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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.
Read more

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.

A baby? No thanks. I’m saving my womb for the alien apocalypse.

This weekend my husband Chris and I are going to a family reunion. It’s my family. Puerto Rican. Loud. And all over your business.

My grandparents are celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary and while I’m both thrilled and honored to be a part of such a magnanimous event, I’m dreading the question that I know, for sure, will be repeating itself. Over. And Over. Again.

What are you waiting for to have kids? Don’t you want kids? Why don’t you want kids?

That’s more like three questions. But they all sound like one long run-on question. 

“Well,” I want to tell them, “it’s not that I don’t want kids. It’s that I’m saving my womb for the alien apocalypse. You know, like Sigourney Weaver in the movie Aliens.”
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Of Love and Brownies: My Favorite Brownie Recipe

My husband and I recently sold and moved from the house that was our first home as a couple. The last week that we lived in our old home was a stressful time full of boxes and bubble wrap. But it was also a welcomed change, one that we had wanted for a while.

For days, I went back and forth between these two emotions eager to feel something else. Until I did. About halfway through the week the longing began. I felt the ghost of the memories we had shared in that home. Memories of becoming a family, of being loved and accepted, of wholehearted laughter and joy. And memories of our neighbors and their beautiful friendships. I was filled with such deep gratitude for the last four years of our life. We had been incredibly lucky to be surrounded by loving people in every direction of our home. And our lives.

Our lovely neighbors, Jeanine and Shirley
Our lovely neighbors, Jeanine and Shirley

One of our neighbors, Jeanine, shared with me the recipe for the brownies she regularly made for us. Hands down the best brownies I have ever had. I mean, you-can’t-just-eat-one kind of brownies. When I asked her for the recipe she told me about her secret ingredient, cherry extract. But even when I tried to duplicate the recipe, it just wasn’t the same. Her brownies tasted of friendship, kindness and generosity. Of being a grandmother and having lived life long enough to know and appreciate the things that truly matter. That wisdom was her true secret ingredient.

In our neighbors honor, here is Jeanine’s brownie recipe.

Jeanine’s Friendship Brownies 

Begin with a “Betty Crocker” dark chocolate brownie mix and prepare the mix according to directions on the box.

Add 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract to the 1/4 cup water required in the preparation (this always enhances the flavor of chocolate!).

And 1/4 teaspoon of cherry extract (the “secret” ingredient!).

Add 1 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips.

Spread in a 9 x 13 baking pan (not a dark one).

I line the bottom with no-stick foil, and they come out of the pan so much easier.

Sprinkle with 1 cup of chopped pecans.

After baking, put them on a cooling rack.  Cut when completely cool.  These freeze beautifully too.

Enjoy in the company of family and friends!

There are little changes, and there is moving

I can think only of a few situations, other than death, divorce or a major illness, that are more stressful than moving. Moving is the disrupter of lives, making your existence a miserable juggling act of packing stuff into boxes and then trying to remember what you packed into what box.

This has been my life since January. It’s now May. And there is no end to the madness.

Hanging out with the Property Brothers after they renovated our home.
Hanging out with the Property Brothers after they renovated our home.

My husband and I just sold our home after a stint on HGTV’s Buying and Selling with the Property Brothers. Drew, Jonathan and the crew were amazing to work with! And thanks to them our house sold in 24 hours.

The problems is, our new house won’t be ready to another 3 to 4 months. So with this post I welcome my summer of bohemian living, shacking up with my husband in a tiny one bedroom apartment. It’s college all over!

What our new house currently looks like. A pile of dirt and boards.
What our new house currently looks like. A pile of dirt and boards.

I wish I could say how super zen I have been about it all. I wish I could say I have welcomed change and all its manifestations with an open heart. That would be wonderful. But the writer in me, the one that wants to spend every breathing moment of my day working on my book, can’t wait to be done with all this moving shenanigans and be settled in one place.

All I have to say is thank goodness for coffee houses! In fact, the saving grace of our tiny apartment is the AMAZING coffee house located about 200 feet from our front door. My husband in all his wisdom, tasked me with the job of finding us a place to live for the summer. My only requirement was that I had a place to escape too nearby so that I could finishing the mammoth task of revising my book before a second round of submissions.

View from the balcony of the coffee house! I love this place!
View from the balcony of the coffee house! I love this place!

So to all of you writers who are happily reading this post from the comfort of your very organized and box free home… I’m happy for you!!! Really, I am. And also an itsy-bitsy, tiny, little bit jealous. In a good way of course.

Feel free to share your moving horror stories below. Just so that I know that I am not alone in a universe ruled by cardboard boxes.

Happy writing ya’ll!

A writer’s life happens… my wedding day!

The last two months have been a whirlwind. I got married, went on my honeymoon, finished my manuscript and began querying. Yes, all in the span of eight weeks.

Expect a post soon about what it was like to finish my manuscript and begin my querying process. But for now, I’ll share a few photos and a video of our special day.

Special thanks to Isaac Zapata with Sarantala Photography for the beautiful photos and to Robert Halliday with Bob’s Eye View Weddings for the lovely film.

Enjoy!

 

Chris & Mayra – Teaser from Robert Halliday on Vimeo.

England Calling

This weekend I will be traveling to Ulverston in the U.K. for a two week meditation retreat and festival. And since I was going to be in England anyway, I decided to add on a few days to travel to London and Oxford  and do research for my writing. Here are some pictures from my trip. Hope you enjoy them!