Monday, April 28, 2014

What Happens at a Silent Retreat?

Before I get to what I learned which I don't think I can include in today's post, let me set the stage in case you are wondering just what exactly I was doing over the weekend and why in the world anyone would want to do it.

My silent retreat didn't take me half way around the world to an ashram in India, like Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love, (maybe next time) but to Our Lady Queen of Peace Retreat Center in the countryside of West Tennessee. A friend with her masters in Catholic Studies who did this last year and knows me well enough to think I would get something out of it invited me. Three days of complete silence with a group of strangers who were also committed to not talking except for a brief daily meeting with a spiritual director (a nun), and no idea what to expect?

Sign me up.

We arrived in the midst of a thunderstorm just in time to eat a quick dinner before a meeting with the other retreatants to introduce ourselves and share what we hoped to get out of this exercise. The reasons varied but felt familiar: direction, clarity, to exalt Christ, to hear God, to escape the noise of our modern world. When we left the room the silence was on. Cell phones and all other electronic devices, were off.

Now I'll tell you a secret. For an introvert this isn't all that hard. You pass people in the hall and you don't have to wonder whether or not you should speak first.

You can't.

At once, all the mind's focus on if your conversation is clever, or too self absorbed, or entertaining is shed in the delightful realization that no one expects anything from you. You don't have to be witty, or answer questions, or try and remember everyone's names.

You can very

There is something powerful about this experience,  about being given permission to wander around in a meadow, or sit for an hour doing nothing more than contemplating leaves on the trees. The goal is to be gloriously un-busy. Our culture has a cult of busyness that permeates every aspect of our lives. I didn't recognize how exhausting that is until I was removed from it.

 I rarely saw anyone and anyone rarely saw me.

Another freedom.

As there is no expectation of you speaking, there isn't an expectation of anything else. I hiked trails alone, did yoga in my room, prayed, read, and stared out my window at the peaceful view for hours. I sat in a rocking chair and breathed in country air while twilight fell around me. I journaled. One night after reading for a couple of hours in my room I went out onto the porch late at night in my pajamas to gaze at the stars. I went to bed when I was sleepy and arose when I'd had eight glorious hours of solid sleep. I did some meditative drawing (more about that in another post) read books on art and the G.K. Chesterton classic on the life of St. Francis. I finished Phillip Yancy's Disappointment with God, which I had started several months ago but been unable to finish. I simply wasn't ready.

More about that here.

But while doing all these things I was listening. For the voice of God? Perhaps. Insights from the universe? Maybe. My own hurried soul that finally had time to stop long enough to rest? Yes.

I didn't realize how much my heart was longing for some peace until I finally got it.

But more than all of that the realization at the end of the retreat that I'd had a revelation. I had not had a negative thought or painful memory in three days. I was comfortable with myself. At peace with my choices.

The silence was instructive. You can read about an important breakthrough here.  

Thursday, April 24, 2014

3 Days of Silence, Contemplation, and Journaling

Today I'm heading off on a new and different adventure. I'm not traveling all that far but I'm spending 3 days at a retreat where I will be in silence.

You read it right. Silence for 3 days while I journal, take nature walks, and meet with a spiritual adviser. The interest in doing this was sparked by an article I read several years ago about a monastery in east Tennessee that offered the same experience. After reading Eat Pray Love my curiosity about this practice was sparked again. So when a friend invited me to join her, I didn't hesitate. 

This also means a digital detox while I focus on just being and listening. Most of the world's major religions have some form of this idea, just as they do for fasting. There must be something to it. Check back on Monday when I'll be sharing the experience.

And if you are just checking back out of curiosity to see if I had to secretly chat someone up, or find a squirrel to tell a story to, that's okay too. I'll tell you the truth.

Until then, Shhh.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Bucket List Hack

When the movie came out the term "Bucket List" immediately made it's way into the American lexicon. Suddenly everyone has a list of things they want to accomplish and mark off before they kick the bucket. I actually had such a list written out about 15 years before the movie was released, but I think most everyone has a list of this sort, at least floating around in the back of their mind.

Here's the problem: Life isn't about scratching something off a list. In fact, the danger in seeing it that way is that the place, event, or activity may not be experienced to the fullest. Several years ago I took a trip and when I returned a friend asked it I had seen a couple of particular things. I hadn't, but I'd had a wonderful time and seen interesting different things that were enjoyable to me. Life is full of side streets and unexpected joys. It's best to stay open to those while you are on your quest. It's also full of detours and places you have arrived while the doors are locked. That's okay. Life may have unexpected treasures for you, you know nothing of.

Make sure your bucket has a hole in it. We want life to be full of exciting things. We want to sail around the world or write the great American novel. We see movies and read books about what other people are doing and we get a skewed view of our own lives. The better bucket list may include things like making little kids laugh, or volunteering at a local charity, or tutoring a struggling student. Sharing your experience and knowledge is a practical and rewarding thing to put on your list. Standing water stagnates. Keep what is in the bucket flowing in and out.

Today may have some things worth putting in the bucket. Life isn't actually made up of big moments. It mainly consists of millions of small ordinary moments, thousands of days, strung together to make a life. You don't want to spend so much time making, or dreaming about your list that you miss the simple joy of today.  When was the last time you visited a museum and sat in front of a work of art for half an hour contemplating it? You may want to add something like "See as many sunrises as possible." to your list. Too many people miss today searching for life's few big moments.

Keep filling the bucket. The thing about lists is, that we are eager to get to the end of them and feel a sense of accomplishment. As you learn and grow, the list will both shrink and expand. You may mark things off the list, not because you do them, but because you no longer need to do them. You may need to replace them with other more important or interesting things. Some of them may be released. Some of them may die. It's okay. Keep adding the new things you'd like to accomplish. Life, above everything else is a process.

Put "Keep moving forward." at the top of the list.  Here are some things that are on friends' lists: Travel to Italy, get a Ph.D., run a marathon, repair a broken relationship, write a book that will challenge status quo thinking. All of those goals have something in common. They cannot be accomplished standing still. Being a life long learner, getting and staying fit, and working on improving relationships are worthy of a spot on your list. The more you focus on forward momentum, the more you can tweak that list into something more meaningful than just a list of places to see and things to do.

A lot of things show up on these lists because of what everyone else thinks we should want to do. Your list will be unique and personal to you. It doesn't have to include skydiving or visiting the Taj Mahal. Think about what you really want to accomplish in life and let your list reflect that. Work toward making those things happen, but leave yourself lots of freedom to explore, wander, and dump out the bucket and start over. Just don't let it get rusty. You are only going this way once.

Monday, April 21, 2014

5 Reasons You Might Be Tired and Depressed

So you want to make a fresh start but you are constantly tired and just can't seem to get motivated? You need a good physical foundation to provide the energy and clear thinking you need to achieve success. Before you decide being your best self is unattainable see if any of these things could be undermining your best efforts.

1. An irregular sleep schedule. Sleep deprivation is used as a torture technique. So basically when you aren't taking care to get enough shut eye you are treating yourself like a POW. Of course you know staying up late and watching just one more episode of Walking Dead will make you feel like a zombie the next day but research shows you may also be making any depression you are suffering from, worse. Don't believe me? Read The Effects of Sleep Loss On Mood.

2.  Junk food and in particular: sugar.  And refined and processed. The Paleo people may be onto something. Try cleaning up your diet for a week and see if you don't feel better. Read more about it at You Beauty: Junk Fo0d Makes us Tired and Lazy. 

3.  Lack of exercise. Your body is made to move. A walk is a great way to improve your mood. Exercise releases endorphins that make you feel better. Research shows that just 5 minutes into exercise you get the mood enhancement effect.

4. Too much time indoors. Ever gone outside to get some fresh air after a stressful meeting? Turns out there is a reason you instinctively know to do that. Because up until the industrial revolution humans spent vast amounts of time outdoors. Something in our brains is hardwired to.  Studies show that just being in nature wards off exhaustion and improves mood. Read about what the University of Rochester learned about it in this Science Daily article.

5. The usual suspects. There may be a physical reason you could be depressed or lethargic. If you suspect there is something wrong see your doctor. All the evidence shows that a lack of social connection very unhealthy for our minds and bodies. You need to make time for socializing. Go ahead and call that friend for coffee! Toxic relationships. You may already know the underlying reason and just not be willing to deal with it yet. These plus any of the big life stressers like divorce, moving, or changing careers can be a source of feeling physically exhausted and/or sad. 

Fix the first 4 things on this list for a week or so, and then see how you feel. If you can't find the source of your lethargy, see your doctor.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Catching Swarms of Bees 2 Days in a Row

My bees swarmed. They are in my backyard in the garden. I can see them from my kitchen window so it's easy to keep an eye on things. Yesterday when I returned from the grocery my husband told me he'd been watching them while they collected on the outside of the hive. He described the air full of bees and the sound. He paid attention and watched  them cluster together in a tree over our patio.

15 feet up.

I called a friend, John, who had two of his hives disappear last year to see if he wanted to try to capture this swarm. No self respecting beekeeper would say no to a free swarm of bees.

I should mention that the whole point of this operation is to catch the queen and not to get every bee into the box. Capture the queen and you will soon have all her little minions. 

When John arrived he, my husband, and I assessed the situation. My husband climbed up on a ladder with a limb cutter at the end of a long pole, John climbed a ladder on the opposite side with a box to catch the swarm when it fell. I stood on the ground ready to dump the captured swarm into a hive body. I also imagined the unusual 911 call I could have to make. Two men on ladders. Sharp tools. A swarm of bees.




Close the box and wait to see if any bees hang around the entrance with their tails in the air, fanning their wings. This is to alert bees who didn't make it that Her Royal Majesty is inside. It means something completely different outside the door of a bar on a Friday night.

No fanning.

Time for round 2. If at first you don't succeed and all that. 

The plan was to execute a similar plan but this time I put a metal bucket at the end of a long pole, which John held directly under the swarm.



Bucket dumped into box.


You can't imagine how excited a bunch of beekeepers can get about some bees fanning at the entrance to a hive.

John left with about a hundred bucks worth of free bees and I was thinking I really needed to get into the blue hive the next day.

But I had to get my hair colored. While I was doing that my other hive swarmed. Can't a girl leave the house for 5 minutes? My husband had seen them swirling in the air over our garden but within 15 minutes they had completely disappeared.

You can't exactly make signs to put up around the neighborhood when you lose a swarm of bees. What would it say? "Lost. 10,000 stinging insects. Not particularly friendly. Answers to the name of..."

You see my point.

I came home and looked but didn't see them anywhere. I'm sure it makes my neighbors nervous when they see me out looking all over the property for something. I'm a lot of fun to live next door to.

Later as we were walking around the garden talking I noticed a few bees hovering around a branch of a cedar tree behind the garden shed. I walked closer. Here's what I saw about 7 feet off the ground.

 Need a closer look?

We formulated a plan that involved pulling the branch down so it was hanging directly over the hive body I'd set up. My husband's job was to cut the branch with a pole cutter when we both agreed we were ready. Luckily the branch was very pliable and I pulled it down to just over the hive body. It looked like they might drip like honey into the hive.

Pull. Gently. Gently...



Observe fanning at the entrance.

Feel awesome. 

 My husband, the accidental beekeeper. There's kind of an adrenaline rush to swarm catching, which is why he's posing.

There you have it. A brand new hive perfect for a colony of bees to start all over in. Even bees need a fresh start sometimes. You know how couples sometimes do those team building/communication exercises? Well my new bee wrangler said "Marriage building through beekeeping."

Hey, it could be a thing.

Click here to read an article from Psychology Today about why.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Life Lessons From a Scottish Shore

I was sharing the pictures from my recent cruise of the British Isles with my daughter when we came to this picture.

"Mom, you took a picture of rocks."

"Yes, but look at them; they were so beautiful."

They were less comfortable to walk on but infinitely more interesting to look at than sandy white beaches (Unless you are using a microscope, then each grain of sand is strikingly unique). When she left I looked at this picture again and wondered what it was that I found beautiful.

Ordinariness. There aren't any precious or rare gemstones here. No diamonds, pearls, or even semi-precious stones. But often the most beautiful things are less than perfectly polished. The same goes for people.

Brokenness. I'm sure the original shells, stones, and bottles and pottery were very nice things in and of themselves. But it was in the being broken that a new beauty was found. And while I'm sure that these fragments were useful in their original forms, they would not have been able to be combined together to form a very nice beach. A collection of empty bottles on a beach is called trash. But with the pressure and constant tumbling of the sea it is reduced and refined to something called beach glass, so beautiful that people collect it and make jewelry from it.

Individuality.  These rocks and shells, picked up and examined one at a time, have beauty of their own. Each one has its own unique history, it's own story of how it came to be the way it is. Every unique item could tell how it was crushed and worn over time through the experiences of its life to end up exactly as it is now. No two of those stories would be the same.

Combination and variety. The different colors, sizes, and shapes. The very different-ness of the stones, shells, and sea glass was what made the beach so eye catchingly stunning. It is seeing the pieces together contrasted against each other that emphasizes the beauty of each piece. I picked up a few bits from this beach and brought them home to place in a wooden bowl on my coffee table where they are combined with other things collected from my travels. The combination is beautiful in a different way. It is now contrived (by me) as opposed to the natural and random combination which was far more organic and aesthetically pleasing.

Setting. When I looked down and took this picture I was standing on a rocky coastline, under a grey sky, with an ancient little town in the distance. Where the rocks were, added to their beauty. The dampened light, the water, the mystery of the town added to the beauty of the stones were all elements that worked together to heighten the pleasure of the moment. The backdrop had its part to play.

How often is our appreciation for life a combination of the elements of the beauty I found on this beach?

As an art lover, often I would deem beautiful something skillfully arranged or assembled. Good room design or a beautiful work of art is contrived carefully to be aesthetically pleasing. It may be one reason we struggle with events in life or our relationships with others. We want a certain amount of order and control. But our control is limited, our knowledge finite, and our understanding of how things can be arranged for the most beautiful effect is warped by our love of the easy to grasp and our short term thinking. The complexity of randomness makes us feel small. But like the stones on this beach, life may be more beautiful because of our lack of power to arrange it as we see fit.

While we all avoid pain and brokenness with every bit of energy we have, we appreciate the beauty of it in light of context. The successes and triumphs are sweetened by it. How often have a person's actions made no sense to us until we heard more about their life. With context comes understanding.

We can control a lot. About our decisions, attitudes, and circumstances to a great extent. But we cannot, for all our planning, and thinking, and worrying make the life we want. Things happen. Good and bad will befall us and our attitude will play the biggest part in whether or not we learn and grow from those things. But instead of being filled with fear and distress about the uncontrollable, perhaps we should embrace the beautiful randomness that life sometimes sets before us.

Which stone has the more exciting life? The diamond in its perfect setting, under beautiful lighting, polished to perfection? Or these stones tossed about by wind and sea out in the unpredictable world of nature? It looks pretty exciting compared to a velvet box under a glass case. We so often choose the sheltered space, the safe bet, the comfortable and familiar. The beauty in the photo above is a result of the adventure each individual stone and shell has been on.