Mountain Silent Retreat in Boone

Recently, in the midst of teaching a Silent Retreat at our Art of Living Retreat Center I was interviewed by Andrew Keaveney on the Art of Silence and the value of places like the Boone Center… below are some excerpts…

Looking over this blog I see that I haven’t added to it in over two years! In preparation for a book that I’m in the midst of, I promise to contribute in a more regular fashion:)

Some of the courses that I enjoy teaching the most in the Art of Living are our residential silence courses. People come on the course from a world of noise. Except for maybe brief periods of meditation (and sleep!) most people rarely get to experience silence. Especially here in Boone, there is a great opportunity for interior silence because there is already a strong foundation or environment of exterior silence here in the mountains. Right from the first day of the course I see people start to settle down as soon as they go into silence and they begin to experience themselves at a deeper level.

Q: What is the value of silence?

John: There is a wonderful quote from the early Christian church that says there is only one great teacher of prayer and meditation and that’s the Holy Spirit and the only language that the Holy Spirit speaks is the language of silence. So there is a lot that happens on these silence courses; it’s a kind of knowledge and connection transmitted without words and it’s extremely valuable. People discover things about themselves, about their relationship to other people, about their relationship to the universe and it’s a really rewarding thing to be able to assist people in that process. Silence also gives our participants a deep rest on many levels…a physical rest of course, but also a rest from the thousands of small distractions which most of us have to deal with every day. The mind takes a deep dive and discovers its infinite source in that silence.

Silent Retreat Landscape

Q: Why does that happen in silence, be able to discover more about themselves, rediscover their relationship to other people, and their connection to the universe?

John: Because in our day and age the stimulus from outside is so great and unrelenting. The internet, cell phones, a twenty-four hour news cycle, the kind of activities people jam into their day when they are always with their family or they are working long hours or whatever, pull them constantly outward away from their source. Even when they are in their car they are usually listening to the radio or they are sending or receiving something on their cell phone. The outside stimulus especially now in the modern world is so great that even if there was some silence happening on an interior level, the senses are moving outward all the time and people won’t be able to easily experience it. This is the first time for a lot of people to be able to experience deep silence within themselves and it’s like a tonic, you see them resting better, you see them feeling more contentment; a smile may actually appear on their face. It’s a wonderful transformation that happens. I think it’s a healthy and essential experience for any human being to have and this environment on the top of this mountain is ideal for it because the outer atmosphere is so silent, so pristine and so full of the experience of Nature, and also all the necessary tools are already in place here: yoga instruction , meditation techniques, breath work, certain kinds of sound therapy and music to assist in people being able to experience a deep level of silence right away, a holistic spa and health center to help balance and rejuvenate the body. Many of my students have told me that they experience an enormous increase in energy in just 3 or 4 days so that they leave really refreshed, renewed and quite often very transformed.

Q: Can you tell us a little about the history of silence? Is this thing new that people are just now doing?

John: I think people lived in earlier times largely in silence. Before electricity, before radio, before television, people went to bed when the sun went down and they got up when the sun came up and there was lots of silence especially in agrarian societies. I worked on a ranch in Colorado earlier in my life and I spent 8-10 hours by myself outdoors largely in silence. I was working as a ranch hand and I think that type of experience was normal for most people, that kind of life, in earlier times, but then the industrial revolution and electricity and radio and television came along and with people moving into cities, that aspect of silence was lost. But in both the east and in the west, within these ancient spiritual traditions silence was highly valued and people gravitated to live near ashrams, spiritual communities and monasteries. In Europe for that very reason, a thousand years ago, whole cities sprang up around monasteries because the monks kept silence and the ordinary people honored that value of silence a lot. Similarly in Asia, in the villages especially, even now people still very much value the wandering monk or the sadhu or the Buddhist that comes and begs at their door because they are holding that value of silence not just for themselves but for the whole society. It’s a very important experience to have available to us, one that is increasingly rare and that’s one of the greatest values of this place not only for people who come here but for the whole society…. It’s extremely important that there are places set aside that people can still experience that. That experience anchors and reaffirms one’s very humanity and it strengthens the human values in society as a whole.

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Q: How does this place help support that? What do you appreciate about it?

John: This place was designed right from the beginning, to nourish in a deliberate way the experience of silence and meditation. Architecturally the way the buildings are designed, the way the courses are structured, the way the food is prepared, all of that is with one end in mind; to bring people closer to that deeper part of themselves. So when you come here everything is all set up, the rooms are in place, the food is conducive to being in silence, the courses are already designed and set up at various levels, introductory or advanced, for people to just step in and even if they have only 3 or 4 days, almost immediately they drop in and begin to experience that deep value in themselves and then they carry it with them back out into the world.
Every year more people are discovering this place, and there is a reason for that. Retreat centers, monasteries, places where people can go for silence are becoming increasingly popular because as the world grows smaller and things are moving faster, there are a lot of challenges that are coming up for people. Terrorism, environmental degradation, natural disasters and all kinds of accelerating changes confront people and they need the resources deep inside to be able to deal with these and they don’t find them often in their everyday life. This experience is kind of an antidote to all that noise, to all that change so that people can not only connect deeply inside themselves to something which is unchanging, but in those deep places they can begin to find solutions to a lot of their challenges in life and can also begin to contribute to solutions to some of the world’s larger problems. So,this community, this mountain top is a kind of a fertilizer or an energy source not just for the people who come here but potentially for the whole world.

This is the last night of our Project Welcome Home Troops Online Fundraising Campaign ! To all those from all over the world who have donated, we and the troops that we serve are really grateful… to those who are still on the fence, please put us over the top!!! When you subtract out the fees that the Stay Classy crowd sourcing website will charge us, we are still several thousand dollars away from our final goal…
Please consider giving whatever you can, large or small… and thanks on behalf of our staff, graduates and the thousands of troops who are still waiting to take our workshop! http://www.stayclassy.org/fundraise?fcid=295296

Following is a letter from one of our woman vet graduates:

Since I was Blessed to be able to attend the “Project Welcome Home Troops” seminar ,I have noticed a lot of positive changes within myself. First and most important for me and the quality of my life, I have had deeper, more restful sleep. When I used to only be able to sleep for maybe an hour and then wake with a startle or sleep so light that I was tired when I woke up, this is a huge improvement. I also have a happier outlook towards my life and my future. I am more tolerant of people just being people. I feel better. I feel less vulnerable. However, the most impressive thing is the change in my husbands’ reaction towards me and his outlook on his life. He has noticed a huge change in me. So much of a positive change, in fact, that he is now anxious to attend the next seminar.  He saw the change in me, daily, as I attended the Power Breath workshop. He sees the continued change in me. He sees the building inner peace and look of love in my eyes. He sees the change and wants that change in himself. He struggles with PTS as well, and his daily life is, well, difficult at best. We have both been helped by this power breathing, immeasurably. Thank you is not a powerful enough term for the changes you have initiated within our circle.

 

May All Saints of All Religions Bless you.

 

Sincerely,

… in the last days of our online campaign, please consider supporting us so that more vets like the graduate above ,can begin to change the quality of their lives…

http://www.stayclassy.org/fundraise/edit?fcid=295296

IMG_6263I opened up this blog site tonight and found , to my surprise that its been almost a year since I wrote my last entry… I wondered why its taken me this long to write again, and then looking back over my last year’s calender I saw that it had been one of my busiest years in 25 years of teaching … over 100, 000 miles of travel and more courses than I could easily count…some months last year I was home only four or five days…
Of all the courses that I’ve taught, the ones that are sticking in my memory tonight are the courses I taught to returning veterans and their family members , many of whom were suffering greatly from various forms of combat trauma.
What has become clear to me over time, is the value, not of what I was able to give on these courses, but of what I have received and have learned from them… My vet students have taught me the value of courage… the kind of courage that is able to face the deepest kinds of fear, terror and self-destructive emotion and to learn to move beyond  them … The values of loyalty and commitment to those they served alongside… of being willing to risk their lives in order to protect those they care about the most … their families and their fellow soldiers…and the desire to continue to serve even after their military commitment is completed.

When these veterans begin to recover from their trauma and emotional wounds they start to ask themselves what they want to do with the rest of their lives and many of their answers are to me both inspiring and astounding…
Anthony was a vet I taught in Wisconsin… he’s the one on the left in the picture above…When I met him he was working at a vets drop in center called Dry Hootch in Wisconsin. One day his buddy Tom, also a vet, told him he was needing to take some time away from his normal life and was planning to walk across the country. Anthony thought that was a great idea and asked him if he could come along… within two weeks they had planned a route across the country, found sponsors and turned their walk into a fundraiser for vets organizations in Wisconsin. They ended up walking over 2700 miles and finished their trek last weekend at the edge of the Pacific in my home town of Santa Monica. They asked me if I’d like to walk the last few miles with them through LA and I was honored to join them. On the walk I asked Anthony what he had learned on those 2700 miles of walking… I’m sure I’ll never forget his reply…
He said “I learned that there is a difference in life between those who say they support a cause or an idea… like helping vets… and those who are actually willing to take action to move that cause or idea forward. He decided , after completing his Project Welcome Home Troops Course in Madison that he wanted to live the rest of his life as someone who was willing to take action to support those things he believed in most… like helping vets.. and when the opportunity to do just that came along he jumped on it…

I too am surrounded by people who say they believe in and want to support various causes and ideas,and many of them do, but not all of them are as willing to jump in and take action… Anthony has both taught and inspired me by his actions and his commitment (he and his buddy Tom have raised almost $100,000) to this year be more about acting in support of those things I believe in most…spending time with the people I care about most, and focusing on those causes and ideas that mean the most to me…and really doing something to strengthen them and help them to grow… We at Project Welcome Home Troops are in the process of raising money to help even more vets this year and our first goal is $50 000. I am aiming to raise at least $10,000 of that myself from family and friends. If this is the first you’ve heard of our work with Vets please go to our website at http://www.pwht.org and if you would like to support our work please click on this link
http://www.stayclassy.org/fundraise?fcid=295296
Tonight I’d like to shout out to all the vets who have had the courage and determination to complete our course, over 800 of them so far, and especially those, like Anthony and Tom who have then decided to devote their time and energy to serving other vets, still struggling, and still in need of our help… I was deeply moved when Anthony told me that it was his experience on his Project Welcome Home Troops course that inspired him to take action.

22 vets are committing suicide in this country every day,and over 300,000 have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan with some form of combat trauma and post traumatic stress. These folks belong to us. They’ve risked their lives to keep us safe, and now, on their way home, its our turn to reach out and support them in whatever way we can. Next time you see a vet in uniform go up and thank them for their service… if you see a homeless vet , and they’re everywhere these days, offer to buy them a meal… help a vet find a job…and if you believe in folks like Anthony and what they’re capable of contributing when they’re back home in their local community, please consider supporting our work at Project Welcome home Troops!

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while know that I’ve had a deepening interest in Sanskrit and chanting for a few years now… This interest quickened when I was initiated several years ago in an upanynanum ceremony into the practice of the Gayathri mantra  and I was able  to spend some time in a  the Agama School, a highly respected vedic pundit boy’s school which is attached to the International Art of Living Center in Bangalore…Every day since that time, I’ve spent the first part of my morning chanting, doing puja and longing with all my heart to return to that school, and that strong desire must have been heard somewhere, because, much to my surprise, this past February I was invited to spend another month at the Agama school, this time with the aim of really learning Devanagri, as the written language of Sanskrit is called,( the word is literally translated as “the abode of the Gods”), to learn to write and speak the language, and to begin to learn other pujas in Sanskrit as well…”What will it be like to do nothing but study and recite Sanskrit all day long”, I wondered in the plane on the way over… and will I be up to the task? What could I accomplish in only one month?

I was assigned on my first day at the school to  a wonderful  and very skillful young  teacher whose name is Gyan Vignesh ( which means”the knowledge of the divine being who removes all obstacles”… perfectly named for someone assigned to teach me!) and we met twice and sometimes three times every day thereafter for one on one instruction… a total of 48 classes during my visit…I quickly discovered that  it’s one thing to be in a class with a number of other students… in that environment there are moments where you can catch your breath, look out the window, practice the day’s lesson to your self before being called on… but my environment turned out to be much simpler… just me and my teacher at either end of a grass mat… alone in the school library.The whole time his attention was on me at every moment and I needed to be prepared to be called on and perform accordingly at any time.. I couldn’t let my mind wander for one second… no wonder I was exhausted at the end of each session… but even then there was little time to rest or relax  because there was always the next session to memorize and prepare for…we moved at , what seemed to me at least, breakneck speed…

My Agama Teacher Gyan Vignesh

To say that my time there was incredibly  intense would be for me a great understatement… to say it was one of the most challenging times of my life might be closer to the truth… Sanskrit is an incredibly powerful and transformative  language, arguably the most ancient language on the planet and is meant to be spoken aloud for its full effect to be felt… chanting and repeating these incredibly powerful and evocative sounds for hours on end left me feeling on a regular basis like my head was ready to explode… or else it dropped me into a space within that was so vast and deep, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open, let alone keep paying attention and reciting…but reciting and paying rapt attention was what I was required to do, over and over, sometimes for hours on end,

We were in class at either end of a grass mat


I was basically attempting to learn to speak, read, write and chant in a new language within the space of one month, and there were many times when I truly felt that I had been assigned an impossible task. It was only Sri Sri’s faith in my ability to learn this knowledge that kept me from sometimes losing faith in my ability to master it.. Several embodiments of divine assistance and grace were what finally carried me across the finish line… The first was my good friend and tutor Andrew Keaveney, a film maker living and working at the Bangalore Center, himself already fluent in Sanskrit, who attended most of the classes by my side, and who drilled me unceasingly each day in additional tutoring sessions from early in the morning (we were both assigned by my teacher to be up and chanting at 4:30) until late at night… Sanskrit is traditionally learned by rote and I quickly learned that there’s no substitution for repeating new words and phrases hundreds and sometimes thousands of times before finally committing them to memory… Andrew was my greatest supporter and also my biggest challenge during this time because he took the successful completion of my studies as his personal responsibility… one way or another he was going to get me through this course!! …I never could have gotten through it without him..

My Tutor Andrew


I also luckily had been prepared in a rudimentary way before I arrived by yet another great Sanskrit scholar, Pundit Viswanathan who lives in Concord California and who had been skyping with me every week for over a year in an online class… so I wasn’t totally unprepared for this huge challenge… although there were many moments I must confess where I was not sure I was going to make it out alive:)

My California Tutor Pundit Viswanathan

Gyan Vignesh was very patient with me, and he had a lot of compassion as well… He had just been promoted from being a senior student to being an assistant teacher and I was his first student in his new role! He did his best to keep it interesting and when the chanting practice got to be a bit too intense ( or when  I temporarily lost my voice!) we would switch to grammar and reading and I would sit on my end of our grass mat  puzzling over the Sanskrit equivalent of Dick Jane and Sally, our American 1st grade reading text:)

A First Grade Sanskrit Reading Primer

At the end of each class I was given a reward… I was told a traditional tale of Shiva, the form of the Divine most dear to the boys, which usually featured one or more of his bhakta’s or devotees,as a hero in the story, and which always concluded with a moral or a lesson…  How I would wait and wait for the words that my teacher would start with “Once upon a time there was a Shiva devotee whose name was…”because it meant that I had made it through yet one more class and could relax at least for the next few minutes… Never have I enjoyed such a wide and wild variety of stories… There were ladies who needed rescuing, unbelievably evil villains, acts of epic heroism and valor and plenty of miracles! This is where my teacher got to practice his English, and often a gang of my younger classmates would gather around to share the story and try to add to it…sometimes discussing among themselves for several minutes what the next chapter of the story should contain… Some of the boys were as young as 10 and one of them, His name was Shiva as it turned out, had been told these stories by his father since he was a little boy… and he had memorized them over the years and could remember them word for word. He would walk in quietly and sit down with the biggest smile on his face, waiting for class to be over so he could practice his craft and weave the tale with just the right combination of suspense, drama, adventure and romance so as to leave (me) the listener begging for more… So in the midst of everything else I was learning, I got to hear 48 tales of Shiva and his followers in those 48 classes…

Shiva the Storyteller

Our class was always highly disciplined and very organized… when I was learning a particular puja or shloka my first job was to master its pronunciation… I would then be examined on it before being allowed to memorize it, then examined again before being allowed to learn to perform it… all under the watchful eye of the Principal of the school, my dear teacher and friend, Sundara Murthi Swami… Each day I had to visit him in his office along with my teacher to report on my progress…. No slackers allowed in this school! Many years ago I completed graduate work in religious studies in a highly respected and rigorous academic program…Before I left Bangalore, I had to conclude that finals week in graduate school was nothing compared to what I had to get through to complete my studies at the Agama School!

My first Agama Puja

Each day I got to repay the generosity of my teachers in a small way by teaching English to the pundit boys… Every afternoon I’d visit a different section starting with the oldest boys and eventually getting to the youngest and newest students…I developed a simple curriculum which allowed them to practice their English by being interviewed by me in a mock job interview…much to the great entertainment of their fellow classmates! and my classes always concluded by telling stories about my adventures and misadventures  teaching the Art of Living in different parts of the world…I really came to enjoy those classes because they gave me the opportunity to get to know each boy in the school individually…

My Senior English Class

I was also asked to lead a singing session or kirtan with the boys on Sunday Nights and this they looked forward to above all…with no TV, internet or movies this was the biggest entertainment and social event of their week! They could let loose and sing, clap, laugh and even get up and dance as much as they wanted during our Sunday Night time together…in those moments there were no Americans or Tamils, no older and younger men, no difference in background or language… only a bunch of schoolboys hanging out and having some amazing and incredibly joyful times together… I’ll never forget those moments of oneness… when I close my eyes even now a part of me is with them there still…

The Sunday Night Kirtan Rhythm Section

Sitting here tonight 10,000 miles away, in the comfort of my own home in Santa Monica, how I am missing my time in that place with those boys… I put off writing this blog for over a week because I didn’t know how I could put into words what I learned and experienced there…How at home I felt there… how cared for I felt there, lifted up and carried away at times by such a feeling of grace..  swept by such profound knowledge beyond my own boundaries into an entirely new place in my own consciousness… and here I am and there they all are…my life here is filled with lots of responsibilities and courses to teach and places to go…I need to slowly begin to move back into this life…all the while sitting and chanting and meditating each morning, waiting for the chance once again to be back at Agama…

At Home in Agama

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It’s near the end of a busy day, and I’m writing this at sunset on the beach near where I live in Santa Monica…I often come here at this time, to meditate, chant or to just be still and be part of something larger than myself… The sky has just turned this incredible combination of rose and azure blue…a warm breeze is blowing gently in from the desert,and in this moment all is peaceful in my world…

It’s definitely the turn of the seasons here in California…we have seasons at different times than in the rest of the country.  Most of the Summer we have fog and marine layer for at least part of the day, but now after Labor Day the skies clear up, the weather continues to be warm and sunny, the sunsets are spectacular and you can swim in the ocean all the way until the end of October–clearly my favorite time of year!

It’s also the time when kids go back to school and everyone starts back to work after whatever vacation they’ve been able to wrest away from their busy schedules… hoping that their vacation time can sustain them through the hectic months ahead…

This Summer was a busy one for me… I just returned from a month of travel that included four courses, four musical events in different locations and a lot of travel…

What sustained me through it all was the time this Summer I got to spend at home… not home here where I live now  in Santa Monica, but home where I grew up, and where a part of my spirit still abides on a beautiful crystal clear lake in upstate NY.

The lake’s name, Skaneateles, says it all.

In the native Iroquois language, it means the place where the pure water flows…

These days I travel for a living and am never in the same place for very long, but every year, come what may, in July or August, I aim my compass for home… or more exactly to a family cottage ten miles down the lake from the village where I was raised…

Skaneateles is much more than a quaint and scenic town and lake for me and for everyone who lives there…it’s more like its own state of consciousness.

Whenever I bring friends to visit, sooner or later they always remark in some astonishment, “This place is so beautiful…and so peaceful! What is it about this place?”

The village was settled on the north end of the lake right after the Revolutionary war and in some ways hasn’t changed much in appearance in the past 100 years…

My roots here go deep… my grandfather courted my grandmother on a steamer that took excursions up and down the lake almost 100 years ago, and my own immediate family has lived here year round or in the Summer for over 50 years…

My parents always thought that raising us here was one of the greatest gifts that they were able to give us, and although they are no longer around, I still come back every year for rest and to reconnect with myself in a deep way…

Something happens to me in that first moment I hit the water after a long time away… I am not only refreshed and renewed but I am returned to an earlier and simpler way of being.

My childhood in this place was in many ways idyllic…hours every day in the water, swimming, sailing, canoeing, water skiing, or just floating on an inner tube that provided a kind of stillness that inevitably dropped me into myself…

The lake was for me a huge reservoir of silence and peace that nourished and sustained me all through my childhood. It gave me in its own way, a clear glimpse of  something greater than myself at a very early age…

When I got older one of the reasons I learned to meditate was the memory of some of those early times at the lake and wanting to return to that feeling that I knew was still somewhere deep inside me …

Often when I return, it’s for a family reunion with my brother and sister and their families, but this year I had the cottage all to myself, so I invited a couple of friends who were, as it turned out, up for some adventure… we swam, kayaked, water skied, hiked up a waterfall, cooked outrageous meals and at night swam out to a raft and lay there watching the moon rise and counting shooting stars… one of my guests wrote a poem about his experience on that raft:

A boy sits in darkness on a raft alone

Wondering how long he has sat, just watching

Unsure of whether it is still night or now almost morning….

The moonlight, a reflected silver streak lighting up his world

He gazes across the lake

Sensing the air above and water below

Two elements in balance…

Their union changing as small waves come and go…

The wind moves the water

The water leaps up to meet the air

playing off each other…

Air and water …becoming each other…

He stares across the open water

Hearing something he has never heard before…

He hears nothing

amidst the cool stillness of the lake

The boy is afloat, on that bobbing raft, resting easy

Still shivering from his swim,

He holds his knees tight, feeling the lake slowly rocking him close to itself

He peers down into the dark lake

The lake peers back at him

Overseen by moon and stars

A reflection rippling in and out of view

The lake wonders, when will he jump in?

The boy wonders, how did I come to be here?

That’s what the lake seems to do for almost everyone who experiences it… you never leave it in the same place you were in when you arrived…

When I was little I thought a wonderful Being lived in the lake because every time I dove in I emerged happier, more awake and more peaceful than I’d been the minute before.  Evidently others shared my view, because from its early days people claimed its waters had healing powers, and not far from our cottage are the ruins of a sanatorium that included “taking the waters” as part of its treatment.  Today that building is long gone but the lake remains a strong and unchanging touchstone for me… I always leave after a week or so filled up not just with that fresh and alive energy that the lake offers but with a stronger connection to who I really am deep inside…that changeless part of me out of which everything else in my life pours at every moment…

By the end of my stay I am filled up for another year–a year of travel, teaching and staying in other people’s homes… but always with a part of me that remains there close to the lake, always listening for it…

William Butler Yeats had his own lake and his own strong connection to it, and he wrote about that connection in one of my favorite poems, Lake Isle Innisfree

“I will arise and go now, for always night and day… I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore… While standing in the roadway or in the pavement grey, I hear it… in the deep parts core…”

                                       Sunset at Santa Monica Beach

I am grateful tonight on this beach for many things; for the beauty that I live in, and the work that I have that I love to do, for the love of the friends and family that surrounds and nourishes me, but most of all, tonight, for a home that I get to return to year after year, a mirror reminding me, as the years roll by, of a part of me that has never changed.  That waits there for me still…

Jo Jo Kelly is an artist, author and activist who lives in New York and Los Angeles. She is also my friend and student.

She recently asked me some questions for her blog “Vertical Clearance”…For those of you who are interested,

Here is the link to that Q and A session:

http://verticalclearance.net/archives/110

Enjoy the Holidays

Peace

John

I’ve been in India for almost a month now, at first guiding a tour of American first-timers mostly in our facility in Bangalore, but also on a guided trip to Kolkata, which ended about ten days ago.  I then joined Sri Sri and a smaller group, which was headed to the Northeast part of India: Tripura, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh. This is a part of India largely populated by indigenous peoples and tribes, where Art of Living has done a lot of humanitarian work. As it turns out, we have two small ashrams there, one in Guhati and one in Arunachal, the construction on which was just being completed as we arrived. This was such an unbelievably beautiful part of India. Assam is where much of the world’s tea supply is grown, and everywhere you look there are vast tea estates, with lush, green tea bushes in neat rows growing in every direction as far as the eye can see. Arunachal Pradesh requires a special visa to enter…it’s been a sensitive area since India fought a border war there with China in the 1960s. Where we traveled is very close to where Bhutan, Tibet, China and India all come together. It’s one of the most sparsely populated parts of India, and the huge forests which once covered most of India are still largely untouched there. One feels surrounded by the power of nature everywhere, and you can feel a strong connection to it, especially when you close your eyes and meditate. The area’s dotted with lakes and rivers, including the Brahma Putra, which is the largest river in India and runs through Tibet and China as well. Indigenous people there look like Tibetans or Mongolians, although they also strongly identify themselves as part of India. They worship the sun and the moon in their native religion and still live lives extremely close to nature. I went mainly to visit some of our service projects there, including some schools for indigenous children. Even though AP, or Arunachal Pradesh, is still largely closed to tourists, its fragile culture is under an onslaught from a variety of forces, including Western material culture, a Maoist guerilla insurgency, and a sharp rise in Christian fundamentalist conversions. We were there to help the local people sustain human values amidst these influences through both our schools and service projects. People there were extremely friendly and hospitable and made us all quickly feel at home. We lived under somewhat primitive conditions, but everyone in the group looked after one another, and we all felt very happy to be there.

The Boise Hills - home to the Art of Silence Course

Just back from an incredible weekend outside  Boise teaching a course in silence on a ranch in the middle of nowhere about a mile up in the Sawtooth Mountains… about as ideal a location for a silent meditation retreat as you’re going to find…it’s great to be present at the beginning of a new group which is just taking shape… to see people waking up and beginning to  take responsibility for the well being and growth of others around them… and to see each one diving deep within, discovering energy and creativity they didn’t know they had,  and starting to blossom from the inside out…

we took great advantage of the spectacular surroundings, especially on one sunny afternoon when we all took a silent walk (and run:) together…When one person(in this case the local teacher Leslye Moore) takes a stand and makes a commitment to the growth and development of an entire city, the results are powerful and plain to see… people are attracted magnetically to the energy of the group pulling as one (and having a great time in the process!) and then that energy begins to move out into the community in the form of service… When I left I challenged them all to make good use of theenergy they had created together in silence to create a service project  as a way of giving back to Boise during the Holiday season… I skype with the group tomorrow to see what they’ve come up with…

In some ways the spirit of Boise as a community is an example of  the best of what America still has to offer… a group of people who are strong, self reliant, in many ways traditional and still full of the pioneer “can do” spirit… and yet practical enough to be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things…  I was really inspired by my time with them…sometimes I think I get more out of these courses than my students do. This was my fourth trip to Boise… something inside tells me it won’t be my last…

Last week we were so busy teaching three different courses every day that I never got a chance to reflect on our experience teaching the Staff at the Vet’s Hospital… they had their own course in the afternoons and it was completely different than the Vet’s course…

The course was born in a  particular moment. I was making a presentation several months earlier to the hospital staff, mostly doctors and psychologists about the value of the course for Vets. In the middle of my presentation one of the staff raised their hand and asked” What about us?” We experience trauma first hand all day long from being in contact with our patients… its like we get second hand PTSD… what can you do for us…?” and so we decided to teach both staff and vets side by side, each in their own course…

I was brought back in that moment to my own experience working in a hospital as part of my graduate student training, some twenty five years ago. I was a chaplain on a hospital intensive care unit and I learned a lot about trauma in a hurry. What happens when you first start working is that your heart opens to your patients who are usually in a lot of suffering or distress or both,  and you pour yourself out to them and sometimes get either involved or attached to their well being. All this is good, but then there comes behind them another patient in need, and then another and another, each with their own challenges and friends and family who also demand your attention. If you get too attached to one patient, then there’s nothing left for the next patient or the fifth patient and sooner or later not much left for yourself… so there are huge occupational risks in being a caregiver in a clinical setting. You have to find a way to balance your needs with your patients (and colleague’s) needs, and  find a way to keep on giving day after day and year after year while continually restoring yourself  and not succumbing to burnout…

Add to this the current state of operations in most Veteran’s hospitals with overwhelming need from many vets all returning now from the war zone,  and fewer resources managing ever more caseloads and you can begin to feel the level of stress and distress most of these people are living under every day. They care deeply about their patients… that’s why they got into their professions in the first place… but at least some of them over time had gotten really tired and afflicted by either discouragement or resignation.

Denise and I felt in the beginning of both courses that it would take longer for the Vets to begin to open up to the experience of the program, but we discovered that the staff had their own reasons for caution, not the least being that they were taking the course alongside colleagues and in many cases bosses,  and they were afraid of being too open and vulnerable in a way that might seem unprofessional… Many of them held back at first…Like the vets, when they finally began to experience some of the benefits in their bodies and minds, they began to bond more as a group and to really move out… their experience of stress and trauma was no less real than the patients they served… it was just a little less obvious and hidden under the surface of their commitments and busy schedules…

What strikes me now in looking back on those five days that we spent together are two things…

One… that this was a group of people with very strong values, who had gone into nursing and medicine with a high dedication to wanting to help others in need… that dedication was still there but it lay under a lot of fatigue, stress and trauma… once the stress began to dissolve that spark of inspiration began to re-emerge in many of them, and that was a wonderful thing to be present for… As they experienced the course for themselves, they were able to see how it could help their patients and hopefully they will eventually put that experience to good use in supporting their patients in using these techniques in their own recovery…

and Two… This was an exceptionally strong and courageous group of people. Once they began to see the benefits of the breathing and course points, many of them really decided to go for it… they threw themselves into the last several days of the course, showed up in terms of supporting   each other in many ways, and began to ponder  what their work lives might look and feel like with methods of regularly releasing stress and trauma… They were a  dedicated bunch who were willing to try anything that might improve the care that they could offer every day to their patients… and  themselves… “”Care is like breathing” we said…”it has to be taken in  in order to be given out…You can’t give from what you don’t have”… Hopefully this model of teaching Vets and Staff alongside each other can carry over to other courses in the future.

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