Retreat into Stillness

Stillness drawing with non-dominant hand


I went on a silent retreat to learn about the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 4th Century; to learn more about total, sustained stillness. It was a book of the collected sayings of the Fathers that initially interested me. It intrigued me the way these Fathers remained so silent and so immobile for so long (life times). I was drawn to them. To what they were doing. I read they developed a deep sense or awareness of their feelings and perhaps what others felt, too, deep down. They became aware of things we never touch the surface of. Perhaps I romanticized them. But we do move too fast, talk too much, eat too much, filling all the empty spaces.


Finding Stillness

Some things I learned: you can only face up to yourself when you confront your heart without any hiding place; when you have done that, you know peace. John Chryssavgis wrote, “We come to self-knowledge through stillness, and silence, and attentiveness and watchfulness. When words are abandoned, a new awareness arrives.” (In the Heart of the Desert, p. 45)


This is what I wanted. I had 3 1/2 days. I doubted I would get far, but I’d dip my toe in.


There was another aspect that involved Intention. What was my intention for the retreat? I didn’t have to think long to tell the Brother, who would be my guide, that I wanted to discern what to eliminate from my too busy life and head (since I knew I’d never end up in a cave).


I was provided with a room, desk, wooden chair, bed, and bureau. I had a lock on my door and remained silent, except to talk, once a day, to my retreat director. On other retreats during the day I practiced following the breath, sometimes with a mantra. I almost seemed to float during those times.


This was different.


I brought my iPhone so my family could get in touch if they needed to. (Big mistake.) Not that they got in touch at all. It was my problem. I saw an email from someone who takes care of posting my words on my blog.


It simply involved something that she could see on my blog and I couldn’t. I became obsessed with this technical problem, although I knew nothing about technical solutions. There was something obsessive about this. I was truly agitated. Agitation was not tolerated in the desert, I remembered.


Of course I’d read that the Fathers and Mothers had demons to wrestle with (demons within themselves) but I had never imagined mine would involve the Internet.


I dwelt in frenzy — just the opposite of what I’d experienced before in retreats or my own practice.


I participated in more emails that soon involved a third person, my webhost.


I then put my iPhone under my clothes in a drawer, as if it were an illegal substance—and maybe it is—or at least what it did to me should be withheld. No slow hand written words—thought carefully through and put to paper with ink with no chance of a response for days. Instead, addictive words flew back and forth and back and forth like they never could before. Technology and the Internet had seen to that. And, I’m hunt and peck typing with a stylus on an iPhone—like punching something over and over. Fast and hard words. Can they break . . . these words?


No, but I can break using them this way. Having them come at me this way.


But, of course, this was my demon and I had to fight. With patience, they said. I had little of that.


The Desert Fathers and Mothers insisted on discipline. I had little of that, as well.


These were all opportunities to practice. Well, I still had my iPhone hidden in a drawer under my clothes.


Maybe what I experienced in a rocky spiritual afternoon was just an exaggeration of what I was retreating from in my everyday life.


So, I drew a picture of what I was feeling, wrote a left-handed confession and took pictures of some little cards in the Retreat House that represented what I wanted. And, I began to calm down. The breath came and went and I settled for the rest of the retreat.



After two more days I wasn’t sure what had happened, but I had found my retreat rhythm and inner stillness. On Saturday morning it was time to go home. I got what I had come for.


I got word, on Monday, that over the weekend my website had experienced an attack that my webhost had averted, but my site had to be shut down over the weekend.


Gone into silence. Into stillness . . .


joy, generosity, and gratitude cards


 Please leave a comment if you wish  . . .





Do Something You Love



Today's To Do List



As I was driving home from a week’s vacation, the Maine traffic still light and my favorite landmarks still in place after forty years, I thought, “This is great, I haven’t made a single “To Do” list all week.” After I’d said this, the traffic thickened, tangled, roadwork cut off lanes and cars braided themselves, weaving in and out, and on top of this, it was as if I’d opened a gate in my brain and the “To Do” items came out, about ten per mile for awhile.


After they’d emerged in great numbers, I realized there was an advantage to getting them out of my head and onto paper. Now they were swarming, enlarging and dominating my thoughts because I couldn’t write them at sixty-five miles an hour, both hands on the wheel.


I’d make a list as soon as I stopped for gas.  After that, I could forget it for the rest of the drive.  At home I could breathe into each one before I began.  “Pay the Bills” . . . five in- breaths and five out-breaths.  Then, I would pay the bills, or if I was still resisting, practice more breathing . . . another set of five.


If some  “To Do’s” were very challenging or upsetting, I could breathe my way into inner stillness (10-15 minutes) to rest before I began the particular “To Do.”


I could also be reasonable. “ OK, I’ll do three (six, twelve . . .) ‘To Do’s’ today.”  And, I could insert “Do Something you Love” in the middle and at the end.



To be continued . . .


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Take Yourself on Vacation Everyday


“Stillness feels like knots of static straightening out —releasing, smoothing, flowing on and on . . . carrying me, resting me, loving me!”



The breath is portable. This is both obvious and a surprise.


Obvious because you are always breathing. A surprise because you could be using the breath to: calm yourself, relax, protect yourself from chaos. You could use the breath to experience stillness. To take yourself on vacation everyday.


Even if you don’t want to get away, following the breath will help you to stay present and to respond from a calmer, wiser, more creative place.


But how? How do you take this place into your life?


You take it by practice. A little at a time. You will be practicing stillness, too as they come together.


Start with 3 minutes (or more if you have a practice already) of following the  breath In and Out.


You can say to yourself “In” on the in breath and “Out” on the out breath. Notice that after you do this for however long you decide, you feel more “still” inside.


A Maine artist, Joy Vaughan, has created an installation, that seems a physical representation of this stillness (picture below). The outside is covered with a great accumulation of her “to do” lists. The inside has several images and writings of her favorite dreams, for her the night’s version of the Stillness.


So what will you do with your next batch of “to do” lists to come your way?


To be continued….


Putting Experiences into Written Words



You can’t go back and change the past, but through writing you can change your understanding of it, and in that way you can heal it. In the present you can gain clarity and/or acceptance  of what is happening through writing. Gabriele Rico, Writing the Natural Way and James Pennebaker, Opening Up, each pioneers of the field, claim putting experiences into written words is healing in itself.

Finding Your New Voice



After you’ve had cancer, who you are changes; you have to find a new voice.


The Writing and Healing sessions will help you find it and write your stories. This voice tells you (and others if you wish) who you are and what you need to heal. To flourish. And as you write and share and breathe, in meditation and stillness, this voice gains clarity and carries its tune with more confidence and strength. It becomes a poet, a jokester, and a mythmaker. It embodies the resilient you. It becomes the best storyteller you will ever know, for you alone know what your stories are and what they mean.


Writing Can Change the Brain

The 90’s gave us lots of information about a healthy, active brain through advances in technology.  We are able to study the brain and know that each experience and thought literally alters the neurons in our brain.  You can make new neural pathways and change your experience of an event by changing your understanding of it.  Writing can literally change the brain. (See Mind Wide Open by Steven Johnson)

How to Find a Safe Place

What if I told you that you could find the peace of a Safe Place in about fifteen minutes — no matter where you were — then asked if you wanted it?


I bet you would seriously think about it.


Then, what if I said each time you went to your Safe Place it would be easier to get there and offer more relaxation and release of stress?


You might not believe me.


But I have seen it happen and I can get you there.  Or, you can get yourself there with the Writing & Healing book and meditation CD.




“All these years writing about “safe place” and often — or at least for the past 8 years or so — it’s been inside of me. But today it is also in nature. I am stunned by beauty this year. Has it never been Spring before? Has it ever been so full of color? From the faintest pink to the explosion of new green – just beginning green. It makes me happy, grateful, peaceful, hopeful – the same things I feel when I have been practicing mindfulness regularly.”
(from participant of a Writing and Healing workshop, Safe Place session)

Self Care…Body Care


After my first mastectomy and reconstruction, my friends told me I looked like an ocean liner coming into harbor when I entered a room. My upper body was immobile. I wasn’t conscious of this, but I must have been protecting the surgery that had been complicated with a drain in my back. It was winter and, my shoulder was so sensitive that I couldn’t stand the weight of a winter coat. I wore a cotton one with a shawl which was less pressure.


Looking back, I see two things were happening. I was overly sensitive to touch and I had an unconscious fear that the side of my body with the surgeries might fall apart. I see these things now, but then I was totally out of touch with my body. Perhaps I needed to be.


The following year, I had the same surgeries to the other side of my body. The pain and tension I then carried had more than doubled. I learned to live with it…. ignore it. I ignored my body to the point of not even knowing when I was sick. Even this year I had a long busy day which I went through happily, but that night I thought the temperature was too high in the room. It wasn’t, but I had a temperature of 103 and pneumonia.


Now I try to pay attention to my body. I have added fatigue to my awareness. I do a body scan throughout the day. This I have learned: I am much more tired than I realized. I still ache where the scars are on my back. It hurts, how my neck sits on my shoulders.


So, I breathe consciously and pay attention to what I teach in my own sessions, my own book. When I breathe into these tight and painful places I pretend I am opening a vice that clenches my muscles. On the in-breath I identify the area of my body; on the out-breath I let the tension and pain go.


I am like a child who is taught (by myself) “This is your shoulder” “This is your neck” “This is your fatigue”. Good job I said to myself.


I thought I was finished. But something from my book kept tugging at me. I decided to cluster (Gabriele Rico’s method). I put the word “Body” in the center of a circle and made free associations radiating out in lines like the rays of the sun. One line finally captured what I hadn’t known. It went out from the circled word body: “tension” –“pain”–“mad”/


So, I was mad at my body. I hadn’t known it.


Now, I have a new way of breathing for my whole body. “Breathe in acceptance” “Breathe out pain.” “Breathe in love” “breathe out mad.”

Barges of Worry


Exercise Two, Self Care.

Complete the following: “I reached out my hand again and something was placed in the upturned palm. It was a phrase, ‘Let ________________ go.'” Fill in the blank and write on.  Again, use scene and dialogue if you want. (Who gave you the words?  Do you know?) from Session Six, Writing & Healing: A Mindful Guide to Cancer Survivors.


The second exercise of Session Six, is similar to the first exercise, in that you receive something—which you will name—to help you learn to take better care of yourself. An upturned palm symbolizes a willingness to learn about yourself. You can do this, even if you don’t have the Meditation CD.  Sit quietly and follow your breath “In  Out” until you feel you have reached a bit of stillness inside yourself.  Then write the sentence above, filling in the blank.

This time it was my Granny who came to put the phrase into my palm. I decided to have a dialogue with her using my dominant hand (right) for myself and my non-dominant hand (left) for her.


Dear Granny,

What do you mean “worry”?


Dear Pamela,

            Thoughts like what would happen if someone you loved died or someone stumbled on their life path and you couldn’t help.


Dear Granny,

I thought it was good to put these feelings into writing.


Dear Pamela,

            It is or how else would I have known.  The thing is you have been worrying about these things for a long time. Or situations like it.  Your worry feelings have different actors.


Dear Granny,

It’s good to know what is there, don’t you think?  I didn’t know I was worrying.


Dear Pamela,

            It’s just that worry by itself, what you have been doing, doesn’t get you anywhere. Worry is heavy, darling.  It also multiplies.  First it is worry about health and before you know it the worry has spread to a dozen other things as well.  It’s like a barge of worry being on a waterway controlled by locks.  It you open a lock for one  and forget to close it barges of worry keep coming. 


Dear Granny,

How do I close the lock?


Dear Pamela,

            Close the lock with other writing.  Try gratitude for a few days.  Worry will never disappear, just don’t let it take up all the space.