After a week in SF, I popped back into New Haven to teach class and then popped back out again for a Mindfulness Retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, NY. My day started normally enough – I got up, did my laundry, bought some snacks and finished my packing. I looked forward to zoning out on the long car ride down, but instead found myself frantically checking directions as I wound my way through the highways of Connecticut and New York. Driving is easier back home. Freeways are straight shots; it’s comfortable to put the car on cruise control and one road will take you almost all the way to your destination. If there’s one place my geography is good, it’s in my long, sock-shaped state, and so if I do need to switch freeways, I can do so with relative confidence. Out here, however, the roads are winding and curving, the speed limits lower, but the drivers more aggressive. During my 2.5h trip, I think I took four different highways which, with my complete ignorance about the location of towns, was a rather nerve-wracking experience. At some point I got lost, but with a little luck and ingenuity, I found my way to Blue Cliff.
Shortly after we arrived, we gathered for our first Meditation Walk. I like walking and I like walking in the woods and so immediately I was sold. I would have preferred to have been wearing my boots, or at least some lace-up shoes, but it was a surprisingly pleasant experience to walk in my Crocs. Due to the softness of the footbeds, I was able to better feel the earth beneath my feet. My feet molded to the rocks or tree roots, toes able to curl and grip. Toward the end of our walk, we performed 10 mindful movements, which were coordinated with the breath, like qi gong or tai chi.
After our walk, I met my roommates and then headed down to dinner. Each meal has its own ritual. At dinner we spend the first 20 minutes eating in silence. Then, a bell is rung, at which point we can get up for seconds and begin to talk with those sitting around us. The silence is meant to promote mindfulness – we are encouraged to eat only as much as we need to in order to be satisfied, and talking while eating often distracts from this awareness. During dinner I met a lovely couple who had recently driven out from Oakland to start a retreat center in New Hampshire, as well as a physician practicing in New York.
After dinner, we had an orientation in the meditation hall and met our dharma groups (mine was the Dancing Daffodils, though I think my favorite was the Crispy Chrysanthemums. We were all at a loss as to what exactly was meant by the adjective “crispy”). I also met a surprising number of people who knew people I knew – one woman from DC, who knew my fellow midwife and yoga teacher, L, another woman from Boston, who knew my dear friend and classmate, F, and a guy from the school of music here at Yale, who knows the karmie who signs in my class on Sundays. I was glad to meet them – it felt grounding, less intimidating to be there in a new environment.
After our orientation, we began the practice of Noble Silence – a quiet period that begins after our last activity of the day and ends after breakfast the following morning. We returned to our rooms in silence and tucked ourselves into bed.