Thursday, October 8, 2009

Spiritually SuperCharge Me!

Can I get that to go with a side of fries?

Yes, I am back to the fast paced world of modern conveniences. It wasn't too much of a shock to my system. In fact, I was so happy to come home to my family and busy life. Retreat is really, really hard work. The distractions of life are rather pleasant.

Which brings me to the topic of this post. We want things to happen and we want it to happen fast. If we could drive up to McSpiritual and order a dose of Bliss and Grace with a side of fries, we would do it. In fact, it's very hard to get away from this sort of mentality even in retreat.

I have this huge desire to get the job done. You know, you want the result and you want it now, which does not really allow for the process to unfold. In the middle of the retreat, you are already planning your escape. What happened to being in the moment? What happened to being here now. Oo, it's not as easy as it sounds, but yet it is.

I did have moments of the pure clarity of being in the moment. Once while washing my dishes, quite a few times on the cushion, and once on my yoga mat. It is such a huge relief from my ordinary mind, that I don't quite understand why I can't make it happen more often. My ordinary mind is not a fun and blissful place to be. Here I am on retreat, alone, with no one to talk to and yet, I'm having conversations in my head with people who aren't even there. When you figure out what you are doing, it's quite funny to realize it. We allow so much nonsense to take up space in our minds. We will fill it with pretend conversations, pretend scenerios and once you get what you are doing, pretend fears. Yet it extends beyond that as well, everything we do with our minds is an illusion. In retreat, it's easier to catch it because you can see that there is no one in your head that you are talking to. The fear is nothing more than something you made up. The scenerio you create is just pure fantasy, a day dream.

So, if I'm constantly creating scenerios in my head and they are mostly what I fear will happen, why not create a better scenerio? Why not dream a better dream? What have I got to loose? Instead of putting all my energy into worrying about Annamika, why not place my energy into seeing her be happy and peaceful and fulfilled? Why not see myself that way? What? Me? That would be too selfish. Yet, the Dalai Lama has asked us to consider cultivating spiritual selfishness. Doing, saying, and thinking things that are the causes to get us enlightened. So yes, I am to see my self happy, peaceful and enlightened.

Now, that I am back to my fast food world, I wonder. Did my retreat really even happen? Did I really change at all? How long will the spiritual charge last?

It will only last if I cultivate it. So, how do I bring my retreat into my life? What will I do every day to make my busy, mom life like my retreat. One of the best things about my retreat was that I planned to be "unbusy". I planned to sit and just look at the view with a cup of tea in my hands. I used to know how to do this when I was younger. Our family rented a cottage at Ocean Point, Maine with a fabulous view. We would sit there early summer mornings with our tea, we would sit there in the afternoons with some juice, we would just sit there and do nothing but be. That's what I need most in my life. Yes, it would be great to spend hours every day on my meditation cushion, but it's not always practical. But I can certainly find time everyday to just sit and do nothing and perhaps that's the best gift of all that retreat has given me. Permission to do nothing. Permission to have an all day shivasana (lay on the couch day). The best way to prepare for meditation is to get "unbusy". That way when you sit on your cushion, you won't be thinking about your to do list!

Here's the view from my retreat. Just sit, relax and have a cup of tea.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tivra Samvega Baby!

The title of this post loosely translates from the Sanskrit/English to "Go For it Baby! Or you might say, No holds bar!

I picked up this term years ago in a Yoga Sutra class taught by Ven. Sumati Marut. Kendall,my spiritual sister, and I loved this term and used it as an "inside joke." Yet, there's no joke about it at all. It's one of the most amazing ideas I've ever considered. The meaning behind this expression is basically a bumper sticker for my mind, "Enlightenment or Bust!"

So in a few short days, my grand experiment to get enlightened in this lifetime will be tracked into the fast lane. I as a mother, wife and domestic engineering Goddess will be in a silent, solitary retreat for 30 days in Sedonna, AZ.

I've been asked many questions about this retreat. All of them great questions. I think it blows people away that I will not be in communication with anyone. The only notes back and forth that I plan to write is to someone who will be care-taking my retreat by providing me with fresh veggies and fruits. All contact with the outside world will cease. My laptop will stay at home, the cell phone will be off, no TV, no radio. No nothing. Just me, my mind and my spiritual practice. I won't be taking any books to read to entertain my mind or some creative project to do. I won't step foot outside of my boundaries until I've completed 100,000 mantras/short prayers. It will take the entire month to do this.

Someone asked me if I would miss my family? Of course I will miss them, but this is not a major issue for me in retreat. I did 10 days in Tucson a year ago, and I loved it. After my mind let go of the normal routine as mom, it became much quieter, more expanded and focused all at the same time. The hardest part in retreat was dealing with the mental obstacles that my mind posed for me. The "what if's", and "do I really", and "what's the point". For me, it's very similar to training to swim competitively. You finish 4 laps and you've got 16 more to do in the set. You are constantly pushing your body but more importantly you are pushing your mind to not give up and just walk out of the pool. It's just like that in retreat.

Except the goal this time is not to win your event. It's much bigger than that. The stakes are higher and the mind doesn't quite like this break from the routine that keeps it highly entertained and stimulated. So, it's important to start training the mind every day, working in 15 minutes of meditation. Then working up to an hour. Then working up to a silent weekend retreat. Then 10 days. Then a month, and if you are really truly ready, longer than that.

I study with people who are planning to go into retreat for longer than that. They don't have families and the commitments. Sometimes, I feel stymied in my aspirations. Yet, I asked a visiting teacher to give me the good news about living the life of a spiritual family practitioner. One of the best things he said was that we have already developed the compassion needed by being parents. That others spending time in great retreats still have to work on this aspect of themselves. Compassion and Wisdom are the two wings that take you to enlightenment. We as parents are at least half way there.

Yet as spiritual family practitioners, we have to balance our commitments with our practice, which makes it difficult for many of my friends to leave their families and go into retreat for a month. My husband is the one who has the full time job, as do many parents that I know. I'm working part time as an Interfaith Minister. I have more flexibility than most.

However, I can't just walk out the door and go into retreat. It's not just about me getting time away. It's making sure that my family is served while I'm away. I can't leave if it will be too difficult for them. We've already done 10 days apart from each other and found that Sheshadri just could not get enough time to work and do my jobs as mom and Domestic Engineering Goddess. This time, I asked for help. I wouldn't have even planned this retreat without it. Luckily, Allison came through for us. She's a mom of grown children, living at a retreat/spiritual center, who can get away for a month. She's great with Annamika and fits well into our family. My job now is to surrender my role to her and Sheshadri knowing they won't do it just like I will. I have to give up my control and relax into knowing that they can get the job done. I can post schedules, leave behind instructions and things will certainly not run as smoothly as I would like. But it never runs as smoothly as I like, even when I run the show! So, there's really nothing to worry about.

It's getting closer and closer now. Supplies are being purchased, bags and boxes are being packed. I'm about to go on the most important trip of my life and I go into retreat for all of the families who are living the spiritual life. You know who you are. You are the people who turn off the TV for good, who start a spiritual gathering on Sundays in your backyard, who travel with your children to listen to sweet Holy teachings, who spend a vacation at an ashram instead of Disney, who make sure your children spend hours and days outside soaking in the goodness of mother nature...

You are my inspiration and my motivation. If you can do all those things and more, then I can set aside my life for a month, spend 8 hours a day on my meditation cushion, wrangle with my mind, put lineament on my aching knees, and purify my mind so that I can be of benefit to all of you in turn.

Tivra Samvega Baby!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Why do retreat?

So... for some time now, since The Rev created this blog, I've been invited to contribute and till now I've managed to put it off.

I'm not an adept at retreats - you could say I'm just a beginner. I've done couple of 10 day retreats and couple of weekend family retreat and one "householder style" 14 days.

My first 10 day retreat was about 4-5 years ago... I remember little about it except that it had deepened my inquisitiveness to spirituality. I do recall not sleeping much, being afraid of the dark, jumping at slight noises, being quite cold all the time, and also being served most delicious food by a small group of practitioners who as I recall followed Sufism. A vivid memory from that retreat was how I appeared to touch some of the other mens hearts (it was a mens only retreat).

My next 10 day was at Diamond Mountain with about 100 other practitioners - it was wild, beautiful, wonderful and magical. Anything i could put down in words would not do it justice - so I simply won't.

The Rev. has already talked about our first family retreat experiment - so there is not much for me to add except... I do recall having a headache most of the time. So I "cured" it by doing yoga asanas - Yes! by yoga and not taking Aspirin (sorry Pharma companies).

So why do I do retreats? I'll try to answer that through what I found had changed for me by doing retreats.

As a profession, I write software (yes I'm Indian!). And so does my brother Shekar (yes He's Indian too!). And both of us have been cutting code for over 24 years - him more than I. Most often when we talk, we end up talking "shop". One such time, Shekar and I ended up discussing how our minds have changed over the years.

It used to be the case, very early on in our software career, that we could hold thousands of lines of code "in memory" - in the sense that we could follow the logic of what the code did and how they various functions were interconnected, in what way/manner etc. And how changing one particular part could affect another in this way and so on... Those days, learning new languages, systems, applications was a breeze - we could become masters very quickly and develop complete working solutions rapidly.

Over time I guess it began to change - not that I noticed it till just a few years ago. My ability to learn new languages, new application environments quickly lessened. You could say that the environments, systems got more complicated, bloated - all that is generally true. And I notice that I cannot hold thousands of lines of code in my mind as I used to. Neither of us are slouches - especially Shekar. He has a very keen intellect and can keep track of long chain of logical philosophical arguments... and even he confessed that he noticed a marked difference.

What does this have to do with retreat?

The goal of retreat is to train the mind; the goal of a spiritual retreat such as the ones we did as a family is to habituate the mind to penetrate the true nature of reality.

What does this have to do with holding thousands of lines of code?

As a family man, its "becomes" difficult to take say a month off to train the mind to gain and hold realizations on how reality works. So... I ended up doing a form of retreat where the retreatant does prayer and certain meditation practices 4 times during a 24 hour period. And I did this while fulfilling my "obligations" at my job and as father, husband. Sometimes such a retreat can be called "householder style" (householder implying one who is "sole" bread winner in the family)

One day, while doing this householder style retreat, I was at my desk and *all of a sudden* I could hold "thousands of lines" of code in my head, again!. Somehow I'd regained this ability.

And the "sad" :-) part is that couple of weeks after this homeowner style retreat, I "lost" this ability again.

Therefore, it seems to me that retreats, especially those that are focused on prayer and meditation, do sharpen the mind, they do increase the mind's ability to focus, its ability to hold a single object for long periods. And this ability can be very practical! In my case, I was able to identify the nature of a particularly vexing bug and rectify it. If you know software, it had to do with multiple threads and timing; if you don't then just know that such bugs are *hard* to diagnose let alone solve.

One could argue that doing a daily meditations also achieves a state of mind that is able to focus single pointedly. That is of course true. And there is a certain power to retreat - perhaps it comes from turning away from the seemingly normal routine, carving out a time that is specific, concentrated and dedicated to silent practice; perhaps it comes from following a proscribed schedule of prayers and meditation - one that jives with the rhythm of our inner body (whats that? perhaps some yogi can write on that here). I don't particularly know. Here I'm simply commenting on one tangible result I got from doing retreat - your mind gets this ability to focus, QUICKLY! And this anyone can use !

And it seems to me that if your goal is to truly understand the nature of reality, how things work/appear to work, then silent meditation retreats, are a must.

Then you might say - "well, you got it and then lost it again. Whats the use of that?" Here, I believe that all spiritual paths would say - do it for others! Serve others! There appears to be some kind of connection between serving w/love & compassion and that helps changing our minds permanently. My heart is not fully open yet, so I cannot provide an anecdote on this...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Seeing our Children as Angels

Part of our role as spiritual families is to remember to continue our practice all day long. It's really easy to see our children as perfect holy Angels in a nice meditation or when they surprise us and act that way. It's a bit harder to remember them as spiritual beings in the middle of a tantrum or when they are particularly whiny.

When they are infants, we do see them as little angels. I think we are hardwired to see all infants as precious beings. It's part of the survival of our species. Yet once they get a mind of their own, it becomes so much harder. As parents, not only do we have to see them as children that need our guidance but as a spiritual family we need to see them as holy teachers too. Walking this fine line can be hard. We can either be too permissive with their behavoir or we can pull the reins in too tight on their creative spiritual play. Plus each family will do it differently according to the needs of the children and the family as a unit. So, we have to be careful either not to do exactly what another family is doing or mis-judge another families' methods.

Here's an example from my own life as to what I tend to do and what I've done to counteract that tendency. Here's the scenerio: I'm in the grocery store with a million billion things to do on my list. I never feel like I have enough time to get it all done. I've brought my child with me and she's not appearing as a precious child from the moment we walk into the store. Something's up with her and she's demanding my attention in a way that I don't like at all. She appears upset and angry and to top it all off inconsolable. This is the point where I normally would loose it. You know the scene; pull child aside and tell them to straighten up or we're going home.

Yet, I've had this training on wisdom that teaches me that what I need to do is the exact opposite of what I normally would do. Why? Because if I do my normal song and dance, I will reap what I sow. Sometime in the future my anger at my child will turn around and flower into a child angry at me! And it will happen at a much later date than the present time and we all know what angry teenagers are like! Do I really want that or better yet do I want angry people in my life at all? Plus, it never really serves our children for us to loose it on them.

So at this moment, I feel the anger starting to rise. I don't have time for this, and then something happens. All those times of sitting patiently on my meditation cushion, being patient with the drivers around me, being patient waiting in long lines flowers to give me an opportunity to be patient with my daughter at one of our most trying times together. She is my teacher here in this very moment. She is teaching me how to be patient when I don't want to and worse when I think I'm justified in not being patient.

What do I do. In the middle of a busy grocery store, ignoring what anyone else may think of me and her, I drop down to me knees and look her directly in her face with caring and kindness. I ask, "what do you need?"

There was no lecture, no threat, none of the usual stuff. It was the 180 degree change that I needed. It also came with a complete shift in my emotions. I really cared to know what she did really need. Perhaps she needed to go home or she was sick. How can I know if I don't bother to ask? The most noticable difference in me was that I was no longer focused on my lists, my time, me. I was truly focused on someone other than me.

That day, I don't even remember what she said she needed from me. It was something inconsequential. She moved past her moment just as quickly as I moved past mine and we were off happily grocery shopping together.

Now, am I always this enlightened in my behavior with my child? No way, I haven't perfected myself yet and she continues to always give me plenty of practice opportunities. Some of the time I do remember to keep my patience and some of the time I don't. It's why they call it spiritual practice.

When I've perfected myself, my daughter will always appear before me as she does in the above photo. She will be a holy Angel. So how do we know how close we are to our goal? We know we are super, super close when our children appear to us as Angels almost all of the time!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Power of Silence

The retreat was GREAT!

At first I was hesitant since we have two children under the age of ten. I was not sure how they were going to respond to the fact that we did the retreat silent, especially my five year old, Sydney.

The only way the kids could communicate with us was through them asking us questions verbally and the adults responding through body lanuage, cavemen grunts of no or yes (which sounded more like we had a mouth jam packed with popcorn...try it sometime) or notes written on paper. After a few successful tries, they seemed to adopt our new communication styles perfectly and they even tried communicating to each other the same ways.

What was even more beautiful was the way the kids all got along. It seemed that without the parents being able to play referee or troubleshoot their problems, they just decided to take the ownership on figuring out how to do something and even better, conflict resolutions between them as they arose. I didn't notice as much bickering, name calling and tears. I think they knew that "mom and dad" could not verbally console them, so why pick on each other in the first place. (Now that is not to say if one cracked their head open, we wouldn't rush to help them.) They just realized the skills they had to communicate with each other worked without us.

What also made the retreat realistic was the time away in "session" and the quality time we spent with the kids. There were two, two hours sessions each day. When we were in session they had a familiar adult come to babysit and to talk with, play and do play video game with. When we were out of session, the house rules were no tv, no cell phones and NO TV! Instead we played games, did crafts (easy one, not Martha Stewart style) color, make paper buildings with computer paper and staples, and make puzzles. It was easier than I thought, not to mention the smiles and bonding time we had.

In the end, it was worth it 110%. I will for sure do this again. The funny part is, the whole time we were silent with each other, it always seemed like we were talking with each other. I guess what I mean is...if I had to think back the non-verbal communications seemed so real in my head. The power of the mind is an explosive tool.

Post written by Beth M.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Sweet Smell of Sucess

After our first attempt at doing a silent retreat, I thought this is not possible. Sheshadri, Annamika and I headed to Diamond Mountain for a three day silent retreat just after Thanksgiving in 2007. We were going to be staying at the original historic house on the property and had brought everything we thought we needed for retreat. We were getting away from the TV, the computers and the crowds at the shopping malls. I naively thought how amazingly beautiful this was going to be!

We did have some intensely sweet and wonderful moments, but as a practical application of doing silent retreat it fell short. Most people experience retreat as silence punctuated by a noise of a bird here and there. Our retreat was noise punctuated by the sweet sound of silence here and there! Annamika was just not interested in being quiet! She did everything she could think of to pull her parents out of their committed silence. I thought of demanding, cajoling, bribing her to be silent and realized that none of that would truly work. She would need to decide when and how she was going to be silent.

So, Sheshadri and I got very little time for our practice of yoga, mediation and mantra. We ended up taking turns and in the end we were both exasperated. As you can see in the before and after photos. In the top photo, Sheshadri and I look radiant about going into retreat. Annamika looks sullen. In the photo to the right Shesh and I look utterly exhausted and Annamika is just posing for one last photo so we can get out of there!

I was asked recently by one of my teachers to try again. To find a way to make it possible. These teachers of ours always know where to push! Reluctantly, I started thinking about how to make it actually work for all of us. Luckily, I had a wonderful conversation with a friend who had taken her family to a retreat center in France while they were living in England. The place was completely set up to support families doing retreat together with their children, with other families and still have time to do their practice. Thinking about that model I started to brainstorm and came up with a plan.

Sheshadri was a little reluctant at first and then when I suggested the other family, he was hooked. Our dear friends, Beth and Tim, spend practically every holiday with us. We've been lucky enough to have become their adopted family. We don't have any family in the area and it's sooo sweet to connect with such amazing people. Luckily, Tim and Beth study with many of the same teachers and there was a strong harmony between our children. After speaking with Beth and Tim about the idea, I started making plans.

We used Tim and Beth's second house in Wilcox, AZ . I set up a practice schedule and then rounded up some wonderful people to hang with the children while we were in session. Even Annamika got excited about asking people to come help us in our pursuit. We started on New Year's eve with a party - music, dancing, the ball drop in Times Square, confetti and of course a wonderful dinner to start the whole evening off with a bang!

During the retreat, I was relaxed, happy, silent and got more practice time over 3 days than I can usually get in a month! Annamika was happy to have friends and times where she could just be the kid that she is! Beth gave me a huge grin and the thumbs up sign half way through.

I knew that we really had made it work and be a huge success when Beth and Tim were debating over our final lunch together in Benson on the way back to Tucson. Tim wanted to plan to do a family retreat 3 times a year and Beth was only up for 2 times! Well, that's certainly better than my reluctance to ever try and do it again!

Stay tuned for more details and story about this silent family retreat. Please e-mail me with any stories you may have about doing family retreat. I would love to post them with your permission of course. Plus, Beth, Tim and Sheshadri were asked to post their own stories on this blog about our time together. We're waiting......