My life’s journey has been cultivating Mindfulness. That’s why I’m nervously driving up this so sweet laneway to the first Canadian residential Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Teacher Training at the stunning Hockey Valley Ecology Retreat Centre near Orangeville.
Mindfulness is one of my deep passions, likely because I’ve spent so much time in mindlessness and judgment. The mindlessness of active addiction in my younger years included zooming from one event and relationship to the next like a speedy demon, driven by anxiety and wracked with feelings of “not good enough”. And the harshly judging self-critic was the boss of it all.
Slowly, over many years and a lot of helping hearts and hands, I have fostered mindfulness and compassion.
I have learned how to enfold my younger selves, like tenderly sad plump teddy bears. The great teacher and philosopher Ken Wilber says to include AND transcend what went before as we move into our emerging selves: “to open into the very heart of Spirit-in-action.” (Brief History of Everything)
When MBSR came into my life, years ago, as spirit-in-action, I lit up like a Christmas tree: I was home. Since then, I have studied and taught, travelled and followed others on this journey of cultivating presence like a clear, flowing river.
Now, as I arrive at the six-day intensive retreat for Mindfulness Teachers, I notice the slightly sweaty hands and the heart beating a little fast.
The mind is racing with old familiar thoughts when I face a new situation: Am I good enough? Will they like me?
31 of us gather from across the country: Toronto, Halifax, Victoria, Edmonton, and many others, including Vermont and Michigan. Susan Woods from the Mindfulness Program at San Diego University brings a compassionate and sharp edged grit to her teaching, while her co-facilitator, Dr. Pat Rockman, from The Centre for Mindfulness Studies, shines with intention, humour and focus.
After an excellent dinner (grateful for good food this entire week), where I meet fascinating folks, we flow in to the meeting room and begin with sitting meditation. This familiar practice soothes my agitation. We leap right in, with no agenda, but a fundamental Buddhist truth: suffering is part of being human and the practices of mindfulness invite suffering to emerge more powerfully as we slow down. Then we learn to lean into the suffering, rather than turning away from it.
After an intense evening of self-introductions and sharing, we are told that there will be absolute silence outside of class, including no eye contact. I feel both relieved and crazy: relief because all that social chit chat makes me anxious; and crazy because then I’m in my own head, alone, not knowing anybody and feeling not good enough.
Although sleeping in the same room with a stranger you haven’t even spoken to feels odd, I’m also secretly delighted at the silence. When I awake early—as I do the whole week—I walk by the bouncy, story book stream running through the retreat centre and then do yoga in our meeting hall before our morning sit.
I love these morning rituals and am continuing them (except for the stream, alas) at home.
You know how some groups gel? They just come together? It’s not something you can control, although skilful facilitation and containment helps. But it seems to me a group either bonds or doesn’t. Our group’s tendrils of connection grew rapidly with deep sharing in class and profound silence outside.
When we started to talk outside of class three days in, we were past social chit-chat. Everyone I talked to had found the silence intense initially.
How do I forget that every time? I’ve been on a number of multi day silent retreats and each time I’m in it like I’m swimming in the river of insanity by myself and look over at the other rivers and imagine that everyone else is doing just fine. I think they’re all happy and joyous and I feel broken and weird. It’s just not so.
It’s strange, though, how often I lose awareness that comparing my insides to someone else’s outsides if foolish and not true. All human beings struggle. It is the nature of the human condition, and it shows up with a special intensity during silence.
During the six days we are together, I cultivate a deeper connection with and understanding of myself and Mindfulness. I see that I need to facilitate the MBSR program—and my life—with a lighter, more trusting touch. Less information and more allowing.
I adore Susan and Pat, as well as the assistants, Evan and Gwen: all are fierce spiritual warriors committed to the path of awakening with humility and humour. I feel challenged and present, relaxed and trusting before their gaze and expertise. Their lived experience radiates.
My edge of growth and healing as a person and teacher emerges: to rest in the heart more, feeling the joy of being carried in the river of life with increased ease and trust.
The executive demanding self, who likes to control and manage things and people, has receded a wee bit more, with the grace of the mindfulness practices that work their magic on me, like a skilful masseuse with her deep probing fingers.
As I share this with you, I’m aware of the next layer being peeled away: vulnerability and gratitude rippling through my body mind. I yearn for a more balanced, calmer centre in my life while still staying politically and socially active in the world.
I choose more often to stay in this present moment with what is arising, to lean a tiny bit more into life with an open heart. And be more willing to witness the despair and grief that bind us together as human beings on this tiny planet spinning through space.
“It’s a lifetime’s journey to relate honestly to the immediacy of our experience and to respect ourselves enough not to judge it.” Pema Chodron’s words feel radiant and true for me on this life long journey of mindfulness.