01/26/2016 10:58 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

From Quietude to Gratitude

3 Mindful Takeaways to Giveaway


The little things? The little moments? They aren't little. -- Jon Kabat-Zinn

You can't rule the rain but you can rule your reaction to the rain.

Buckets of water thrash down upon my car's windshield as I cautiously make my way on the Pomona freeway from L.A. to Joshua Tree for a five-day silent meditation retreat. I've dipped my toe in many forms of spirituality since I can remember and I've even swam in the zen pool. I felt awakened as a teen but I've taken many naps since then. Still, I've never spent five days in a row in silence. No Internet, no phone, no texting, no TV, no movies, no wine, no reading, no writing. That last sentence has more "nos" in it than is usually to my liking, still, I'm looking forward to this disconnection/reconnection.

But right now... my heart beats quickly, my chest tightens and I feel like crying as I drive blindly in the torrential downpour.

I. Can't. See. Anything. If I pull over, a car might be coming quickly behind me, can't see me because of the rain and the fog and slam into me! If I drive super slowly, the very same thing may happen! I should have left earlier! No, I should have left later! Is this a sign? Should I go home?

I can feel myself getting swept away with my thoughts, which I know will inevitably only create more anxiety. So, I begin to focus on my breath. I breathe deeply, slowly, feeling the breath fill up my body. I focus on my breath, what I can see and tell myself this will pass. It finally did.
I couldn't stop the storm but I could tame the panic. At least a little bit.

The more you obsess about a thing the bigger the thing becomes.

The first night we had a power outage and the following day, during our first sitting meditation, we had an earthquake. Then the winds blew so hard I started having "Wizard of Oz" worries during our sitting mediation. Does Joshua Tree get tornados?

Also, it's cold. My nose feels like an icicle stuck in a slushy. Why isn't the heater working? Can my nose get frostbite while I'm indoors? Why don't they make coats for noses? I think I've seen nose cozies on Etsy. I should get one of those!

Then the guy next to me started coughing up a lung. This phlegm filled cough would become my obsession. He's going to get us all sick! Why is he out in public? Eww! Now he's spitting! Does he even have a Kleenex? This is so gross. Doesn't anyone else think this is incredibly gross?

I look around and I don't see any other faces scrunched up in disgust. It's just me. I'm overly sensitive. I'm too quick to be annoyed. The poor man is sick. I should have compassion for him.

Cough cough. Hack hack. Spit spit.

As soon as the bell rings, we bow our heads and I swoop up my yoga matt and cushion and find another space across the room. I'm not in germ's way anymore but I can still hear Coughing Man.

Cough cough. Hack hack. Spit spit.

Somebody stop him before we all get infected!

Later that day I avoid Coughing Man at lunch. I'm pissed at him. Parading around with all of those germs, thrusting them about willy nilly for all to potentially catch.

He comes towards me. Oh no! He sits at my table! Oh my! Right near me! I get up and move. Then I immediately had another thought...

What if he's sick with something that's not contagious and if that's the case then... I'm such a jerk. Here I am being pissed off at a sick man!

In my interview with Zen Master, Tenshin Roshi (we can speak during the interviews), I tell him about my disdain for Coughing Man. He asks, "Are you worried you'll get sick?" I tell him I am. He says, "Well, that's always a possibility." Then I tell him I feel like a jerk because I should have more compassion and less disgust. I tell him about my guilt over moving away from him at lunch.

"Well I wouldn't sit next to him either! I'm not stupid!" Roshi laughs. He goes on to say that no one wants to get sick. It's normal. I think maybe, eventually, I'll be able to not be so irked by a cough and and still practice self compassion by not putting myself in the line of germ fire. By day five, I no longer react to Coughing Man's cough. I still didn't sit next to him at lunch.

P.S. I didn't get sick.

Slow the heck down.

I've always been a Speedy Gonzales, rushing about to and fro. Eating quickly, talking quickly, walking quickly. I chalked it up to having a lot of energy. But lately it's been bothering me. I'd often drop a dish, bang a toe, talk over people and get hiccups from eating too fast.

On retreat we practiced mindful eating. Before eating I'd pause to think about the work it took to get the food to my plate. The farmer who grew the blueberry, the sun and rain that nourished it. The packers, the shippers, the truckers who got it to the grocery store. It was a beautiful thing to take time to feel grateful for all that went into this food on my plate. And when I would eat, I'd chew slowly and appreciate the flavors, savoring it. It made me wonder just how many times I've rushed through a meal in the past. How many times have I thought about dinner while still eating lunch? How many times did I get up to wash a dish before I've even finished chewing?

Taking the time to appreciate the moment showed up everywhere on retreat. At six o'clock each morning, many of us would go into the dining area for a cup of coffee. One wall was made up of a large window with a view of the mountains. Several people would move their chairs to face the window and some of us would stand behind them -- all of us facing the window with our cups of coffee... all in silence... watching the sunrise as if we were watching a movie on a flat screen TV.

Quietly watching those sunrises with a group of strangers each morning felt like the world wrapped me up in a big bear hug and whispered in my ear, "Yes, Annie, this is what it's all about."

When we finally broke silence on day five, the only words that came to mind were... thank you.

A guided meditation with Jon Kabat-Zinn
Thank you to my teachers, Tenshin Roshi, Beth Mulligan and Hugh O'Neill