Thursday, September 17, 2009

A beautiful reflection

I arrived at the Marconi Center not having the slightest clue what to expect.

I also didn’t know that just over forty-eight hours, particularly a one-hour block of time spent merely staring and a timeless and seemingly endless experience that others have assured me was no longer than forty-five minutes, could completely change my outlook on life.

Within five minutes of being at the Marconi Center, five minutes of breathing the pine-filled air, five minutes of examining the bell-like poppies, five minutes of gazing at the ocean, all of the stress that not only constantly surrounds me but follows—no, chases, pursues me wherever I go, simply melted away, surrounding my feet but not being able to touch me. I had always known that school was not, contrary to popular belief, the purpose of our lives (and that one’s education is actually hindered by trying too hard to excel at it), but I had never been able to truly feel it until that first breath of pine-air.

The first thing we all did after marveling at our heavenly living quarters for longer than expected was explore the place, since we were several hours early to the retreat and honestly had nothing better to do (actually, I can’t think of anything I would rather have been doing at the time) only to discover the reason our bedrooms were so heavenly: we were, in fact, in some lower level, some earthly level, of Heaven. I would be glad to go further into the beauty of this place if you happen to have the floor-plan for Heaven with you right now. Otherwise it would take too long, and since my name isn’t John Steinbeck I won’t pester you with the details.

Along our journey two things stuck out as particularly incredible to me. The first was a miniature multi-tiered waterfall reminiscent of a Japanese garden in all its divinity. The other was a redwood tree. I never could find that tree again, although it did change the life of at least one other person at the retreat.

Later on that night when the other sixty-some-odd people arrived, we were split into nine “Home Groups”, each consisting of retreat-goers between the ages of fifteen and eighty-five. None of us will ever know how, but the “random” assignment of people to their respective Home Groups somehow managed to give each person at the retreat the perfect group of people to help them evolve spiritually.

I awoke unnaturally early the next morning and decided to walk around the Marconi Center on my own. Noticing only the plants, rocks, chipmunks and jackrabbit, but most certainly not where I was actually going, I found myself back at the waterfall. I decided to sit down on a rock on its bank and, as I so often do when I really don’t know what else to do, I just stared. I stared at the water. I am not confident in my ability to describe things without drawing them so bear with me: the top of the waterfall is of course just a clear pool. After the first fall the water is allowed to flow freely for a short ways, but is soon interrupted by small boulders that block part of its path. It is then free to flow a short distance until it falls down another waterfall. This continues for several tiers, the layers of rock becoming increasingly denser, making it more difficult for the water to pass through, but somehow it always does. But right before the last fall, there are no rocks. Instead there is a sheet of tall grass, like small stalks of bamboo. Certainly no insect or hummingbird that was on the water was able to see over the grass without flying above it. And over that last fall is a large, open, clear pool, where the water may flow as it pleases. And as I stared at the water I noticed bubbles forming at the top of the first fall, and I noticed that some of the bubbles flowed down the first waterfall, while some went the other way, and simply disappeared with a small pop. And I noticed that most, but not all, of the bubbles that made it down the first waterfall made it past the first set of rocks to the next waterfall, and most of the ones that fell down it continued to the next, until only a few of the original bubbles made it past the reeds to that final pool; and as I noticed these things I realized that this was all a metaphor for life: we are but bubbles in a fountain, and in order to make it to that final pool at the end, we must all find a way around the rocks and falls that block us, until we finally reach, at the end of each lifetime, the curtain of reeds, and the uncertainty of what lies beyond, and we must not be afraid of it, but instead we must—

I had just missed an incredible (or so I’m told) banana pancake breakfast.

As wonderful as the rest of that day was, I wish only to bring up an unknown quantity of time (though I know it was more than twenty minutes and less than three hours) spent sitting on a rock in between two forest paths where I had followed a chipmunk and two jackrabbits. My original intent for sitting on the rock was to observe the behavior of the two wild jackrabbits, for I often think of myself as a scientist and naturally am curious about many things, especially since the behavior of jackrabbits is not something easily observable in the heart of Oklahoma City. Eventually the jackrabbits left, and I was left grass and twigs on the ground, the rock I was contentedly sitting on, and two young trees to the left of the rock. I was bored, so I picked up a twig and tossed it between the trees. A recently-finished spider-web caught the twig in midair, and I watched as my inner child gaped in absolute wonder at the twig that could make itself fly. I tossed more twigs next to it, and there they were, standing in midair parallel to the trunks of the trees as the child marveled at what magic could possibly be at work here. And suddenly my heart became a metronome, and everything began to harmonize with it, though I could hear no sound but the occasional conversation between far-away sparrows. This is what I will define forever as “inner peace”.

The eighty or so people at the Retreat were to go through the Labyrinth in two waves, and I was in the second wave. I decided I’d go into the room with the Labyrinth while the first wave was going through just to see what exactly was going on. I’d had a crazy obsession with hot tea the whole weekend, so it came as no surprise to me that when I walked into the circular room containing the Labyrinth, the first thing I thought was that the room looked oddly like the cup or orange spice tea I was drinking at the time. Then I noticed the people. The people in the room were either sitting calmly, not saying anything and maybe drinking a cup of hot tea, or they were on the Labyrinth, walking or dancing along, completely unaware of their surroundings, each engaged in their own form of meditative movement. Outside of this room, any of these people would have been labeled a freak or an outcast by any other “normal” person, but not inside of it. Inside everyone’s inner mind seemed to surface and take over, and the body of each person was no longer under their conscious control.
And all I could do was watch and wonder what exactly this thing on the floor in front of me was that was causing these people to act like this.
The last person in the first wave left the room, and the spaces on the walls had filled with an entirely new group of people, the second wave of meditators.
“Welcome to the Labyrinth. Going through the Labyrinth is a form of meditation known to provide answers to those who seek answers, questions to those who seek answers, and answers to those who seek questions.” All three applied to me. “When I tap you on the shoulder, you may proceed into the Labyrinth. All I ask is that you stay within the path and not run into others. Now….we begin.”
After finishing the remains of my tea I entered the Labyrinth. The music playing sounded like the orange spice tea tasted, if that makes any sense. As I walked, I wondered what I was even doing there. After some unknown amount of time (it could have been a few seconds or an hour as far as I was concerned), my mind began to wander into a complex stream of something deeper than thought, or perhaps it just felt that way. I was suddenly aware of nothing but the inner workings of my mind, yet at the same time completely aware of everything in the room, the floor, the music, the people, and I was completely aware of the fact that we were all dancing like the steam on top of a hot cup of tea, not in unison but still somehow together, connected somehow by the environment the room created for us, connected, even though we were all perfect strangers.

The rest has been omitted for personal reasons.

Monday, September 14, 2009

July 26-July 27: San Francisco

Afternoon of July 26: We arrived to the Radisson at Fisherman's Wharf (415-392-6700; reservations: 1-800-395-7046) in the afternoon. If we go back to San Francisco, this is a perfect location. The hotel is in the middle of everything.

We started shopping together, but decided to go on age cohorts according to interest. We met for dinner at Bubba Gump. The experience was good, but expensive.

In the evening, WE EXPERIENCE a memorable time together. Emily led us in the most powerful reflection. We discovered how much we had enjoyed the retreat. Words such as forgiveness, discovery, focus, connectivity, and change were delivered in powerful reflective dialogs.

July 27: Desire to sleep late divided our group in age cohorts. Jeanie and I began exploring the Wharf before 8:00 a.m. while the grils slept. We shopped at Wall Greens and had a wonderful breakfast at Boudine's. After breakfast, the girls still wanted to sleep and we went exploring the pier with the intention of meeting the girls for lunch at LA MAR, a high scale Peruvian restaurant.

Jeanie and I had decided to have lunch together while the girls went shopping. We loved the Pier and walked to downtown San Francisco. Our goal was to see the Shynno-en Foundation headquarters. On our way to the headquarters, I discover Jeanie as a walking encyclopedia and acute observer.

On our way to the headquaters, many surprises, unexplainable "good things" happen to us. One of them was that Jeanie bought Steven Covey's books and CD's for the library. I can hardly wait to read them and use them.

At the headquarters, we saw Haru and Liane. That was a wonderful surprise. I asked Liane for "Be the Peace Cards" for Casady and told her that the cards were the foundation of my freshman facilitation of service learning. When I arrived to Casady in August, the cards were waiting for me. Also on a sad note, I found out in early September that Liane and Maura will no longer be directly working for the Foundation. New wonderful people I am sure will be in their place, but they both were very special to me.

Everyone was debriefing the retreat at the headquarters so we stay only a few minutes. It was great to see where everything starts.

Jeanie and I had lunch at La Mar. It was expensive, had a wonderful view, but the food was not what I expected. I was glad the girls did not have to experiene our expensive dissapoitment.

We met the girls at the famous book store, "City Lights." We had a wonderful time there. Then, we had dinner in China town and the girls and Jeanie had dessert on our way back to our hotel. The quality of the food was incredible!

We walked around town and went to bed with the sweet memory of seals and beautiful San Francisco flowers.

The next day, the adventure ended with a relaxing trip back home for the girls and I. Jeanie did not get home until much later because she could not get in our connecting flight, but she had an adventure of her own that day.

Personal reflection and evaluation

In a scale from 0-5, the retreat was a FIVE for me.

The retreat provided the balance and focus I needed to try to work-out some personal issues and gave me clarity on my mission to trust PEACE as the vehicle empowering my service-learning program. Service as a path to peace and stress buster = inner and outter peace.

I hope the foundation will sponsor another retreat next year and I hope Casady is lucky to be asked back one more year. The most memorable times for me were my hours with my home group and the labyrinth experience. The moments that build my capacity to trust "change becomes peace" were the explanations of the projects the Shinnyo fellows were proposing for this academic year. It developed clarity of mission, vision and purpose. The "Be the Peace" and "Six Billion Paths to Peace" cards provided parts of my process.

The only change I would recommend for next year is to allow time for home groups to share what was discussed in age cohort groups. Hearing -our aged-based differences and similarities -is empowering and inspiring.

July 26: Integrating service, peace and spirituality

De-stressing YOGA with Samantha Doak was incredible (, 703-209-5336). During breakfast we found our ride back to San Francisco. Emily's roommate had a car large enough for the 4 of us and our luggage.

After an energizing healthy breakfast, we joined Jeanie's Age Cohort Group to reflect the retreat. Our task was to answer How has the retreat experience been for you so far? What are your thoughts about the value of talking with people from different age groups?

We all wanted to reflect the effect of the labyrinth first. The experiences were similar in the area of connecting to others, but each one of us found an answer or a path to follow to a deep question we were personally searching. It was a conversation that matter!

We were thankful to have had the opportunity to experience the retreat! I liked talking to my same age groups, but I missed the reports to the homegroups of what was discussed in the age cohorts. Last year, hearing the ideas expressed by the different age groups on the same subject areas, were eye-opening, especially from the teenagers point of view.

After a few hours to check-out and place luggage in cars, we gathered to hear Stories of Integrating Service, Peace and Spirituality: Mark and Amal stories were heartbreaking!

In our last home group meeting, we were to create a home group rhythm represntative of our story/experience together. We used a circle, our shoes, walking, the power of silence, our connectivity to each other and nature. Our rhythm was our path to peace. It was a nice way to end our time together.

At lunch, we were families sharing talents. I cannot believe how much I value meals shared with people you enjoy being with. I guess that is for me now a source of joy and a source of pain, for how long? I hope not for ever, but I am still in pain.

It was also hard to say good-bye.

July 25: Peace and Spirituality

I got up really early and walked. Then I went to Yoga with Tori Pinto. I was an envigorating experience.

After daily announcements and sign-up for afternoon activities, we heard the reflections on Peace and Spirituality from a new group of youth, the Shinnyo Fellows. Their projects were: Peace and Healing Counseling Practices: Andre, UC Berkeley "Soul Food for the Activist" Retreat: Peace, Service, and Spirituality Workshops: Farah and Sarah; Men Committed to Serving the Communnity at Seattle University by Gordon, Revolutionary Relationships: 6 Billion Paths to Peace by Samantha; South Central Seattle Neighborhood Celebration: Building Pathways to Peace, by my home group facilitator Sean; After we heard about their projects we went into small groups to help their vision and cause with our experience and resources. I wonder what they will report next year!

The home groups had as a task to explore the relationship between inner peace and efforts to achieve external peace. We did this exploration through art. I discovered how important circles and connectivity with nature are in my spiritual life. I found some peace in the middle of my personal troubles doing this personal art activity. I realized that I have stopped comparing my art to others. Others will have great creativity. If schooled in art and drawing is a passion, theirs will look better, but the essence of this exercise was art as a medium of expressing something not easily expressed with words. This activity took me from "usual communication" (100% attentive, Preparing to React, 100% Reactive) to a dialogue with myself (100% attentive, listening to learn, 100% Inquire)

Lunch was delicious and we were sent to our afternoon activities.

Jeanie and I joined the Ocean Hike which was an adventure on loosing our way and exploration of reflection. As I walked and reflected with Jeanie, I found myself taking pictures of nature scenes that were spiritual and peaceful. The girls went kayaking.

Dinner was nice and I was in the first group to go through the labyrinth. The theme was What was your Spirituality. I discovered that my spirituality is connected to others and nature. I discovered how people I do not even know can take away my peace and others can bring pieces of that peace back to me. How spiritual I am in relation to my home life and how others and nature influence my reactions and actions.

The home group meeting after the labyrinth was the most powerful spiritual, painful and peaceful experience I have had. I realized how connected we are as humans and how we can empowered each other to find our pathway to internal and external peace. It was a memorable experience, too personal to discuss in a reflective pedagogical blog.

I spend many hours talking to my husband on the phone that night. I saw the girls walking to and returning from evening activities. It was an overall peaceful feeling.

Shinnyo-en Retreat July 24: An Adventure in Integrating Meanings and Commections: Theme: Service

I contracted with Marine County Door to Door Transportation (1-415-457-2717). Their van was old, but the driver was nice and we were able to enjoy the road to Marconi Center. We ate at a famous burger place in California: In and Out. The food was not expensive and good. They had veggie burgers for Emily.

I am writing this reflection in the month of September. The picture of the big rock now has even more meaning because Jeanie helped YAC get organized and focused with the story of "placing the BIG ROCKS or most important aspects first in our agendas for meetings and home groups."

Shinnyo-en and Youth Serve California organized the retreat. Jeanie and I shared a room. Sarah and Emily shared the room with adults and teens from other schools and non-profit organizations. Everyone loved their accomodations and roommates.

We arrived so early, we had time to shop and took an exploration walk as a team (the only time we spent together in the two days we were there). Jeanie told stories and we enjoyed and took in the beauty and peacefulness of the Marconi Center.

Registration was similar to last year's, with less pictures and videos because last year was the 10th anniversary of the retreat.

Official Opening: Haru and Liane were not there. That was a big dissapointment. We missed their presence. The retreat was meaningful. Maura thanked the Casady delegation for helping test the BE THE PEACE CARDS which were delivered to participants at the opening. It was nice to know that we were able to help Shinnyo-en in some form. They have been and are so nice to us.

Home Group Meetings After the inspirational opening, we met our home groups. Sarah's facilitators were Henry Lozano and Sammie Sevilla. Jeanie's were Brian Seilstad and Sher Moua. Emily's were Kent Koth and Gordon Graves.

Since I had some personal issues to work out, my facilitators Abby Nathanson and Sean McCreight were perfect. Their spiritually and sense of kindness,connectivity and reflection were incredible. My home group was what I needed to help me work through my personal needs. My goal this year was to be connected to others and ironically others connected to me in a very strong way.

Dinner was incredible as expected from the kitchen of Marconi Center

Age Cohort Meeting 1: We explored the meaning of service to us. Our group was small and we were able to get to know each other rather well. Our task was to answer the question: How have you and your friends used service as a means to support change and work for peace? Answers went from working at the White house to doing pinwheels for peace.

The day ended with open mike: Approaching Service through Music. I was told that it went very well, but I was too tired and went to bed.

Shinnyo-en Retreat: July 23

Traveled with Emily and Sarah. We had a good flight, but getting the assigned complementary taxi from the airport took too much time.

It was nice to see the recycling programs at airports.

We will not stay at the Ramada Inn at the airport anymore. Jeanie arrived early and took a tour of Alcatraz.