Being Present

It’s easy to run through your day just skimming the surface. I’d bet you were on auto pilot on your last drive to work or home. You don’t remember that annoying person driving too slow in front of you or that family riding their bikes. It’s easy to blame technology and its incessant dopamine hits calling your attention back to social media and email notifications, so you can acknowledge that jerk at work or that annoying comment from a coworker on your Instagram post. We get wrapped up in our heads instead of actually being present.

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Kayaking on Lake Puiray

There is the novelty of travel and trying to get to the next spot to take the iconic picture. To check another item off the bucket list. To rush and hurry and strive and push onto the next thing. As you even read this, I wonder if you’re simply skimming this sentence (as I tend to do) and rush onto the bullets to see what you might glean (quickly) from this post.

Here are the benefits of being present:

Unexpected. One of the most beautiful moments I had on my trip to Peru a few months back was on Lake Piuray. I knew the plan was to kayak somewhere but besides that, I didn’t know much else. Well, it ended up being a highlight of the trip. We launched from a beach on a spectacular lake near Chinchero, Peru. Outside of a few farms and glacial mountains surrounding the lake, it was mostly uninhabited. The cranes, ibises, and ducks flew by and a clear blue sky bathed us in sunshine. We paddled peacefully near the reeds by the bank. I remember thinking to take it all in for just two beats longer. This is what life is all about; this hour or so of beauty, peace and tranquility. It may have been unexpected, but it was a gift I wouldn’t soon forget.

Ordinary. I have taken a short one mile walk in my neighborhood probably a thousand times. I usually have a set of earbuds in and am listening to music, an audiobook, or a podcast. I rarely “pay attention” to my surroundings. When I first did this walk (and almost every subsequent one) with my boyfriend Roy, he would stop dead in his tracks to watch the Purple Martins flying. I had never noticed them. Or their nest. Or the Ospreys. Or the Swifts. Now I do. I try not to skim through my day but rather observe the ordinary that I was oblivious to before. Be present to the ordinary.

Stop. I typically rush through my day. I try and check off all that I want to accomplish. Outside of meditating every morning, the rest of my day can seem like a long list of duties and appointments that I am checking off. A few weeks ago, I was hiking a trail next to the Eno River with Roy. He, of course, stopped next to the river for a few moments. He called me over. I stopped and looked as he pointed out the small crappies swimming in the river below the surface, only visible with polarized sunglasses. My typical behavior would be to move on forward down the trail and not stop. It’s in those moments of stopping that magic is revealed. The tiny fish were swimming as Roy threw in a piece of bark that they immediately swam for. Stop and enjoy the moment.

The feels. This has been a revelation over my past year of sobriety. When I stopped numbing out with food and alcohol, I actually felt things. I know that sounds crazy. It wasn’t like I didn’t have feelings before I quit numbing out, but when I was actually present for the feelings, I actually experienced them. I believe that there is an all or nothing view of feelings. Either we are raging with anger or stoically passing through drama unaffected (typically with a little help of some vice of choice). So, cry when you need to; it’s good for you anyway. Feel deceit, anger, regret, or resentment. Feel the feels. It makes you really present in your experience.

Meditation. I’m not sure how long I have been meditating (I’m guessing ten years) but it’s been over a year since I started practicing Sudarshan Kriya from the Art of Living. I will not pretend that I don’t have thoughts or extraneous worries as I meditate for twenty minutes in the morning. Stuff crops up. But it’s OK. This is not about turning off your thoughts. It’s about focusing on the breath and letting thoughts go as they crop up. It’s not about perfection. It makes me present, out of my head, and back into my body.

Whether today is a run of the mill day with a long list of to-dos, or you are on your dream vacation, don’t rush through: take a breath and feel the moment. Be here now. In this moment, regardless…Be Here Now. Each moment has its magic. Are you ready to be present?

How to Act “As If”

I was skeptical. I could get caught up in a negative spiral of waiting: For the other shoe to drop, for the inevitable to happen, for my failure at hand. I was great at worrying, awfulizing and catastrophizing. It’s easy to get sucked into the negative vortex. The “What else could possibly go wrong?” kind of thinking. I’ve been reading about the law of attraction for at least a decade. The law of attraction is basically the belief that if you truly imagine the best outcome, whether it be more money, the love of your life, or spiritual awakening, it will happen. The key is to believe. If you are skeptical, as I was, it won’t happen.

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I am here to tell you I do believe, and it works wonders. I’ve been in a financial stalemate with my home for more than 16 months. I rode the roller coaster of foreclosure, bankruptcy and financial windfall for all of that 16 months. But the key to my success was the belief that I can attract the outcome I want. It wasn’t easy. I fell off the wagon a few times with a negative battle or two with the Universe. In the end, I kept acting “As If.” And I am finally over the financial hurdle that has plagued me for over a year.

Here are some ideas on how to act “As If”:

Affirmations.  I read affirmations every single morning regardless of what country I am in or how early my flight to Atlanta is. It grounds my day. I know I want to continue to be sober, to manifest money and to make a difference in people’s lives. There are affirmations all over the internet but you can start by reading The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod. He has free resources on his website. I have been reading his morning affirmations for over a year and keep adding to my list with other programs I have read or listened to. The key to any affirmation is to say it in the present tense so that it is a truth rather than a wish. My affirmation list is now four pages but you can start small! Even one or two sentences will start your day off right.

Gratitude.  I have been writing a gratitude journal for over seven years. There are a lot of ways to write a gratitude journal. I used to write three things at the end of the day. In the last year, I have been writing five things I am grateful for first thing in the morning. I have read you should write more than one word like “bacon.” It’s better to write: “I am grateful for delicious, crispy bacon.” The more detail, the better. It insinuates it into your well-being. I read recently that you should try to be grateful for a different thing for up to 21 days. I have a friend who recently told me she writes down 1,000 things she is grateful for every day. That is a challenge I have not taken on, but I imagine truly gives you a grateful heart. A grateful heart attracts more things to be grateful for.

Act. The biggest shift for me over the last year was investing in my house. This seems a bit crazy, doesn’t it? Why put in a new sidewalk or landscaping if you are expecting the mortgage company to padlock the door? This, above all else, was my biggest leap of faith. I didn’t know where I would find the money or skilled labor but I kept moving forward. The contractor would show up. The money would show up. The mortgage company would make a concession. The Universe wants me in this house. The Universe wants my dog to continue to be in the house she has grown up in. I bought the plants, I hung the pictures, I fixed the dripping sink, and made the bed every day. I act everyday “As If” this will be my forever home and it has been transformative.

Mindful. I participated in the Happiness Program from the Art of Living some nine months ago. I have been doing their meditation daily ever since. I have had several people mention that I seem so much happier. Less stressed out. That’s pretty amazing considering some of the correspondence I have received from the mortgage company. It’s a mindset. Everything will work itself out but enjoy the moment right now. My dog is next to me on the floor next to my desk. I have a wonderful cup of coffee. The sunrise has been spectacular this morning. It’s great right now. And now. And now. Be here right now and take it all in.

I am a work in progress as I assume we all are. I have had intermittent moments of doubt. I can fall into being the devil’s advocate. But when I embrace the law of attraction and act “As If”? The day is brighter, my smile is bigger and I appreciate where I am right now.

The Anatomy of a Silence Retreat

I posted last week about a Silence Retreat I went to over Labor Day Weekend. It sparked a lot of feedback and some faithful readers want to know more! I admit, I was a bit surprised. So this, is that more. To start off, when I arrived at the retreat, I had an expectation that everyone there, including all the employees and other guests, would be silent. I was anticipating as I drove up that I would need to zip my lip. And I also assumed we would all communicate via sign language and gestures going forward. Not so. There were other events and participants going on. The “silence” portion didn’t start for another 36 hours and the employees of the center were active, communicating with participants like anyone else would on the job.

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The silence itself focused on the participant not communicating versus everyone else not communicating. When I think of silence, I think of a church on a weekday where there is little if any noise and folks kneeling to pray. Very hushed and quiet. In reality, the silence is not about outside or even participatory communication; it’s all about silencing your mind through meditation and relaxation. The silence is internal and that silence can be a bit  allusive to start. Kind of like trying to hold onto Jell-O through finger tips.

 

So, this is the anatomy of a Silence Retreat:

 

  • Reception. Upon arrival, I was expecting the aura of a monastery combined with pantomime. Not so. I parked and followed the signs to the reception desk. The gentleman greeting me was quite friendly and gregarious. I was taken aback, as I figured silence was from the get go. He immediately established which program I was with; so this was my first sign that there was more than just us Silencers here at the retreat center. And, since they didn’t duct tape my mouth or tell me to shush the silence portion might start as the event kicked off after dinner. I was really surprised when he gave me not one but two Wifi codes, “You know; for two devices.” I didn’t bother bringing more than my trusty smart phone but I didn’t imagine I would be streaming Netflix House of Cards on a silence retreat. No silent reception. Who knew?

 

  • Accommodations.  Essentially my room had three single beds, a desk and a bathroom. I was a little apprehensive that, even though I had asked for a private room, someone might show up for one of the bunks. I didn’t feel like sharing my space with anyone. I had imagined myself being in the fetal position in the middle of the night, sucking my thumb and crying for my mommy. Ok. Well that didn’t happen and neither did any roommates pop up as well. In fact, I think all of us silencers were in the same far flung building; they wanted us to be silent together instead of mixed in with all the folks who weren’t silent and more likely to be playing Metallica after midnight. There were property rules that I be quiet after 10pm but my impression was that all the Silencers were in the same building.

 

  • Food.  The thing I did once I dropped my bag off, made my bed – sheets and blankets provided – make your own bed; I headed to the dining hall. I was still thinking that at some point someone was going to tell me to not talk. Nope. I knew the menu was vegetarian but almost all of food was gluten free and vegan. This meant no scrambled eggs, cheese or fresh baked bread. In addition, our instructor, Mona, told us that during the retreat, they were cooking lighter food so that it was easier to meditate. I’m not sure if it was vegan menu, buffet style service or that my enlightened mind wasn’t up for much food, but I barely ate at meals. I was rarely hungry. Or perhaps my carnivore mind knew to be on strike.

 

  • Monkey brain.  I didn’t realize this at the time but since returning, I have read that the pain and anguish I was feeling in the first twenty-four hours of silence was my monkey brain. Imagine all your thoughts flying through your head like a pack of orangutans jumping from vine to vine to vine. Your thoughts start going haywire with no distractions such as conversations, Facebook notifications or sitting for hours at a time. Literally, I thought I was going “bananas”…how appropriate, right? Apparently, it takes about twenty four hours of silence for those orangutans to settle down. And once they do? It’s beautiful.

 

  • Nature.  This retreat center is on the top of a mountain in western North Carolina. Once my mind was silent and the monkeys were finally relaxed and quiet; I was able to focus in on the spectacular scenery. The smallest of details came into focus as I noticed butterflies, the breeze through the trees, the stones on the ground, the path through the forest. Each intimate detail; I was enthralled with it all. Turning off all the hustle and bustle of everyday life, let me wake up my senses to what was going on around me. There was so much going on around me that I normally would never have paid attention to. It was mesmerizing.

 

  • Inward.  Introspection is the end result of two and half days of silence. THIS is the ULTIMATE prize – it is like shining a light inside yourself, after the monkeys have calmed down, and being able to be with yourself and truly appreciate just being in the present moment. No agenda. No to-do list. No planning. No rumination. Just to be. I honestly think that the last time I was in the present moment with myself was when I was four years old and my mother would force me to take a nap I was alone in my bedroom with no distractions but my own present moment. It’s incredibly powerful to be with yourself. Taking a break from all the helter-skelter of everyday life is an enormous gift. It’s almost like unplugging yourself and letting the batteries run dry only in order to be completely rejuvenated. Hollow and empty but profoundly peaceful and enriching.

I highly recommend a silent retreat, especially if you are facing a major life change like retiring, changing jobs or leaving a relationship. There is deep clarity once all the distractions are gone and the monkeys have gone to bed.

5 Insights from a Silence Retreat

I cannot tell you how many people (especially women) looked at me in sheer terror when I said I was going to a silence retreat over Labor Day weekend. “There is NO WAY I could do that!” “I wouldn’t survive even an hour.” “What is wrong with you?” This is just a smattering of the reactions I received. I have to say, I was a bit terrified myself, and if I wasn’t going through an enormous pivot in my life, I probably would not have devoted an entire holiday weekend to meditation and silence with a total group of strangers. In retrospect, I was glad it was strangers and that I only had to be responsible for myself.

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The Art of Living has become a way of life for me now and it is fantastic. I began on this path in June and attended the Happiness Program. It coincided with my huge life pivot. I learned of a Silence Retreat that is offered at their retreat center in Boone, North Carolina. My curiosity got the better of me. After all, the Happiness Program had changed my life! In the end, the program was the best thing I could have ever done and it was the most arduous. The silence wasn’t the arduous part–it was facing my own thoughts through meditation. But in the end, the sweet, glorious clarity was worth all the pain.

 

So here are my insights from my silence retreat:

 

  • Authenticity. During the first 24 hours communication is allowed. Most of the group were complete strangers. Everyone I came in contact with were truly present and authentic. We did activities like sharing our life story in ten minutes (it’s amazing how at 56 years of age, I ran out of material) or sharing our top ten qualities and weaknesses with a complete stranger can break down our façades. It’s impossible to share an idyllic “Leave it to Beaver” childhood when your partner just shared their father was an alcoholic and their mother psychotic. It’s humbling, real and raw.

 

  • Childhood. There were several activities that were rejuvenating, like dancing with our eyes closed and coloring with crayons like we were eight-years-old again. When was the last time you made a smiley face on blank white paper with purple crayon or swayed freely to music without worrying that someone was watching. There is joy. There is freedom. There is connecting with yourself without the parameters of adulting. I learned to embrace my inner child.

 

  • Relax. When we entered the silence portion of the program on Saturday afternoon, we were not allowed to read, write, text or use our phones. As our instructor Mona said: “This is a time of relaxation.” So relax. It might have been the altitude or perhaps the lack of constant distraction of being “connected” to the outside world, but I was exhausted. Perhaps it was from the lack of cortisol constantly spiking from text and Facebook notifications, but I really relaxed. I am not a nap taker, but I can tell you that every free moment I had was back in the television free room, laying on my twin bed “relaxing.” Perhaps even better, I didn’t feel guilty in the least about relaxing. This was my weekend, and I was going to relax.

 

  • Clarity. We spent probably ten hours a day in meditation. Yes. Ten long freaking hours, mostly in silence or in periodic “focus on your nostrils.” This was the arduous part. There were several times where all I wanted to do was to run screaming from the room. There were parts of my body I didn’t know could hurt from sitting in meditation for an extensive period. BUT – the moments of clarity? When my mind was completely and utterly free of thought (which is rare for me, even though I meditate daily), that was complete nirvana. It may have been for just ten seconds. It may have lasted a minute. But to be completely detached and in full consciousness was completely liberating. I learned how to find clarity.

 

  • Humanity. The final activity after we had broken our silence was completely life affirming. There were some fifty people on this silence retreat (including four – yes, four – married couples). Even after the first day of interacting with folks, I didn’t know the majority. For some 60 hours, no one said “please”, “thank you” or “sorry”. Perhaps a smile or holding the door for someone, but besides that, we were all islands. In the final activity, I was seated across from a woman I didn’t know. I was told to look into her eyes as if she were a child. She smiled. I smiled. Her eyes welled up. My eyes welled up. In silence, I was completely connected to this woman and her face is forever etched in my memory. We don’t need words to connect to each other. Sometimes we just need to look into someone’s eyes to see their humanity – to feel them and to feel as one.

By Sunday morning at the retreat, I swore I would never do it again. But now that I am home and in such a state of peace and balance, I know I can and will do it again. The metaphor that is frequently used is the snow globe no longer has the flakes swimming around. The clarity and peace is priceless.