The Strength to Sit Still: A Meditation Retreat

Mar13_strength-to-sit-still

Fitness buff Jen Sinkler tests her limits — at a mountaintop meditation retreat for beginners.

I lied. In print, no less. You might have even seen the sentence in “True Blood,” a story in the last issue of this magazine. My blood test came back showing elevated cortisol levels (a sign of stress), and when the writer of that piece asked me what I was going to do about it, I told her I was spending more time in a lounge chair on my deck in the evenings, I was taking more breaks from work throughout the day, and I had “finally cracked open the meditation CDs that I bought three years ago.”

The first two statements were accurate. The third? Didn’t happen. Still, the interview took place in August, and my thinking was that by the time the words were printed, they would be true. It was my way of forcing my own hand.

It didn’t work. Weeks later, when Experience Life senior editor Courtney Helgoe came looking for staff volunteers to attend a beginner’s meditation retreat, I realized those CDs were still sealed. I felt a surge of guilt. Cultivating tranquility, I realized, remained a daunting prospect.

So I got down in the lotus position and begged for redemption. And this is how I came to find myself alone with a 20-foot Buddha atop a mountain in Colorado.

The Road to Shambhala

I signed up for a three-day “Simplicity Retreat” at the Shambhala Mountain Center (SMC) in Red Feather Lakes, Colo. — a beginning meditation course open to all levels. Though I intended to arrive early and settle in, once I landed in Denver I was lured by the promise of a kettlebell workout in a park and a tour of the rugby megaplex in nearby Glendale.

I am inclined to shirk stillness, it seems, even when I claim to want it.

The SMC (www.shambhalamountain.org), which has been hosting retreats since 1971, sits on 600 gorgeous acres of Rocky Mountain ridgeline near Fort Collins, Colo. It’s one of 140 Shambhala meditation centers worldwide. Also on the property is the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, the 108-foot-tall structure that houses the aforementioned Buddha. Stupas are pilgrimage sites built to honor Buddha or certain saintly teachers’ life works, but are often so stunning they attract visitors of all walks. “A stupa is a place to be still and experience the sacredness of the world,” says Joshua Mulder, director of art and design for the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya.

That stillness emanates from the surroundings here, and when I arrive I finally feel like I have time to meditate. Cell phones don’t work, and my laptop is back home, edged out by the towel on the SMC packing list. I suspect this sort of sacred space can be created anywhere, but signing up for a retreat has given me formal permission to carve it out for myself.

I’ve made a concerted effort to pack flowing, natural fabrics to try to blend in — most of my wardrobe at home is spandex — but it becomes apparent, when our 15-person group convenes, that meditation attracts a broader demographic than I had anticipated.

One couple wants to learn to manage meditation while juggling three small children. A few others are here to counteract corporate stress. A pair of friends just wants a girls’ weekend. (They split a bottle of Skinnygirl Cosmos before arriving late to our first evening meet-up. On the following day, one tries to pass off her headache as altitude sickness.)

Most in the group have a little experience meditating, but not many practice regularly. I count just two of us who have never done a single session before, but it’s not a problem — the course treats all of us like novices.

Our instructors are Charley Rosicky, MSW, meditation instructor and hospice social worker from Lafayette, Colo., and Ron West, an ecologist for Boulder County Parks and longtime meditator. Rosicky leads our indoor meditation sessions, while West guides our outdoor sessions among the towering trees, where he encourages us to place our ears up against the trunk of an aspen tree in the wind — it sounds like a gurgling stream — and to breathe in the butterscotch-scented bark of a Ponderosa pine.

Both men have a curious pacing to their sentences, leaving great, yawning gaps between them. Their measured comportment is disconcerting to my time-is-money sensibility at first, but within a day I kind of dig it. They seem to take their time and say aloud only what they truly mean.

Shambhala teachings are rooted in Buddhism, yet workshops and seminars are nonreligious and open to practitioners of any spiritual tradition. The basic tenet of Shambhala is that goodness, warmth, intelligence and sanity are innate in all human beings, and this potential can be developed through meditation.

“Great civilizations have been characterized by an inherent confidence: They feel good about themselves,” writes Shambhala leader Sakyong Mipham in the July 2012 issue of Shambhala Sun. “We can all cultivate such confidence by learning to feel our goodness and reflecting on the worthiness of humanity. . . . A society that honors a deep feeling of worthiness can accommodate mistakes, for love and kindness naturally extend from such awareness.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the type of meditation endorsed in Shambhala is shamatha, a Sanskrit word that means “peacefully abiding.” We learn to observe and accept our minds as they are, while following the breath.

The first rule of meditation, Rosicky explains, is to have no expectations. “It’s like being excited to go on vacation. The vacation you go on is never the one you think you’re going to go on,” he says. “In the same way, it’s better to meditate without ambition.”

I didn’t expect to find enlightenment over the weekend, but I did want the act of meditating to feel blissful, life altering and important.

In other words, I broke the rule about having no expectations. And, what happened is exactly what Rosicky predicted: I didn’t go on the vacation I thought I was going on.

Meditation felt . . . ordinary. Unspectacular and, at times, like déjà vu.

I thought I’d never meditated, but I discovered the experience felt a lot like psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s legendary “flow state,” where one is deeply immersed in an activity, with energy harnessed and aligned. I had experienced flow state before, during particularly good workouts or standout rugby games, where my focus was so singular it became everything.

“Generally, when athletes are at their highest level of performance, they are in a gentle and relaxed mode of being that allows them to have awareness and perspective,” writes Mipham in Running With the Mind of Meditation (Harmony Books, 2012). This, I discovered, is also the way of meditation.

Such awareness really can happen anywhere — on the cushion, on the rugby field, even at the kitchen sink. So I learned from fellow retreat-goer Todd Hansell.

Hansell, 47, works in the medical device business, and he traveled from Longmont, Colo., for this meditation experience. Then he wound up doing dishes — voluntarily.

“I hate doing dishes, but I took on dish duty last night,” he told me. (Chores are optional for visitors; some appreciate the opportunity to practice simple tasks meditatively.) “I asked the kitchen manager how I could do them more mindfully.” The kitchen manager told him: “You’re here to do the dishes? Do the dishes. When your mind wanders, place your attention back on doing the dishes.”

“For the next 45 minutes, I did just that,” says Hansell. “And I left feeling really good. So I know something is working under the surface.”

I, too, found something working under the surface during the weekend. In the end, what I accomplished were brief periods of focusing solely on breath, only to be followed by a victorious (inner) crow of, “I’m meditating!” Then I’d realize that by virtue of clinging to that thought, I was no longer meditating. So I would go back to the breath.

“When you catch yourself thinking, simply return your focus to the breath. It’s called practice for a reason,” says West. “It can help to have a regular place to go, and it helps to put it on the calendar. It doesn’t have to be for a long time — 10 minutes is great.”

When I arrive home, I order two colorful zafus (meditation cushions) and a zabuton (a pad to place beneath the cushions that protects the ankle bones from hard surfaces), and lay claim to a corner of the living room. Until they arrive, I perch atop two couch cushions. I like fanfare and ritual — they help me stick with a practice — but they aren’t necessary to reap meditation’s rewards. I now sit anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes almost daily, and I’m consistently surprised at the amount of perspective I gain by letting go of my thoughts.

“Meditation is the quintessential way of solving problems,” says Rosicky. “It’s solving without solving.”

One thing the retreat made clear is that meditating isn’t about being this or that kind of person. It’s not about being beatific or peaceful all the time, or wearing hemp pants. It’s just about learning to regard your thoughts (like the thought that you should be listening to those meditation CDs, even though you’re not) with a little more neutrality.

“One of the first benefits is that you begin to see that you are not your thoughts,” says West. “We self-identify with our thoughts — meaning, bad thoughts equal bad person. This is not true. You slowly see that thoughts arise in a vast and neutral space, and that it is possible to see that the mind is not solid. The thoughts just become interesting-to-look-at fish swimming in a very large aquarium.”

No matter how interesting, now I can let them swim by.

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Jen Sinkler is a contributing editor to Experience Life.

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