Arrival: The Mission to Omega

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m going to be doing a series about my experience at the Omega Institute, where I was fortunate enough to participate in the Mindfulness in Education Conference and Teacher Training. Founded in 1977, the Omega Institute is a nonprofit holistic learning and retreat center that “offer[s] diverse and innovative educational experiences” that “nurture dialogues on the integration of modern medicine and natural healing; design programs that connect science, spirituality, and creativity; and lay the groundwork for new traditions and lifestyles.” I’d heard nothing but rave reviews, and I was so excited to spend a week at Omega’s beautiful campus, meeting tons of interesting people, and rubbing elbows with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Mark Greenberg, Patricia Jennings, and Linda Lantieri.

But first, I had to get there.
The plan seemed simple enough; I’d fly from Vancouver to New York City on Thursday evening, stay overnight, and then on Friday I’d catch Omega’s chartered coach to Rhinebeck. Things got off to a mildly bumpy start with some weather related flight delays, but nothing out of the ordinary. I met a friend the next morning for breakfast, hung out a bit, and then set about finding a cab to take me to Port Authority. My hotel was only fifteen blocks or so from the bus station, but my luggage was pretty cumbersome and it was disgustingly hot out. For a better idea of what I mean, combine the heat and humidity of your average sauna with the smog and grime of New York, and there you go.

Maybe I’d been away from Manhattan for too long, but I guess I’d forgotten how the taxi system works there. Rather than the civilized act of flagging a taxi, informing the driver of your destination, followed by said driver taking you where you asked to go (a simple, yet elegant process) I experienced something more like this: “Where to?” “41st and 9th, please.” “Nope, no can do.” And then each taxi would drive off, leaving my increasingly flustered, sweaty self in its dust. At least I wasn’t trying to get to Brooklyn.

By the time I managed to snag a cab, the bus was due to leave in twenty five minutes. Cue the anxious mental monologue. I wasn’t that familiar with Port Authority, and if I missed the bus (which I’d already paid for) I’d be seriously out of luck. I felt like kicking myself; why hadn’t I just walked? It was sweltering inside the car. I reached over to switch on the A/C. My driver informed me it was broken. “Oh well, could be worse,” I thought. I tried some deep, mindful breathing to chill out (no easy feat.) “At least I’m in a cab. There’s plenty of time. It’ll be fine.”

Ah, famous last words. The driver turned onto 7th Avenue. Lo and behold we were in the midst of the worst gridlock I’d ever seen.

In case you aren’t familiar with the geography of Manhattan, we were right in the middle of Times Square. At rush hour. On a Friday. To make matters worse, there was some kind of construction happening barely a block away, meaning I couldn’t get out and walk even if I tried.

For those of you who have never been to Times Square, I truly mean it when I say there is nothing quite like it in this world. There is something about that glaringly bright, overstimulating mecca of consumerism that attracts the most remarkable examples of the human specimen. Don’t get me wrong, Times Square is fascinating, in a gross kind of way. Yet with all the incessantly honking horns, the livid drivers, the smells, the masses of tourists, and above all, the heat, I looked around and thought, “I’m not entirely sure, but I may be in hell right now.” And meanwhile the clock -- and fare meter -- kept ticking.

Like some of you, I was lucky enough to attend the Sharon Salzberg lecture and workshop held by the Dalai Lama Center back in mid-July. Many of the topics Sharon discussed have stuck with me, but, trapped in that cab, I was reminded of her story about being stuck in a New York airport. Her flight had been horribly delayed, and she had a speaking engagement in Portland the next day.

She described how stressed she had been, her mind spinning out stories, despite knowing she was merely adding burden to suffering. While she couldn’t control the immediate circumstances, she could choose to respond to them with compassion. According to Sharon, a compassionate response is one that involves equanimity as well as empathy. As she aptly put it, “We always ask ourselves, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ Something will happen. It always does. It’s not about not caring, it’s about asking yourself how much do I care?”

Well, in that moment, I cared very much about missing my bus. But I knew on the grand scale of things, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. It might be annoying and costly, but surely there would be another way to get to Omega. Meanwhile, all of the ruminating and catastrophizing in the world wouldn’t get me out of the traffic jam. I could either keep beating myself up, or I could cut myself some slack. I chose the latter. My heart rate slowed down and my body relaxed. Once he stopped swearing, I even managed to have a nice conversation with my driver, who, truth be told, had it way worse than me in that situation.  

Suffice it to say I eventually made it on the bus. There may have been some desperate sprinting and yelling involved, but it did work out. As we zoomed past forests and rivers, I felt totally at peace. I couldn’t help but be amused when I remembered my mental state barely an hour before. Our minds can take us on crazy rides, and sometimes it makes you wonder who’s really in the driver’s seat.

Relaxation gave way to excitement, however, as we made it onto the Omega Institute’s property and pulled into the parking lot. After checking in, dealing with luggage, keys, and linens, I wandered around the gorgeous property, soaking it all in before the welcome orientation and the opening keynote from Congressman Tim Ryan. There were people of all ages and all walks of life here. Buzzing with anticipation, I wondered what I was in for.

“Oh wow!” Surprised, I looked up from the ground to find myself facing a middle aged woman with a long silvery braid and a tie-dyed sundress. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you, but you have a stunning aura. Lovely indigo colour. I just thought you should know.” Without waiting for my reply, she moseyed off toward the dining hall.

"Nice," I thought. Omega. Bring it on.


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