Retreat to Move Forward
I do a blatant, rubberneck double take as I pass a ghostly-white woman as Goth as the night is long and wearing something right out of Stevie Nicks’ closet, seated in the center of the labyrinth in a deep, rocking-back-and-forth meditation. I then notice a guy skip-walking – a jig, almost – timed with the live Celtic harp ensemble. He bugs me. But the spunky older woman – someone with a liturgical role, I’m guessing – who’s doing some sort of labyrinth speed walk, with a little twisting spin at each turn, is more entertaining.
I’ve come here to Grace Cathedral, Nob Hill’s epic house of God, to see if I can get a bit lost in the twists and turns of the massive labyrinth that adorns the church’s vestibule. It’s the monthly Grace After Hours event, during which one can learn the history of the archetype and its role as a prayer portal (used or centuries by mystics and more recently by soul searchers of all stripes). But given my gawking, I’ve clearly not managed to retreat into my own head, or do anything resembling prayerful reflection. I try again, walking slowly into and around and around the labyrinth, directing my attention inward. At the advice of my labyrinth docent, I focus on one thing (an interpersonal conflict) during the walk into the labyrinth. Once in the center, I stop and open myself up to an answer or resolution, and then, as I slowly walk outward from the center, I think about how to put my revelations into practice.
As I stand in the center, gazing up at the vast ceiling and stained glass, I feel a little flutter of reconciliation in my gut. This is hardly enlightenment; more like a tingle of transcendence. Maybe it’s just a contact spiritual high from all the labyrinth devotees, awash in prayer buzz. But it gets me wondering: How hard is it to escape this city’s workaday life for a taste of a spiritual retreat?
There’s no shortage of retreat centers around the Bay Area. Zen Buddhist, Catholic, Judaic, Wiccan – you can find one to satisfy just about any spiritual leaning. But, if you, like me, lack the funds, time or – most importantly – interest in taking a full-on retreat, but still think your navel could use a little gazing, you’ve got to look closer to home.
Practicing tai chi is like being a child, explained a sifu (teacher) from the Eight Step Praying Mantis Kung Fu studio, when I called to enquire about the beginner’s class. I had been thinking about the large groups of Chinese women I used to see in Washington Square Park early each morning as I rode the 30 Stockton bus through Chinatown. They – as well as the many lone tai chi practitioners I’d seen in other parks – always looked as if they were completely somewhere else. So engrossed – despite the honking cars and sniffing dogs and random drunks – in what they were doing. There, but not there. Focused and withdrawn. Sign me up.
So all I have to do, I thought as I walked over to class, is act like a child – more precisely, approach the movements as a child approaches her first steps – and I’ll escape my surroundings.
You knew this was coming, I’m sure, but I’ll say it anyway: As if. That shit’s hard! I fumbled through the tai chi walk, a seemingly simple, intentioned promenade that takes more hand, eye, foot and head coordination than I could muster on a Saturday morning.
But Jason from the San Francisco branch of the Taoist Tai Chi Society assures me that, in time, and with consistent practice, I can turn tai chi into an instrument for, in his words, “recharging my batteries.” Plus, the movements have a cleansing effect on internal organs. Not a bad deal.
I felt a bit like a transfer student at her first day of class as I ambled into St. John's Episcopal Church on a mild April evening for the weekly sitting group, led by Howard Cohn. Everyone seemed to know the routine – and each other. But I eventually found my bearings and settled in on a short stack of pillows. Cohn is a vipassana meditation leader from the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre. This class meets weekly for a 90-minute session comprising a 40-minute silent meditation followed by a talk, given by Cohn, on a topic linked to a Buddhist tenet or teaching.
The place filled up with maybe 50 people, some sitting on chairs and others on pillows. I asked myself: What would Buddha do? The floor, obvi.
I’d been steeling myself for what I imagined might be an interminable 40 minutes of stillness. One doesn’t just start meditating, I reasoned, just as one doesn’t just start mastering tai chi or getting mystical in a labyrinth. But for maybe 30 seconds of those 40 minutes, I had forgotten where I was and felt a bit like I was suspended there on the altar of St. John's, meditating. It was exhilarating, and a small victory.
During the other 39 minutes and 30 seconds, the inside of my head sounded like the search for a clear signal on the AM band during a late-night drive through the desert. I fought the urge to open my eyes to see if anyone was looking at me. I made micro-shifts to my crooked back. I wondered if anyone in the room had actually checked out, or transcended or whatever. I wondered if anyone else felt like a poseur, like I did.
And then, as if Buddha himself suggested it, Cohn centered his talk on the importance of sublimating “the comparing mind.” Duh.
I’m Catholic. So I wanted to do a little check-in with JC and see if he, his dad, and the Holy Spirit might help me out on this urban retreat initiative. As it happens, a friend of a very good friend of mine is a numerary member of Opus Dei. So I called her up and she invited me to attend a monthly Opus Dei meeting for women, called a Recollection, at St. Cecilia’s parish in the Sunset. The timing worked out and I went – admittedly, largely to see what this alleged “secret society” is all about.
There are only about 3,000 U.S. members of this institution, which is a subset (prelature, in Vatican speak) of the Catholic Church. Perhaps you’ve seen or read the depiction of Opus Dei and Silas, the murderous albino monk, in The Da Vinci Code ? That’s all hogwash, say members. And certainly, Dan Brown took liberties with his depiction. There are no Opus Dei monks, for one thing, and while the genders are largely segregated – and while the women appear to assume all domestic duties – the book’s portrayal of Opus Dei as oppressive to women strikes me as off.
But adherents to Opus Dei are certainly devout. Many attend daily mass and some practice corporal mortification – though nothing, I imagine, as close to Silas’ nasty flagellations in Brown’s book. Single members proclaim celibacy. It’s all in the name of devotion to God, they say. I can respect their dogmatic approach, but it conflicts entirely with the reforms I wish the Vatican would make. Still, while I’m sure the Opus Dei members were all trying to figure out what to make of me, everyone was very nice and welcoming. (Sure, so were Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, you might say. But my limited experience does not suggest that Opus Dei has earned cult status.)
Way back before college, where my relationship with Jesus got complicated, Mass used to serve as a mini-retreat each week. My attention would fade in and out but I always left feeling better, my faith in myself and the world restored, as trite as that might sound. That’s what I’d been hoping for from my Opus Dei experience, but the three-hour program did not soothe my soul. During two long homilies, the priest suggested ways for us – myself and the handful of mostly Asian women in their 40s and 50s – to deepen our relationship with Jesus. I much preferred the part of the program during which a fellow attendee gave a brief talk on the importance of cheerfulness in a prayerful life. It boiled down to this: Be nice and smile and have an open mind, because God loves you.
Overall, though, I had probably set up false expectations – I knew there’d be a big focus on JC and the New Testament. There are much more liberal interpretations of Catholicism in SF. I once attended Mass at Most Holy Redeemer in the Castro and I seemed to be the only one in my pew who was straight, and not a tranny. Still, I had been hoping there’d be less talk and more communing with the Holy Spirit.
Seeking solace in Opus Dei proved to be a bit of a stretch, so as the pendulum reached its opposite apex, I took a stab at aligning my chakras by laughing my ass off. More precisely, I signed up for the Laughing Meditation workshop at Integral Yoga Institute of San Francisco. “This workshop involves Hatha Yoga poses and extended conscious laughter followed by a silent meditation,” promised the website. Om Shanti to that, I thought.
It turned out to be a private lesson, since nobody else showed up. The knowledgeable and effervescent instructor, Dee Benefield, gave me the lowdown on the use of laughter to improve health and well-being. An Indian doctor, Madan Kataria, started a laughing club in the mid-90s after finding evidence that laughter has curative powers and general health benefits. He later began working with his wife, a yoga instructor, to incorporate laughing with deep breathing and stretching.
After some light yoga, Dee and I started to laugh. Rather, she started to laugh, and then I laughed with her. With nothing, and no one else, to sustain them, the chuckles petered out. As an aide, she pulled out a mechanized toy, a plush lion, that literally rolls around on the floor, laughing. It was funny and cute, but what really made me laugh was the notion that we were sitting there, watching this toy roll around and forcing ourselves to laugh.
But then, each of my little urban retreats had been about forcing myself. Every time I walked into a new situation and hoped it might cleanse (or at least, awaken) my spiritual palate, or teach me a cosmic lesson, or shake up the Etch A Sketch, as it were. Turn on, tune in and drop out, as Timothy Leary would have advised. Did I? A little, but my spirituality sampler reminded me that, unlike dropping acid, this stuff requires some work – it’s a practice, in the way that yoga or running or knitting or crossword puzzling is a practice. Of all these retreats, the ones that seemed to move me the furthest forward were the labyrinth walk and sitting meditation. I’ll give them another go, and try to turn off my comparing mind.
Grace Cathedral has two labyrinths, the second is outdoors and available any time. The indoor labyrinth is open during cathedral hours (check the website) and there are many labyrinth-focused events besides the Grace After Hours program. (There’s an outdoor labyrinth on the south side of Bernal Heights Park, as well.) Check out Integral Yoga for laughing and other workshops and for a good laugh, go see The Laughing Club of India , a documentary about Dr. Kataria’s circle of chortlers.
Tai chi classes abound in SF, and the Taoist Tai Chi group meets each Sunday morning in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Howard Cohn’s weekly sitting group meets on Tuesdays, 7:30–9 p.m. at St. John's Episcopal Church. And, finally, if you’re down with dogma, there’s always Opus Dei.