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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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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.

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!

My very happy beginning to a new year: a writers retreat!

On Tuesday I will be embarking on my first writers retreat and I am very excited!!! Yes, triple exclamation mark.

I have attended many meditation retreats in the past but never a retreat where I set out to write for a week in a place other than my house.

The idea came when my writing critique partner, Marie, and I talked about doing something to mark a great start to 2014. We decided to head for the mountains for a few days with the only goal to begin writing a new book.

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Meditation for Writers 

By Mayra Cuevas

Every few years I take a couple of weeks off and travel to England’s Lake District to participate in a Buddhist festival and meditation retreat. It is my way of recharging my spiritual batteries and refocusing on the things that matter most. This is were I am now, in a temple located in the outskirts of the tiny village of Ulveston, nestled amongst the hills and lakes of Cumbria.

I’ve been meditating since I was sixteen years old. A psychologist recommended it as part of my treatment for a period of teenage depression. I will be forever grateful to her because she introduced me to this wonderful practice that has helped me keep my sanity even in the most challenging of times of my life.

In my writing life, meditation has helped me to stay focused and deal with feeling overwhelmed and anxious about my work. It has given me peace of mind, and in that peace I have found a boundless stream of creative energy that otherwise would have remained untapped and obstructed by the cloudiness of daily concerns. It has also given me the peace of mind to accept constructive criticism and to keep emotional distance between my feelings and the work.
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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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A writer’s intention

By Mayra Cuevas

Buddhism defines intention as a mental factor that moves the mind to an object. Our intention is the power behind everything we do, say and think. It motivates us throughout our day and our life, giving meaning to all our actions.

A loving, compassionate intention, Buddhist believe, will only lead to positive results or good karma. The opposite is true for a negative intention, which will always result in problems for yourself and others.

I struggled with finding my true intention at the beginning of my writing. Read more