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A month-long meditation retreat, the most amazing spiritual experience of my life

How an Enlightenment Skeptic, Found Spiritual Confidence

By Mayra Cuevas

It wasn’t an overnight decision. In a sense, I had been preparing for this month-long meditation retreat since my first mediation experience twenty years ago. I was 16, living in rural Puerto Rico and diagnosed with severe depression. My parents took me to see a therapist. She prescribed only one thing: meditation. Not only did she save my life, but she initiated me on a life-long spiritual journey.

In my 20s, I continued my meditation practice by joining a Buddhist tradition. Initially, I went to a meditation class once a week, and then I slowly incorporated teachings, short weekend retreats and eventually began attending two-week international courses. The transformative nature of my meditation practice always left me wanting to know more about these profound teachings. The peaceful effect the practice had on my mind and the positive changes in my life were irrefutable.

The only doubt that always remained in my mind was whether I – as flawed a being as I currently see myself – could attain what Buddhists call Enlightenment. “The highest of all possible human goals is the attainment of complete enlightenment, an ultimate state of peace in which all obstacles obscuring the mind have been removed and all good qualities such as wisdom, compassion and skillful means have been fully developed.” – from Clear Light of Bliss, Ven. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.

For me, the answer had always been, “I don’t know.” I was skeptical, not about the teachings but about my own ability to realize their full potential. After all, I was not a monk living in some mountain cave. I was newly married with two step-kids, working in a pressure-cooker environment, trying to launch a second career as an author. Could I really aspire to enlightenment? The answer came during this retreat. Read more

A Muslim and a Buddhist’s Quiet Rebellion: A Dessert Recipe Swap

“This is my favorite Almond Harrissa recipe,” Roba said as she handed me the ingredients and baking method printed in neat white paper. I took it smiling and gave her my favorite flan recipe in return. The exchange left me feeling a little like a rebel. Somewhere else in the world, what we had done could amount to a death sentence. And in our own country Islamophobic sentiments were tearing communities apart. Instead, we were reaching out to each other, seeking not only understanding but also friendship.

It had been three weeks since the Paris attacks. Roba and I had spent many shifts working side-by-side on terrorism stories at CNN’s International Desk. From our seats in the newsroom we had watched, documented and reported on the growing anti-Muslim bigotry and vitriol in Europe and the United States. We saw Muslim and Arab communities become the real targets of hatred as result of the actions of a deranged few.

The recent events had left me with a longing to connect with my Muslim colleagues in a deeper way and to understand how their lives had changed in the last three weeks.
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An afternoon with four awesome YA authors at the Decatur Book Festival

Last weekend, I attended the Decatur Book Festival’s Teen Stage panel “Thicker Than Water.” It was a discussion on the family bonds that make up YA novels. The panelist were authors Una LaMarche (Don’t Fail Me Now), Elizabeth Lenhard (Our Song), Marie Marquardt (Dream Things True) and Katie M. Stout (Hello, I Love You).

Family loyalty was one of the first topics to be addressed, one of the main themes in Marquardt’s novel.

“Alma’s family is primarily an undocumented immigrant family from Mexico,” she said speaking about the protagonist in Dream Things True. “Evan’s family is a politically complicated family. They are so different but in fact they share a lot in common, they feel a pull to live up to what their families want them to be.”

Stout’s treatment of family bonds in Hello, I Love You prompts her protagonist Grace to hide from her family in a boarding school in Korea.

“You don’t get to choose them,” Stout said, speaking of one’s family. “And you might not always like them, but they are still people that you need to love as human beings. We might not be best friends and disagree but I choose to love and respect you.”
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To the Afghan woman who died on the street killed by a mob, you are not alone

“I watched a woman die today.” This is what I tell my husband as we are eating pepperoni pizza and watching a recorded episode of Seinfeld – part of our nightly routine. He doesn’t say anything for a while. We just stare at each other, pizza slice in hand. He can see the tears are beginning to pool on the corner of my eyes and turns off the television.

“She was beaten to death by a mob. Then burned,” I say this as I am picking at the crust of my pizza slice. I rip off small pieces with my fingers and put the baked dough on my mouth, chewing through the tears that are streaming down my face.

“There was a big crowd, mostly men, and they were cheering. There were so many of them. Standing on balconies, looking, recording. No one helped her.” I have the largest lump on my throat and have to set aside my plate to reach for a box of tissues. I had been holding this in since ten in the morning. It is seven at night.

I didn’t have to watch the video. No one in the newsroom makes us watch these things. But today, Afghanistan was under my watch and with the country came the story of this woman, a 27-year-old accused of burning the Koran. Her parents said she was mentally unstable. We were deciding what to do with this video full of horror and all the evils in our world. I pulled the clip on my computer and the moment I saw her face I couldn’t stop watching. My heart tugged at the screen wishing I could reach out to her, pull her out of the axis of that mob and give her refuge. Instead, I watched as men, so many of them, beat her with long wooden boards. They hoisted her up onto a roof and then pulled her down to the ground. They screamed things at her. They reveled in the blood covering her face. They kicked her when she was barely able to stand. I kept watching, because now I couldn’t leave her alone. Because by watching I was acknowledging the barbarity of the last minutes of her existence.

The woman didn’t survive. Towards the end of the video I watched her body burn. Whether she was still alive it was impossible to say.

The scene prompted an irrational anger in my heart. I was angry that no one helped her. That they watched on the side-lines, phones in hand, recording like it was an act in an impromptu play. And I was angry that from my chair in a newsroom in Atlanta, on the other side of the world, I couldn’t help her either. She had died alone, burned like trash on a street gutter.

When I got home I prayed. In Buddhism we have this special prayer called a mandala. It is a prayer offering everything that is beautiful and pure. Offering all the happiness and peace there is in this world – in all worlds. I made that prayer for this woman, whom I didn’t know and never would, but whose life was as precious as mine. I prayed for her happiness, wherever she may be. She didn’t have to be alone anymore.

The Little Mermaid, Fanfiction and Why I Want a Happy Ending

***SPOILER ALERT***This post contains Divergent Trilogy spoilers*** 

Fans of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” would be horrified to know the truth behind its happy ending. Hans Christian Andersen, the story’s original author, intended his little mermaid to watch her prince marry another woman, a day before her own tragic demise. In the end, the little mermaid sacrificed her own life for the happiness of the prince she loved.

I confess, if I had to pick between these two endings, Disney wins. After all, hadn’t she already been through enough having to lose her voice to the witch?

As every reader knows, characters are at the mercy of the writers that create them. But that was until the advent of fanfiction – stories that adapt characters, plot or settings from other original work. It is mostly written by fans of popular fiction and then shared online for free.
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My first agent critique, a confession of struggles and the happy news that followed

By Mayra Cuevas

After a decade-long career in journalism, I pride myself on the ability to take criticism and rejection. At least that’s what I’d tell my writing partner every time literary rejection came up.

I once worked on a mini-documentary series for six months only to have it cancelled after it was ready to air. But that is the nature of the TV business, so it was easy to accept.

But writing a novel, I have come to find out, is different. It is a very personal, almost visceral experiment that brings out every hidden insecurity. And faced with criticism and rejection, it can be devastating.

Last month, I participated in the Atlanta Writers Group Spring conference – my second writers conference and my first taste of literary judgment. My first conference, last October, was a mix of excitement and the unrealistic idealism of the first time novelist. This second time was a reality check brought about by an agent critique session.

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Compassion for your Writer Self

By Mayra Cuevas

 

Rejoicing in others 

I deeply rejoice if you are a writer whose full time job is to work on your next book. I am not one of those people. At least not for now.

My main frustration with writing doesn’t come from lack of ideas, but from lack of time.  Like most of the aspiring novelist, I struggle with carving out time to write between my full time job, family, friends, volunteer work, spiritual studies and those pesky everyday responsibilities like doing laundry, paying bills and shopping for groceries.  Even when I try my very best to steal an hour here and there, the antagonistic forces are sometimes all too strong.  Writer’s block would be a luxury, but neither my critique partner and mother of four, Prof. M, or I have the time for such indulgences. Any time we get is spent furiously clicking our keyboards.

It is here that compassion for your writer self needs to kick in.
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