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Unplugged 2009

So what’s it like to be Unplugged? It’s quite wonderful really. It starts as riding the coattails of a very generous individual who gave a very generous grant to establish a retreat devoted to spirituality and leadership. You get on a bus with 40-some other college students from varying faiths and ride about 25 miles outside the city to the wonderful Warren Conference Center that was left to Northeastern by another very generous individual. There you pile in to one of 4 lovely cabins, claim a bed, and rush off to a delicious meal. This is all before the retreat even gets officially started. It’s a posh and privileged weekend spent in the woods by a lake. It’s extremely nice, but this is relatively unimportant. The real joy of the weekend is in the people.

The first night is about setting the tone for the retreat, so after some ice-breakers an we sit down and settle on the ground rules for the retreat. These ground rules constitute a commitment to be respectful about each other’s spiritual or religious tradition, as well as to be open and try to contribute as much to the group as possible, both by sharing ourselves and letting others share themselves with us.  Then some time is spent figuring out why you’re there and what you intend to get out of it. Part of the homework before even leaving is to find one object that symbolizes something that’s at your spiritual core. At one point that first evening we all break in to smaller groups and share the item we brought and talk a little about why it is important. In these small groups people tend to talk about really personal or difficult things in their lives. It’s refreshing to see such trust in action, and I am continually amazed and inspired by how open, honest, and understanding people are right from the get go. To end the first night on an up note, Brother Joe, NU’s Catholic Chaplain, leads a sing along. Two of us brought guitars so we played along, and a bunch of people hung out until early in the morning singing songs and having a good time.

Sleep is scarce at these retreats, but is made even scarcer by some of the early bird options. Imam Abdullah, NU’s Muslim Chaplain, leads a 6 am Muslim morning prayer and reflection, which is followed at 7 by a bright and early Yoga class. I opted out of these this year, as I was tired, and ever since I fell on the ice I’ve not been able to do a lot with my back without aggravating it. I made my first appearance at breakfast, after which we fall in to the thick of things, delving for the first time in to the meat of the retreat’s topic.

This years topic was Egoism and Altruism, so philosophically it was a “been there, done that” conversation for me. Even so, being mindful and listening to people discuss these topics is generally interesting, even if, as time has shown again and again, no solid conclusion can ever be reached. The general consensus of the people there seemed to be that it was necessary to balance Egoism and Altruism, which appeals to my Buddhist middle way leanings. This is a good rule of thumb, but I think anyone there would say it’s by no means a concrete way of dealing with thing. I was also reminded how I always have to couch the fact that I don’t think true altruism, in the sense of committing a completely selfless act is possible, and so I define an act as altruism according to the intent behind it and the effect it has. Basically, if the person is intending to help others and manages to, even if at the core he’s doing it subconsciously to get a good feeling out of it, it still counts as altruism. Enough philosophy, moving on.

This carried in to lunch and then in to some personal time, which I spent mostly playing guitar and doing some fact checking on Buddhism, as I was the only student Buddhist in attendance this year. One other person had practiced it a bit growing up, and the man who leads the Yoga class, Matthew Daniell, used to be a Buddhist priest and still teaches about buddhism. Yet, when you’re the only student following a faith, other students tend to come to you with the questions. This was also in preparation for one of my favorite parts of the retreat, which is the saturday afternoon “Town Meeting” in which students basically get to throw out questions about any faith and have them answered by other students. The Chaplains are there to correct an misinformation being thrown around, but it’s mostly left to the students to go back and forth. It’s almost always a mix of very simple misunderstanding about religions and deep burning questions that people find troubling in understanding other religions.

After the town meeting was a multi-option session where you worked one different types of spiritual expression. The session I chose was on making or finding you own sacred space. It started with people going around talking about what spaces they generally thought of as sacred. We all spent some time thinking about what mattered to us and what we would want in a sacred space, and went around sharing our thoughts of what our ideal sacred space might look like. Each sacred space someone talked about sounded lovely, and I hope they all get a chance to build them and invite me to come visit. Even now I’m trying to figure out how to go about constructing my own.

After these sessions ended was another full session on Egoism and Altruism, which segued in to dinner, which segued in to another multi-session, this time devoted to exploring spiritual practices. Both years I’ve gone Matthew has run a session on Buddhist practice, and it’s one of the very few chances I get to practice different Buddhist meditation styles with other people. The thing is that meditation has become such a non-demoninational tool, that so many of the practices now differ wildly from the Buddhist intent of opening awareness in the present moment. Finding people interested in meditation with that intent is fairly hard, so I cling to those moments and this part of the retreat. (On the same note, finding people in Boston who practice the Soto Zen meditation style, zazen, which is basically sitting facing a wall and seeing what happens is nigh on impossible, so I’ve all but given up finding a group. If you happen to know of one, please tell me in the comments.) As such, this session was a blessing in allowing me to feel the energy of meditating with like minded people again.

After meditation, and in a state of general exhaustion, I decided to skip the late night movie and head back to the cabin. I found a few other people there hanging out in the living room and thought I’d join them for a bit before turning in. This turned in to a 3 hour wandering conversation, which ran until there were only two of us left talking. Eventually we both ran out of steam and finally turned in.

I elected again, the next morning, to sleep through the early session, but unlike last year, thankfully, managed to actually get up and go to breakfast and the other morning sessions. We started with another series of session on exploring spiritual practices. My only regret on the retreat was not going to the session on Jainism, as I know little to nothing about it.  Unfortunately I could not, for, as part of the Multi-faith Student Connection, I was obligated to help lead the nature walk. I suppose I can’t complain too much as the nature walk was wonderful. We decided it should start out with a meditative walk down to the lake, and then everyone should split up and go there own way, all the while maintaining complete, meditative silence. I ended up in a clearing on a short hill, with tons of open space, so I began swinging my walking stick around and stretching out my back and arms with the shifting weight. After stretching and setting in to look around a bit, I began to head back slowly. I was nearing the bottom of the hill when I hit a spot where the trees completely stopped the wind. It was the first time during the whole retreat I was aware of how windy it was everywhere on the grounds, and that moment of transitioning from wind to silence was a moment of complete, open awareness for me. I haven’t experienced that feeling in a while.

At then end of the walk, we went back for a main session which was about, from what I could tell, social responsibility. It was interesting, though most of it was presented from a Christian perspective of “everything is a gift, so you should respect that and pay it forward.” I almost felt like this sort of cheapened the message, as I think there are other more poignant and meaningful reasons to be socially responsible. Then again, I’m obviously biased against that way of thinking, so maybe the exposure is good for me in the long run. This conversation segued in to the closing ritual where we all started reconnecting with the outside world and our existing responsibilities. We also took a moment to write a letter to ourselves that we’ll receive sometime in April as a reminded of where our mind were this weekend.

Not to end the retreat on a down note, but out of respect to her memory, those of us on the retreat last year had a touching moment of silence for Rebecca Payne. For those of you who didn’t know her or what happened to her, she was a wonderful young woman who was on the retreat with us last year, but was tragically slain in her off-campus apartment last May (the story was picked up by ABC news, where you can read the details). This was just a few months after most of us had just gotten to know her. She was a light on the retreat last year, and we miss her. You could really feel how much she meant to the people in that circle, and that made it a very touching last moment for the retreat.

All that was left for us then was to grab a last lunch together, pack, and head back to Boston and back to our lives. It’s always a tough thing, stepping back in to the real world after feeling so removed from it. It’s hard coming back and seeing people so guarded and lost in their lives, and knowing that each of them have a story they could but may not be inclined to share. It’s our challenge, really, to try to foster a dialogue and openness with our community. To get people talking and acting together out of good will.

This is especially important among faiths. If there was anything that was made clear by this weekend, and anything I wish to impress upon you, it’s that no matter what faith you may have or religion you may follow, be you Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Agnostic, Atheist, or any of the many others out there, it is time we set our differences aside and look to our commonalities. It is time we stop trying to convert or kill each other, and figure out how we can all live with like minds and like goals. It may be easier to say than it is to do, but if it’s going to take a lot to make it work, what better time to start than right now?

Anyway, I want send a special thank you to the Northeastern Spritual Life Office, the Student Activites & Leadership Office, all of the Chaplains, and all of the wonderful fellow students who made this retreat possible. You guys all rock.

Posted in Personal, Religion, Spirituality.

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