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Retreat and Awakening

October 4, 2014

One of the awesome things about being a minister is that occasionally, it is my job to go hang out with a group of amazingly kind and generous and spiritually alive colleagues. To learn, to ponder the big questions, to worship, and to sing and eat and play.

This past week, the topic of our professional renewal days was mindfulness. We had an outside presenter, Home Nguyen, along with us, and I was pretty excited. He was a lively and gentle teacher who radiated compassion; for the first time in meditation I really believed that however I was breathing was okay, and that all I needed to do was keep returning to my breath from all the scampering errands my mind likes to make. He was also just a little bit bad-ass, and funny, and he told stories about his own challenges with sitting that made me think, maybe I CAN do this meditation thing for more than five minutes at a stretch.

When a coffee maker began making its series of puffs and gurgles during one guided meditation session, he added it to his instructions, letting us all admit that we were hearing it. Instead of seeing it as an interruption, he suggested it too could be a teacher, and we let it be part of the present moment.

One of my favorite things he taught us was a series of six yoga poses he created based on the work of Amy Cuddy. (If you have not yet watched her TED talk on how our body language shapes who we are, do that next. Not now, but next. Or soon.) The poses were completely unthreatening, no athleticism required, and could be done in a chair if standing was a challenge.

The next morning, the last morning of our retreat, I woke early and walked down to the lake and found a dock that beckoned me to come do Home’s yoga poses. Remembering another mediation idea I’d read the day before, I also picked up three beautiful autumn leaves to place on the water, to watch them float, and float away, working to let go of some things I’m holding that aren’t helping me thrive. When I got to the end of the dock, I put the leaves at my feet, and took my “Blessings” stance, the first of Home’s poses. [Pretend you just ran through the finish line  – first! – at the Olympics. Hold your arms up, head back, chest open, joyful. Now soften your arms a little bit to let the blessings of life pour into your outstretched arms, and you are doing it too.]

As I moved into the “Power” pose, hands on hips like Wonder Woman, a little breeze came up, and one of the leaves blew into the water. I looked at it, watched it float, noticed how I was reacting to the fact that this had not been my plan. The flash of tension passed, and I realized it was okay for it to happen the way it was happening. I let it go.

I opened my arms into the next pose whose name I don’t recall, an open-arms, welcoming-embrace pose. I was breathing. Feeling good. Feeling ever so spiritually mature and grounded.

Then, I put one hand on my heart and one on my belly, a pose Home called “Kindness.” [Or maybe compassion. It’s hard to do yoga and take notes at the same time.] Whichever, this pose had nearly wiped me out completely when we learned it the day before. I had been overcome with tears and sadness because I could so vividly feel it as a hole, a longing, a loss of the babies who I once cradled there, the lover who I have not yet found who would want to rest his head on that place against my heart…

But, in this new day, it started out kind of okay. It came to me to sing the Loving Kindness sutra as we have it set to music in one of our UU hymnals, so I did – I got through “May I be filled with loving kindness, may I be well, may I be peaceful and at ease, may I be whole,” and started in on the “You” verse, noticing who bubbled to mind. A couple of people came and went, and then it hit me who I wanted to send it out to, who I wanted to be filled with loving kindness – my 18-year-old son, one of those fledged babies, who has used his wings, at times, to fly dangerously close to the sun, and the tears started to flow again. I kept singing, holding him in my intention, and then:




Someone was firing a shotgun, and it was fairly close.

I paused; this seemed like it demanded a new sort of mindfulness, in case the lesson of the present moment needed to be learned rather quickly in order for me to be able to return to my breath. Ever again.

I looked in the direction of the sound and could see, on the next point, a duck hunter lowering his gun. I considered: I was dressed in a bright turquoise jacket, standing on a dock in outstretched poses, singing. I decided I was highly visible, possibly audible, and safe enough, so I continued to sing, tears fresh on my cheeks, laughing. Sometimes meditation teachers draw students back to the present moment with a bell. Sometimes it’s a coffee maker. But I gotta say, I’m not sure there’s anything better than a shotgun over still water early in the morning to get the job done. Wake UP. Be HERE, NOW.

It was, like, INSTANT coffee!

A colleague led us through the six poses again in our closing ritual after breakfast. This time as my hands came to rest on my heart and my belly for the kindness pose, instead of trying to keep my tears from becoming sobs, I had to refrain from laughing out loud. And under my palms, I could feel my breath and my own precious, human heart.

The teaching is always this: everything changes. The present moment is the moment we have. The next moment will be along shortly; it will be different. Our job is to show up as we are.

And folks? PSA: It’s hunting season. Dress brightly when praying outdoors. Sing in the woods. And be the love you want to see in the world.

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