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How I Found My Heart In Five Days

Steve Schlafman
Steve Schlafman
10 min read
How I Found My Heart In Five Days
Photo by Nicola Fioravanti / Unsplash

Last week I participated in a five day meditation retreat, Becoming Bodhisattvas, at the Garrison Institute in Garrison, NY, just 50 miles from New York City. Their mission is to apply the transformative power of contemplation to today’s pressing social and environmental concerns, helping build a more compassionate, resilient future. The institute is located on a beautiful campus on the banks of the Hudson River surrounded by hiking trails, lush gardens and nooks for contemplation. The main facility is a 77,000 square foot stone and brick monastery and seminary built in 1923. It’s one of the most special places in the Hudson River Valley.

This retreat focused on practices and teachings related to the path of the Bodhisattva, a body of teachings on how to live with more compassion and wisdom in the complex and interdependent world we live in. It was led and facilitated by Ethan Nichtern, a Buddhist teacher and author who has a knack for making Buddhist teachings accessible and entertaining by weaving in references to pop culture, modern life and current events. Ethan’s unique style of facilitation and teaching combines humor, compassion, deep intellect and great reverence for the dharma. He might be the only Buddhist teacher on the planet to reference Michael Jordan, Moana and Andy Shauff in a single afternoon.

The retreat featured talks and practices about the Bodhisattva Path and included three full days of silence to help us go deeper individually and collectively. Throughout the retreat, we practiced meditation for five to six hours a day, alternating between various techniques — 25 minutes of shamata (mindfulness meditation), 10 minutes of walking meditation, followed by 25 minutes of tonglen. I was vaguely familiar with this style of meditation from Pema Chodron’s classic book, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living, but I had never actually practiced it.

According to Chodron, the venerable American Buddhist nun, tonglen is “the Tibetan practice of ‘sending and receiving.’ Tong means ‘sending out’ or ‘letting go’; len means ‘receiving’ or ‘accepting.’ Tonglen is ordinarily practiced in sitting meditation, using the breath. Put simply, the practitioner breathes in the bad and breathes out the good, taking on the suffering of other sentient beings.” Chodron’s teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught her, “The more negativity we take in with a sense of openness and compassion, the more goodness there is to breathe out.”

During the three days of silence, Ethan led dharma talks on generosity, working with anger, and interdependence. He also facilitated a discussion once the news of Roe v. Wade broke to help the community process and try to make sense of what had just happened. On the last day, once silence was lifted, we spent the morning working in small groups and setting intentions for being more compassionate to self, others close to us, and others far away.

To give you a sense of how our days were structured, here was our schedule:

  • 7am: Yoga or meditation
  • 8am: Breakfast
  • 9am: Morning meditation instruction and practice
  • 12pm: Lunch
  • 1pm: Silent free time
  • 3:30pm: Afternoon practice and dharma talk
  • 6pm: Dinner
  • 7-8pm: Evening meditation

By the end of each day, I was completely drained energetically and emotionally, but filled with new insights about the way my mind works, the nature of my experience, and the Bodhisattva path. It turns out being in silence, meditating for hours and learning the dharma is liberating and cathartic but also exhausting and demanding. I was in bed every night by 9:30.

So you might be wondering why I would rather sit in silence and meditate in an old monastery for five days instead of going to a posh resort and sitting on a beach drinking coconut water. The average person, myself included, has about 6,000 thoughts per day—the vast majority of which are on repeat and unconscious. We don’t even know what we’re thinking or how our mind really works, because most of the time we’re moving too fast, multitasking and relying on old patterns of behavior and thought. By going on retreat, we’re able to cultivate bodhichitta—the awakened heart—and metacognition—the ability to clearly see our thoughts—which can then help us shift how we think, act and feel. Furthermore, the more we illuminate our unconscious experience, the more conscious we become.

Retreats are powerful because they remove the distractions of our daily lives—kids, bosses, iPhones, errands, email—so we can slow down. We declutter our minds and our thoughts settle. From there, we can begin to witness the entirety of our experience including the good, bad and indifferent. We can see which thoughts are on repeat and which ones are attractive, aversive or insignificant. I like to use the analogy of a garden. If we don’t tend to our gardens, they’ll become overgrown and cluttered with weeds that will eventually crowd out the flowers or food that we aspire to grow and harvest. When we go on retreat, we’re able to clear out these weeds, see the ground of who we are and water it through clarity and compassion so new growth emerges. It’s only by beginning with a clear sense of self that we can accept that self, and only from acceptance can we begin to change it, our lives, and our worlds.

We even receive unexpected surprises.

Receiving the Sign

As the fifth and final day of the retreat was coming to an end, I stood on the edge of a bluff, deeply gazing into the Hudson River. All at once, I could hear the wind wrestling through the trees above, feel the intricate rhythmic beating of my heart, and observe the southbound current of the river flowing towards New York City.

I was by myself, but I wasn’t alone, feeling deeply connected to the vastness of life and nature that surrounded me. My gaze swept up and down the river and the vista beyond it, along with a speedboat hydroplaning on the water, and the stillness of the gardens behind me, into one coherent and present whole. Bright sunbeams bounced off the surface of the Hudson like blinking lights on a runway at night, flooding my vision and becoming part of me.

From the center of my heart, I felt energy rush my extremities, up my spine, and wash over my head; silent tears slid down the contours of my face. My body froze, but I relaxed and softened, trusting what was unfolding in front of me and within me. I just stood there, for what seemed like an eternity, mesmerized and transfixed by the dancing lightwaves reflecting back at me.

Five days earlier, I had arrived at the retreat asking for a sign. I could sense something profound was stirring inside of me, but I wasn’t sure what it was—until I saw the light that afternoon. At that moment, my life’s purpose became brilliantly clear—to help people navigate change and transition through cultivation of consciousness and compassion.

The Gifts Beyond the Sign

The two central themes of the retreat revolved around cultivating compassion and internalizing interdependence. In less than a week my perspective on the nature of reality shifted. Where I saw boundaries, borders, separate parts, and isolated beings, I now see that everyone and everything plays a role—all things are connected and dependent. I took one step closer, in a lifelong joruney, to a consciousness in which self, other, and world are equal.

A core teaching of the dharma is that suffering is a feature of being alive—every person we meet, even those with wealth, health, influence and power, is suffering with something. The details we might never know, but the fact remains, and it can guide the way we live. Once we internalize this fact, we no longer feel as isolated and alone. Compassion is the capacity to be with the suffering of others—it essentially means “to suffer together.”  

For countless hours during tonglen practice, I breathed in the suffering of myself, my wife, my daughter, my extended family, my friends, pro-choice supporters, the homeless, the dying, the environment, and even Trump supporters! With each in-breath, I imagined some form of suffering—complaints, fear, physical pain, deep aversions, addictions—and welcomed whatever arose, including painful emotions, thoughts and sensations. And with each out-breath, I imagined a soft white light radiating from the center of my heart, filled with compassion and wisdom. I’d never practiced anything like this to deliberately cultivate compassion—I didn’t even know it was possible, or what the impact would be!

On the last day, my heart burst open. I could feel energy pulsating from my chest, filling not just my body but the enormity of the chapel, and blanketing all of the participants with light. I began to empathize and relate to others in ways that shocked me, using only my mind! For most of my life I unconsciously armored and closed off my heart, lacking the full capacity to be with and hold the suffering of others, including those closest to me. I saw how self-centered I’ve been, focusing largely on the voice in my head, my own pain, suffering and comforts. Ignorance, laziness, fear, apathy, and even physical pain had kept my heart closed. Furthermore, I didn’t believe I had the ability and capacity to bear the suffering and have an impact.

But when my heart opened up and softened, I realized that I have a deep reservoir of compassion for myself, the people in my life, and those I meet, read or hear about—a powerful gift that I wasn’t even tapping into. For the first time, I felt deeply connected to and held by something far bigger than myself.

How It All Ties Together

On the fourth day, Ethan led a powerful dharma talk on interdependence, which is the concept that anything that comes into existence is dependent upon specific causes and conditions. In other words, if something is to exist then outside phenomena must create and sustain it.

Thich Nhat Hanh eloquently described this phenomenon, which he called interbeing, in his essay, “Clouds In Each Paper”:

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow: and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper.”

Imagine all the ways that interdependence manifests in your own life—sequences, relationships, and systems. When you look closely enough, you’ll begin to see it everywhere.

I wouldn’t be here unless an infinite number of things fell into place, including my parents meeting in the summer of 1967, marrying and then deciding to have more kids in 1979. It gets even trippier to think that I’m an identical twin—what if the egg hadn’t split in two? I began to appreciate and think about all the ways in which everything that exists is dependent upon a mind-melting array of causes and conditions to emerge and persist, including the formation of The Garrison Institute and the damming of the Hudson River! It’s fun and wild to think about this.

I see how interdependence plays out in relationships and group dynamics. When my wife walks into a room, we create a relational space that is dependent on what we each bring—emotions, content, energy, attention—and morphs based on what unfolds individually and collectively. If I get angry at her for something she says then the container, which is dynamic, will shift and morph. This extends to groups like the community at the retreat or pro-choice protests. I also see how this applies to my coaching clients—I’m dependent upon them to support my family and they are dependent upon me to help them evolve as humans. In other words, individuals and groups are connected, dependent and symbiotic.  

Interdependence also exists at the systemic or macro level. As an example, let’s examine the caterer who prepared the delicious and nourishing food at the retreat. In order to serve their product, they rely upon farms in the Hudson Valley, regional food suppliers, logistic networks, energy from the grid, labor, and so on. Also, ya know, the sun and water and bees and insects. Spend a day in New York City and you can see the flow of interdependence playing out in real time—delivery trucks, garbage collection, messengers, police cars, the subway, restaurants, grocery stores and the power grid.  

As much as we think we’re separate from the world and in control, we’re not. We can’t even control our minds! This is one of the core reasons, among many, why Buddhists claim the self does’t actually exist! Every single one of us is deeply connected to, dependent upon, and impacted by a massive web of causes and conditions. When we step back and see this clearly, we realize that we’re not as powerful as we may have thought, which is humbling. But, it’s also empowering—we no longer feel like we have to put the world on our shoulders, and at the same time begin to feel a deep connection to something far bigger than ourselves. And when that happens, it opens the door for compassion, empathy and equanimity. We lose our desire for control when we realize it’s an illusion; this in turn reduces our suffering. The ego dissolves, and self and other begin to equalize.

Learning to live consciously takes a while, a lifetime for many who walk this path. But intensive focus on fundamental truths like interdependence and humane qualities like compassion, can reaffirm, in less than a week, that the practice is well worth the time. It’s an understatement to say that retreats are filled with unexpected learnings and experiences, such as receiving a metaphysical sign on the banks of the Hudson. I’ve gone through six of these, and every one has left me feeling awe, compassion, connection and hope. In just those five days, away from the normal rhythms of my life, I gained a lifetime of wisdom.

This wisdom is not for me alone.

The retreat ended not even a week ago and I’m still processing the experience. I’m not sure that I’ll fully understand and grasp what happened, but I know that I returned a profoundly different being, with more compassion for myself and others, and appreciation for our interconnectedness. I also know that my ego isn’t nearly as powerful as it was two weeks ago.

Stepping back and thinking about all of this is exciting and trippy and fun and weird and cool and incredibly empowering. In the coming weeks and months, I plan to focus on understanding how to apply these new insights in my own life and how to help others access them. I now see a world where everyone has the capacity to change their lives with consciousness and compassion leading the way.

I can’t think of anything more beautiful than that.


Steve Schlafman Twitter

Exec coach. Writer. Student of Change.


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