Taking a Breath

By Bill Welch

Last August, the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax opened, operating in rented space at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation. The church, located in Oakton, Virginia, offers several advantages to the center: eleven wooded a res; a supportive congregation, staff, and ministers; proximity to Anh-Huong and Thu Nguyen, the primary teachers at the MPC; and its location approximately in the center of Fairfax County, Virginia, a large suburban area directly west of Washington, D.C.

In the short time the center has been open, many participants have experienced significant, positive changes. Kay, a therapist, shared her thoughts in a letter to AnhHuong and Thu.

“I hold on to the practice much better since attending the Center. I notice the moon often, when I attend the Center often. Instead of noticing the moon only on vacation, I now find it is there on Tuesdays and Wednesdays as well. … The practice of maintaining my center while increasing my field of awareness greatly enhances my work as a therapist. After a few mindful breaths in the midst of a chaotic family, I am present to offer my best. I have also incorporated the practice of conscious breathing into my work by introducing bits of it to interested people.”

Jim, interested in Buddhism since childhood, was well read on the subject of meditation, but “had a difficult time comprehending the instructions, much less putting it into practice.” He longed for a place that could offer him instruction. Plagued by anger, stress, and addiction, he decided to visit the center every day for meditation. “I could feel the walls that I had built around my heart and mind start to come down, brick by brick. I started to leam to love again- most importantly, how to love myself. I learned that to love and respect others, I must first love and respect myself. A cigarette smoker for fifteen years, I finally realized how beautiful my breath is, how beautiful my lungs are. It did not take long after that to pluck that habit from my life. I pray that centers like this pop up all over the planet. The world would be so peaceful.”

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Thu offers deep relaxation meditation to parents while their children are in church choir practice. The parents found they had more patience for their children, and were better able to handle stress as a result of the sessions. Based on their own refreshing experience, several parents encouraged Thu to teach deep relaxation to the children. None of them knew how long it would take the children to settle down. They were surprised and pleased that the children were able to enjoy deep relaxation the very first time. One parent, Susan, reports on the benefits:

“For our family, it was a huge success, and my son looks forward to going to the MPC every Monday, even when it’s a school holiday and there is no choir practice. He just wants to go because it makes him ‘feel good.’ My husband and I have noticed that his disposition is much more pleasant after the Monday session. He has had difficulty controlling his anger most of his young life, and has made so much progress in controlling his temper during the last four months. I attribute much of this improvement to the relaxation sessions at MPC.”

Hal , a recovering alcoholic and longtime member of Alcoholics Anonymous, finds practicing mindfulness and meditation enriching to his AA program. Hal was instrumental in having Anh-Huong and Thu offer a Day of Mindfulness for People in Recovery. In expressing his gratitude after this initial offering, Hal said:

“Living in the here and now is a matter of life and death when recovering from addiction to alcohol and other drugs and is of bedrock importance to developing a happy sobriety over the long term. Your teaching had a profound effect on all the attendees with whom I spoke afterward.”

Since this first offering, one other daylong workshop for people in recovery has been held. The current plan is to offer such an event all day one Saturday every other month.

Alice began attending the MPC soon after it opened and has found relief from a fear and anxiety syndrome which had bothered her for more than a year. When she recently had a rather serious leg injury treated in the Emergency Room, she practiced mindful breathing, and remained calm and relatively pain-free while the wound was cleaned and stitched. Alice finds that reminding herself to live one minute at a time helps her relax and reduces her stress.

For me, Thu and Anh-Huong have really become colleagues in ministry. As someone who has a real interest in spiritual growth- my own and others-I find the MPC a wonderful resource and support. It provides a regularity and structure that my own practice needs. Having an instructor conveniently available and having other people to practice with is very valuable. All of us associated with the MPC in Oakton hope others will make the effort to find and join us.

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Bill Welch is the Assistant Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax.

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Cultivating Balance

Reflections from a Retreat with Law Professionals 

By Leslie Rawls, Jeanne Anselmo, and Valerie Brown 

mb62-Cultivating1What do you get when you bring together sixty lawyers for a weekend mindfulness retreat? LAW – Love in Action With compassion.

Our June 2012 law retreat, “Cultivating Balance,” arose from the simple aspiration to share the nourishing practice of mindfulness with our colleagues in the law. As lawyers and a nurse teaching in law school, we are keenly aware of the difficulties lawyers face every day. The practice of law in the U.S. can be hostile and confrontational, qualities that can interfere with our ability to be calm and at ease both at work and in our home lives. We knew that we had benefitted greatly from our mindfulness practice and we had seen its transformative effects in our lives and the lives of others. So we decided to create a retreat to nurture and nourish our legal colleagues, whose suffering we knew firsthand.

On the first afternoon, lawyers arrived at Blue Cliff Monastery with uncertainty mixed with openness. The retreat began with guided deep relaxation, inviting all to let go of the business of the week and settle into the peace of the present. Throughout the weekend, the schedule was relaxed and open, to encourage everyone to rest in the present moment and let go of the deadlines, paper piles, and arguments normally crowding our active minds. Over and over again through the retreat, lawyers expressed gratitude for having the opportunity to rest. They appreciated that the retreat was not crammed with data, facts, and figures—the usual experience when we get together for continuing legal education. Instead, the retreat offered each person space and time to enjoy the practice, a respite that was a tremendous gift.

Throughout the weekend, we remembered why we entered the practice of law: a hope to serve others. In our small discussion groups, we connected with many who shared a similar aspiration and who felt it rekindled by our retreat practice. We were willing to look deeply at our way of being and our livelihood, examining the difficulties and isolation that we experience in our profession. Near strangers offered each other the gift of deep listening and loving speech. Lawyers often find it difficult to share our hearts and express our vulnerabilities. But during the retreat, we could feel safe and cared for, as we shared our hearts in mindfulness. It was touching to see our legal colleagues begin to glimpse the nourishing capacity of mindfulness and to witness many moments of transformation.

We know from experience that working in the law can harden our hearts and take us out of the present. We also know how liberating and healing the balm of mindfulness is, personally and professionally. In a profession where advocacy often becomes animosity, our mindfulness practice can help us be whole and happy. It can help us heal ourselves and take care of each other. After the retreat, we shared ways to be in touch and the hope to share another law retreat in the near future.

We are grateful to our fellow law professionals who opened their schedules and their hearts to share the weekend, and to Blue Cliff ’s monastic community, which supported our intentions and the retreat’s manifestation.

mb62-Cultivating2Valerie Brown, True Power of the Sangha, is an attorney-lobbyist, writer, and leadership coach. She is a founding member of Old Path Sangha in New Hope, PA, and became an OI member in 2003. She can be reached at www.leadsmartcoaching.com.

Jeanne Anselmo, True Precious Hand, is a member of the Green Island Sangha of Long Island, NY. She received Lamp Transmission from Thay in 2011. She co-founded the Contemplative Urban Law Program at City University of NY School of Law, where she co-teaches Contemplative Lawyering.

Leslie Rawls, True Realm of Awakening, is an attorney and bar-certified appellate law specialist, and is married to a trial lawyer. Leslie received Lamp Transmission from Thay in 2009. She practices with the Charlotte (NC) Community of Mindfulness and with inmate Sanghas.

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