I Remember: Mindful Schools Closing Retreat at Garrison Institute
For me, the closing retreat for the Mindful Schools training program for teaching mindfulness to youth started before I even arrived at Garrison Institute. One year before, I had attended the opening retreat for the same program. Last year, it was all new. This time, after a year of hard work and community building, it felt like re-connecting. I attended several dance and movement meditation classes in my core practice tradition during the days right before the retreat. On Sunday morning, my all-time favorite dance partner was at class; and we shared four or more dances over the course of the two hours.
From the dance studio in the West Village, I drove two hours to Garrison, New York, did another dance and movement meditation class just a few miles from the retreat center, then went to an Italian restaurant in Fishkill to meet friends from the Mindful Schools training. We greeted each other like old friends. At one point, each person told a story about a turning point when we realized the power of mindfulness in our life. Even with six of us at the table, each story was met with full attention.
The next day I spent several hours at a cafe in Beacon, then decided to visit the Dia:Beacon–a converted factory that is now a museum for modern and contemporary art specializing in famous, minimal, large-scale artworks.
I spent all of my teens, twenties, and thirties devoted to artmaking, and even taught art at the college level. For the past few years, I haven’t been active as an artist, and I forget how much knowledge and skill I’ve amassed, how hard I’ve worked, and what an important part of my identity being an artist has been. I also recollected long diatribes against the macho-ness of minimal art I had delivered over the years, and wondered if any of it still had weight for me.
At a very sensitive time, when it was already becoming difficult to make new work given the circumstances of my life, I had a painful exchange about artmaking with someone I trusted, and my artmaking practice dissolved, perhaps finally.
I had to admit that the artworks were impressive, perfectly sited in this cleaned up, 160,000-square-foot industrial space. I was grateful to find the work of a female artist, Charlotte Posenenske, in the central gallery. I learned that her sculptural work was exhibited alongside prominent male minimal artists in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I also learned that her strong interest in labor rights had lead her to defect from artmaking and pursue a PhD in sociology. She became a labor activist and went on to specialize in employment and working practices.
Tears streamed down my cheeks as I moved through, remembering infinite conversations and experiences that touched on many of the artists and artworks included in the permanent collection, remembering a former self that I hadn’t noticed I was grieving for.
Stepping out of the museum, I found a roiling white sky, with shifting opacities and incredible depth, and quickly changing forms and layers. My eyes wide with light, I filmed a series of one-minute videos of the sky, with no up or down orientation, no reference point. At one point I lay on my back on the ground to record, a bit hesitant about seeming weird, but alight with the fever of artmaking, remembering what I loved about it, remembering a forgotten part of myself.
I wanted to arrive early to Garrison so I could try to get a room with a window facing the river, but as I drove the few miles from the Dia, the sky exploded with rain. I couldn’t see at all and had to pull over to wait it out.
I recalled the year before, at the opening retreat, when there had been a thunderstorm during a period of community silence and relentless heat. We were told there was a severe weather alert and that if we felt nervous we could take shelter on the lower level of the building. The storm tore the sky apart, and it was like the outside came resoundingly inside the soaring, once-Franciscan-cathedral main hall. Still in silence, several of us made our way to the front steps where we had a view of the sweeping lawn and river. The pavement and plants gave off steam. Mist exhaled into the entryway and landed coolly on my exposed arms, legs, and face. A white cliff-waterfall on the other side of the river tripled its size. A woman seated next to me on the marble steps ate a crunching apple, savoring each bite.
Back in the meditation hall, the storm continued as mindfulness became increasingly concentrated. At one point, I realized it was too intense for me, and stepped into the foyer, intentionally interrupting practice. After a few minutes, I went back in and sat down on the cushion again. Then, I had a sharp, sudden sensation on the left side of my head, and was seized by the fear that I might be having a stroke.
I remembered something the vipassana teacher, Dipa Ma, once told a practitioner who was freaking out during a sitting period. She sat next to him and said, “If you can stay with this sensation, you will accumulate great merit.” I settled down and the flash of pain and fear soon faded.
The teachers reminded us of basic meditation instructions, including choosing some kind of anchor for the attention, such as breath, sound, or body sensations. The next day, the teachers each offered thoughts on the topic of befriending, focusing on befriending even difficult emotions.
That first evening, following dinner and an evening program, we entered into almost three days of silence, which enfolded me like soft fabric.
I could see the river and waterfall from the window of my small room. The Hudson line trains charged by, whistling loudly at regular intervals. I slept unclothed with a light sheet, loving the sensation of my bare legs touching each other, and of my feet, one cradled inside the arch of the other. I woke to the sound of a roving bell not long after dawn and made my way to the shower before the 7.30 AM morning sit.
In silence, I didn’t feel like I was closing others out. Even in avoiding eye contact, it felt like we were energetically very much in community. It was like we were all in on a precious secret, witness to a deeper layer of reality than the one we spend most of our days navigating. We were still seeing each other, but on a deeper level, taking a break from all the noise of projecting ourselves. For just a few days, I was not colluding in anyone’s ego stories, nor asking them to collude in mine.
The day was passed in alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation, interspersed with brief commentary by the teachers, Alan Brown, Argos Gonzalez, and Erin Woo. Sarah Ludell Beach, who was the retreat coordinator, also stood in the role of teacher at times.
That night, I bounded to the wide front lawn during a final walking period, hoping I would be able to dance with the fireflies, as I had the previous year. This time, we were two weeks later in the season, and the fireflies were not as abundant. Though I still got to dance with the tiny, intermittently glowing creatures, it couldn’t compare to the previous year, when I had been doing walking meditation on the lawn, and wound up dancing at length and through several different energies with the fireflies in a spontaneous expression of pure joy.
On this retreat, walking meditation delighted me. My feet delighted me. The natural world delighted me, including the sky and its endless parades; and the gravel, sand, stone, and pavement surfaces that provided so many engaging textures for the soles of my feet.
During a dance and movement meditation retreat in the same soaring main hall just a month before, I had imagined myself as though in a different lifetime. I was a young nun in threadbare orange robes, vulnerable and bare underneath, bald headed and slight, with no holding whatsoever in my body.
My whole architecture was entirely different. My shoulders and upper body were drawn more forward, with none of the “push your shoulders back, pull your chest forward, have good posture” that my culture demands. It almost felt like I was leaning forward and curving myself, but actually I think I was just gracefully upright, belly fully released, diaphragm fully released, with no ego demands on my carriage. As this young woman, I walked through the hall with tender humility, my hands gently cupped together at the height of my navel.
The most extraordinary part of this vision was my feet. In the past year, I had severe heel spurs, and struggled with debilitating pain that I feared might persist. The young nun’s feet were these soft, aware, exquisite creatures who felt and sensed the earth as she patiently walked, practically caressing the road beneath her.
Sitting in silence on a bench during a break, my feet dangled, too high to reach the floor, and muscles in the arch of my right foot spasmed repeatedly. During the week, tiny muscles in my feet released again and again, surrendering many micro-grippings–ego armorings I had designed to hold out experience, to keep me safe from the sometimes-unbearable reality of being fully alive.
Walking outside, now on my third retreat at Garrison Institute, I finally discovered that it’s possible to walk all the way around the main part of the property on a circular road. I was grateful, as walking on grass without shoes in a place with high incidence of Lime’s Disease seemed ill-advised. I walked with uncharacteristic patience and engagement, feeling every point of contact. At one point, I paused to touch a small, fuzzy, white caterpillar with my pointer finger, then put my foot into her path. Without pausing, she climbed right up onto the offered foot, and I sobbed, whispering “I remember, I remember, I remember,” grateful that the caterpillar did not perceive me as separate from the ground, and continuing to marvel at the sensitivity and intelligence of my feet.
Alan offered the instruction that if it felt right, we could let go of our mindfulness anchors at this point, and experiment with open awareness, but I had already made this shift. As mindfulness was well-founded, I knew I could let in more of the world’s vibrant and dynamic displays without losing my ground. At this time, I also noticed how sensitive my sacrum had become–almost like a tuning fork, vibrating with subtle energies.
During a sitting period, scanning my inner body, I became aware of the dark, mysterious recesses of the pelvis. My attention shifted to the cathedral ceiling, then outward to the blue sky above it, then continued to rise into dark, boundless outer space, dotted everywhere with points of light. The inner darkness and the endless mystery of the cosmos seemed to blend seamlessly together.
I thought about an idea gathered from the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray, that being fully embodied involves not only individual embodiment, but also interpersonal embodiment, and embodiment on a cosmic level.
At least once every day I danced with the river. My river dances from the previous year had stayed with me and remained alive in my dance since the opening retreat last year. Sometimes, remembering these dances, I move in the slow, liquid currents of a dancing room, my hands softly conducting and receiving, feeling ribbons pass directly through my porous body as they curve and express themselves, sometimes even cascading in from the corners of the room.
There is this one spot that pulls me powerfully. To get there I walked down a wooded path, across a bridge over train tracks, and up onto a glacial rock lodged into the river’s bank. On top of the rock, I could see the surface of the river from slightly above. The complex play of currents was hinted at by the dancing lines and patterns and erratic flat, smooth places. Moving, the river pulled me deep into it, and I would rise to the surface again with darkness streaming down my back and shoulders. Sometimes my excursion was just a sight-seeing trip to the river, but more often than I expected, I found the moving stillness that underlies all surfaces–a resonant silence that is active and alive.
I’ve been carving a groove so I know the way there, and I found myself chanting again, “I remember, I remember, I remember.”
On the afternoon of the third day, we transitioned back into speaking. At first, it seemed ok, but I felt tired and slept poorly. The fourth day was marked by intensive social and professional exchange. The main activity of the day was to self organize into groups of four, then each present a demo lesson to the group. I learned a lot from this activity and gained valuable knowledge, but I again felt exhausted and slept poorly.
On the fifth day, some participants lead breakout sessions on specific topics. Though it was a huge amount of information to take in, all of the sessions I attended left me feeling inspired and added to my knowledge of the many different aspects of mindfulness work in the world. In the evening, we had a show-and-tell period, and people presented activities they had used successfully with their students, songs with themes of mindfulness, and dances.
I had been invited to lead a class in my dance and movement meditation practice for the group, but, although I am in the teacher training process, I am not yet authorized to teach. Instead, I offered to lead one of the twenty-minute breakout sessions on the fifth day, where I would present some basic information about the practice, and talk about the importance of some kind of embodiment practice in conjunction with sitting meditation.
Breakfast was in silence most days, and I sat at length after finishing my meal, visualizing how I would present this information.
After attending three excellent breakout sessions led by colleagues, I went to the main hall, where the session would take place. Twenty or so people appeared, and I gathered them to the most inner part of the room and asked them to sit in a circle. The first thing I said is that I’m not authorized to teach the practice yet, but I would present a brief overview and invite questions. I also emphasized the importance of including some kind of embodiment practice along with sitting meditation, whether that be yoga, tai chi, 5Rhythms, or any other modality. I also shared that the dance and movement meditation practice I do can be seen as a way to embody the creative process; and that it would look different for everyone.
My firefly dances of the previous year had become part of the group’s lore, so I decided to embody the different stages of my dance with the fireflies to show something true about what my practice is for me. I also hoped to inspire people to have faith and integrity on their own path to fully-realized embodiment.
Later that day, arriving at the river, I somewhat half-heartedly started to dance on the gravelly sand of a little inlet next to the big rock. I told myself it was ok if I wasn’t that into it, I would just move through the formal practice and see what happened. I started by making circles in the sand with my feet. I kept finding straight lines and angles, then falling back into circling. I softly let my head go, let my body go, let my stories go. Still moving, I ascended the rock where I could see the river from above. After only a few light gestures in my fingertips, the river’s stillness opened its gateway.
During my dances, I had imagined that I could perceive an ancient force, a Naga, a kind of serpent deity that lives in large bodies of water, in this complex and powerful stretch of the river. On this final day, I thanked the Naga and asked it to help and guide me on my path.
The wind grew stronger and seemed to pass directly through my body, curving around my heart and rushing right into the plants of the river bank behind me. A low sound emitted from my belly and throat, and I moved unselfconsciously, whispering “I remember, I remember, I remember” as tears coursed down my face and over my chin.
I had no idea how long I was at the river, but it seemed likely I was late for the afternoon session in the main hall. I started back up the path to the retreat center, feeling my soft feet and noticing the layered textures of green around me. As I emerged from the woods, I encountered three friends, walking with their arms around each other. They asked me something about the closing party we would have that night. I blinked, took a breath, and answered, leaving the world of the Naga and of the many forces by the river, and stepping back into the light of day.
An alumni of the program acted as DJ for the closing party, which took place in the dining hall. Without any alcohol, many danced with cheerful abandon. The people I had been grouped with for study meetings over the course of the year had decided to dress as fireflies. One of our members bought yellow tutus and installed a light in the layers of tulle so our tails would glow. Another had purchased wings. The eight of us trailed through the crowd in a glowing line to join our teacher on the dance floor during the Whitney Houston song “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”
For the final session, we assembled in a giant circle of over 100 people on the front lawn for a closing ritual. As the ritual ended and the retreat formally dissolved, we were invited to say goodbye to people silently. I lingered in patient embraces as the room gradually transitioned into chatter.
On the drive home, I chanted, “I remember, I remember, I remember,” as the cloud sky shifted, the Hudson river curved and twisted, and tears streamed down the valleys of my cheeks.
This blog consists of reflections on my own experiences, and is not sanctioned by any organization or teacher.
Garrison Institute building exterior from: https://www.garrisoninstitute.org/retreats-events/facility-grounds/
Garrison main hall photo from: https://non-duality.rupertspira.com