Retreats: Recharge, Renew, Reflect September 30, 2022 14:46
If you prefer to listen to this month's blog article, please click HERE to listen to the audio link.
I recently read Tenzin Palmo’s biography, Cave in the Snow, by Vickie MacKenzie. She is a well-respected Buddhist nun who had spent over twelve years in a solitary mountain retreat.
While I have no desire to climb up a mountain in the Himalayas to meditate in a tiny cave while enduring blizzards, avalanches, predatory creatures, and minimal options of food and medical supplies, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s dedication to practice was certainly inspiring.
Retreats can be rejuvenating and motivating, but not everyone has the privilege or karma to leave home and practice in an isolated environment. The good news is, retreats don’t have to occur in harsh, barren landscapes (or extravagantly elegant ones, for that matter); they don’t have to be expensive; they also don’t have to be lengthy to inspire meaningful practice and to be of benefit.
This month, I had the opportunity to attend three retreats of different sorts: a three-day Chenrezig retreat in Bloomington, a ten-day Feldenkrais summit, and a series of online teachings that focus on Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s The Power of Mantra: Vital Practices for Transformation.
Even though each retreat had a different focus and topic, I was able to participate, practice, and tend to the other obligations and responsibilities in my life. As a householder, I don’t have the luxury or time to practice uninterrupted in a secluded place, but these mini retreats have helped me maintain my motivation to practice as well as honor my family and work commitments.
- Chenrezig Retreat
This past Labor Day weekend, Geshe Kunga held a Chenrezig Retreat at TMBCC in Bloomington.
He held a similar retreat a few years ago, and I was able to stay on site by renting one of their cottages. This time, however, I chose to commute each day instead. Several other retreatants had traveled from other states and countries, and I didn’t want to inconvenience them or deny them the opportunity to stay on site.
This retreat included three days of in-depth teachings and meditation sessions on Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion. We spent time reading, analyzing, chanting, discussing, and unpacking a specific sadhana practice.
Before this retreat, my personal practice had become a bit inconsistent and sporadic, so this retreat and sadhana practice was the perfect jump start that I needed. It offered just enough structure, it was meaningful, and it didn’t require a lengthy time commitment.
Since Labor Day weekend, I have been practicing this sadhana every day. I read it aloud in English (and Tibetan), and I look forward to my practice. Sometimes, I can practice in the early morning; sometimes I practice in between student sessions at school, and sometimes I practice later in the day or evening. Regardless of the time of day, I feel like I’ve accomplished something meaningful, and it gives me a sense of purpose. This jump start wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for this short retreat.
I wasn’t in a cave—I still have to deal with rush hour traffic—I still have to make trips to the grocery store—I still have to pay bills and wash dishes—and I still have to interact with others. But the thread running through all of these “beads of responsibility” is the practice.
- Feldenkrais Summit
The second retreat that I participated in was the Move Better, Feel Better Summit hosted by my friend Cynthia Allen. She has hosted several online Feldenkrais summits in the past. This is an annual, online event that lasts for several days. This year’s event was a ten-day summit which included keynote speakers, presentations by experts and Feldenkrais practitioners from all over the world, and three short Feldenkrais lessons led by practitioners each day.
Because the interviews and lessons were pre-recorded, participants could access them online at their convenience. I could choose which interviews to watch and which lessons to practice, and the best part was, this event was free.
This summit is a wonderful opportunity for those who are new to the Feldenkrais Method to learn more about it, and for those who are familiar with the method, it’s a great opportunity to deepen their understanding and practice.
Like most conferences, this online event can seem overwhelming at first, and it’s tempting to want to see and do everything. If I lived in a cave with internet access, I probably would, but instead, I chose to watch one interview and practice at least one of the three lessons each day. Carving out time for my movement practice—making room to cultivate curiosity through learning, growing, and playing while still tending to real-life obligations has helped me maintain a healthy life balance.
I was able to listen to interviews while I was sending morning emails to students—or while cleaning my living room, and I could begin or end my day with a short movement lesson. This summit added novelty and structure to my life, and it encouraged me to make time to move, play, and attend to my life more fully.
- The Power of Mantra
Finally, my third retreat, which is still ongoing, focuses on reading and analyzing a Buddhist text: The Power of Mantra: Vital Practices for Transformation.
Venerable Yӧnten is an amazing Buddhist nun who is currently teaching at Vajrapani Institute in California. She is teaching a series of online lectures that focus on this text by Lama Zopa Rinpoche.
I’ve been following Ven. Yӧnten’s teachings for a few years. She’s a young Mahayana Buddhist nun from Montana who is extremely knowledgeable (and funny). I appreciate how she can unpack and explain complex Buddhist ideas as well as incorporate relevant and contemporary examples to bring clarity and understanding to ancient teachings and concepts.
I had attended several of her live teachings on Zoom a few years ago when she was teaching in Israel. I remember waking up at 4:00 AM to attend these talks.
Her current teachings from Vajrapani Institute are also available live via Zoom. However, she is also sharing them on YouTube as well, which is more convenient for my schedule.
This text, The Power of Mantra, is a compilation of what Lama Zopa Rinpoche considers to be the most accessible Buddhist deities and their respective mantras. It includes chapters describing Shakyamuni Buddha, Chenrezig, Manjushri, Tara, Medicine Buddha, and Vajrasattva. In addition to explaining the significance of each deity, this text also includes mantras and short meditation practices that correspond with each.
The text alone is an absolute treasure, but being able to listen to Ven. Yӧnten explain in more detail and lead listeners through the meditations is an even greater gift.
Retreats are important—they are meaningful opportunities and necessary pockets of time for practice—whether it’s a meditation, movement, or mantra practice—whether the practice is intellectual in nature, or rooted in curiosity, creativity, and play. Taking the time to delve into practices that resonate with you is extremely important. Retreats can help boost, recharge, and energize a fading or forgotten interest, and they can help add structure to a sporadic practice, helping to make room or time for them even during the busiest of days. They can also give you something to look forward to.
The best part is, you don’t have to take refuge in a cave (or an expensive resort) in order to make time or reap the benefits of meaningful practices. With a little creativity, resourcefulness, and planning, retreats can occur in the middle of your own life, and they can become the sutra running through your own beads of responsibility.
Enjoy your own practices, everyone! Talk to you soon.
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Why Are You Chanting, Seriously? April 7, 2019 20:36
I spend an hour every day chanting mantra. I begin my day by practicing a short sadhana and use a quarter mala to mark the twenty-seven recitations in the morning. Then, later in the day, usually in the afternoon or early evening, I chant using a full mala (108 beads).
WHY? There are so many other things that I could do with this hour every day. I could watch something on Netflix or YouTube. I could sleep in for an extra hour, or take a nap in the afternoon. I could feed my brain with information and read a compelling article or blog. I could take a long walk. I could declutter and organize my kitchen cabinets or volunteer at an animal shelter or soup kitchen. Why would I choose to spend this time chanting Sanskrit mantra?
These are reasonable questions. For the last five years I have practiced japa on the daily, and given the choices listed above, I’d rather continue to invest the time practicing mantra recitations, and here’s why…
- “Mantra’s nature is to protect the mind from negativity.” Ven. Lozang Yӧnten
Unsupervised, I am prone to worry and restless anxiety. Driving, for example, can be a trigger for me. If traffic is heavy, or delayed by construction, if I’m concerned about being late, or if an unexpected warning light suddenly appears on my dash board, I can go from focused and alert to tense and frazzled in .02 seconds.
When these unexpected surprises occur, I find that reaching for the clicker counter that I keep in the closest cup holder and chanting while I’m on the road helps to keep me calm, relaxed, and focused, and it also prevents me from spinning out into a vortex of nervous loops of spazziness. Chanting keeps me grounded, present in the here and now, and prevents the infinite “what if” scenarios from taking over—it keeps me moving forward, even if I’m at a standstill in traffic.
- “By practicing mantra, we can drive our awareness deeper into the bones, muscles and tissues of the body to gain a greater sensitivity and understanding of our makeup and amplify the emotional energies latent within, much like the potential energy present in mountains that then becomes kinetic in the form of an avalanche when the earth quakes.” Gabriel Axel (“Your Brain on Om: The Science of Mantra, U.S. News and World Report , 2 Oct 2013)
In other words, a mantra practice can recalibrate the body and the mind, motivating us to reflect and improve. Managing transitions is not one of my strong suits. When I come home from work, for example, I’m energetically exhausted and disoriented. I’ve entered that awkward bardo state between busyness and rest, from structured time to unstructured time, and japa practice can act as a helpful buffer. When I sit on my cushion for formal practice, chanting mantra helps me navigate the change of environment and gives me permission to let go of the need to accomplish tasks. If I chant soon after coming home from school, I’m less likely to either go into Type A taskmaster mode (doing laundry, dishes, making dinner, or creating more items on the “to do” list) or self-soothing by taking refuge in junk food.
Sitting for thirty to forty minutes in the afternoon gives me an opportunity to process the events of the day, to relax, release, and ease into my evening. I feel more present and embodied.
However, if I wait too late in the evening to practice, I grow tired and impatient, and my mind is too fuzzy or groggy to benefit from the practice. Late afternoon to early evening is ideal for me—it creates a smooth transition from Do-Do-Do to Be-Be-Be.
- “By allowing the mind to be permeated with compassion, you become one who upholds the integrity and purity of the practice. This, itself, is the key to liberating all sentient beings.” H.E. Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche
This chanting practice is not just about me, and it doesn’t simply benefit myself. It can help others, too. The sadhana and mantra that I work with are part of a specific purification practice. Through it, I resolve to relinquish negative habits of mind and tendencies that harm myself and others. I acknowledge, regret, and affirm not to continue these thoughts, actions, or habits that have the potential to cause harm (i.e. judging others harshly, being snippy or snarky with people when I’m impatient, spending money on things I don’t need, laziness, arrogance, etc.). There’s a visualization component to this practice—and mantra recitation is at the heart of this practice as well. By actively and consciously acknowledging these habits and traits—and taking steps to cease, desist, and purify them, I am not only improving my own life, but making the world more tolerable for people who happen to be around me.
Outside of the purification practice, sometimes I will dedicate a round of mantra recitations to someone who is suffering (friend or stranger), or to a challenging situation or conflict (local or global). Chanting in this context becomes an offering and an act of compassion for others, and there’s never a shortage of subject matter since suffering and turmoil are ubiquitous. The mantra can be short and sweet—it doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective. Om Mani Padme Hum is just one example. What matters most is the intention behind the chanting practice, and the genuine focus and attention to the practice.
While watching Netflix or scrolling through Facebook may provide mindless entertainment and endless opportunities for distraction, mantra practice can actually improve focus, keep the monsters of attachment at bay, and help foster genuine compassion for others.