Daily Hampshire Gazette - Established 1786
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Meditation: a new kind of family time

Family life can be hectic. So when our local YMCA offered a Joyful Breath family meditation retreat, my wife Lori and I thought this would be a great way to slow down and reconnect.

Our clan of four is accustomed to co-existing with 20 or more extended family members in a single cottage for a weekend, sometimes a week. And while this practice lends itself to a certain amount of craziness, we find the connection with family that comes from such close proximity mostly enjoyable.

Still, we wondered if it was realistic to attend a family meditation retreat with our kids, ages 6 and 3. Dinner, even breakfast, at our house can range from peaceful to outright insanity, and end-of-the-day meltdowns, if meal and sleep schedules shift, are common. Further, as any parents of young children can attest, a weekend away as a family is not a vacation.

But it had been years since either Lori or I had participated in a meditation retreat and we had long talked about ways we could bring our individual contemplative practices to the center of family life. So we decided to attend.

We were not alone. Roughly two dozen families attended, with nearly 20 children under the age of 10, and a handful of teens and young adults. Through work and school, all four of us knew other participants, which helped us feel connected to the group. Shared cabins, a field of tents, space for mediation and yoga, and outdoor group meals created an atmosphere where kids roamed freely and adults breathed deeply.

While the Monastics, seven men and women from a Buddhist monastery, infused the weekend with their joyful energy and dedication to mindful-living, the retreat was hosted by a historically Christian organization (mostly viewed as secular today), by a camp director of Jewish heritage, for a group of families from various faith-based and secular traditions.

Participants chose from activities that included formal contemplative practices such as sitting meditation, yoga, walking mediation and Dharma talks as well as canoeing, kayaking, swimming, nature-based activities and campfire singing with marshmallows.

The more formal meditation practices were for teens and adults but walking meditation and mealtime rituals were experienced by all ages and so these practices had the greatest impact on our family.

The idea of 50 children and adults walking mindfully and silently through the woods, for an hour, seems improbable, at best. Yet, the young children, and by extension their parents, seemed comfortable, most of the time, in the relative silence. Their senses of curiosity and wonder were attuned to the landscape and critters we experienced as we threaded our way through wooded trails.

A surprisingly powerful aspect of the retreat was the mindful practice of shared meals. The Monastics rang a large meditation bowl and offered a prayer of gratitude before each meal, a practice we often use at home. Astonishingly, we all practiced silence for the first 10-minutes of each meal, a practice foreign to our family. Yet, introducing a practice of silence for the first few minutes of each meal set a tone for a relatively quiet and very enjoyable experience for the entire group.

Since the retreat, Zoe and Adam have successfully shifted, with gentle prompting, their rowdy household energy by kissing the floor with their feet, just as they learned during walking meditation.

We now practice the ritual of silence for the first 3 minutes of dinner, often at the request of Zoe and Adam, and this has helped restore a sense of calm and pleasure to what had become a particularly chaotic time of the day for our family.

While talking to one father-friend after the retreat, he remarked that he was not able to participate in the traditional meditation practices as deeply as he had hoped, which was also true for me. He also said that the weekend was the best family vacation his clan of four had ever experienced.

For me, and I suspect for others, one of the greatest gifts of fatherhood has been making a shift from a life where I was the center of my universe to a life where we, as a family, are the center of my universe. Our recent retreat experience helped me more deeply appreciate this welcome transformation.

John Engel is an organizational development coach and consultant living in Florence. Engel can be contacted through his website, www.fatherhoodjourney.com.

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