Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Red Feather Lakes Colorado: A Reader's Search for a Place to Sit

You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day. This is a power you can cultivate. If you want to control things in your life so bad, work on the mind. That's the only thing you should be trying to control.”― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Meditation has long been an interest of mine. My first real study of meditation began when I started my first BA at the University of Colorado. During my twelve years in Boulder I became quite accustomed to walking over to CU’s main library and picking a subject at random and reading my way through the shelf. It was earlier on when I discovered the vast section on religion and became quite fond of the “Buddhism” shelf. What held me captivated was the works on meditation. In 1996 I read a book called “Walking on Lotus Flowers: Buddhist Women Living, Loving and Meditating” which was a collection of stories from Buddhist women. One story stood out to me and even to this day I still reference it. A woman lived in a cave and was alone with herself and her meditation practice. After reading the book I always questioned myself and if I was strong enough to be able to sit with myself and only myself for any period of time. I was sure that not being around people would not be very difficult but the books, I was desperately afraid that without books I might just go insane. So from the day I read “Walking On Lotus Flowers” I have always kept it somewhere in the back of my mind that I wanted more from my meditation that I wanted to someday sit in a cave and see what I could discover about myself.

It was not until many books and years later that I actually embarked on a mini self-exploration retreat. In September of 2007 I took my first meditation related Reader’s Vacation.

What to read:
Determining what to read on this reader’s vacation was perhaps the hardest part. As I mentioned there are so many books to choose from but a real reader’s vacation is all about immersing yourself in a book and the place around you so you do not want to have too many (no more than two or three books at a time is my preference). Finally I narrowed down my reading choices based on the following:
• Meditation experiences from real people
• Meditation experiences that involved travel
• Meditation experiences… not a how to meditate guide

Based on my very broad guidelines I choose the following book:
Eat, Pray, LoveEat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
In the book Eat, Pray, Love Elizabeth Gilbert chronicles her journey to find herself after a long divorce. She decided to take a year and spent it in three different places for three different purposes. The book is divided into three books. In Book I Gilbert describes her time in Italy for which she hoped to speak Italian and eat Italian food. In book two Gilbert travels to India to pray at an ashram. In book three Gilbert would return to Indonesia where at first she had no plans what she would do during her stay but a palm reader 2 years before told her she would be back and would stay with him, so in the attempt to experience something different she went on a whim hoping he would remember her. [Read the rest of my review on Goodreads]

Where to go:
“We search for happiness everywhere, but we are like Tolstoy's fabled beggar who spent his life sitting on a pot of gold, under him the whole time. Your treasure--your perfection--is within you already. But to claim it, you must leave the buy commotion of the mind and abandon the desires of the ego and enter into the silence of the heart.”― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

The possibilities are endless here and the time you will need to perform such a vacation could be a weekend, a week, a year or a lifetime. My Reader’s Vacation took me to the mountains of Colorado over a weekend to a little place called Red Feather Lakes Colorado. Unlike Gilbert I did not feel the need to travel all over the world to find myself. I was positive that I was somewhere in the mountains of Colorado. One day while I was pursuing the free newspaper stands in Boulder I discovered a course curriculum for meditation courses at the Shambhala Mountain Center. There was an advertisement for a free Labor Day weekend retreat. As fate would have it Labor Day was that weekend and we did not have any other plans.

The Great Stupa at the Shambahala Mountain Center

Red Feather Lakes Colorado is the home to the Shambhala Mountain Center. While it is not an ashram in India it is a place where you can escape the busy world around you and live for a weekend or longer in a community that meditates, does yoga and together everyone takes care of their surroundings. We spent a weekend at Shambhala and participated in the free workshops their offered during a Labor Day Weekend event. From yoga to Zen poetry we tried everything they had to offer but what stood out to me was the Great Stupa where we could meditate at any time of day. Although it was just a weekend that I sat in the Stupa the experience stood with me to this day. I would sit for hours in front of the large Buddha and just sit. Then we would walk the trails around the Shambhala Mountain Center and listen to the world around us. At meal times we joined the others in the center and ate food that was grown and prepared right there just hours before we were to eat it. All my senses were stimulated while at the same time being relaxed. Just like Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love I had an awakening while in meditation. My life did not change dramatically in that moment but that Reader’s Vacation profoundly changed my life and led to an even longer Yoga Reader’s Vacation four years later.

The Buddha inside the Great Stupa
What to Do and See:
When traveling to Red Feather Lakes Colorado of course you will want to see the Shambhala Mountain Center. Depending on the time of year there are workshops for just about everything. Personally I recommend traveling there sometime in June- August. During those months the weather is absolutely perfect for hiking and outdoor yoga and meditation. Besides participating in the workshops make sure you allot plenty of time to tour and meditate in the Great Stupa. It is North America’s largest Stupa at 108 feet and represents the aspiration for peace, harmony and equanimity for all. Also the area is literally a national forest with tons and tons of hiking trails, lakes and quite little place to sit with your thoughts. Although there are little places to eat when you head into the towns nearby I highly suggest you eat at least one meal at the Shambhala Mountain Center. The last time we were there they green their own veggies and prepared the meals fresh each meal. They ask for money or work donations for the meals.

How much it will cost:
This varies on what you want to do at Shambhala and how long you want to stay. If you just want to go to the Great Stupa for a day and look through the meditation books they have right there in the Stupa it is free (donations are of course always encouraged). If you want to participate in workshops for a weekend the prices range from $300-1000 depending on lodging needs and the workshop. Just a note, there are scholarships available and I met many people who were working to pay off their stay so do not let price deter you from taking the journey if you really want to.

When to Go:
As I mentioned earlier summer months are really a fantastic time to be in the Colorado Mountains (June- August) but the center is open all year long so any time you can fit in should work. Just be sure to pack season appropriate.

More Information:
More information about Shambhala Mountain Center:
More information about Walking on Lotus Flowers:
More information about meditation:
More information about Eat, Pray, Love:
More information about Elizabeth Gilbert:

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Monday, January 02, 2012

Meditation Tools

Originally uploaded by rmhealing
The student of meditation may find themselves at times overwhelmed with the various “tools” that are out there designed to guide or assist the student in meditation. I know when I was a beginning student I spent a great deal of time exploring what I thought I needed to “sit” and tried many things to help with my concentration. Now after years of trying out the various meditation tools I have come to a point where I simply need a comfortable place to sit, a recording of a singing bowl and a “zen” alarm to signal the end of my session. However, since that was not always the case I have decided to put together a post detailing some of the common tools out there for meditation and how they are used.

Zafu Meditation Cushion: Since many traditional forms of meditation are done sitting one of the most basic tools a student will need is something to sit on. Commonly you will find people using a Zafu (a little round pillow on which to sit) but there are so many different types of instruments out there designed to make you sit tall yet comfortably for your meditation session. From chairs to stools you will find it all and there is no right or wrong tool. It all depends on what you want to sit on. In truth, while your comfort in sitting is the most important step to begin your practice most likely you could find something around your home that will work. If you have a yoga mat you could sit it on the floor with your back against the wall and find enough comfort for your session. While you should start with this tool, do not worry too much about whether or not you have the “right” sitting setup. It is right if you are comfortable yet erect (in other words no slouching meditators here).

Mala Beads: Mala beads very simply are prayer beads. They are used in many different types of religions (even Catholics use prayer beads, commonly called a rosary). The number of beads and the style of beads will vary (in yoga there are 108 beads) but all are designed to help you concentrate on restating a mantra (for example: gaté, gaté, paragaté, parasamgaté, bodhi svaha). The idea is that you touch each bead on the strand, say your mantra then move on the next bead and repeat. Once you have come full circle on the strand you have completed your meditation.

Zen Gardens: A Zen garden is a small sand garden often with a few rocks and a rake. In order to help focus your attention on only one task you are to rake the garden. I have a small Zen garden and I at times find it useful when I have difficulty entering into my meditation. It is calming and aesthetically pleasing in any room. You can find relatively simple and inexpensive Zen gardens almost anywhere. You can also very easily make your own.

Singing Bowls: If you are a student of meditation or yoga you will find yourself hard-pressed not to have run into a singing bowl sometime in your practice. They are so commonly used in both meditation and yoga classes throughout most of the U.S. Singing bowls are usually of two forms metal or crystal. They come in various sizes that will be tuned for different areas of the body or mind. The sound and the vibration from the bowl are wonderful tools for helping you to enter further into yourself, but you do not necessarily need to have a bowl present in your meditation to enjoy the benefits of their music. There are several good recordings out there of bowls that you can put on your mp3 player and listen to on a personal device or on a stereo in your meditation room. Out of all the tools I have tried and used my recording of singing bowls is the one that I still use daily.

Incense and Aromatherapy: Incense or other forms of aromatherapy are commonly used to create a mood in your meditation room. It is also used cleanse an area. It is used in many cultures and religions. I am not aware of smells being used specifically for concentration purposes but I certainly do not see why one could not use a smell as a concentration tool. You could introduce a smell into your meditation room and begin to find adjectives to describe the experience of the smell until no other thoughts but the smell exist in your mind. If you are a meditation guide I would avoid using smells with students (unless you are familiar with all your students) because there are many who have sensitivity to smells. Many types of incense for example give me a headache and make it difficult for me to concentrate.

Candles: Whether real or LED candles can be an inexpensive and useful concentration tool. They not only help to set a mood in your meditation room but the flame can also be a tool used to meditate on. Candle gazing is common for many beginning meditators. Focusing all your attention on the flickering flame will help you to draw inward sooner and keep your concentration in one place.

Alarms and Timers: Besides your meditation pillow, the alarm or timer you use to end your session is one of the most important tools you will want to always have with you in your meditation sessions. I would highly recommend not using a regular alarm clock. The annoying beeping can be somewhat jarring when coming out of a long meditation. There are many products out there that offer more soothing sounds to end your sessions. Personally I use my cell phone. I have used my favorite Om chant recording and created a ring tone out of it and it is my alarm. Put your cell phone on airplane mode so no incoming calls can interrupt your session and set it for the desired time. The best part about using a cell phone as your meditation alarm is that you will more than likely always have it with you and you can easily change the tone.

The above are just a few things that you may run into when sitting with others in meditation studios or monasteries. All of them are useful, but in the end it is only you that can decide which tools you choose to use. Remember your practice is the most important thing not necessarily what tools you use to meditate.

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