After my heart attacks last spring, I signed up for a 5-day-long residential mindfulness retreat at Spirit Rock Retreat Center in Northern California. I’d never attended a residential retreat and I thought it might be a good way to increase and deepen my mindfulness practice. Further, since the retreat is mostly silent, I thought it would give me a chance to be alone with myself to see how I am doing with the whole heart attack thing. Other than one day of feeling sad and weepy, I really haven’t had a strong grief reaction. The two years I was going through breast cancer treatment were different. I had more days of “what the Hell is going on?” Another issue I thought would be good to process is my daughter’s moving out of the house for college.  Other than the first two days she was gone, I haven’t felt sad about her absence. I do worry some about how she is managing this big transition but I am mostly happy and excited for her.

After months of waiting, the retreat took place last week. I had already been on my own for a few days, having flown down early to visit family in the Bay Area. I explored San Francisco and had a lovely afternoon with my niece, Tricia, who has recently moved to Silicon Valley to start a tech company. She has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from NYU and has developed a technology with educational and mental health applications. To make a long story short, if she is successful, her work will be revolutionary. I also visited with my husband’s family in Lafayette, CA. We took a walk on the water and had a nice dinner together. My nieces and nephew have grown up quite a lot since I last saw them and I met one of them for the first time. They were bright children and teens. The conversation was lively.

The retreat started last Tuesday afternoon. I arrived with minor trepidation. Could I be silent for five days? Could I stay awake for the day’s scheduled activities, from 6:30 am to 9:30 pm? (Heart attacks have a way of pooping one out.) Would I have time to do my cardiac rehab exercises? Mostly, though, I was excited. I felt ready to challenge myself with a retreat.

The name of the retreat was “Empty Mind, Full Heart” and it was taught by Sharda Rogell, who has been teaching insight meditation since 1985. She is a wonderful teacher and kind person. The first full day of the retreat started at 6 am with the chiming of a bell through the hall outside of my room. I dressed quickly and walked out into the dark morning, pausing to look at the bright array of stars above. Once in the meditation room, I knelt on my cushion and closed my eyes. 45 minutes later, Sharda struck a singing bowl three times, and it was time to walk to the dining hall for breakfast. The rest of the schedule was pretty much as follows: sitting meditation, walking meditation, morning lesson and instruction with meditation, walking meditation, lunch, doing dishes in the kitchen as my work meditation, sitting meditation, walking meditation, dharma talk, dinner, sitting meditation, walking meditation, guided meditation, sitting meditation, and bedtime at 9:30 pm.

I may have added a few extra meditations but I will let you know that by 6:30 pm, my body ached and I was exhausted. I sat in meditation basically finding fancy reasons to get out of the rest of the meditations for the day so I could go to bed early. I thought, “I’m not going to make it until 9:30 pm!” I reminded myself that it wasn’t 9:30 pm, redirected myself to the meditation and took things one meditation at a time. The soreness was another issue. Then I realized that there were chairs available and that I wouldn’t be a huge failure if I meditated in a chair rather than on a nifty cushion that was taking away my will to live. I sat in the chair and was able to make it through the rest of the night, one meditation session at a time.

By the next day, Sharda helped us prioritize the sittings, telling us which of them were optional and which of them were not. (I was not the only one who had switched to a chair.) I took three naps that day, did all of the mandatory activities, and took two hikes up into the hills surrounding the retreat center. I felt so much better. By the next day, I could do more meditations and I kept taking walks. I did have more struggles during the retreat with meditation. Other people were, as well. For some, meditating brought up emotional struggles. For others, like me, we tended to make time pass by fantasizing or drifting off. Also, sitting still is really hard!

Meanwhile, Northern California was and continues to be, on fire. As the winds shifted, our air quality changed. One day, I could see the ash in the air. Other days were clear with blue skies. It was a reminder of how life can change in an instant.

I left the retreat feeling full of experience, of connection with the other people at the retreat center, and with a heart holding joy and heart break. I also left with my feet firmly on the ground. My heart can do a lot.

As always,

Peace

San Francisco

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spirit Rock Retreat Center, Woodacre, CA