A Meditative Shabbat in Santa Barbara

Penny S. Tee Article

Have you ever been on a meditation retreat?  Combining being Jewish and meditation is a fairly new experience for me.  Not until last year were the two joined in my world – during my first meditation retreat.  I found the time of deep introspection to be a precursor to one of the most creative, joy-filled years of my life.

It was my birthday present. Blessed with another year of life – this was an opportunity to learn, be with my husband, old friends, make new ones, and to get to know myself better.  I wondered if my husband came along because for almost 20 hours of the retreat we (including me), were supposed to be silent : )

Our rabbi has meditated for years, and with his guidance we looked forward to another unique IMG_9397 400x433meditation weekend.  We drove up to La Casa de Maria in Santa Barbara.  The clouds greeted us with a gentle sprinkle – beginning cleaning away the grime of daily life.   The grounds were beautiful.  Of course it would be, after all Oprah lives up the street : ) As we nestled into our basic camp-styled rooms, in the hills of Santa Barbara, I wondered how our experiences would unfold.

The weekend was a blend of traditional and unusual. After all, we were celebrating Shabbat.  Jews from around the globe would be doing the same thing – albeit not always following identical rituals nor beliefs.  Time was spent praying, meditating, doing gentle Yoga, and expressing gratitude – for good experiences, and for what at first glance we think is bad.

It’s important to take time to appreciate what is offered to us. Sometimes it’s hidden beneath the disappointment of something not working out the way we planned.  Only in retrospect do we see – it was exactly what we needed…

Our rabbi used, as the basis for our service, the Map of the Four Worlds. It comes from Kabbalistic traditions.  The Four Worlds cover every aspect of being human, each emphasizing a unique dimension of our humanity:

  • Assiyah The Human Body or Physical
  • Yetzirah Emotions or Energy
  • Beriyah Mind or Thought
  • Atzilut Spirit or Presence

For each “world” the meditation practice aligned with that dimension. For instance in the World of Assiyah – the Human body or physical, the meditation focused on breathing from the belly.  We were instructed to breathe in and become grounded, secure, and rooted.  We were encouraged to breathe out anxiety.  The prayers associated with this world were done using Yoga, stretching, conscious cardio and our morning blessings.

I immediately embraced Yetzirah – because its emphasis is the heart.  We meditated by imagining our hearts with open windows in every chamber – to breathe in and out with openness, and love.  The prayers associated with this world were chanting, singing Psalms and sacred phrases.  An added personal bonus for me was my husband, with another friend, was able to provide additional beauty to this service by providing a rhythmic drum beat – an appropriate reference to a beating heart.

Beriyah – surprised me.  Until recently, I’ve always associated what I’ve learned about meditation as deriving from the East.  Exposure to these Jewish practices and learning that there were many other Jewish “gurus,” opened a door wider for me. We were told to focus on the third eye – the invisible “eye” between your eyebrows which symbolizes a greater consciousness.  Through our third eye, we were asked to breath in and out awareness, focus, attention and clarity.

Atzilut – here is the game changer in our usual services – the Amidah – the Silent Prayer.  During traditional services there are prayers you can choose to read or we always are encouraged to say our own private prayers from our hearts.  I usually enjoy doing my own thing – thinking deeply about what’s happening in my life at the time. However, we were offered the following prayer. To me it was one of the most beautiful prayers I have ever heard. Our rabbi instructed us, as we remained silent :

Bring to mind an ancestor, real or imagined,

and imagine them encouraging you to be yourself.

Think of forces of nature – wind, rain, birth and death,

and feel the power of the universe, the power of the Source.

Imagine three things in the world that you find beautiful.

Notice the perfection by which they are created.

Become perfectly still. Notice the presence and the sound of silence.

This is Shabbat. Let it envelope you.

Bring to your mind one thing you want to offer to the world.

Imagine holding it up above your head, and the universe taking it

And spreading it everywhere.

Think of three things you are thankful for.

Notice the perfection of the moment.

Feel its completeness.

Feel its peace.

Take five deep breaths.

For each “world” a meditative phrase was suggested.  Generally I use Sanskrit mantras for meditation. Using English was different for me, and for some, caused issues based on what the words personally meant to them.  For instance, “It is perfect” made some uncomfortable and they chose to use “It is whole,” instead.  I became aware for me, by usually using a language I didn’t understand without the translation in front of me, gave my “Monkey Mind” something to concentrate on so my soul could be Peaceful : )

I’ve noticed lately the healthy act of mindfulness has become pervasive throughout our modern society.  From spiritual leaders and our meditation retreat, to even a recent high school presentation I attended on techniques kids are being taught to calm themselves to reduce anxiety. I see this as a positive direction to disengage from the tumult in today’s contentious environment.

We would be using meditation and prayer to seek the Divine – beyond and within each of us.  Although the desire for God’s presence was the path upon which we were led, there was an amazing openness and acceptance of everyone’s personal beliefs. Whether or not you believed in God or an all-powerful presence was a personal choice – acknowledged, accepted, and not judged.

My favorite part was the break with my husband. We strolled the grounds taking photos of the lush natural beauty of trees and flowers.  Around every corner was an inviting sitting area for deep contemplation or just to relax – even a stream.  There were tributes to all types of spiritual awakenings and religions.

IMG_9353. 391x400JPGWe wandered into the chapel.  It had beautiful stained glass windows with a classic statue of Jesus on the dais. We walked along further, and discovered a tribute to the native American people of a muscled brave and guiding eagle entitled, “Transformation through Forgiveness.”  It was dedicated to the healing of all wounds be they “physical, emotional, mental, spiritual or environmental.”  Even the bark on this tree seemed to celebrate the Love found on the grounds.  Further down we came across a Buddhist shrine.

There also was a labyrinth. Labyrinths are places of deep spiritual reflection – a walking meditation.  This particular one had been built by the Institute of World Culture, based on exploring Mahatma Gandhi’s practices of non-violence, truth and sustainability. Many people come to walk to seek an answer, get spiritual guidance, relief from emotional pain or grief, provide inspiration and creativity, or to slow down and relax.  As you complete the maze, you’re expected to reach your “answer” in the center of the labyrinth. Then you turn around and return along the same path until you exit where you entered.  Somewhat of a follow the yellow brick road. At least that had been my previous exposure and was my intention.

However, this labyrinth walk, was not the usual.  Unfortunately, some people who were also staying at the retreat center were not familiar with labyrinth etiquette.  I knew I was in trouble when the woman who was walking through it shouted something to her honey, waiting on the sidelines, and what followed only got worse.

As I began my gentle walk along the path, hearing a commotion, I looked up and saw a parade of couples chatting noisily heading our way.  It was another group enjoying the retreat center – a Catholic engagement encounter.  Oh great – that’s what I needed – to be surrounded by a bunch of horny young adults.

As you can imagine, when they reached the labyrinth, it looked like a fun game to them.  Demonstrating they had no knowledge of what a labyrinth was, they walked along the path, yakking to one another, laughing loudly and hopping across the route of the trail.  I tried to keep judgement from my face and especially from my heart.

I continued on as best I could, in my introspection.  As I moved slowly along hoping they would notice what I was doing, and they would get a hint – to no avail. A tall lanky man hot on my heels treated me to a very loud belch.  Well, I told myself – it could have been worse.

IMG_9387 393x400Finally, I reached the middle.  There was a beautiful heart and objects had been left by previous walkers of the labyrinth – prayer beads, crosses, pieces of polished glass, stones – one said laugh and another live, and my favorite – Peace signs. I awaited my message – not surprising, there was nothing.

I tried to console myself with positivity –  I had enjoyed my slow pace in introspection, I took pleasure in the anticipation of a message, my husband came with me on the journey, and the expressions of people’s hearts who had come before moved me.  I resigned myself to my belief what is supposed to happen, does. I moved on, and finally reached the exit.

We continued exploring and taking pictures of the beautiful trees.   Unexpectedly, my husband asked, “Did you see the garden over there?”

“No,” I said.

As I walked a few steps back into the garden, I noticed the sign:  Sadako Peace Garden.  I smiled.  If you don’t know, Peace is something dear to my heart.  It’s my desire to work on Peace.

The importance of Peace in my life came about after our trip to Israel in July 2014. We were on a family vacation in Israel, and found ourselves at war.  Think touring incredible sites and cowering in bomb shelters.  The impact of the missiles was to make me want to work on Peace.  So I’ve been writing my book, “Blasted from Complacency,” posting my blogs and researching and working with people working on Peace.

As I looked farther into the garden, I noticed this plaque:

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“Oh my God,” I exclaimed to my husband, “There it is – my message!” I was filled with wonder.

On Saturday night we were treated to a night of spirit, movement and joy.  The program was based on Gabriel Roth’s 5Rhythms:

  • Flowing – Connect to the Earth
  • Staccato – Expressing the heart
  • Chaos – Emptying the mind
  • Lyrical – Awaken the soul
  • Stillness – Embodying the spirit – still point

We were instructed to establish our space with lots of room, close our eyes if we wanted, and move to the beat – or more accurately –  our own. Opening my eyes it brought back to my mind the Jewish dances in my single days. Not the hippest moves, yet no one cared.    It was a joyous, laughter-filled raucous group.  What impressed me – was the openness and vulnerability freely exposed as each song played.  A free-flowing expression of our souls – safe within the womb of our community.

The next morning we loaded the car, to make our way back home.  One lesson of many, the rabbi taught us, came into my mind.  He showed us how Shabbat was our weekly opportunity to enjoy the benefits we had gained at the meditation retreat.  We had traveled so far to be contemplative, Peaceful, have time to pray, not work, and connect with people. The message from Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz popped into my thoughts – You had it all along…

Shabbat Shalom!

Join Me on My Journey…




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