Giving Back

One of the foundations of Copper Beech Institute is giving back to the communities that surround us. Our volunteer work with underserved and under-resourced populations is something we do humbly and with the utmost respect for the amazing individuals we have the honor of meeting. “Mindfulness for All” is not just a hollow slogan, but rather a promise we believe in deeply and one which we reaffirm through our work in prisons, schools serving children living in poverty, shelters, organizations supporting people with disabilities and a spectrum of non-profit partners.

Many devoted Copper Beech volunteers do outreach work in mindfulness at various centers and organizations in Connecticut, both on a regular and one-time basis. Miranda Chapman and her father Brian Chapman are among the original volunteers. They began offering weekly mindfulness sessions at the Hartford Correctional Center three years ago. One year later, Miranda’s work branched out to include Hartford’s Chrysalis Center, which provides supportive services for people who live in poverty and struggle with mental illness and substance abuse. Most recently, Miranda and her dad began offering mindfulness at the Hartford Transitional Housing Program, a halfway house for men who have been referred by the courts, in the hopes of helping former inmates ease back into the real world.

Thursdays are Miranda’s service days. She travels to all three centers, leading one-hour mindfulness sessions that include meditation and discussion. In this interview, Miranda shares about the programs she leads and her experiences with the people who receive her teaching.

Kathy: How do you structure the mindfulness sessions?

Miranda: They’re pretty much the same at all three centers. First, we sit in meditation and then I’ll check in with everyone about their practice: What came up most predominantly for you today? Where do you notice the practice showing up outside of our group sessions? Were there times when you saw opportunities to apply mindfulness after the fact? Then I’ll pull out a thread of their sharing as the basis for a brief teaching. If there’s time at the end, we close with a short practice such as loving-kindness.

At the Chrysalis Center, I only lead guided meditation. The people who join us there are struggling with emotional issues. Some are muttering under their breath or moving around a lot. There’s lots of trauma, and silence can be triggering. Guided meditation is more sustainable — and it’s impactful. I’m absolutely seeing its impact on the people who attend.

Kathy: How many people attend the groups?

Miranda: There’s a maximum of 12 participants at the jail — and there’s a waiting list. The men need permission to join the group; it’s a privilege for them.

The sessions at the Chrysalis Center are drop-in and the room is larger, so there’s an opportunity for more people to attend. A core group of people comes every week and new folks are joining all the time. Some members of the center come from the outside just for the mindfulness group.

At the halfway house, attendance has been spotty so far. The men are former inmates, and are focused on getting a job and a place to live and seeing their kids again so their attention is fractured. But we’ve only been there for six months. It took a while to build confidence at the jail so we’re waiting seeing what will happen at the halfway house.

Kathy: You’ve been at the correctional center for three years now. Tell us about your experience there.

Miranda: We have some guys who have been coming for over a year. The practice of meditation is a huge focus. We sit in meditation for 25-30 minutes. I use the momentum that has built there, and it’s effortless in a way. The group runs itself in terms of getting people in there. The guys talk about the group outside of the group. Generally, if you have enough people in the group who have bought in to the practice and are invested in it, everyone catches on more quickly.

Kathy: Hartford Correctional Center is a high security prison. Do you ever fear for your safety?

Miranda: I’ve never worried about my safety. I feel how hungry these guys are for real love. Most have suffered such abuse, and such hardness has formed around that. It’s so beautiful watching them soften with the practice. That’s when I know the work is working. One inmate shared, “I haven’t been hugged in two years. All I want is a hug from my mom.” We’ve had guys cry in there. I feel so much love for these guys.

No sex offenders are allowed in the group. Other than that, anyone can come. One beautiful man had an 80-year sentence. I don’t know what he did but in that room, it was so beautiful to be with him and his gentleness, which I know is not how he shows up on the outside.

Kathy: What have you learned from your experience at the  center?

Miranda: I go in there believing in the goodness of these men and their capacity to make different choices, like anybody. And I realize that I’m not that different from them. I’m a hair’s breath away from that same situation myself. If I’m going to really live this practice, I have to recognize my capacity for violence myself. That helps me equalize what’s happening in there.

In closing, a participant at the correctional center program wrote a personal letter to Miranda after he was transferred to another center. This quote from that letter is testimony to the power of mindfulness in his life:

“For the first time in forever, I can really sit with myself and be inside my head and with myself on so many levels. There isn’t a battle going on within me. I am calm…. Again, thank you for what you do, and how you have helped me.”

We are grateful to Miranda, her dad and all the others who are venturing forth to offer this powerful teaching where it is so desperately needed.

Miranda Chapman is a compassionate soul, with a heart for helping others find peace in their real lives. In addition to her volunteer work, she will be leading the Annual Autumn Retreat: Building Resilience and Self-Care Through Mindfulness Practice at Copper Beech Institute, November 17–19, 2018, along with many other retreats and programs throughout the year, including Introduction to Mindfulness, Candlelight Meditation, and Deepening Your Practice.

God Is in the Details

I stand in a 105-degree room with seven others, following the teacher’s instruction to stretch up and over while noticing the half-moon arch of my body as it leans to the right. I’ve heard these instructions countless times since I began the practice of Bikram Yoga (the original hot yoga) eight or nine years ago, but today they register in a new way. I feel the arc; indeed, I am the arc—the wholeness of its every inch, from my feet to my hips, waist and shoulders, and up through the tips of my fingers clasped high over my head. The experience is curiously exhilarating.

I’ve heard the saying, “the devil is in the details,” but my experience tells me that God lies there. I am a student of minutiae—of the discrete particulars of experience—and I’ve cultivated many intentional practices over the years so as to know life’s richness more deeply. Yoga is one of them. I love these practices, too: examining nature up close through the lens of a magnifier (how much we do not see), delighting in the birds at the feeders outside my window in winter—binoculars at the ready, watching the movement of mind in meditation, and seeking to know the subtleties of my senses by asking of experience: what it is to truly see, hear, taste, touch, smell?

While on a juice fast at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health several years ago, I experienced the sense of taste in a profound way. Our week of fasting was coming to a close, and the retreat leader led our return to solid food with an experience of mindful eating. We were served a warm, blended zucchini soup and guided to take small spoonfuls slowly and with awareness.

I don’t recall eating any food as savory as this simple soup. Its aroma was inviting and warmth soothing. As I took my first taste, I noticed subtle yet distinct flavors bursting at different places on my tongue. Swallowing, I was aware of nutrition entering my body. Taking another spoonful, I was aware of hunger or satiety, and whether it was my body or my mind that had the desire for more.

We were sipping in silence, but I wanted to exclaim, “What a symphony of sensation!” It was an experience I will never forget. I felt as though I had never really tasted food before.

Most of us eat mindlessly most of the time. Maybe we want to satisfy our hunger or quell some difficult emotion. Maybe we’re bored. Whatever the motivation, all too often we gulp our food down without thinking and in a rush to move on. But what are we missing in doing so? Perhaps the moment—and each sensory experience—holds the thing we’re looking for.

Every meal can become a simple and pleasurable way to cultivate mindfulness—and it’s so much easier than sitting in a meditative posture contending with a mind crowded by thought. If you’d like to give it a try, intentionally set aside a meal in your near future and follow these simple guidelines:

  1. Set the scene. Put aside your phone and turn off the TV so you can eat in silence.
  2. Arrange the food on the plate in a pleasing way, and take a moment to give thanks.
  3. Tune into the sight of your meal and its aroma.
  4. With each bite of food, chew slowly and notice the flavor, whether sweet, sour, salty, bitter or savory. You have taste buds on the surface of the tongue and all around the inside of your mouth. See if you can discern when they get triggered.
  5. Before each bite, tune into your sense of hunger or fullness. Let your awareness guide your decision to continue or stop eating, not the food remaining on your plate.
  6. Enjoy!

It was through my first mindful eating experience that I discovered how much of my sensory experience I had underestimated and taken for granted. In fact, our five senses are capable of delivering richness far beyond what we notice with our busy, every-day minds. What if we perceived more? How would our world open up and change? How would we open up and change? I’ve got the strong hunch that meditation and mindfulness are the tools to take us to these deeper places, and that can’t help but transform us—in the best of ways.

Kathy Simpson is a freelance writer with Copper Beech Institute who specializes in mindful living and holistic health.

if you’d like to explore the practice of mindful eating more deeply, Copper Beech Institute is offering a workshop, Mindful Eating: Free Yourself from the Diet Mentality and Learn to Trust Your Body in the Process, Saturday, March 18, 2017 from 1–5 p.m.  

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Mindful Parenting and the Holidays

Ah, the magic and mystery of the holidays. Oh, the stress that comes along with them. This season of joy can be a minefield for parents whose already busy lives are compounded by the shopping trips that never end, decorating, baking, wrapping, socializing, and organizing. How do you navigate the demands of this hectic time of year while keeping the spirit alive for your children and yourself?

These mindful parenting tips can help you give the gift of your presence to your children this holiday season, even when the pressure is on.

Remember what is truly important.
This is the basic tenet of mindful parenting. Your wellbeing and that of your children are deeply entwined, says Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction founder Jon Kabat-Zinn. If your children suffer, so do you, and vice versa.

When you’re aware of and sensitive to the needs of your children, you’ll be better able to find ways for everyone to get what they need, even when those needs conflict. Through the quality of your presence, your children will feel the strength of your commitment to them, even in times of stress.

When you get stressed, pause and take a breath.
Stress can put you in a reactive mode that causes you to do or say things you later regret. A deliberate pause, a few deep breaths, and the conscious intention to relax your body and mind can be remarkably restorative, and allow you to respond to the situation (and your children) with greater clarity, openness, and ease.

Be emotionally available.
Take time each day to engage with your children. Ask open-ended questions that encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings. If they are upset about something, hear them out. This may not always be easy when you’re under pressure to meet the demands of the day, but your kids may be feeling holiday pressures of their own. By offering your undivided attention, you let your children know they are valued, heard and understood.

Cultivate compassion.
Parenting is a tough job. Even with the best of intentions, it’s inevitable that you will make mistakes and confront your own faults and imperfections many times over. That’s why compassion is an essential practice to have in your mindful parenting toolkit. You need to love and accept yourself as you are even while you continue to grow as a person and a parent. And, the more compassion you have for yourself, the more compassion and kindness you’ll have to give to your child.

See the holidays through the eyes of your children.
Kids are the true Zen masters. They live in the moment and the immediacy of whatever arises: sorrow, joy, pain, hunger, delight. As adults, we’re largely preoccupied with reviewing the past and planning for the future. Children have much to teach us about being present.

This holiday season, consciously make an effort to step out of your parenting role and look through the eyes of your children. Join in their curiosity, wonder and innocence. You’ll gain a renewed appreciation for the simple things in life and open your heart and mind to the magical spirit of the season—and that’s a gift both you and your children will cherish.

 

Kathy Simpson is a freelance writer with Copper Beech Institute who specializes in mindful living and holistic health.

Copper Beech Institute is offering a weekend retreat just for mothers who wish to explore mindful parenting and self care. We invite you to explore the Mindfulness and Yoga Retreat for Mothers which will be held March 31–April 2, 2017. 

© Photo by Tanner Joe Photography

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Try a Little Tenderness

As humans, we can be awfully hard on ourselves. On the one hand, we have an inner champion that supports and encourages our every success, but we also have a harsh inner critic that can be our own worst enemy. It’s critical of how we look, think and feel, judges our perceived mistakes and inadequacies, and finds fault when we fall short of expectations, no matter how unrealistic they may be. This side of us can be crippling, and cause us much suffering.

We tend to carry a deep-seated conviction that self-judgment is an effective strategy for self-improvement, but research shows it does not work that way. Rather than help us achieve our goals, self-criticism undermines our ability to thrive, and makes us more emotional and less likely to learn from our mistakes. Attending to ourselves with compassion is a much more helpful way to respond.

Self-compassion loosens the grip of the inner critic so that we can live life with greater happiness and ease. It’s not contingent upon what we accomplish, but is instead an ongoing practice of offering unconditional kindness to ourselves no matter what, just as we would do for a valued friend. Rather than piling on harsh judgments, we meet ourselves with gentleness and warmth, and the desire to ease our own suffering. According to Dr. Kristin Neff, author of “Self-Compassion” and founder of the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program, self-compassion can lead to greater resilience, more caring relationship behavior, and less reactivity and anger.

Undoing a lifetime of self-criticism doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, practice and patience. Most importantly, it requires mindfulness of the thoughts and feelings that undermine our sense of wellbeing. It’s only by becoming aware of our negative self-talk and the harm is causes that we can begin to choose compassion instead.

So try a little tenderness. According to Christopher Germer, co-founder of MSC, “A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.”

If you’d like to evaluate your capacity for self-compassion, take this short quiz by Dr. Neff.

 

Kathy Simpson is a freelance writer with Copper Beech Institute who specializes in mindful living and holistic health.

To learn the life-changing practice of self-compassion for yourself, we invite you to explore the eight-week courses in Mindful Self-Compassion and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction that will be offered at Copper Beech Institute beginning January 2017.

 

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4 Steps to a Happy New Year – All Year Long

We all want to be happy. This basic human desire fuels our lives. We invest significant effort in its pursuit, striving for the perfect spouse, a rewarding career, a beautiful home, the appreciation and respect of others — whatever we believe will deliver the fulfillment we seek. With all the right factors in alignment, we’ll be happy, right?

This common belief pervades our culture. Yet we’ve all heard stories of people with all the outer trappings of happiness who are miserable inside. Then there are those who face difficult challenges or live with very little and are deeply content.

New research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience has shown that contentment is actually an inside job – a skill to be developed, an attitude to be cultivated. These steps can help you encourage positive emotions and build greater resilience even when the external circumstances of life don’t cooperate.

1. Want what you have.

In any given situation, we can choose to focus on what’s lacking or what we’re grateful for and appreciate. Contentment or discontent naturally follows based on the choice we make.

You can experiment with the effects for yourself. Recall a few of the blessings of your life, however small or common, and notice the effects on your body and mind. You might notice that your body relaxes as a pleasant emotion arises. A smile might come to your face. Now consider something you’re unhappy about or wish to be different. How do your responses differ? Where does each rank on the happiness scale? Which would you like to have more of? If it’s happiness you seek, the choice really is yours.

The effects of gratitude can accumulate with a daily practice – whether you take a few moments’ pause to reflect at the start or end of your day or write down your blessings in a gratitude journal. Robert Emmons, author of “Thanks: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier,” says grateful thinking can increase happiness by as much as 25 percent, and lead to more energy and better sleep.

2. Be kind to yourself and others.

Kindness begets kindness. It’s a contagion of the healthiest kind, and it feels good – for the person who extends it and the one on the receiving end. Kindness cultivates good will, connections between people and an open mind that’s more at ease.

Most of us are quite adept at thinking harshly of others and ourselves, with harmful effects. The next time you find yourself in a judging frame of mind, take a moment to pause and note the effect your negative thoughts have on your sense of wellbeing and on your sense of connection with others. Then let those thoughts go and replace them with kindness. Try giving yourself and others the benefit of the doubt, and recognize that we all just want to be happy even though our actions may be misguided at times. Most of the time we are all doing the best we can.

3. Give yourself downtime for play and relaxation.

Being an adult is serious business, or so we’ve been led to believe. We’re constantly in push mode – to excel at work, with kids, with parents and family, within our communities. We’re so busy striving to achieve the happiness we seek that little time is left for enjoyment. Yet, research shows that play and relaxation are actually good for creativity, health and wellbeing – and that adds up to happiness. So as you’re filling up your 2016 calendar with appointments and obligations, be sure to add in a balance of play dates – not just your kids but for you, too.

4. Practice mindfulness.

None of these practices are possible without mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to focus awareness in the present moment and become aware of our current state of mind and emotion. Most importantly, it empowers us with choice. Without mindfulness, we’re tethered to our conditioned ways of thinking and responding.

Try taking mindfulness moments throughout your day to check in with how you’re feeling – especially if you find yourself going down a path of negativity. Take note of your feelings, thoughts and sensations, accept them and let them go, then apply the kindness or gratitude steps above. Gradually you’ll find a new level of balance, ease and happiness unfolding that can transform your life.

 

Kathy Simpson is a freelance writer with Copper Beech Institute who specializes in mindful living and holistic health. Copper Beech Institute is hosting a number of retreats in the new year to inspire renewal, authenticity, and happiness in your life. For more information, visit out retreat page.

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I want something else!

When my niece Elizabeth was two or three years old, she had an emphatic way of letting all who were present know when she was displeased, usually with a snack-time food choice. “I want something else!” she’d cry, her face contorting, tears bursting from her eyes. She was unable to articulate what she did want, only that she did not want what was being offered at that particular moment.

My predictable response was to seek hurriedly about for options that would make Elizabeth happy. I’d present each before her. “I want something else! I want something else!” she’d continue to cry in increasing decibels and with growing frustration until her eyes lit upon that “something else.” Then the sobs would cease, her tears evaporate, and peace would be restored, at least for a time.

I love this recollection because it so brilliantly typifies the dynamic of the tantrum-prone inner toddler that is still alive within me, even in my advanced middle age. I would like to think that at 50-plus, I’m not as overtly expressive as my three-year-old niece sometimes was, but my inner toddler is certainly capable of putting up a fuss, whether in the form of resistance when something is not to my liking or a painful wanting for something more or different when circumstances fail to satisfy.

We all struggle with discontent and resistance to one degree or another. It’s just how we’re wired as human beings, and most of us don’t have a doting aunt willing to scurry about in search of a pacifier to quell our every upset. Yet this is a good thing, because the real world can be coldly indifferent to our demands that it deliver in accordance with our personal desires. Held gently, our discomfort can be a powerful teacher, leading us to discover that it is our very cravings for more, less, better, different and otherwise that can lead to unhappiness.

I’ve had to learn the hard way and many times over that the world owes me nothing – not agreement and certainly not comfort. Paradoxically, it’s only been in accepting this truth that I have begun to taste the peace and comfort I’ve always sought.

Meditation is my salve, a daily opportunity to sit with the leanings of the mind. Sometimes this means sitting in a simmering stew of discordant emotions until time, temperature and the light of attention soften them into a blend the palate can tolerate and even enjoy. My inner toddler may also make an occasional appearance, her emotional extremes always bearing some truth and simply in need of equal parts attention, compassion and acceptance in order to settle into quietude. Whatever arises, I’ve come to look forward to each meditation as an adventure yielding grist for awareness, insight and always compassion – and the opportunity to loosen my desire for “something else.”

Our paths as humans can sometimes be trying, but we have the power to transform our relationship to the difficulties we face. This is my prayer for us all, drawn from loving kindness meditation in the Buddhist Thai Forest tradition: May we hold ourselves and others in compassion. May we be safe. May we be peaceful. May we live with ease.

[And in case you were wondering, my niece Elizabeth is now 22 and will soon graduate from college with a major in dance and wellness. She is a lovely, reverent and wise young woman whom I treasure, and the toddler she was of almost 20 years past is both a tiny teacher and a wonderful memory.]

 

Kathy Simpson is a freelance writer with Copper Beech Institute who specializes in mindful living and holistic health. She is a regular contributor to Copper Beech Institute’s mindfulness and contemplative practice blog, Awaken Everyday.

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In Memorium

My father was interred today. He was buried in the family plot in Wallingford, on a lovely shaded hillside among those who died before him: his mother and father, grandfather and grandmother, his Aunt Charlotte, and his son, Jay. All shared the last name of Simpson; all lived on the farm on North Farms Road that had been in the family for generations.

My father passed away two months ago at the age of 86. He had an intestinal blockage that required emergency surgery and led to a yeast infection in his blood. Such infections are often fatal, as my father’s was for him.

Two days before my father was admitted to the hospital, we were together on a grocery shopping extravaganza at the local Walmart. He piled up his cart with essentials, including real butter which he had given up years ago and expensive hamburg that his limited budget didn’t ordinarily allow. We also hunted down his usual treats plus a few extras: churned vanilla ice cream, chocolate chip cookies, popcorn for his air popper, Entenmann’s cheese Danish, and the cinnamon swirl toasting bread he enjoyed with his daily breakfast.

dad2a_edited-1“Dad, you have half food and half junk food in that cart,” I said to him as we slowly made our way to the cashier (his cart temporarily filling in for the walker he needed for mobility). He looked over at me with conspiratorial amusement in his eyes. We chuckled. It was a look and a moment I will never forget. He loved his sweets, and at his age, I was not one to argue.

Two days later, he was hospitalized, and two days after that, his condition required intensive care. I was to never have another conversation with him. I spoke to him and cared for him from the depths of my heart but he could not reply. His body and mind were in a process that I was not privy to from my bedside chair. I could only watch and hope that he heard and felt my love and support.

My father had his share of emergency room visits in recent years, mostly due to pulmonary issues. I had long feared a phone call saying that he was found unconscious in his apartment, but thankfully that was not to be so. Instead, my sister and I had the gift of being present for his transition in every one of its phases. It was wrenching, and frightening at times. There were surges of hope, questions about treatment and not knowing which way to go, and finally much welcomed guidance from the palliative care team whose services I requested when his suffering seemed too great and his chance for recovery ever more remote.

Seven days after he was admitted to intensive care, Dad was taken off the ventilator that originally was hoped to aid his recovery and moved to a “comfort care room.” There were no monitors or machines, no invasive tubes or incessant beeps, and no interruptions to his body’s natural processes. He lay peacefully on an ordinary hospital bed, his breath steady yet increasingly shallow until coming to rest two days later. The sun streamed light and warmth into his room as my sister and I sat with his now quiet body and sent our deepest wishes for his gentle passage into the beyond.

I could write a book about the moments of Dad’s life and death over these last few years: the tender times, the difficult ones, the ordinary ones, even the spats we sometimes had. I was his daughter, but four years ago, I also became his helpmate, his confidante, his accountant, and his advisor. He referred to us as a “we.” His frailties became an opportunity for a relationship that would not otherwise have been possible. It was a gift for which I will be forever grateful.

Today, our remaining family of five laid Dad’s cremains to rest. It was a cool, sunny fall day. The maple trees glowed yellow and red, preparing to give up their own outer signs of life to winter’s inevitable arrival. Together, we shared remembrances and read poetry and verse. Then we watched as the cemetery workers set Dad’s urn into the ground, enfolded it in earth, and replaced the sod that will eventually bear the foundation for his memorial stone.

I felt grief and reluctance at each critical juncture on this journey, none the more deeply than at my father’s gravesite today. No physical trace of him remained. Even the grass looked undisturbed.

How strange this human existence is to me. We’re born, grow tall against the force of gravity, make much ado of our lives and then succumb, leaving only memories in our wake. Our impermanence is difficult to comprehend yet irrefutable. We’re fragile beings. Our lives can be taken in an instant and at any time. It’s this truth that makes each moment so precious.

My book about my father would have a beginning and an end, just as his life did. But the small moments described in the chapters and pages in between are what give his story richness and depth. It’s not my father’s accomplishments or failures that matter most to me (though they did make him an interesting fellow). It was the connections of the heart that made a difference, even when awkward, and maybe especially so.

George Wilbur Simpson, Jr.
January 20, 1929
August 14, 2015

 

Kathy Simpson is a freelance writer with Copper Beech Institute who specializes in mindful living and holistic health. She is a regular contributor to Copper Beech Institute’s mindfulness and contemplative practice blog, Awaken Everyday.

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Scenes from a Silent Retreat

I often go on retreat. My usual destinations are the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass. and its nearby sister organization, the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. At BCBS, meditation is mixed in with study, but this time I went to IMS where the retreats are totally silent; the only exceptions are the teachers’ morning instruction and nightly talks. Cellphones are forbidden as are reading and writing – making the experience akin to fasting or sensory deprivation.

Friends have wondered why I would possibly choose to spend my time away in such restraint, but I find it freeing and an incredible opportunity to allow the mind to soften and become still. Insights invariably arise as a result. The journey within has always been one of my favorite ways to travel.

Indulging in simplicity

The retreat began on a Saturday and ended the following Sunday. There were about 100 of us in attendance, each with our own room. The rooms are simple, providing just the basics: a bed, chair, closet and sink. Mine felt spacious, especially because of the new maple flooring. I was inspired to keep it neat and spare, stashing all that I had brought behind the closet door.

I also had what is called a “yogi job”: a 45-minute work period each day. Every one gets one. I was a veggie chopper, but it was amusing to see the men handling the bulk of the housekeeping jobs – diligently going about with their dusters, vacuums and mops.

The rigors of retreat life

Of course, the heart of the retreat is the time spent in meditation, and at IMS, we alternate between 45 minutes of sitting meditation and 45 minutes of walking meditation beginning at 6:00 in the morning and ending at 9:15 in the evening. Our teachers are always present, providing instruction, guidance and their silent support as we, the stalwart students, do our best to practice mindfulness in every moment.

Not all retreats are happy. The body often experiences pain, a natural response to sitting in the same posture for days at a stretch. The mind, well, it does its usual thing but in the contemplative atmosphere, we get to really see what it’s up to when we’re not paying attention, and that can be downright discouraging. Rumination, harshness toward ourselves and others, sleepiness, the wandering mind, the planning mind, the craving mind, the aversive mind – on retreat, we get to see it all. But seeing it is precisely the point. It’s our only hope of steering our unwieldy ships of thought toward greater wholesomeness, happiness and most of all compassion.

Opening to each moment, whatever it may bring

On this retreat, I miraculously felt no bodily pain and my mind settled more quickly than usual. It indulged its routine patterns with which I have become all too familiar, but it also revealed new secrets when I turned toward what I’d normally bat away – a difficult emotion, an unwelcome thought or a pesky wanting for something to be other than it was.

I’ve found that something shifts in that simple act of opening to inner experience, whatever it may be. What might have seemed solid and unforgiving gives way, and we find ourselves dropping into a new territory that’s just a bit more open than where we came from. It’s not unlike a dream I’ve often had of discovering a new room in my house I didn’t know was there.

The rewards of a committed practice

We can slog along for years, faithfully sitting on our meditation cushions, rallying our minds, and doing our best to find little moments of quiet amidst the torrent of thought. Sometimes it can seem like our efforts go unrewarded, but bit by bit our minds begin to quiet and we begin to gain the perspective that allows us to face into the storms that arise rather than turn away.

This year’s retreat delivered subtle rewards, riches from beyond my usual horizons, and for that I am grateful. I’m amazed by how the simple practice of acceptance tempered by compassion and curiosity can be so transformative.

Rumi’s poem, The Guest House, is an inspiration:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi

If you’d like to explore a silent retreat in a weekend format, Copper Beech Institute has two scheduled for next season:  Centering Prayer in the fall and Waking Up Together: A Weekend of Zen Practice in the spring.

Kathy Simpson is a freelance writer with Copper Beech Institute who specializes in mindful living and holistic health. She is a regular contributor to Copper Beech Institute’s mindfulness and contemplative practice blog, Awaken Everyday.

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