Top Ten Lessons From My Memorial Day Retreat

I just returned from a three day retreat with Krishna Das at Satchindananda Ashram in Virginia. While I was there, I meditated for hours in a beautiful temple for all faiths called the Light of Truth Universal Lotus Shrine. I listened to and read spiritual teachings from many different sources, and Krishna Das offered his words of wisdom. We all did a lot of meditative singing - chanting - as well. Overall it was an inspiring weekend.

When I attend these sorts of retreats, I come away inspired, with lots of life lessons and clarity. I thought I'd share my top ten lessons learned or realized this weekend.

1. Let it go.  We all worry too much, we do too much, we think too much. This not only causes stress and robs us of our joy, but it also separates us further from our source, the light, the peace that is within us all. We need to stop expecting things to be perfect and battling ourselves and those around us when they aren't. Krishna Das said, "You can't save the whole world, so save yourself... Then do what you can to help others around you." The key here is practicing letting go of our ideas about how things "should" be. And start accepting "what is." If you can do that, you will begin to feel okay ... eventually, you might even feel joy. 


2. We are already whole. A person or an object cannot "fill our void." Again and again I heard this message in different ways over the weekend. We often expect our spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, children, parents, homes, cars, jewelry, clothes and more ... to "give us" that indefinable thing ... a feeling, a sense of security, wholeness or happiness. But the truth is, we are already whole. We were born with an innate sense of joy and well-being. Life's trials sometimes make us forget. We lose our joy and are looking for it outside of ourselves. Look within. It is there! Try to reconnect with your inner joy. Meditate a few minutes a day, perhaps thinking of the joy on a baby's or child's face. Visualize yourself filled with light. This is within you and you can access it any time you try.


3. We can access light and joy anytime (continuing along the lines of number 2). Life offers us challenges. Bad things happen. It is okay to feel sadness and frustration. That is part of our human experience. But when you feel like you're drowning, know somewhere deep inside that you have the power to lift yourself up and see a different perspective. The joy that you were born with is there for a reason. That spontaneous feeling of happiness that sometimes comes over you, even when your life isn't perfect ... you can learn to find it again and again. Challenges and obstacles aren't there to bring you down or make you depressed. They are there to teach you. What a blessing to have the opportunity to learn and grow around every corner. Isn't that what life is about? If you can access your sense of peace amidst difficulty then you can feel joy regardless of your circumstances. The Dalai Lama, when asked if he is happy, always says a resounding yes - despite the fact that he became a leader at a very young age, was forced into exile and watched as his people were slaughtered by Chinese troops. He has not had an easy life, but he chooses to not let it wear on him or make him bitter. He chooses to be happy. I believe we can do this too. It's not easy and we're not perfect, but we can try!


4. All things change. Change is inevitable. Our children do not stay babies forever. In nature, the seasons change, and even each winter is unlike another. Everything changes. We experience suffering and sadness when we expect things to stay the same. Why do we do this? If we can accept that things are changing within us and all around us in every moment, think of how much easier it would be to find joy and happiness. When you are sad or upset or frustrated, consider, is it because you expected things to be the same ... and something has changed? This is life on our earth. All things change. The more we can learn to accept change, the happier we will be.


5. Nothing dies. It just changes form. In listening to a recorded lecture from Swami Satchindananda, I was inspired when he said this. "A tree is a tree ... until someone cuts it down and makes it into a table. It is still wood, still the tree, just in different form. Then if the table breaks, it becomes firewood, but still the tree, in a sense. Even when it is burned, its essence doesn't disappear, but it turns to ash. Simply another form of the tree." Of course he related this to people, that our essence is the same, but our bodies change, from babies to children, to adults, to elderly people. This is our bodies experiencing change. We are the same on the inside, our essence is the same when we are a young person as when we are old. I can also relate this to other things in life ... When a marriage ends, for instance ... it is simply a relationship changing form. It is not a death, but rather a change, from a love of one kind, to a love of another. Think about this when experiencing any change in your life, be it divorce, career change, or death of a loved one. Rumi says, "Do not grieve, everything you lose comes around in another form." I am beginning to see and believe this. 


6. Give without expecting anything in return. And you will be given a great gift when you do this. How can we live a happy, fulfilled life? The message I hear again and again from so many sources is to give. First we must learn to give to ourselves ... to fill ourselves up with love, to accept ourselves, be gentle on ourselves. Once you can begin to do that, you can share your compassion with others. This can be very simple, something small like smiling and saying good morning to everyone you meet. You will be affecting so many people if you can do this. The happy side effect is that when you share something as simple as a smile, your own happiness grows. It feels good to give and share. So don't think in terms of large gestures or time or money when we discuss "giving." Start with the people closest to you. Offer them your pure warmth, a smile, kindness, a listening ear. See what happens.


7. Be careful with your words. Most religions teach the importance of telling the truth. Satya in yoga is truth. But is is crucial to combine the truth with Ahimsa - in yoga this means compassion or non-harming. While honesty is important, consider how your message will be received, consider the timing, and carefully consider your words. I have always strived to be an honest person, and this weekend, while sitting at lunch listening to a reading from the swami, I was blown away by the realization that telling the truth is NOT about me. It should be done in consideration of the other person. Are they ready to hear what you have to say? How can you phrase it most compassionately? While there are two parts to communication, the giver and the receiver, and much has to do with the interpretation of the receiver, their world view, their state of mind, their emotional triggers, etc. ... the giver needs to try his or her best to consider these things before offering words. Words can inspire people or do incredible harm. Choose yours carefully. I know this is something I will continue to work on.


8. Don't think too much or over analyze. This usually brings us into a fearful or judgmental state. Our fear limits and shadows us. Instead, learn to recognize your fear as simply ... a reaction ... not truth, not something to necessarily analyze ... We return to number 1, Let it go. We often whine to ourselves or others, "why me?" Why did this happen to me or my family or my friend. We might spend hours thinking about it, analyzing the why's and how's. The answer of how to get through it is usually simple. It doesn't matter why or how you got into your circumstances. The point is, you're there. Try to muster the best version of yourself to work through it, letting go of fear along the way. We are presented with challenges in life to learn from them, to grow. Everyone's life has both happiness and sadness, good times and bad. Our goal should be to move through with equanimity. One of my favorite quotes by the Buddha, "Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind. To be happy, rest like a giant tree in the midst of them all." Or as Krishna Das said, "Stuff happens. Let it go and move on. Your stuff isn't who you are."


9. Be strong and light. Swami Satchindananda wrote, "if you walk into a room where 15 people are crying, and you start crying too, you're only adding to the misery. Do something else instead. Be compassionate, help lift them up." This refers back to both number 3, we can access light and joy anytime, and number 6, give without expecting anything in return. I believe we are here to help and support each other in life. So whenever you see someone struggling, do your best to be strong and supportive and joyful, even if you're not feeling strong or joyful yourself. Fake it till you make it. The funny thing is, the more you "pretend" or imagine that you are strong and peaceful, the more you actually become those things.


10. A friend recently reminded of the simple inspiration of the Serenity Prayer. It sums up my lessons learned from this weekend, plus I added my own spin to the end. This certainly describes my intentions as I journey through this life. I hope you are inspired too.

May I have the Strength to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, Wisdom to know the difference, and an Open Heart to Illuminate my path.


Peace, Love and Light to each of you! Thank you for reading!

~ Joni