I spent the weekend in an intensive meditation workshop in Boulder, Colorado. It was inspiring. I left there this afternoon feeling hopeful, as though I had gotten some tiny glimpse of what life is capable of being. In a week that saw nine people gunned down in a prayer meeting in Charleston, that glimpse is a timely reminder that we’re capable of something better, and that much of the suffering we all endure and inflict upon one another is our collective choice.
I’ve been deeply saddened by the news of that shooting, and struggling to make sense of it. I’m grateful to end the weekend with a glimmer of renewed hopefulness. I want to take time now to record and savor some of the small but extraordinary things I learned from the workshop I attended this weekend.
1. Children can be our role models:
In small discussion groups, we were invited to comment on how we felt about the possibility that all humans are basically good — underneath everything else. When you consider that we’re talking about the same humans who are capable of opening fire in a church, that’s a bold proposition.
A young man in my group said he thought that young children are the living embodiment of “basic goodness;” until they are taught to care what other people think, young children go through life as their authentic selves, approaching every new thing with wonder, speaking their minds truthfully when asked, and freely showing their emotions without apologizing for experiencing them. He said it is only when children are taught that they should be striving to be some better version of themselves that they begin to alter their behavior, worried that whomever they really are is somehow not good enough yet. But as most parents will attest, their children are perfect just as they are, just for waking up and being themselves every day. As adults, this idea that we’re not good enough can leak into everything we do, and it has the power to ruin what could otherwise be moments of profound beauty.
2. There are people in our immediate communities who do care, a lot, and they’re trying:
I was so impressed by that young man in my group. He’s 20 years old, engaged in a conversation I wasn’t ready for until I was in my 30s. It’s promising to be be reminded that there really are young men like him in the world, trying to engage with life with clarity of thought and purpose. But there’s more…
The workshop probably had 30 or so participants. These workshops are absolutely no joke. There is no entertainment, and we mostly just sit inside. We all gave up Friday night to sit together and talk for a few hours about the pursuit of mindfulness. We returned Saturday and spent a full day in meditation. We took breaks for lunch and afternoon tea, but otherwise spent the entire day in silence, intentionally denying ourselves all of our familiar self-soothing distractions — TV, smart phones, conversation, errands, keeping busy, etc. We forced ourselves to suffer the symptoms of withdrawal and forced ourselves to sit still when we were dying to leap from our cushions and run out the door with our arms flailing. We ended Saturday evening with a raw discussion of what the day of withdrawal had felt like for each of us, and how alarming it was to recognize how much we’ve all become hooked on distraction. This morning, we returned again — more meditation, more silence. Then more emotionally-charged discussion. None of this is easy, but we all stuck through and did it.
I’m thrilled to recognize that were 30 or so people, right here in my community, who were willing to go through this process. I’m inspired to think that as a group, we share the sense that the pursuit of mindfulness is so important that it’s worth missing a gorgeous weekend in Colorado to train for our practice.
Sometimes, I get so caught up into my own struggles that I forget that other people suffer, too. And sometimes I make the mistake of imagining that I am the only person who is working hard at the pursuit of some higher level of awareness. It’s invigorating to be reminded that being human is a shared effort; none of us is doing this alone.
3. Mindfulness is delicious:
One of the highlights of the weekend for me was when we took a break Saturday afternoon for tea. By that time, we’d been meditating all day and we were exhausted. Many of us were complaining of sore muscles and the strong desire to get outside. But we stayed inside and had tea and snacks, and chatted with one another for a few minutes outside of the shrine room.
I’m not much of a tea drinker, but I had gotten sleepy and coffee was not available. I made a cup of black tea just to help myself stay awake. I grabbed a couple of cookies, as I was craving sugar.
I couldn’t believe how delicious a simple cup of black tea was. And the cookies! They were stale, bland butter cookies, but in that moment, they might as well have been chocolate ganache. Knowing the tea break would end soon, I found myself nibbling slowly, and sipping my tea even more slowly, savoring every drop as if it were a fine wine. I have had some impressive meals in my lifetime but I think that was the most intimately aware of my food I have ever been while eating it. It was as if I was experiencing tea for the first time. I am already looking forward to another workshop, just to be able to experience food that way again.
While I was enjoying my tea, I chatted with a few of the other workshop attendants. One man and I laughed ourselves into tears as we cracked jokes about the cultural differences between Denver and Boulder. I have heard those jokes before, and told them myself, but I think after a day without vices, even worn-out jokes become hilarious. And it felt so good just to be able to laugh out loud. And to be totally honest, I was thrilled just to be able to hear someone else speak — to hear anything but the gong and the woodblock that announce the beginning and end of the meditation sessions.
These experiences convinced me that simply being aware of what we’re doing as we are doing it allows access to a version of life that is filled with poignancy and richness. What is truly inspiring is to think that such poignancy and richness are present all the time; all we have to do is choose to experience them.