“Mommy I hear a glow on you,” my eight-year-old son, Simon, told me when I spoke with him for the first time after three days of silence. I had been in the woods, wondering at the complex root systems of the trees underneath the forest path I walked on, sitting at length in a meditation hall, eating in silence, and noting the intensity of a thick heat wave.
When I spoke with him, I was in the middle of a week-long retreat with 90 other educators who are entering an intensive, yearlong program for teaching Mindfulness to youth. The retreat center, Garrison Institute, was formerly a Franciscan monastery, but has been repurposed for use by groups of any and all spiritual traditions.
The meditation hall was once a cathedral, and still has inlaid wood floors, soaring, curved heights with a circular narrative of symbols in stained glass, and an overlooking balcony that may have once housed the pipes of a resonant organ. Half of the space was populated with meditation cushions and chairs, arranged in a semicircle facing the four teachers.
During the first morning of practice, the teachers provided considerable physical instructions and we did sitting and walking meditation throughout the morning. In stages, they described three fundamental “anchors,” or places to hold the attention, including breath, body sensations, and sound, suggesting finally that we pick one anchor to work with. I chose breath, and so returned my attention again and again to the physical feeling of breathing.
Before lunch, one of the teachers, Kaira Jewel Lingo, gave instructions for mindful eating. “Eating is a celebration,” she said in her remarkably gentle voice. I heard, We can consider all of the many people and conditions that had to come together in order for this meal to come to us. We can really take the time to notice all of the flavors and textures of each bite. We can chew until the food is really liquid before we swallow it.
Despite my increasing mindfulness, lunch seemed kind of bland. To remedy this, I shook a bottle of tobasco sauce vigorously over my plain brown rice. Within a few bites, my eyebrows raised in shock and my tongue and lips burned. I had also spooned on a considerable amount of chunky salt, and after the first wave of heat started to normalize, a salt crystal landed on the tip of my tongue. I raised my eyebrows still further, continuing a roller coaster of culinary sensation. I got up to investigate the label on the tobasco sauce, my lips still on fire. Surely this must be a special edition, habanero, extra spicy tobasco sauce? It couldn’t possibly be the same tobasco that I regularly douse my food with? I was surprised to learn that it was in fact regular, standard tobasco sauce, the exact same.
Setting out for a walk in the woods after lunch, I chose the only path that seemed available. After a short time, I chose to veer left from the path and crossed a bridge over railroad tracks. To my delight, this path emptied onto a big rock formation at the edge of the Hudson River. I felt slightly tired, but hoped I could dance a wave, moving through each of the 5Rhythms – Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness – in sequence, the fundamental ritual of my core practice. Instead, after moving with noise in my ears for a few moments, I clicked into a groove and entered directly into Stillness, moving gently with breath, expressing the different currents of the river and ribbons of energy as they reached me. It was as though someone had turned the sound off on the world. I moved closer to the edge of the water, descending to where waves created by passing boats touch the rock. A gentle Staccato found me, the rhythm that has had the most to teach me lately – the rhythm of form, expression, direction, and of making things in the world. I moved with my arms and hips to the flips and curves and edges and advances and retractions of the relationship between water and rock.
Back in the meditation hall in the afternoon, I felt slightly sick, constricted through the diaphragm, and hot at the level of the face. Lately I have recognized the need to be able to release energy when I am overfull, like a pressure valve. How to do this hasn’t been exactly clear, however. It seems that the energy of mindfulness has its own strong momentum. Once I’m in the stream of mindfulness, I can’t just say, “OK, I’m not going to be mindful anymore.” Then, I just start being mindful of trying not to be mindful. In this case, I stepped briefly out of the meditation hall, letting go of the attitude of concentration, and that seemed to regulate me.
Reflecting later, I considered this progress in my practice. I’ve been reluctant to back off of my edges in the past, occasionally resulting in depression and ill ease. After these few short moments of casual attitude in the foyer, I re-entered the hall and took my seat among my peers in a more relaxed state.
Another of the four teachers, Erin Woo, presented a talk that evening on the topic of authenticity, and the many limiting stories we tell ourselves that diminish authenticity. She included personal examples of a story that has impacted her own experience, the story of “not good enough.”
During the final walking period of the evening, the early July sky lit with sunset. I stood on an overlook, facing the Hudson river and a wide field. I gasped as the field and bordering woods shimmered, alive with fireflies. I was concerned about seeming like a show-off, and of hogging the space of the overlook, but I slipped into motion, tracking the fast appearing and disappearing lanterns of the little bugs, again in Still Staccato, spine released, and long, ranging gestures with sudden stops and dips, and with occasional twitters in the hands and fingers, expressing the tiny dots and pauses of light that danced in the field below.
Silence wrapped luxuriously around me. Part of the instructions for silence were to avoid even eye contact. I felt too meek with my eyes cast down, so I held my head up instead, occasionally meeting people’s gazes and lighting up slightly. In the past, I have inhabited silence with a hard line, entering so deeply into my own small space that I might even feel the need to defend it if someone spoke with me or made beseeching eye contact. In this case, although I was in silence and very much turning in to the experience of my own inner body, I was still part of the collective field, and remained energetically porous and connected to the people around me.
A moving bell at 6.45AM mingled with my dream state and woke me on the third day of the retreat, which happened to be the 4th of July. After a morning stretch, meditation period, and breakfast, I walked in the woods again. I felt enveloped by the tunnel of trees, and imagined the deep and complex root systems which allow the trees to communicate, even crossing under the very path on which I walked. This time, I cried at length, thinking about the current state of the country. I reflected especially on the fact that its current prosperity is due in large part to the labor and subjugation of enslaved peoples, and to the land taken without remorse from its original inhabitants. An extra painful history to consider at this time, especially as racism and xenophobia have increased exponentially.
The teachers offered a taste of many different practices, and during the afternoon session, another teacher, Robert Thomas, offered a practice that involves open awareness, letting go of a reference point or anchor and hanging out in open space. As we prepared to move out of the meditation hall to practice walking meditation, he suggested that we consider gazing upward toward sky.
I made my way to a hallway of tucked away classrooms, but finding them already occupied continued on to a covered walkway between two second-floor sections of the main building. Three people were already there, arms resting on the balustrade, gazing upward. After some moments, a low growling began to emerge from the darkening sky.
At the end of the walking period, I made my way back to the main hall and took my seat again as the sky continued to rumble. After longer than I expected, rain began to pelt the high ceiling, creating a loud hush. After some moments of meditation, the retreat manager announced that there was an emergency weather advisory, suggesting that some might wish to leave the big cathedral and move to the basement level. No one seemed inclined, but the teachers suggested a five-minute break in case people wanted to close windows or decline to practice in the main hall during the storm.
Along with several others, I made my way to the front steps, where the sweeping vista of the Hudson River was blurred by heavy rain. The heavy wooden doors were each held by one retreatant. Without hesitation, I stepped out into the rain, tipping my head back and letting rain pour over me, grateful after several days of grueling heat. Acknowledging the frequent lightning, I returned to the stone steps under cover, and sat in silence. A woman next to me ate an apple with decisive crunching bites. Two enthusiastic birds continued to sing in the bushes to the right of the doorway. Mist from the rain landed on my forearms and cheeks. Across the wide river, a cliff waterfall I hadn’t noticed before swelled to three times its size, crashing with white water.
A bell summoned us back to the meditation hall, but some of us lingered on the steps, breathing the storm in.
Returning to our seats, the storm continued to activate the big room. I found myself rapt, counting the spaces between the thunder and lightning, aware of the dynamic, dimensional space of the sky around the building and of its intersection with the inside. At one point, I felt terror approach from the left, from the direction of a simultaneous flash of lightning and crack of thunder. My vision got weird and I felt terrified: heat, sick, rising. For a moment I was afraid I might be having a stroke. The words of an Indian master to one of her students came to mind, “Don’t worry, if you can just stay with it, you will accumulate great merit.” The experience rushed through me, arising, peaking and concluding in less than a minute.
In the evening, after a patient, slowly-chewed, silent dinner and evening sit, Kaira Jewel gave a talk on how to cultivate mindstates that lead to happiness, and discourage mindstates that lead to suffering. She called these processes “The Art of Happiness” and “The Art of Suffering.”
Kaira Jewel began her talk with a reflection on “Interdependence Day” and the fact that there is no thing that is only America or American, but there are many phenomena that make up what we know as America. Some include the enslavement of human beings and the experience of being enslaved, and the genocide of the people who originally inhabited the land. Walking in the woods earlier, I felt strongly that July 4th needed to be formally addressed, and I was grateful for Kaira Jewel’s words.
After Kaira Jewel’s talk, we headed out of the meditation hall again for the final walking meditation period of the day.
Instead of staying on the overlook, this time I headed down the stone path straight into the heart of the firefly field. I hesitated briefly, afraid some part of me might want to show off.
Within moments, however, I was immersed, moving through a full 5Rhythms wave, the fundamental ritual of my core spiritual practice. I moved in Flowing, feeling and honoring my feet on the forgiving grass, then began to move in the direction of every firefly I perceived in the expansive field, exhaling forcefully, sinking low into the knees, using the pinky sides of my forearms like swords, rising and falling, building heat in the body, watching the edges of my vision for a new flicker, responding to three nearly simultaneous lanterns, then waiting with full lungs during a brief pause in flashing. The precision of Staccato attention built to the fever of Chaos, and I let my head go, the pricks of light in the air around me blurring as I spun, dipping and coiling inward and away from my own axis, and in and out of my own field. Breathing erratically and sweating heavily, I began to notice the individual fireflies around me, lifting up onto the toes and reaching toward a rising light with the fingertips, leaping and falling, beaming unreservedly, in an expression of pure delight.
Finally, sound fell away again, as I moved with one tiny bug at a time. Lightning bugs tend to hover and linger, so they make excellent dance partners. Still dusk, I could see and track an individual even when it was not lit, and I cupped my palm, letting it lead me, rising and opening my hands in a slowly turning gesture, delighting in its slow transition into illumination, bowing my head to its tiny expression of majesty, part of the unified whole and spectacularly unique at once.
Still pulsing with life, I sat with my peers for the final meditation period of the evening. Every time I half-lowered my eyes, I saw shimmering lights both inside and outside of me.
The next day passed in a river of sensations, challenges and joys. We moved out of silence and began to consciously build community through a variety of exercises and shifting constellations. Kaira Jewel led us in an optional movement session, introducing us to the practice of Interplay.
Another of our teachers, Alan Brown, offered a talk, making a compelling case for the importance of self-regulation, especially for teachers. “Attention is a form of love. Embodiment is a form of safety,” he said as he described how young people can regulate themselves and can learn to self-regulate through the adults they are in contact with. “Just being a self-regulated adult in the classroom, before we’ve even taught anything about Mindfulness, is already a powerful intervention.”
He opened his talk with an astonishing story about his own path, which includes a diagnosis with Tourette’s syndrome. “Mindfulness was literally a medical miracle for me,” he shared, as he summarized the insights of many years of practice. In his case, deep investigation and inquiry into the body, along with some strategic questions posed by his teachers at opportune moments, lead to a radical decrease in the symptoms of Tourette’s and enduring faith in the power of Mindfulness practices.
Following an afternoon of community building which included tears and howling laughter, Alan was also very, very funny, and the room roared with good humor. The teachers also shared several games we could use with students in our classrooms, including a competitive game that physically modeled the paths of neurotransmitters through a line of bodies, and a game that involved passing a full cup of water around a circle.
At one point, Kaira Jewel led us in a structured Lovingkindness practice within a smaller group we will work closely with throughout the entire year of the course. At its conclusion, we offered Lovingkindness to all beings everywhere, without exception. I saw a pulsing dome of energy high above us, into the sky and beyond, twisting light ribbons edging moving planes of energy: powerful, building, resonating. The woman to my right perfectly described my own vision, saying she could see it through me somehow. “We should consider teaming up in card games,” I joked.
The retreat formally ended with writing prompts and shared reflections in our small cohort groups, inspiring words from each of the four teachers, and a ritual of passing a string around the gigantic circle. At its conclusion, the teachers cut a tiny section for each of us, and we tied it around our wrists, a way to remember our experience and to recall our purpose as we re-enter the streams of our lives outside the container of the retreat.
During the days after we let go of silence and engaged in speaking, at least ten people commented on my dance with the fireflies. “Are you a Tai Chi master?” one generous woman asked. “Was that Brazilian fight dancing you were doing in the field?” asked another. I smiled and said with some effusion, “I was just dancing with the fireflies.” If pressed, I would describe the dance in more detail, and if pressed further, shared information about the 5Rhythms dance and movement meditation practice. Many said they thought it was great that I wasn’t afraid to let go, something that never crossed my mind, though I did hesitate because I feared that part of my intention was to show off.
What most said was something along the lines of “That was so beautiful! I just stood there watching you. Your joy was enormous! I love your energy. It made me feel so happy.” Some even said it inspired their own joy. I inevitably choked up, touched that the people in this new community were so unreservedly happy for my happiness. Had I given in to self doubt and kept myself contained, I would have missed an opportunity to experience joy, and in the process of suppression would also have missed a chance to share joy.
I’m not surprised that you “hear a glow” on me, my dear son. This week has lit me from the inside. The path, at least for the moment, rises to meet me, showing itself a little at a time, tiny increments of light, moving in a collective field.
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.