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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Omega Experience

This past week I attended Claude AnShin Thomas' workshop at the Omega Institute near Rhinebeck, N.Y.  It was an educational and very moving experience.  Some one hundred veterans attended the workshop. A few, like me, came with their spouses while others came with fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, sisters and brothers.

Veterans coming home from having experienced the trauma of war rarely have the opportunity to talk to someone about their experiences.  Often people don't want to hear about their experiences either because they don't want to know about the veteran's traumatic experience or they are afraid that talking about it will open wounds and are afraid to get involved. Many don't know what to say to the vet. In any case, the veteran comes home a changed person and has a very difficult time adapting back to his former life. What was a normal world before the war experience is a totally different world now.

The workshop revolved around three basic components: meditation, mindfulness and reflection.  We began each day at 7:00 am in sitting meditation followed by walking meditation. AnShin told us to do walking meditation slowly and deliberately.  It was to be done in rhythm with the breath. He said that he was asked one time "Does the breath really work?"  And his reply was, "I don't know, but I know it is always with you and you do it - so you might as well use it."

During breakfast, around 8:30 am, we practiced mindful eating in silence. We were told to chew each bite fifty times and contemplate its aroma, texture and taste.  After breakfast we would either do more sitting and walking or AnShin would talk about his adventures and philosophy. He never preached about Buddhism.  He emphasized the importance of keeping our own beliefs intact and focusing on the task at hand - being mindful.

We were told to use our spare time during the week to reflect and write about something we had never told anyone.  It had to be about something that related to our war experience.  How did the war affect us either directly as a veteran or indirectly as a relative?  

During lunch we would do more mindful eating and then have a small break.  At around 2:00 pm we would meet again for thirty minutes of sitting meditation and then we would gather in our small group for reflection. Each group would walk mindfully to their designated site.  We sat in a circle and would take turns reading our writings by gesturing with a bow and then picking up an object placed in the middle of the circle.  In our group the designated object was an eyeglass case.

The main object of the group session was to listen and read mindfully. What was read was to never leave the group.  However, I will reveal my writing in the next post. The person holding the object was the only one who could read while the others had to listen carefully and mindfully. Once the person was through reading, he/she placed the object back on the floor and would gesture with a bow.  Everyone else would acknowledge by also bowing.  It was not mandatory to read but everyone in my small group of eight did read. 

During dinner we would eat in silence and then walk mindfully back to the main hall and either do more sitting meditation or yoga. The last evening of the week was open to outside people - people who lived in the area. Those who wrote essays could read them in front of the entire group of 140 people if they  desired. I didn't read my essay but ten veterans did. It was a heartfelt moment.  There was laughing and crying. When the last person read they were given a five minute standing ovation. Where once there were sad faces there were now happy faces.

The next morning before parting for home we all walked mindfully down to the lake where AnShin and his assistants lit a fire and burned notes we all had placed in a basket. The notes were things we wanted to get rid of such as shame, anxiety, depression, loneliness, etc. We watched as the notes along with the troubling situations went up in smoke.

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