Sometimes I just don’t pay attention to what is really important. Instead I allow myself to be carried along by what strikes me at the moment. I suppose that is what happened when several months ago I agreed to attend a retreat called The Chemistry Of Connection at Garrison Institute in upstate New York. My colleague and I were familiar with two of the presenters, authors of books on mindfulness, so that meant it would probably be worthwhile. Also we were entranced by the description of the Institute – a former Capuchin monastery, overlooking the Hudson River. We skipped right over the part where the weekend was open to the general public, as well as the part where the other two speakers did not seem connected to mental health. After all, we could just skip their parts if we wanted to.
Once we realized we would need to fly into New York City we decided to stay there for a day and a half before taking the train to the Institute. Planning those days involved furiously comparing hotels and airline flights and scoping out museums. We were sure we needed to have a quality experience before we went on to whatever that thing was we had signed up for.
The next thing I knew I was in New York City, surrounded by the sensory overload of the crowds, the traffic and the trappings of the holidays. I quickly adapted to city mode; staring straight ahead, paying attention only to what I was doing. Our advance planning paid off, for we enjoyed the Met and a food tour at the Tenement Museum without mishap. True, out hotel was overbooked for the first night, causing us to have to go “up the block” to another hotel for the night, but we were handsomely upgraded on the second night. We left New York City feeling like royalty.
We disembarked from the train at the hamlet of Garrison, which seemed to consist of four buildings and a fierce wind blowing off the Hudson River. A fast phone call to the Institute informed us that it was lunch hour, so we would have to wait in the cold for twenty minutes…unless we could find some humans to let us into one of those buildings. We crossed over the heated railroad overpass, bent on survival, past a lone man with a backpack, to said buildings, where we were able to wheedle our way into an art gallery holiday sale. In due time, we crossed back across the tracks, past the backpack man, to wait for the shuttle.
To our surprise when the shuttle arrived, that same man climbed on the shuttle with us. The shuttle driver asked us what we were here for and we told her. She mentioned that our retreat would be featuring horses. HORSES?? I heard my colleague say “I didn’t know this was a horsey weekend!” What was this retreat about, anyway?
We drove up a winding driveway to the imposing brick monastery. Inside we checked in and were assigned rooms. I heard the backpack man say his name was Aaron Wolf. Wait a minute! Wasn’t that the name of one of the presenters? Quick – what had we said in the shuttle, and did it sound reasonably intelligent? In order to avoid further embarrassment we fled the reception area, barely registering the directive to report to the refectory at 5:00P.M. to be trained for the house jobs we had apparently signed up for.
We climbed the stairs to behold a long empty hallway of former monk cells. The clatter of our heels on the wide plank floor was the only sound. My cell was bathed in the weakening winter sunlight. I turned on the radiator and made the bed with crisp white sheets. This was to be my sanctuary for the next two nights. I longed to spend the whole weekend in this simple room, absorbing the peace and quiet and savoring each passing moment of the days.
But that was not to be, for I was at a retreat planned by someone else. Meaning I had not made the plan, and this made me uneasy, for I have not been able to entirely rid myself of the idea that I have control over things.
After some time on our own my colleague and I reported to the refectory for training. There we were treated to a thorough tour of the industrial kitchen, where it turned out that we would be doing the dishes for eighty people. And not only that, we were to eat quickly so as to report to kitchen in a timely manner. WHAT????!!! Wasn’t it bad enough that food was only available at certain times, but now when I did eat I would have to hurry? My neck muscles were clenched so tightly I’m surprised no one heard them squealing.
What to do? Embrace my control issues or move forward with as open a heart as possible? I decided upon the latter and found that the delicious and plentiful food left no room for a sense of deprivation. Many plates, cups, and glasses later I joined my co-retreatants in the meditation hall to hear Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and Tara Goleman, author of Emotional Alchemy and Mind Whisperer. Their reviews of neurobiology and the travails of the amygdala were good to hear. I could have used some help with my own amygdala that very day.
As I listened to the discussion it dawned on me that this was not a roomful of burned out therapists sitting silently diagnosing one another. In fact there were very few mental health people. Instead there were lawyers, teachers, pastors and non profit gurus, all interested in how to make better connections with others. It was heart warming to see such enthusiasm.
The next morning we met for some basic meditation and practice. Despite my having spent a lovely night in my austere cell, I was restless. I had had it in my mind that we would be given long periods of time for personal reflection, but instead we were to interact with one another. I have a hard time sitting still and had neglected to bring my knitting. I longed to take to the hiking paths on my own. But I stayed, either because of some inner strength or the desire not to call attention to myself by getting up and leaving. I’ll say it was a well of inner resolve.
That resolve was put to the test that afternoon when we met outside in the wind for a demonstration by a horse whisperer. His goal I believe was to reinforce the point that in order to have a true connection, both parties must feel safe and respected. I found I was mesmerized by R.J. the horse whisperer, whose gentle way of the horses conveyed such love and caring. He reminded us that it is better to lead by suggestion than to rely on intimidation.
Sitting on that cold bench, I had to be honest with myself. How many times did I enter a new situation fully convinced that I know the right thing to do and that others should just do as I say? Had I not come to this very retreat all tied up in my own agenda? This was certainly food for thought.
Our evening session was led by Dr. Aaron Wolf, the man I had been too self important to notice at the train station. Who knew that Dr. Wolf was a well known hydrologist and known internationally for helping mediate disputes over water rights? He was so kind that I cannot believe he held my snub against him; after all I had just come from the big city where we don’t approach strange men. Still… Anyway, in his dynamic way he showed his approach to conflict resolution: know your own process, and stop, breathe, and listen.
Suddenly it was Sunday morning, and time for the wrap up session. The chairs were arranged in a circle, to reinforce the equality among the participants. Every person was allowed to comment briefly or ask a question. I chose not to speak,because I tend to be long winded, but if I had I would have said how fortunate I felt to have stumbled upon this diverse group in such peaceful surroundings, and from such an apparently unlikely team of a husband and wife, a horse whisperer and a hydrologist to have learned such valuable lessons about how to respect myself and others. That I need to approach situations without my own agenda if I hope to make a true connection. That washing the dishes wan’t so bad. That though I had no idea what this weekend was supposed to be about, I had learned just what I was supposed to. Guess that’s what it was all about!