MAITRI RETREATS AND HAMID EBADI – AN EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY OF ‘COMING HOME’
“Meditation is a bodily practice.” I will never ever forget these words from Hamid as we prepared to start our meditation practice in Monchique, Portugal in a region called the Algarve. I had never been to Portugal and there I excitedly found myself with nine other practitioners (ahem…students…most of us hugely interested dabblers who had not yet developed a consistent practice). Also with us was Miri, our yoga teacher who was the other leader of this retreat, also a participant. That made twelve of us in total, with Hamid. I sat in a rectangular formation with my fellow learners and listened carefully.
Here was the man I had spoken to via Skype prior to deciding to come. He had first intrigued me with a long and very obviously well thought out and personalized letter answering my questions about this retreat. Having finished one intensive on mindfulness and self-compassion in Holland, I was now here two weeks later to commit myself to seven days of silence in these hills for the sole purpose of advancing my growth.
Okay…it was also because a silent retreat was part of the list of prerequisites if I wanted to train with my other teachers further. I didn’t quite understand why, though I do now. This was to deepen my commitment and practice, obviously. I had assumed that my private practice would be enough. What a gross oversight on my part. There is no substitute for having a teacher.
Meanwhile, in the silent gaps between the conversations both online and finally on the ground in Portugal with Hamid, I was primarily wondering if this was going to be too intensive for this old bod of mine…I’d injured my knees trekking in Nepal years ago and my back in four car accidents years before that. Those old wounds that I’d long endeavored not to cling to were firmly on my mind. I have never liked sitting anywhere without a firm back support. How would this unfold?
We were now all seated on a firm meditation cushion provided by Maitri Retreats, Hamid’s company, on top of the square mat provided by the Karuna Center. Someone said – perhaps it was Hamid, “Over the course of the week the pile of cushions would grow”. Laughter followed that remark; it was the laughter of recognition. I smiled and wondered as I looked at the mountain of cushions stacked at the front of the hall.
What a beautiful location (the mountains), venue (the Karuna Center), and combination of (1) formality of instruction, (2) warmth, and (3) welcoming. Hours before, most of us were seated around two outdoor patio tables for lunch at a vegan Indian restaurant in Faro, a town 90 minutes or so away. It was a nice touch to help us get acquainted and talk before the silent retreat began in earnest, which would be that night.
Transportation arrangements had been fully made from the Faro train station, our place of meeting in this little marina town. We’d been well prepped via a private Facebook group, which helped with communications. Hamid had a dedicated assistant, a student named Tiffany, who had flown in from Australia. We were an international group and the energy felt great. People were friendly. After an hour and a bit of driving (in a rented van with driver) into the dry gulchy terrain of Portugal, which reminded me of Andalucia, Spain as well as parts of Saudi Arabia where I had come from and where I was living and working, we were settled into our accommodation. It has to be said: on the way we saw storks nesting on tall posts. Wow!
These were comfortable barracks above the meditation and dining halls, everyone’s room a little different. Most had shared quarters. I opted to pay for one alone, though I wondered if that had been a mistake. These were lovely people. Open-hearted, kind people seemed to be attracted to this work…this work of the mind and soul. We from New York, Dublin, Kuwait, Perth, Dubai, Amsterdam, Santa Cruz, Jubail (Saudi) and elsewhere all had our reasons for being there, but there would be no time to get into this for long. As the wind picked up over the Serra de Monchique, sounding like the waves of a wild ocean, I felt the wildness of the whole experience and unpacked my luggage in the room I’d been given, which faced the valley and sea. Then I headed to the meditation hall.
Now I had the pleasure of listening to Hamid orient us as to his version of meditation – or, rather, the Zen meditation he had long trained in and practiced. The man was precise and kindly, and his instructions gave me comfort. I could do what he was asking of us. He explained as he did on Skype to me that there were options if one’s back did not have the ability to tolerate sitting, though we would practice and learn. I noted three wooden backed chairs in the room, one with arms. In the end, I preferred the cushion and floor. Cushions and floor. One cushion under each knee and a pad beneath the firm Maitri Retreats cushion.
Our orientation to Zen meditation proceeded, and what I have taken away from that day forward is nothing short of a life-changing set of practices and ideas that will forever shape my journey in meditation and life going forward.
First, I thought I understood meditation. Only to a point. I understood the technical aspects of meditation, and had been introduced both to sitting and walking meditation in the Shambhala tradition. I also used guided meditation in my classroom with students and had done forms of it in groups. Now this was a new type of meditation that completely complimented my journey with mindfulness and self compassion/compassion as well as other earlier work in mindfulness based stress reduction or MBSR.
I won’t describe what happened at the retreat for me in so much detail that the actual experience for others is diluted by my interpretation. Everyone who undergoes this journey discovers, as Hamid taught us: you are where you are with it, and the process of sitting will tell you that exactly. It is a profound learning.
Second, I learned you do not change who you are by meditating. You encounter who you are. I had just re-learned this point about ‘non-striving’ as I’ll call it, earlier in the summer, though I knew it. But I had not truly grasped this beautiful paradox, as Hamid would call it. In this meditative practice, you learn the nature of your mind and being but you do not cling to some sort of fixed perception or way of being, and there is a method to this. You are there to engage in and ideally adhere to the practice, which develops a soft stamina, as I see it, to return again and again ‘to the cushion’. It is that very process which develops a maturity in you both as a person and as a meditation practitioner.
This is the very thing I had come to gain, but I would humbly learn…it was not my job to either aspire or cling to this. In fact, any effort to cling to results would teach me the important lesson of relinquishing control, and the lesson of impermanence… because once you think you’ve ‘got it’, you don’t. Every ‘sit’ is a different experience and this, too, is the nature of living. Life is changeable. It’s what often gives us stress.
So, the third important lesson I learned was the impermanence of both the states of one’s mind and one’s life. Barry Stevens, the great gestalt therapist and trainer once said, in her book by the same title, “Don’t push the river.” You cannot and do not force the learning. It comes through the practice and there will be moments you feel completely in ‘flow’ and moments you truly (and we all had them) have to relinquish all expectation to allow for something else profound to come to light.
I share this in the spirit of Hamid’s fantastic peppering of quotations by other wise people throughout his talks and narratives. And it should be said: there isn’t one wasted word by this man who is not only an ordained monk but a trained philosopher and psychotherapist. I never thought in my wildest dreams I would understand on such a personal level the value of silence or sitting in meditation. As Hamid says, you come “home” to yourself even if you think you’re nowhere near this.
The work of meditation is and was wordless, silent, and still, and the body indeed was where the practice was. For, as Hamid said, a few millimeters or a fraction of an adjustment was all that was needed to realign the mind. I learned – totally – how to SIT still on a meditation cushion and be with myself, without attachment, and watch the storms and sundries go by.
It was profound in that it taught me, as these things do, what I think about, what my brain thinks about despite my best efforts not to think, and what I do in life. Meditation as taught by Hamid demonstrated how I cope with life’s challenges. Thankfully, the entire process wasn’t militant in any way, though there was structure, and I welcomed that. It was simply the practice of Zen meditation, which I had been reading about for years without ever understanding, and finally…I understood something about this. Hamid stated, we had undertaken one of the hardest things, and I believe it. I had been taught how to sit in a way that has been done by people before me for hundreds and hundreds of years. There was something deeply solid about that and completely unnerving. Because, without practice, that grounding is lost. I know this. The whole point was to develop a daily practice.
Daily yoga and walking meditations offered a physical way to manage the hours of sitting, and these were beautiful teachings. I simply am grateful to have overcome any fear of yoga that I once had – Yin Yoga with Miri of Hiyati Yoga was soothing and nurturing, and in this regard, I realized I had undertaken a very well thought-out retreat. The mindful walk outdoors, not to be confused with walking meditation practice indoors between sits, all had a purpose, and again I learned how my mind works.
I’ll add to that: mealtimes provided ‘companionable silence’ where I truly had the opportunity to learn to relate to food differently, without the frantic energy that often is a part of my life as a teacher. There was no eating on the fly. Everything slowed down, and my peers and others at the center taught me to slow down and digest both my food and the pleasures of life more.
Hamid spoke, through the daily talks he held before dinner, at length about a few important topics that became the cornerstones for this meditative work – and this was where we could ask questions if needed during these days of silence, though we simply did not need to. Again, I don’t want to give away all of these treasures. Simply, my mind was blown by what became obvious to all of us at the end: this man knows a lot, much more than he will ever admit to, being a humble man, and meditation like yoga can go as deeply as you want it to.
There are teachings that transcend all belief systems and faiths, and simply are good to understand. The biggest concept for me was ‘universal oneness’ – the importance of remembering this. It was the same message that came through loud and clear, too, at the earlier meditation intensive I’d attended in Holland prior to the Maitri sesshin. My mind wanted to grasp Hamid’s words, however, and plant them in a book. Perhaps one day they’ll end up there. Here we had a wise, humble, modern-day man as our teacher. It was astounding.
Throughout the week, it became completely clear why he offers meditation in a non-commercial way and context, affordably, and also why he has brought to his teaching practice his other interests in psychotherapy, poetry, and philosophy. Hamid has found and is answering his callings. What better teacher could one hope for? Like the others, I sat with that knowledge and treasured it.
Following the retreat, we all headed to a local village on the coast and spent two evenings together debriefing the retreat, talking and having a new experience – taking in the colors and sounds of Portuguese life in all her glory after the confined and spacious realities that silence can give. Again, these smallest of details made this retreat the most incredible experience. I knew it would change my life. I would leave intent upon changing the balance of things in my life.
In closing, what I want to say is this: I walked out of this intensive with an inner peace and confidence I haven’t felt in many years as an adult – if ever. Certain existential fears of mine were, for the time being (given this intensive practice of meditating and living mindfully for several hours a day) gone. It’s not that the world can’t affect me, but I came away understanding the nature of our emotional uprisings. I have a much stronger sense of awareness of my relationship to others on this planet and to the whole of life itself. too.
That sounds grandiose. What I mean is: I learned of our interconnectedness and perhaps the ways I might bring more solidity, love, support, peace, and harmony to situations I find difficult. As Hamid said, “A great many people and things in life conspired to support us during this time of shared silence.” I realized I could apply this lesson to any situation where difficulties arise; I am supported in profound ways in life that I often don’t know or take for granted.
Now, a few weeks since the safety and support that came very naturally to the group in our silent retreat, I have been testing my ability to stay aware of my ‘interconnectedness’ to others in general. In fact, it’s noticeable to many people: something happened to me over the summer. I feel less defensive, more at peace. I would say I have developed more resilience. A layer of old grief has been stripped off. I know where to find peace in myself. That is my ‘coming home’.
This, I’ve noticed, is true to the extent that I continue to practice the meditation at home, and that has become a pleasure since all I’ve come to learn from Hamid and my peers. Now I sit for 30 minutes a day easily, compared to before I undertook this journey. That has been a surprise. I look forward to meditating. It does not feel difficult to do any longer. I savor the silence that this simple practice now brings to my life. I recognize, too, that the learning has just begun. The real work is between the sesshins/retreats. I look forward to what lessons may come.
It cannot go unstated that the Monchique summer wildfires in a freak heatwave that overtook Portugal – it was hotter than it was in Saudi! – burned down the Karuna Center, which was a shock to all of us!!! The day I left the country from Lagos, two days after the retreat, I received two alerts about the high potential for fire on my mobile. Six days after our last meditation at the Maitri sesshin, I learned in Saudi that the Karuna Center had been overcome, though thankfully everyone and all animals got out alive.
Because I am a photographer, and with Hamid’s permission, I had spent considerable time mindfully documenting this journey of ours. Hamid selected photos from my collection to filter to black and white, and it is in these (click to see on Facebook) where I think the beauty of that time is somehow immortalized and encapsulated in an artful way. The sacredness of this time with self and others is conveyed by these portraits.