Just Breathe

In today’s uber-connected world, the opportunity to escape the ever-present chatter and allow myself to succumb to a mindful respite at Vallecitos Mountain Ranch was both exciting and incredibly daunting. I had never meditated before and was eager to learn how.

The three-hour drive from Santa Fe, NM, to Vallecitos is a beautiful one in any weather but is a particularly beautiful on a rainy afternoon when the colors of the landscape are saturated. The 135-acre Vallecitos Ranch is completely surrounded by the pristine wilderness of Carson National Forest in the mountains of northern New Mexico. The word vallecitos means little valleys in Spanish.

The final eleven miles on a rutted dirt road wound deep into the mountains to the great lodge. Elegantly rustic, the lodge is the center of life at the ranch. It was built in 1928 and modeled after the lodge in Yellowstone National Park. The timbers are massive and fireplaces on the west and east ends are made of huge stones pulled from the river. The lodge consists of the main room, a loft, a dining room and a kitchen. Large porches shelter both the north and south sides of the building. It is the perfect picture of serenity.

Carl, the ranch foreman, checked us into our spartan, off-the-grid quarters. I settled into casita #2, a 10’ x 12’ room with a bed, table, chair and a beautiful view of aspens and pines. Others stayed in yurts and tents are available. Outhouses are conveniently located near the rooms and there are 2 modern bathrooms at the lodge. Solar panels provide limited power to the ranch. Since there is no electricity in the rooms, my computer was useless, my cell phone was left uncharged. We were truly off the grid.

Once settled in we got right to work. Grove Burnett, our teacher, sat us down in the main room of the lodge where we would spend most of our time practicing the art of mindfulness. He explained how to sit using zafus and zabutons. I was grateful to learn that pain was not part of the process and it was permissible to sit in chairs. Surprise! Grove informed us that we were to observe ‘noble silence’ from after dinner Friday evening until Sunday afternoon when the session ended. Some people expressed concern, but I was actually relieved not to have to be ‘on’ all weekend. No small talk, ‘…and where do you live? and what do you do?…’ etc.

We were instructed to sit comfortably with pelvis, spine and head in alignment. We closed our eyes and concentrated on our breathing. At least I tried. It was hard to concentrate for more than what seemed like a nanosecond. Although the first exercise lasted only for five minutes, it seemed like forever.

I know what you’re thinking. How hard could it be to keep your mind focused on your breathing? In… Out… Rise… Fall… I wonder what time it is… In… Out… In… My back hurts. Out… In… Fall… Rise… What is that smell?… Fall… In… Out… Rise… I have SO much work to do… In… Out… That dog sure has been barking a long time… In… Out… Rise… Fall… Gotta remember to pay the insurance premium today… Rise… Fall… Quiet that monkey mind! Concentrate! In… Out… Fise… Rall… On… Out… Fin… Rout…

We were released to explore the ranch and have a simple communal meal. It was starting to get dark as we reassembled in the lodge. A propane-powered lamp dimly lit the cavernous room. We settled into our places, warmed by the glowing fireplace. Grove gave more instruction, read inspiring poetry and we were quietly mindful for a half hour. Although it was a challenge to keep focused on my breath, it was easier than the first time. When the bell sounded, darkness had settled, and so it seemed, had my soul.

Grove says “The simple art of being aware is the basis for insight, wisdom, and seeing things clearly…  Science shows mindfulness can help reduce stress-related illness, reduce anxiety and depression, help with focus and concentration, and even change our brain structure to promote more flexibility and well being. Mindfulness training empowers us to cope better with burnout and the stress of our work. We develop better management and leadership skills. We act more compassionately. We are more effective.”

The simple art? It may be simple, but it is definitely not easy. I’m here to tell you it IS a challenge to be mindful, but the benefits have already shown themselves. I recognize when I’m not in the present moment, distracted by thoughts of the past or anxious about the future. I find it easier to come back from the la-la-land of my mind to being present. I feel more in charge. I feel at peace with the world. I feel good, alive, happy. You can, too. Just breathe.

All photos & text © 2012 Joslyn Baker