In June I packed a suitcase to spend a week in the desert, my meditation cushion and yoga mat taking up most of the space. I journeyed to Joshua Tree, California with about 50 other people for the inaugural Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Teacher Training through the University of California at San Diego’s Center for Mindfulness.
I looked forward to the training for months, counting down the date in my journal. As a long time meditator and yoga teacher, I was excited to expand my experience of mindfulness and pick up the tools to begin teaching MBSR. In preparation, I intensified my mindfulness practice, almost as if I was cramming for an exam. With a curious awareness I observed myself practically swallowing the required reading. I was certainly in a hurry to learn this mindfulness stuff!
As I set off I said a little prayer to myself, that I remain open to whatever the training would bring and meet it with simple awareness. Retreats and group trainings can be intense and life-changing, and I felt some fear of the unknown as I drove off into the desert.
The first hour into the trip I had an ache in my chest. I was already missing my loved ones and feeling homesick. I couldn’t wait to go to the training and now I felt reluctant. Being in between, in the present, was difficult.
The first night we gathered for a lavish dinner, prepared by our own chef who would nourish us all week. We chatted at group tables like the first day of school, with all the excitement and trepidation of what was to come. People had traveled from all over the world and came from different backgrounds, but all had a desire to share mindfulness. Every conversation was inspiring.
The first night we simply sat. There were no student introductions. The teachers, Susan Woods and Char Wilkins, never wrote on the white board. No syllabus was handed out. We simply practiced sitting. That night I felt resistant. I can meditate at home, I thought. I didn’t like the desert. I didn’t like the bed. I didn’t like not having agenda. I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to go home.
The second day we also sat. A lot. I tried to remember my intention to be open to the experience. I also wondered when I was going to get my toolkit. My mind was hungry for the didactic side of learning, the ‘meat’ as I called it. Little did I realize I was already chewing on it. My back hurt from sitting longer than I was used to. But still we sat, extending our practice to remaining silent during our breaks.
By the third day the group was growing restless, everyone wondering how much longer we had to sit, and when we were going to actually talk about teaching this stuff. I felt like I was at meditation boot camp, sleep deprived and frustrated by my own inner blocks, but soldiering on, sitting on my cushion. Meeting my own resistance with my breath.
Then we began to explore the eight-week curriculum in detail, interspersed with practice. We practiced sitting and walking meditation. We worked in pairs with the body scan, and experienced facilitating the group in mindful inquiry. We dipped in and out of experiencing and teaching, which helped to ground us in mindfulness itself.
I began to realize that maybe my toolkit was within. My own practice was going to be the foundation of this work. I wasn’t going to pick up a kit and run; I was going to have to embody the teaching myself. But if I got stuck, all I had to do was take a breath. The practice and the teaching were interwoven like a net, one I could safely relax into.
On the final morning we gathered for a beautiful ritual led by Susan and Char. Sitting in a circle we passed a ball of yarn, each person taking saying a word about what was happening in the present moment. Taking hold of a length of string, they passed the ball on to the next person. Observing the growing web of connection between us all, I chose the word “unity”. Some people cried. We hugged and held hands. We had climbed a little bit of the mountain together.
Then we passed the scissors, a symbol of impermanence, and cut apart our united web, each person taking a section of yarn as a reminder of their experience as we dispersed around the globe to continue our inner and outer practice of this work. I went home, put my notes in a drawer, and sat on my cushion, ready to begin using my toolkit within.