A retreat experience at Shambhala Mountain Center
by: Tricia Cominsky
The magic of being in retreat is ineffable. Knowing this to be true, I’m still inspired to attempt to capture the feeling and experience with the written word. Perhaps it’s the mystery of what possible causes and conditions create the circumstances for twenty-eight strangers to show up on the same day, at the same time in a mountain retreat setting at 8,000 feet, the week before Christmas. That alone strikes me as curiously miraculous.
Shambhala Mountain Center is an hour’s drive from Fort Collins, Colorado; two hours from the Denver International Airport. It’s not easy to find, especially during winter when daylight leaves us at four-thirty in the afternoon. Yet we all made the trek. We arrived from Manhattan, Chicago, Boulder, Santa Fe, Cleveland, and elsewhere. Those who live and work at SMC and chose to participate in The Art of Meditation retreat had only to walk from their cabins or lodge rooms to the Ridgen Shrine Room, where we all gathered on December 19th to begin our weeklong retreat together.
Our retreat leader was Loden Nyima, a fully ordained Buddhist monk, and SMC’s resident teacher. We were invited to share our inspiration for attending The Art of Meditation with the entire group. Some shared that they were looking to deepen an already existing meditation practice, others had never meditated before. Some were hoping for rejuvenation and rest from the weariness of our current hectic lives, some were simply getting away from family holiday traditions. Many of us expressed the desire to come home to ourselves. Loden warmly welcomed each of us, introduced the support staff for the retreat, shared a bit of his intention, and some simple guidelines for the week. He encouraged us to listen to our own intuition and wisdom as we practiced. We parted ways for the night and looked forward to beginning the next day with meditation instruction at 9 a.m., following breakfast.
The anxiety that exists surrounding food during retreats merits attention. My mind had begun worrying and wondering about what kind of gluten-free and vegetarian options would be available. Arriving in the dining room the next morning, any concern I had had diminished. We were greeted with abundance: fresh fruit, greek yogurt, coconut creamer, oat milk, half & half, orange juice, a tofu scramble with turmeric, cumin, black beans and freshly harvested chard from the SMC greenhouse, eggs scrambled with caramelized onions, spinach and mushrooms. Hash browns were perfectly cooked. Gluten-free and regular bread options for toasting, cheerios, and lucky charms. A wide variety of tea and freshly brewed coffee. Wow..and the food just kept getting better. We were nourished and nurtured by the SMC kitchen crew three times a day. One neurosis down, thousands to go.
We made our way from the dining hall to the Ridgen Lodge for our 9 a.m. start. It was a gloriously sunny day. The winds were slight, clouds were non-existent. Colorado winter blue skies are a gift to behold. Marpa Point, the highest peak on the 600-acre campus, rested in tranquil silence awaiting imitation. We did our best to settle into our spots, adjusted meditation cushions, wriggled back and forth trying to find our seat. Loden arrived and again warmly welcomed us. He provided basic Shamatha (“peaceful abiding”) meditation instruction, which he explained has been practiced for several thousand years in mountain valleys similar to the environs of SMC. He answered inquiries from the group and suggested that we dive right into practice. Some of us moved outside to the porch area of the lodge, facing Marpa Point and the Kyudo Range. Some stayed indoors. Loden struck the meditation gong and we sat for about thirty minutes. After that period, Loden rang the gong once more and invited us to practice walking meditation. After some initial instruction on the placement of hands and where to focus our sight and attention, we began this practice as well. We were off and on our way into a week-long retreat practicing The Art of Meditation.
I chose to meditate outdoors the first day. Enjoying the crispness of the December air and sunshine, the mind began to settle. Earth below me and sky above, the breath slowed and I began to feel the stillness I so desperately craved. Sensing the energy of the other meditators, our community began to take shape. It started with small gestures of kindness: a door held open, someone pausing to allow a fellow meditator to enter the circle of walking meditation, the upturn and crinkle of the eyes as you sensed a smile underneath the mask. Meditation during a pandemic takes on a whole new experience. My eyeglasses would occasionally fog up from my breath, then the fog would disappear. It was a consistent reminder of the impermanence of my breath, my existence, shown clearly in that breath fog on the glasses. Here now, not here now.
Next to the shrine room, we had access to a small dining area where we could fill our water bottles and fix a cup of hot tea. On the second day of retreat, I noticed that a fellow retreatant had placed a box of snacks near our tea selection. The word “offered” was written on the top of the box to indicate the intention of sharing. That seemingly was the crest of the domino effect of open caring, sharing, and vulnerability. Later that day, a bag of mixed nuts was placed beside the box of snacks. The following day, a pint of organic blueberries with a serving spoon joined the small shared buffet. The message expressed from these offerings was clear: ”I’d like to be your friend. I want to share with you. I see you and I care about your well-being. I originally brought these treats for me, and now would like to share them, with all of you.” It was as touching a gesture as any I’ve experienced.
One-on-one meditation meetings with Loden were offered and attended. Practitioners could pose questions about their practice, their posture, whatever was on their minds. Guidance in the form of experiential exercises was offered. We learned how to work with differing episodes of laxity and elation during our meditation. Clues were provided on how to sense when changes in our posture affected the breath and enhanced discursiveness of the mind. We began to spend the morning practice periods in silence. A simple yoga routine was offered twice daily, enabling us to care for the body as it supported our practice.
A gathering was held on Wednesday evening for those who choose to learn and share about their experiences in recovery from addiction, alcoholism, and any of the other “isms” we had worked with during our lives. A dozen of us attended and shared from the heart in a safe and confidential setting. Vulnerability led to strength and resiliency. Our small community grew stronger. We cared about one another and we showed it. We went on hikes during our rest periods. We became interwoven in the larger tapestry of the SMC community through washing dishes, pots and pans after each meal. We maintained the spaces that we shared. We laughed together, telling stories and wiping tears. We were learning how to befriend ourselves and one another. We were coming home.
On Thursday, we entered a period of silence for thirty-six hours. The stillness was transformative. We went deep fast. The sonorous gong at the beginning and end of our practice periods was resonant, and embracing. The wind howled and the temperature dropped. Some of us remained sitting outdoors, wrapped in blankets, watching the tall grasses move with the wind-wolves, swaying in two directions simultaneously, much like the mind in its discursiveness. Tears came, salt stung and stained the cheeks. Some giggled, some only looked downward. Throughout all of this, the energy in the room was supportive and kind. There was a warmth and calmness available to all who needed to feel the embrace of care and community. We were in it together. If someone forgot about the silence or the use of masks, we gently and kindly reminded one another. The feeling of love was palpable.
At noon on Friday, which happened to be Christmas Eve, our time in silence ended. Some of us began to talk. Some remained in silence. There was a perceived gentleness in returning to speaking. We had been through powerful individual experiences as a collective. No words could express what had happened, but indeed, something had happened. Later in the day, additional meditation meetings with Loden were offered. Space was created to discuss the questions that arose during our time in silence. Our final day of practice was approaching. A sadness co-emerged with joy. Much like a youthful summer vacation, I didn’t want our time in retreat to end. Small delicate snowflakes began to fall.
We returned to silence on Saturday morning. After lunch, we began our closing circle. Words of appreciation and encouragement were shared. Concerns about returning to our families and lives were expressed. Tears were shed, and laughter spontaneously erupted. One practitioner suggested that she would “gather the sweet spots of our time together into a mala to take with her”. As Loden brought our time in retreat to its conclusion, he expressed that the preciousness of what we had created together never grows old. That the human-to-human contact we experienced is the gift that we take with us as we leave the retreat, reenter our lives, and share with those that we know and love. The ripple effect of our meditation practice would be felt by those in our circles.
On Saturday evening, the SMC chefs prepared a delicious and abundant feast. We decorated the dining room in an uplifted manner to mark the occasion. Stories were shared, contact information was exchanged and new arrivals joined the SMC community. After dinner, our group moved to another room for a celebration where we could offer our experiences as gifts to one another. Some of us shared poetry we had composed during the retreat, some expressed our love and study of dance and play, and some invited each of us to take our place in the dance. We rejoiced as a community and celebrated our good fortune of having chosen to spend the week practicing, learning, and experiencing coming home to ourselves through the practice of meditation. A community of practitioners has formed and will continue to practice together, remotely and hopefully as a collective in the coming months and years.
May it be so and may this telling be of benefit.
Upcoming Art of Meditation Retreats with Loden Nyima
About the Author: Tricia Cominsky
Tricia has worked at Shambhala Mountain Center since 2017. She has been a student of the Dharma and meditation for the last decade. The path of recovery from addiction spans the last fourteen years for Tricia; her life’s work and calling is being there for others who need and want help. She traversed a variety of professional experiences from being a leader in the hospitality community in Washington DC to raising funds and awareness for no-kill animal shelters in Denver, Colorado. She deeply loves her nieces, nephews, and family and aspires to be an example of basic goodness for them and for all. As a meditation instructor, creative, and caring human, her work with those who surf the waves of behavioral and mental health challenges is a source of joy, opportunity, and giving back in the most personal way. She believes in love, the energy of goodness, and the ultimate Bodhisattva – Mother Nature.