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Living This Life Fully

New Year's Gifts

I’m always grateful to be gifted with a New Year. Although I don’t party on New Year’s Eve (I don’t like to be out and about when there’s a lot of guzzling going on), each New Year’s Day has been special in its own way. During some years, my husband and I have gone with friends to watch annual bird migrations at a variety of locations. We've marveled at the dance of sandhill cranes in agricultural fields or walked through wildlife refuges where I could feel the air vibrating as thousands of birds beat their wings and formed dark clouds in a sunny sky. On other occasions, on my own in foreign countries, I've experienced vibrations of a different nature.

I vividly remember the New Year’s Day on which I recognized my life would never be the same.

In 1981, I left Napa Valley for Asia to do cross-cultural research on healing arts [some of which later appeared in my book Discovering the Body’s Wisdom]. A local friend had suggested that, once in India, I should undertake a meditation retreat. “It will help you adjust to a whole other approach to time and space,” she said. So, after Hong Kong, Thailand, and Nepal, I went overland through India, eventually finding my way to a retreat center in the state of Maharashtra.

Although I briefly made an effort at Zen meditation while living in Santa Cruz, CA, in the late 1970s, I had not yet tried vipassana (insight meditation) and, thus, had no idea what I was getting myself into. I committed to stay for the duration of the retreat, a total of ten days, and followed instructions about sitting, eating, sleeping, bathing, etc. in the still-under-construction facility. The amenities, then, were scant at best. The schedule was rigorous and the discipline exacting. Had I known how challenging it would be, I don’t know whether I would have gone, but I’ve never ever regretted it. On the contrary, those ten days were truly incroyable. And for her recommendation to jump into it, I am forever indebted to this friend.

Practicing this kind of meditation was a revelation to me. Yes, it facilitated in-sight, that is, seeing into the nature of mind and body, but it also surprised me with out-sight. One time, after leaving the meditation hall and walking over to the outdoor laundry area, I noticed a butterfly on a lantana bush. I realized I was in an altered state--on no drugs--and enjoying 3-D vision: the butterfly and flowers so bright and saturated with color, every detail standing out so clearly and thoroughly engaging my rapt attention. Maybe this is what Munindra meant when he said, “I practice meditation to notice the small purple flowers growing by the roadside, which I otherwise might miss.”

At the end of the retreat, on New Year’s Day, we came outside after our first meditation of the morning and watched the lightening sky, waiting for the sun to rise. I stood there, feeling the many kinds of sensations vibrating through my body, including my eyes, where tears began to pool. I was overwhelmed with gratitude not only for the gift of a new year of life, but for something I could never have anticipated on my trip through Asia.

I had come to do research for a book, not to pick up a meditation practice or spiritual path. I had long ago turned away from anything that smacked of religion. Yet, I knew, as surely as I knew my name and my date of birth, that what I had “chanced upon” would be with me for the rest of my life.

Tears of gratitude to the Buddha and all those who have carried forth his teaching through the millennia; to the teacher and his staff and volunteers who provided the necessities for the retreat; and to the various forces in the universe that made it possible for me to come to this experience.

The teacher at this retreat, the one who had started the center, Dhamma Giri, was S. N. Goenka. I had not yet met Munindra, so I had no idea that they’d been dharma brothers ever since their first encounter in Burma, where Munindra arrived in 1957. How could I have ever known on that New Year’s Day that, within a few years, I would meet him at my dharma sister’s house on Maui? How could I have ever known that eventually I would spend six years working on a book about Munindra and how beautifully he shared the Dharma?

When each new year arrives with such treasured surprises, how can I not greet it with great gratitude?

May your heart and mind experience peace and joy in 2011.
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