Author and journalist Leslie Bennetts learns a new way to cope with chaos at New York’s Mohonk Mountain House
Years ago, Queen Elizabeth had her “annus horribilis,” when everything went wrong at the same time. Last year I had mine.
The spring of 2010 brought the unexpected end of my 22-year marriage, which triggered a nightmarish divorce whose bitterest battles revolved around the family home. My children were adamant about wanting to stay there, but my husband was so angry he threatened to make that impossible, and the resulting conflict sent the price of our divorce skyrocketing.
Already reeling from the terrifying barrage of related expenses, I spent the summer trying to control my anxiety about the impending expiration of my longtime employment contract. In a field devastated by the recession, at a company where many of my colleagues had already been disappeared from the payroll, my job was finally extended, although my income was dismayingly diminished.
Before I could heave a sigh of relief, two close relatives expired, and my 87-year-old mother fell and broke her hip in three places. I’d been trying to avoid self-pitying references to the trials of Job, but as my mother developed a nightmarish array of post-surgical complications, I couldn’t help but think: This too? Really? Even as I’m dealing with the loss of my husband and my children? With my home, my career and my income all in jeopardy? It seemed like an awful lot of challenges to absorb in a few short months.
Admittedly, losing the kids was not a surprise; my younger child was departing for college in September, so the empty nest was the only one of the year’s sucker-punches I’d actually been expecting. But that didn’t make the house any less empty when the kids went off to school and I was left alone with our elderly dog, who wasn’t in great shape either. “The next thing that happens is: The dog dies,” said a friend who recently endured her own marital implosion.
What to do? Clearly I had to find new ways to cope with all the stress. Drowning my sorrows in drink or drugs seems undignified; although I’m a baby-boomer who thoroughly enjoyed the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll of my youth, I cringed at the thought of my kids coming home to find me a sodden wreck in a bathrobe, hiccupping and dabbing at swollen eyes with disintegrating tissues. There had to be a better way.
Not to mention a better place. Much as I love my home and want to hang onto it, I felt a strong need to get away from it all — at least, for a few days. For Manhattanites, a conveniently close getaway is Mohonk Mountain House, a sprawling 267-room Victorian castle 90 minutes north of New York. I hadn’t been there in three decades, but the website invited visitors to “experience a rejuvenation of body, mind and spirit in an incomparable setting,” which sounded like exactly what I needed. Plus, the owner’s wife, Nina Smiley, was teaching something called Three-Minute Meditation, which sounded promising. Go learn to meditate or jump off the George Washington Bridge? I picked meditation.
Overlooking the deep glacial waters of Lake Mohonk on one side and the Catskill Mountains on the other, Mohonk is surrounded by thousands of acres of pristine forest and winding trails. In my frazzled state of mind, I decided that even driving 90 miles was too much of a hassle, so I took a bus to New Paltz and Mohonk obligingly arranged for me to be picked up at the station.
At first glance, the enormous mountain house was the same old captivatingly preposterous extravaganza it has always been. Bedecked with towers and turrets, the rustic wood-and-stone castle looks more like Hogwarts than the soulless corporate resort-and-conference centers that have proliferated in recent years. It was only later that I noticed the new spa wing, skillfully designed and harmoniously integrated into a century’s worth of gradual architectural expansions.
For the last few decades, Mohonk has been run by Bert Smiley, whose family built the place in 1869 and has owned it ever since. His wife Nina, a Princeton Ph.D., and her twin brother, David Harp, are co-authors of The Three Minute Meditator, a how-to guide for harried Type-A people who think they don’t have time for meditation but need it. This category would definitely include me.
The idea of Smiley and Harp’s quickie approach is to integrate meditation into your life and link it to regularly occurring opportunities, rather than feeling the pressure to set aside a larger block of time — a barrier that often discourages busy people.
“Meditation is being totally focused in the moment,” Smiley says. “Anything can become a meditation if you clear your mind and do it with total focus. You don’t have to take time out of your day; the ability to meditate can be linked to washing the dishes or brushing your teeth or walking upstairs. No thoughts, only the action. When a thought comes in, let it go. As you meditate, you’re creating a new habit, a neural path that allows you to get to the place of mindfulness more quickly. You’re building mental muscle, and you develop a cumulative ability to relax and center yourself. Nothing is wrong with thoughts — we all have to think and plan and be effective — but when stress makes the whole body tight, that’s when we need a mini-intervention to let the body know we’re not in a fight-or-flight situation. We need to say, ‘Time out.’ Once we’ve had those two or three minutes of mindfulness, we can go back to our thoughts; the situation hasn’t changed, but we have. We’re more centered, more focused, and better able to deal with it.”
As Smiley leads me through some breathing exercises, I am astonished at how difficult it is to banish all thought, even for a couple of minutes. Breathe in. Breathe Out. I can’t believe my soon-to-be-ex-husband refused to take care of the family dog while I was gone. Oops — swat that thought away! Breathe In. Breathe Out. My foot itches. Swat! I wonder whether they’ll have those great homemade tortilla chips and guacamole at lunch again today. Swat! My mind seems to be buzzing like an angry hornet.
But when I do manage to clear some mental space, I feel refreshed, as if I’ve just had a quick nap. As the thoughts are swept away, so are the emotions that accompany them — and given the turbulence of recent months, that’s a huge relief. There are a lot of problems in my current life that I can’t control, so the task confronting me seems to be accepting them in a way that allows me some peace of mind.
“Meditation leads to having a choice,” Smiley explains. “I may choose to be angry, but I’m not owned by the habits or emotions of the past. I can make new choices, right in this mindful moment. I think that’s part of the empowerment of bringing meditation into one’s life.”
Smiley even credits meditation with transforming her own personality. “I used to be much more moody,” she says. “Now I use mindfulness to recalibrate. It’s smoothed me out and calmed me down. This has truly changed my life.”
Whatever happens, I’m dealing with my emotions a little differently. When I start to feel panicky about whether I’ll be able to handle everything, I remind myself to meditate. Time to banish all those negative thoughts, along with the frustration and anxiety that accompany them. I’m determined to make the coming year as positive an experience as the past one was wretched, no matter what new challenges arise.
Breathe in. Breathe out. No thoughts. Just peace and mindfulness.
I’m working on it.
Leslie Bennetts is a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast