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Category Archives: Retreats

After helping to lead an amazing women’s meditation retreat this weekend, I turned my attention to my homework assignment for class at the Writer’s Center last night. I had the opportunity to submit a draft proposal of my book (for publishers) and sample chapters for my teacher and classmates to read and critique. Picking up where the last blog left off – at the choice for a new beginning for the book – I explored possibilities. Which story would grab the reader, whether a busy publisher or agent, or a person in the bookstore flipping through the first page of my book?

Instead of using the chapter “Journey to Loretto” as my beginning (in which I travel by train from Kansas City to Louisville, Kentucky, then by bus to the Loretto Motherhouse at age 17 to join the convent), I decided to jump ahead to the incident that stimulated my first batch of hate mail. The chapter begins with a phone call from a leader of the Black Liberators in St. Louis in 1968 asking me to find a way to free him from police headquarters before the cops killed him. I had to organize a protest of 50 nuns and the press to get the attention of the police chief. You’ll find out what happens when you read the book.

A gripping beginning. But it shortens the action of the whole story to just 17 months of my life! Is that enough? It is the most “action-packed” and public part of the story, covered in the press in Missouri, Washington, DC and eventually throughout the country and other parts of the world. But it might leave out some of you who are reading this blog!

Will I be able to weave in the “backstory” that explains “How a regular nun, high school teacher, committed to her vows and to religious life, became a revolutionary?” I will need to establish the “ordinariness” of my life, the progression of the radical changes in my thinking, awareness and behavior and also the changes that were happening in our society in the late sixties. I had established these changes in the original first five chapters of my book, so I also included some excerpts from those chapters for class critique.

Again, a waiting period until our next (delayed) class in two weeks!
What do I do while waiting? More WRITING, revising, cutting!

What are you doing this week? Any writing? Revising? Cutting of anything?

“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups and nations…” This is the fourth mindfulness training in the Buddhist tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh.

Last night my meditation group, the Washington Mindfulness Community, recited the Five Mindfulness Trainings, as we do every three weeks. I shared that our retreat at the beach was filled with even more silence than our usual life, in which we have a great deal of space for silence and meditation. The silence and immersion in nature allowed me to quiet my mind and ready me for hours of deep listening to friends last night and today.

As we let go of the visible ocean waves, we tried to carry them into our “work week routine.” My husband returned to his day job and I to tasks relating to the women’s meditation retreat I am organizing for early October. I enjoyed returning to my regular meeting schedule and to three appointments involving listening to women friends. This is one of the greatest gifts of my life – opportunities to listen deeply to others who are suffering from the death of a parent, a battle with alcohol, or simply the ever changing challenges of relationships. I love having the space in my life to listen to others, to work on my motherly instincts to “fix” or “help.” Just listen, Joann. Remember the waves, the clouds. They don’t always speak, respond, answer. They just flow gently. They ARE. Is that sometimes enough? The Diversity Workshop, a program I led for almost twenty years for high school students, taught me that just listening can often give great relief to the sufferer sharing her story.

One friend asked me what to do when other people won’t listen, when dearly beloved friends fight and can’t speak kindly to each other? When words have caused harm, how do we make amends? How do we restrain ourselves from making the communication more difficult by defending ourselves? How do we listen not only to the words that are said but also to the language of the eyes, the body, the tone of voice? Can we respond with our hearts to the fear of a dying parent who is saying hurtful things to us? I observe how much my heart opens when I can breathe three times, feel the suffering of the other person, seek to understand rather than be understood. Do I always do this? No. But it is my path to peace.

Photo by Joann

“No coming, no going, no after, no before.
I hold you close to me. I release you to be so free.
Because I am in you and you are in me,
because I am in you and you are in me.”

This song always lightens my heart when I am letting go of something or someone I am enjoying, especially when I part for a time from my husband or granddaughter. We sang it at the beach this morning. Then – holding the sound of the waves in our ears, the feel of sand and salt water on our bodies, the sight of blue sky and gentle white clouds over the ocean in our mind’s eye – we said goodbye to the sea for awhile. I do believe what scientists are now finding, that our bodies hold and remember experiences whether or not our conscious minds remember. If our bodies or hearts have suffered, how critical it is to nourish healing experiences in ourselves. (For more on this, see The Heart’s Code by Paul Pearsall).

Each moment is so important to live as deeply and fully as possible, as if it is the only moment available to us, which it is. Doing this is the way I can now fill my body, mind and heart with positive experiences, each day allowing them to become stronger than any negative experiences my body and spirit have absorbed.

So, I hold my dear one in my arms and breathe with awareness that I will not always hold him. I breathe in the salt air, fill my eyes with the beauty of the ocean and wave goodbye for now. I know that my body and mind will remember this precious moment and carry the sea – its power and calm- into every other moment of my life. We “inter-are” with the sun, the water, the sand, the sky. Without them we could not exist. They are in us and we are in them, part of a vast and beautiful universe.

My heart is light and happy. I am deeply grateful for the privilege of this week on the beach, deeply grateful for my beloved, for my life. We sing a song we have learned from retreats with Thich Nhat Hanh:

“No coming, no going, no after, no before.
I hold you close to me. I release you to be so free.
Because I am in you and you are in me,
because I am in you and you are in me.”


My wonderful husband Patrick just led us in a guided meditation that moved from fear to freedom. We have developed the habit of silence in our mornings, a respect for each other’s needs to move gently from the dream/waking state to human interaction. I need to write my dreams as soon as I awaken, to connect to the Mind that is greater than myself, perhaps the “collective unconscious” that Jung describes. The word God is the most common word in our society to describe this connection .

We are also silent much of the day on this retreat we have created for ourselves, free to write, create new music, read, nap, sit quietly at the edge of the ocean watching waves. We do speak to one another too, but we allow comfortable space and silence in our lives. It was one of the aspects of his personality that attracted me many years ago when we were becoming friends. We could take a hike up a mountain for hours, comfortable in silence, absorbing the sounds of birds and wind in the laurel bushes.

From this silence comes the sound of his guitar, the ideas for our blogs, urges to communicate with you, reflections on our lives and gifts, the sound of the ocean and wind. Silence is the cup that holds all awareness.

How do you relate to silence?

Photo by Joann

What a glorious day! Blue skies, light clouds shifting, some slowly, some quickly. Warm breezes over the ocean. We varied our routine today – after writing and meditation, we rode our bikes to the ocean for an early swim. To be honest, Pat swam while I wobbled through the onslaught of waves. We stretched on a sheet on the sand to dry, meditating on the changing shapes of the clouds. Sometimes when I am meditating indoors, I observe my mind as a clear blue sky with each thought, feeling or sensation drifting and changing as it migrates across my mind. I know that my mind can be expanded, stretched as wide as this sky today, connected to whatever One Mind might be. The clouds of physical pain, distraction, worry and fear rise, move slowly or quickly and disappear. Impermanence is so wonderful, so freeing. No need to cling to the delightful because something more delightful might be waiting to take its place. No need to worry that pain will remain forever. Nothing does.

So, I am writing my blog later in the day than I have other days this week. Now clouds have suddenly filled the sky. The weather can change so quickly, just as our physical aches, our emotions, our thoughts change. Yesterday I struggled with discomfort and had difficulty working. Today, I woke feeling terrific, without pain, energetic. I could have plunged into completing my writing/publishing tasks first as we have on other days, and left my reading and sunning until now. But this beautiful morning summoned us and we responded. I don’t regret the choice. It is such a privilege to have this week to combine rest and work as we choose, sometimes shifting like the clouds moment to moment.

Photo by Bao-Tich

Monday, August 30, 2010

On Saturday, my husband and I had the opportunity to spend the whole day in mindfulness and meditation with the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax. We have practiced with this sangha, led by Ahn Huong and Thu Nguyen, for many years in the tradition of her uncle, Thich Nhat Hanh. Ahn Huong is my inspiration and model for the days of mindfulness and women’s retreats that Ruth Fishel and I have been conducting.

I realize that leading the exercises of mindful breathing, walking, eating, and deep relaxation is a type of work that is also restful, not only to the people who are breathing and relaxing to my guided meditation, but also to me. We inter-are. But it was a treat to return to my teacher’s beautiful sangha, to be guided by her peaceful voice, to just REST.

For many people vacation is over today. Schools opening. Teachers teaching. Traffic increasing. Stress increasing. It’s a work day. So, here I am at my desk, working on a blog and my next retreat. Without traffic, without the stress of my many years in the classroom. Also without the excitement of meeting my new students. So I turn to you, my new audience of readers, less visible, less audible, but there.

There is a time for everything under the sun. I am so grateful for this period of my life when I am able to rest between periods of work and to attempt to make every task I do one of mindfulness and joy. I am still capable of becoming stressed about writing and publishing, capable of working without pausing. But, if I come back to my breath, at least three breaths when beginning a new task, occasionally during a task and at the end, my work is more productive and happy. My life has become so restful, so filled with joyful opportunities to merge work and rest.

How do you find rest within, before and after your work? Do you STOP occasionally to rest and breathe? What reminders do you use?