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How I Left the World, the Internet, and Angry Birds for Five Whole Days and Lived to Talk About It

As many of you know who have been following me on Twitter, Facebook, and now Google +, Mia and I went off the grid for almost a week – no cell phone, no Internet, no nothing.  For a while we’ve both been wanting to learn more about Mindful Meditation, a type of meditation blending Buddhist teachings and Western science.  Mia and I are both fans of the writings of Jon Kabat-Zin, the person most responsible for this modern integration – he calls mindfulness, at its essence, “the complete ‘owning’ of each moment of your experience, good, bad, or ugly.”  So we decided to sign up for a five day Mindfulness Meditation retreat at Vallecitos Ranch in New Mexico , a couple of hours outside of Santa Fe.

Although I was somewhat excited about this retreat I was also, to be honest, a bit panicked.  I hadn’t been completely without text, phone, or Internet in over fifteen years.  I’m a product of the information age, almost always doing something.  If I’m not working, I’m texting or Facebooking or on the phone.  If I’m not out partying with my friends, I’m watching movies or TV, or playing video games.  Those little moments that used to be “quiet” for me – say, waiting in the doctor’s office for an appointment, is now taken up by Angry Birds or TowerMadness.  Even when I piss I’m active – I do a good percentage of my Tweeting while I urinate, or in-between reps of my morning exercise.   Simply, my brain, while awake, is almost always activated. I’m not a very “present” person.  So the idea of slowing down and disconnecting was both appealing and terrifying: what feelings am I running from that I have to be so constantly on the move?

In addition, I thought the retreat would be a good way to connect with Mia in a natural setting and experience our relationship fully.  And, I thought, I’d like to relax and catch up on my reading – although I had no iPad or iPhone, I downloaded a ton of books on my Kindle that I’d been wanting to read. I also bought a couple of big notebooks to possibly get some writing done.

Last Tuesday, we landed in Santa Fe and drove into the mountains of Vallecitos.  The trip there wasn’t great, as I got a speeding ticket from the somewhat overeager New Mexican cops.  As we drove our rented four-wheel drive vehicle over the unpaved streets, we saw a ranch on the way with what seemed like an ominous sign:

But arriving at the Vallecitos ranch, we couldn’t be more pleased with its beauty, and the sense of peace of the place itself.  The ranch is at an altitude of about 8,000 feet.

Because of an elongated stop at Wal-Mart to gather pillows and comfortable bedding, Mia and I were the last two people to arrive to the ranch.  We knew that part of the retreat was pitching in with jobs around the camp, and we saw the sign-up list for the duties.  Unfortunately, almost all of the jobs – dishwashing, sweeping, and so forth – were already taken. There was only one sign-up slot left, which read “outhouses.”

“No way am I doing that,” I said to Mia. “You have to do it.”

“Me?!” she said.

“I hate poop.”

“I hate poop too!”

“I hate poop more. Way more. You’re missing the disgust gland.  You once ate part of a fetal pig.  Normally, I’d be the nice guy, and take the shitty job – literally shitty job – but I know my pain over cleaning out a shithouse will be ten or twenty times more than yours, so you have to do it. Seriously. I’m not going to do it.”

Mia made a whiny squealing sound, and went ahead and put her name in the slot. I breathed a sigh of relief.  She was appointed cleaning out the outhouses, and had to do so for the rest of the week.

Later, I told the teachers that there weren’t enough slots for jobs, and they gave me the job of filling a water cooler in the kitchen.  Once a day, I needed to walk about thirty feet to the sink, fill the water cooler, and put it back in place again.  I do have a bit of evil in me and was delighted to have by far the easiest job on the ranch.  Just because I was searching for enlightenment, didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy having one over on everyone around me.

That first evening, after a delicious vegetarian meal, the whole group of us – 31 in all – met with our Mindfulness teachers, Grove Burnett and Diana Winston, in the loft of the beautiful lodge, built in 1928.  Mia and I were afraid the other attendees would be a bunch of Birkenstock-wearing smelly folks.  But, perhaps because the Mindfulness retreat was associated with science and UCLA, it was an extremely educated group – college professors, a plastic surgeons, a radiologist, psychologists, an architect, and more.  Okay, and a few Birkenstock folks too. But they weren’t smelly and they too were very nice.

And as Grove went over the guidelines for the week, Mia and I discovered something about the retreat we seemed to have missed in the course description – IT WAS A SILENT RETREAT.  That’s right.  Starting the following morning, we weren’t supposed to talk for four days.

WHAT.  THE.  FUCK.

Mia and I sat in shock as Grove explained “the Noble Silence” – we weren’t only supposed to remain silent, but we weren’t even supposed to READ or WRITE or EVEN INTERACT WITH EACH OTHER.

Mia and I retreated to our casita for the night, as if we had both taken buckshot to the gut.  In our small casita, we tried out the bedding we bought at Wal-Mart.  As we discovered it didn’t fit our cot at all, I proceeded to freak out.

“This is the worst fucking day ever!” I said.

“I know,” Mia said.

“First we get a fucking ticket, then we buy the wrong bedding! I was already panicking that I couldn’t Tweet for five days, now I find out I can’t even do a good, old-fashioned mouth-Tweet!”

“It IS kind of funny if you think about it,” Mia said.

“I can see, possibly, in the future, that I may think this is funny – BUT I COMPLETELY DO NOT THINK IT’S FUCKING FUNNY AT ALL RIGHT NOW!”

“I’m not sure how well I can cope with not being a goofball for four days,” Mia said.

Despite all this, Mia and I had come all this way, so we decided to go ahead with the Noble Silence.

Well, sort of.  Although the entire retreat was filled with various meditations and talks from morning till night, Mia and I spent the time in-between sessions the first couple days playing an elaborate form of charades, goofballs as usual, and even playing Trollhunter on one of the little bridges on the ranch. It was a sort of “Ignoble Silence.”

Mia has always said she was afraid of pine cones – “Just imagine being alone in a parking lot when you hear the scrape scrape scrape of the pine cone on the pavement, and then you see a pine cone following you! Isn’t that like the scariest thing ever?!”  I never quite agreed with that, but here I am, silently, trying to scare Mia with a pine cone.

Here Mia is trying to be scary as she eats a pine cone.  (Yes, I know she looks adorable when she tries to be frightening, but don’t tell her that as her feelings get hurt when you aren’t terrified of her “scary face.”)

However, after two days, Mia and I chose to take the silence more seriously and separate during the day, as our teachers had suggested.

And… I have to say… it’s one of the best things I think I’ve ever done for myself, and I know Mia feels the same way.  For the first time in perhaps my whole life I was able to slow down and just “be,”  and treat myself with some kindness.   The retreat was not always easy, but the insights and emotions were plentiful, and, strangely, through not interacting with Mia for a full two days, I felt closer to her than ever before.  I think only time will tell whether my time at Vallecitos was a transformative experience – but it in the moment that I write this, it feels like it was.  I still plan on Tweeting, and playing Angry Birds, and being a goofball, and working my ass off, but perhaps the meditative practice I learned at Vallecitos will allow me to check in with myself from time to time and, in the end, enjoy all of those things a lot more.  Mia and I have both been keeping up with our meditation since leaving – and we plan on taking more classes, and going on more retreats (even some silent ones).

Mindful Meditation has spiritual aspects, as it’s rooted in Buddhism, but it is secular and appropriate for people of any religion, as well as for agnostics and atheists.  For any of you interested in the practice of Mindful Meditation, I suggest you check out the other retreats at Vallecitos, or other classes or groups in your city, or read the books of John Kabat-Zin, or check out the new book Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness , by one of our two great teachers at Vallecitos, Diana Winston.

Here are some more pics from our time in New Mexico:

We all put our names on our cups and mugs and reused them. I’m not sure why we did this, but I think it has something to do with being green.  Vallecitos is environmentally conscious, and is mostly solar powered.

One of the most difficult parts of traveling for me is that I get separation anxiety from my dog, Von Spears. Luckily, Baxter was around for the occasional nuzzle as I went through canine withdrawals.

There are two horses on the property, Prince and Wrangler. Prince is the friendliest and most affectionate horse I’ve ever met.  He loves to rub his face against yours and nibble on your ear.  He can be a little demanding at times, however, and he whinnies when you pet Wrangler for too long.

A large gorgeous brook runs through the ranch.  One day I went on a two hour hike, alone, along the brook, and felt remarkably at peace.

While on my hike, I laid down on this large rock, and it started to rain, and I let it fall upon me. Pretty cool. I sort of fell in love with this rock. As I was leaving I said, “You’re my rock now.” And it said, “Wrong. You’re my person. I’ve been around for a lot longer than you, and will be around long after you’re gone.” “Fair is fair,” I told it.

As we were leaving Vallecitos, we passed by this large cattle ranch, and we stopped to hang out with these fucking cows. This brown one in the middle started licking my hand.

Mia was like the Cow Whisperer. They stared gathering around her from all over the fields. If there wasn’t that fence between them, I’m pretty sure they would have killed and eaten her in seconds. After all, she’s small, and looks like a Japanese leafy thing growing from the ground.

Back in Santa Fe, we were pleased to see a “Clarence Sale” going on.  Being that we didn’t need any Clarences, we didn’t stop in.

After the retreat, we hung out a couple days in Santa Fe.  There’s a lot of great shopping, although it’s hard to imagine the world has a need for so many turquoise necklaces.  In one of the little malls, we came across this store, which was simply wedding dresses and bronze dogs.  It’s sort of a niche market.

In Santa Fe we also checked out the “Miraculous Staircase” at the Loretto Chapel.  We were stoked to be greeted by Bigfoot!

There is a legend around the Miraculous Staircase that it was built for some nuns by a “mysterious visitor” who was possibly Joseph, Jesus’s foster Dad.  The staircase was magically made without nails, from a wood that doesn’t exist anywhere on the planet, and it defies all laws of physics in the way it rises.  Or so they claim – the truth is historians have found the French contractor who worked on the staircase, and the contract for the work done.  It was made from a wood in France and probably shipped over here.  There’s nothing “miraculous” about it. It’s beautiful enough the way it is – and worth seeing – but the elaborate and purposeful lies around the place are a bit irritating.

Many thanks to the people of New Mexico for their hospitality.  If you people were any more laid back, you’d be dead.  But you’re probably the nicest folks I’ve met anywhere yet in this world. So thanks!

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