to brace myself and holds it back, forcing me to roll in the proper position. I roll with ease and without pain. He smiles a knowing smile.

The next day bruises appear from last night’s practice. They are reminders of my fear and resistance. They are reminders that I didn’t trust and also reminders of the opportunities I have to begin, again and again. Universal principles, I think, yes.

Susan holds a master’s degree in public health from the Yale School of Public Health. She is currently the director of Grants and Evaluation at United Way of Greater New Haven where she manages community investment strategies. She is certified as a parent educator in Circle of Security Parenting and has studied non-violent communication with Marshall Rosenberg. Susan is influenced by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh – which were introduced to her through her mentor, Patricia Plouffe St. Onge, founder of the Center for Growth and co-founder of the Transfiguration Zendo. She is currently studying Ki Aikido under Mort Melman Sensei, fourth-degree black belt (Yondan) in Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido and chief instructor at Middlebury Ki Aikido. 

Along with her husband, Brandon Nappi, Founder of Copper Beech Institute, Susan will be presenting a retreat for couples in May 2016. Learn more »»

Photo credit:

“Shihonage” by Magyar Balázs – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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