"What Nourishes You?" My Time At Upaya Zen Center

Hello dear friends!

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For those of you that follow me on Facebook and Instagram, you already know that I recently had the privilege of attending a weekend retreat at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe. I had been following this place for a couple of years, and as soon as I saw the title of the weekend session, I just knew I had to get there. Finding Calm, Clarity, and Compassion in the Storm of Illness: Transforming Pain, Fear and Loss- sounds pretty darn perfect for me, doesn’t it? Probably is right up the alley for many of you as well.

So many of my friends and family have asked me about my time there, and I can only really sum it up on one word:

Magic.

As in, I came and experienced, and while it didn’t really feel like I was doing much, something powerful shifted in me that cannot be explained by a simple retreat schedule or a group activity exercise. I only spent 48 hours there, and yet I feel like it has become another home, and some of the people there feel like a long-lost family.

I arrived expecting a lot of sharing, of group interaction, of digging deep into our fears and pains, and instead, encountered something quite different. The incredibly experienced and compassionate facilitators, Susan Bauer-Wu and Mary Taylor, wanted to create something far beyond a typical “support group”, and worked to create a mindful spaciousness where we could tap into our true selves- the one hiding beneath all the layers of pain, illness, and loss. And while this structure didn’t allow for much conversation with others, it fostered some seriously deep conversation with ourselves, with nature, and with the Divine (whatever you choose to call it). 

There is something so incredible about just being on the Upaya grounds, it’s hard to explain how the land and the air sink and settle into your body. The energy is so calm and simple and grounding, like a still pool of water that effortlessly buoys your limbs and laps at your skin until the stress is washed away. Darn, that almost sounded poetic, didn’t it? It’s the Santa Fe air, I suppose.

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We explored a few themes during our brief time together, and they all focused on bringing our awareness to the positive and alive parts of our being. As chronically ill people (or people who care for them), we can often feel beaten down, broken, and battered, like there’s really nothing positive or joyful about our situations. It’s tempting to stay stuck in that swirling spiral of negativity- I’ll raise my hand and be the first to admit that the vortex of depression and anxiety has clouded my mind for a long time. My thoughts can race and my fears have the power to overwhelm, so it was a nice change of pace to consider all the things that are still alive within me.

Both as a group and off on our own, we were encouraged to think about things that nourish us, bring us joy, and what still creates a spark deep within. And in working with the physical body, paying attention to all the places that don’t hurt, instead of zeroing in on everything that does. If you’ve ever done a full body scan practice, you’ll know what I’m talking about here, and no matter how many times I’ve done it myself, it was helpful to be reminded to stay open and curious about the shifting sensations, many of them neutral or even positive.

We also spent some time in small groups or as pairs, delving into the art of being fully present, which is something that I think we all could use a little practice at. I know that even though I consider myself a good listener, I tend to get caught up in my own train of thought and how I will respond to whatever is being said. This is especially pronounced because I’m a super duper introvert, and tend to have anxiety around speaking to people and over plan what I say…but it was good to have the reminder to just be and just listen. Without judgment, without formulating a response, without injecting my own opinions, and certainly without falling into the “fixer” role. Several of us admitted to being “fixers”, and especially myself, with my health science background and my goal of going into a career focused on healing those with chronic and invisible illnesses, found it hard not to do that last one! So that was a subtle but very important mindful exercise, in holding space for the wonderful people I got to talk to (hi friends!), and for tuning into my own habitual thought patterns.

Honestly, the whole retreat was a pleasant surprise and gave me an experience that I certainly didn’t imagine…but one that was even better. I got to greet the day up in the gorgeous loft (that I incidentally had all to myself- woohoo!) as the sun broke through the stained glass window, and look out over the labyrinth as I got dressed. Our meals always began in silence, following a group blessing, and were incredibly delicious every time. I have to say, the residents and staff at Upaya work very hard to provide amazing food and a hospitable atmosphere, and I send them all so much gratitude for that.

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Between retreat sessions we had the opportunity to rest, wander the canyon, or participate in work practice (known as samu). I opted to pitch in on Saturday morning, and volunteered to work on the grounds along with a few others- it was a gorgeous morning and I don’t get outside enough these days, so it was a perfect fit. I donned my hat and worked quietly in the garden, harvesting beans, and taking in all the little details of nature including lots of very interesting-looking bugs. It was awesome to feel useful, to feel connected to this place, and to feel like I was contributing something out of pure loving kindness. Upaya peeps, if you’re reading this, you can put me on garden duty any day!

Evenings consisted of zazen, or sitting meditation, in the beautifully minimalist zendo, followed by dinner and a retreat gathering. And the best part is, we wrapped up by a reasonable hour, and for those of you who know me, know that I love going to bed early, so that was a plus. On Saturday evening, we got to enjoy a special treat from a local musician who volunteered her time and talents for us. It was hard not to fall a little bit in love with Vanessa Torres, when I got to witness what an incredible gift she’s been given, which she so freely shared with our group. To say that my heart chakra was wide open that night would be an understatement, and it was definitely one of the highlights of my weekend. Perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to hear her play again, but for now I’ve got her music on my iPod…

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All in all, this retreat was exactly what I was craving and needing in my life right now. It fulfilled my bit of wanderlust and yearning for the warm simplicity of the Southwest, and provided a completely safe space for me to explore and connect to people I had something deeply in common with. I will never forget my time here, and I know it won’t be the last one I go to at Upaya. Heck, I may even go and live there one day. I don’t get to attend retreats often, but I’m so glad I saved up my pennies for this one! And yes, they will be hosting the “same” retreat next September, so put it on your calendars, people!

So, while we’re here, tell me about the best retreat you’ve ever been on! Let’s swap stories!

And as always, my lovelies…

~ Hoping you feel as well as possible ~