Saturday, October 10, 2009

Mindfulness Meditation Retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh

       As I write this blog entry it happens to be the eve of Thich Nhat Hanh's 83rd birthday. My first exposure to the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh was in college around 1992. I had read his book "The Miracle of Mindfulness" which resonated and still resonates with me to this day. Last week, it was such a gift to be in the presence of Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh at a five-day mindfulness meditation retreat in upstate New York near the Catskill Mountains. The October leaves were turning bright colors of fiery red, orange, and yellow. The retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery consisted of 1,100 retreatants. The conscious collective energy of 1,100 people practicing mindful meditation had a profound effect on me. All of our meals occurred in silence. I particularly loved the practice of walking meditation through the woods along with a group of 50 others. We practiced synching our breaths with our steps: "I have arrived" on the inbreath & "I am home" on the outbreath. Aaaahhh...peace & inner space which then created a similar peace and spaciousness externally when interacting with others.

      Life at the retreat was slowed down to a snails’ pace that created a sense of calm, peace, and deep space from within and without each of us. The Monastics of the monastery would strike a large bell hanging on a tree at random intervals throughout the day. It was the resonant sound of the Mindfulness Bell. The bell was a reminder to stop whatever we were doing to take deep breaths in and focus on our breath. I came to really enjoy the chime of the Mindfulness Bell and in seeing everyone around me stop what they were doing to practice deep breathing & briefly pausing from life's activities. In the afternoons, we would have Dharma discussions in small groups of twenty people. We also participated in working meditations by pot washing after the dinner meals. Who knew that I could feel a sense of being alive through the simple act of washing a bowl? I discovered that by practicing mindfulness & focusing on being in the Present Moment that everything began to come to life more fully. The grass became alive with its' greeness and in its' textures. The tiny red leaf that fallen to the ground was so bold in its' color. The wind through the trees became such a beautiful movement of swaying and the sound was the wind whispering truth to me. I felt my heart opening up and truth shining forth. I found myself smiling at everyone & making eye contact with everyone that I passed walking around the monastery grounds. I felt a connection and Oneness as a result of practicing our mindfulness together as a collective community.

     Being in the presence of Thich Nhat Hanh (also known as "Thay") was a great honor. He spoke to us about impermanence, compassion, the phenomenon of mental formations, and the importance of "watering" seed-thoughts of loving kindness instead of "watering" seed-thoughts of doubt and fear. Thay says that "our minds can become clear as still water through the practice of meditation" and through this "we reflect like a mirror the things as they are just like the still water reflects the sky & clouds overhead". Throughout the retreat week, I realized that our joy & happiness resides from within all of us. It is not something that we can find outside of ourselves. I have found great joy, happiness, calm, and peace in my mind & body. I look forward to maintaining a mindfulness practice through daily meditation and always remembering to come back to the breath in the present moment.

Friday, July 17, 2009

summer inspirations

"Lovescape" by Jannon Baer
acrylic and mixed media on canvas with flower petals & handmade paper
12" X 10"

"Summer Love Song" by Jannon Baer
acrylic and mixed media on canvas with flower petals, fabric & handmade paper
14" X 12"

                                                                "Along the Sacred River" by Jannon Baer
acrylic and mixed media on canvas with leaf & handmade paper
13" X 10"

Saturday, March 14, 2009

colors and patterns of India

      I recently had the opportunity to visit Tamil Nadu, India in February 2009. I stayed in Pondicherry with a friend. Pondicherry (Puducherry) is a former French colony. The history of the French influence is evident through the architecture and culture of the city. I encountered so many amazing experiences during my short stay in "Pondy". Our flat was located in walking distance from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. I was in Pondicherry during the auspicious time of The Mother's Birthday (Mirra Alfassa), born on February 21, 1878. She was Sri Aurobindo's spiritual collaborator who helped to start a school at the ashram. She also created the universal town called Auroville, a short distance from the outskirts of Pondicherry. On The Mother's birthday this year, my friend and I participated in a collective meditation of hundreds of people early in the morning around 6 am inside the courtyard of the ashram around a large service tree and the samadhi (a place for offering prayers and flowers). In the afternoon, we went for a darshan which brought thousands of people from all parts of India. Everyone was sitting cross-legged in rows & it took up an entire street block of people. We were able to tour through the ashram to see The Mother's room and Sri Aurobindo's room. The line moved in a slow meditative pace. I remember vividly the sight of yellow marigolds in a towering pyramid as we ascended the stairs of the ashram. It was quite an experience that is etched in my mind.      My love and study of Bharathanatyam, one of many forms of classical Indian dance, was another reason that I came to visit Tamil Nadu. Chidambaram is a small city which is located about 3 hours south of Pondicherry. On February 23, the first day of Shivratri, I visited Chidambaram, the temple dedicated to the Nataraja "The Dancing Shiva". There are five temples in South India that represent each of the five elements: wind, water, fire, ether, and earth. The presiding deity of the Chidambaram temple is the element "Ether" or space. It is the only Shiva temple that does not worship the Shiva Lingam. Inside the temple, there is a golden inner sanctum called the "Chit Sabha", also known as the Hall of Consciousness. The Dikshithars, temple priests, perform duties inside the Chit Sabha by chanting Vedas, lighting lamps and ringing bells. I was able to witness some of these activites while inside the temple.
     I was captivated by all of the colors, sounds, and patterns that I found in daily walks throughout the city: the bright colors of the saris worn by the local Tamil women, the sounds of continuous beeping of horns from motor scooters, buses, taxis, became the music of the streets, and the intricate patterns of kolams drawn as a daily prayer.     There were so many rich experiences that at times brought me to tears. I will hold the experiences close to my heart.

kolam-a beautiful art form

kolam-a traditional art form

Kolam is a Tamil word refering to beauty, form, and play. This intricate art form is a traditional custom of the women of Tamil Nadu in Southern India. These designs are considered to be an important artistic expression and part of ancient Tamil culture. The art form is passed down from generation to generation by mother to daughter. Women draw kolams as a daily morning ritual.

In the early mornings, women sweep and wash the pavement in front of the entrance to their homes. They create beautiful designs called kolams that are made with bare hands using rice flour or chalk. The creation of a kolam is a spiritual practice that is a form of meditation and is done with complete concentration. Kolams are considered thresholds between the inner world of the home and the outside world. The designs remain on the pavement and eventually wash away with the activities of the day. The temporary nature of kolams symbolize the impermanence of all life. There are kolam designs for bringing prosperity to the home, for welcoming visitors, and for spiritual purification. Also, there are kolams for each day of the week. A kolam is a painted prayer.

I did not get a chance to capture a kolam with my camera. I thought I'd share this beautiful art form with this video link: