We’re in a new year and a new decade, and we’re just trying to find a way through the chaos. What lies on the path ahead? How can we become better people? Is there a way to block out the noise and re-center to find some peace of mind?
In times like these, some people turn to the stars or tarot cards for a prediction of what’s coming next, while others turn inward, searching their inner thoughts and feelings to find a new compass.
Here in Washington, there are numerous opportunities for self-discovery, from fortune telling in crowded bars to a silent retreat in the wilds of Northeast. One is bound to be perfect for you — if only we could divine which one.
It’s not uncommon to seek certainty when the world is in a state of upheaval. And for a growing number of millennials, that guidance comes from an ancient source: astrology.
And while many are using apps for their celestial guidance, local astrologist and astrology teacher Ichrak Dahou says Co-Star and the Pattern apps only scratch the surface of what the stars and planets can tell you. It’s not that Dahou is against apps, per se, but “I worry that people stop there,” she says. “They stop asking questions” when they just read horoscopes. In her readings and classes, “I want to show the deeper aspect that I think people are hungry for. They want to introspect, slow down and understand the world around them.”
Dahou began her exploration of astrology after a serious car accident in 2009. “It gave me a more complete way of understanding myself — much more than tarot ever did,” she says. She became a professional astrologer in 2014 and has taught classes around the region, from the hip DIY spot the Lemon Collective to College Park’s crunchy Smile Herb Shop, where Saturday she’ll discuss “2020 and Beyond: Astrology of a Pivotal Year.”
Newcomers to astrology can be baffled by terms such as “profection” or a sign “rising,” so Dahou likes to limit the jargon in her classes. “There’s a hands-on portion, making their own chart, or I do a live demonstration” of how a chart is read. “I love when people participate and explore for themselves. It adds a unique flavor to every class. Sometimes we get into deep conversation about the elements so people can apply them to their daily lives.”
You might never look at the night sky the same way again.
Centuries ago, long before they were wielded for their supposed mystic insight, tarot cards were used for what you would use a simple deck of cards for now: silly party tricks and games of chance, among other purposes.
It wasn’t until a couple hundred years ago that the typical 78 cards in a tarot set were ascribed with myriad predictive, reflective and even occult observations about a person’s time spent wandering this floating rock.
Regardless of how much weight you put into the power of tarot, one of the more unexpected places in the District to get read is at the kitschy Petworth burger bar, Slash Run. On nights throughout the year, you can walk in and sign your name up on a sheet for a session of “Tarot and Cocktails” with one of two readers tucked away in a corner near the window of the bar. Miss Kelly got into her practice in the same way other people learn tasks ranging from the mundane to the spiritual these days: via YouTube. Azucena, who started the Slash Run event a year and a half ago, has been in the tarot world for about six years.
While some believe that tarot can provide a glimpse into the future, Azucena has a more measured and reflective explanation to what it can all mean: “Tarot is an energy snapshot in time.” It’s a healthy check on the stresses of the world; don’t fret too much about the past or future, worry about how you can act on your life right now.
Tarot and Cocktails, Feb. 7 at 9 p.m. (sign-up at 8 p.m.) at Slash Run, 201 Upshur St. NW. slashrun.com. $10 suggested donation. — H.C.
On a chilly Wednesday evening in January, a few hundred people have gathered in the dimmed sanctuary of the River Road Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda — seated in chairs mostly, but a few standing and some who have plunked themselves down on cushions on the floor — to listen to a petite woman named Tara Brach talk. The founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, with a PhD in clinical psychology, Brach leads popular weekly sessions of vipassana (or “mindfulness”) meditation, followed by hour-long dharma talks, named after the Buddhist concept sometimes translated as “truth” or the “right path.”
In contrast to the rapt stillness that attends Brach’s guided meditations — no more than 30 minutes long, balancing her gently soothing voice with periods of alert silence — Brach’s talks (known, cozily, as Wednesdays With Tara) are often punctuated by corny jokes and the audience’s laughter. These sessions, which also include light refreshments, are wildly popular outside the church’s congregation; Brach sets aside a portion of each event to make sure that people who have come from far away by public transportation (T2 Metrobus or Ride-On No. 29) can get a lift home, or to Metro, from a friendly stranger.
Between the meditation and talk, Brach stops to acknowledge the global audience that regularly watches her live stream on Facebook (the audience on a recent night included folks in Australia, Israel and several other countries). IMCW calls these sessions classes, but they typically feel less like school than like being in the presence of a quiet and exceptionally contemplative rock star.
Wednesdays from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at the River Road Unitarian Universalist Church, 6301 River Rd., Bethesda. $10-$15 suggested donation. The class schedule, including announcements of occasional guest teachers, is available at imcw.org. — M.O.
It takes place in a church, but it’s really not all that churchy.
You may already know about All Souls Church. Its long history of punk shows and other concerts has given the Columbia Heights institution a reputation as a place to search for something beyond the spiritual. But it’s also home to an unorthodox evening service, or Vespers, that takes place every second Wednesday of the month.
As offered at All Souls, Vespers is based on the traditions of the Taizé community, an interdenominational monastic community, founded in France in 1940. The roughly hour-long service is led by a group of volunteers assembled in a semicircle at the front of the sanctuary, who lead visitors in chants, mantras and round singing — accompanied by a piano, bells and a Tibetan singing bowl, and punctuated by periods of silence intended for meditation and reflection.
Perhaps the most unexpected and moving portion of the evening is a free-form one, in which your participation can be quite active, or may not even require leaving your pew.
As voices join in repetitive song for 20 minutes or so, visitors are invited to engage in walking meditation, if they wish: pacing the aisles at their leisure. Attendees who get up to march around may also choose to kneel (or sit) on pillows set around tables that are staged at the front of the church, and light candles. These group activities — while entirely optional — can be a profound experience. Maybe there is meaning to be found, from a service that otherwise asks you to gaze inward, through communion with others.
Tackling big questions — relationships, careers, family — requires important conversations with ourselves. But in our always-on, always-connected culture, it’s too easy for our inner voices to be ignored or drowned out by social media. No wonder silent retreats and guided meditation have become popular wellness escapes. But you don’t have to spend a lot of money to fly to an isolated mountain to find quiet and Zen: It’s as easy as traveling to Northeast Washington, where a pair of monasteries offer the peace you seek.
The Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, a 42-acre site listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is best known for its extensive gardens, which feature replicas of the Grotto of Lourdes and other holy sites. But tucked away, in a private area behind the towering church, are two hermitages, each designed for a solo pilgrim to stay and reflect.
The first hermitage opened in September 2012 and proved so popular that a second opened in December 2016. The 350-square-foot space is nothing like the caves inhabited by saints Jerome and Benedict: The granite countertops, shining Frigidaire appliances and stylish bathroom with stone walls and a pebbled floor are features you’d look for in an Airbnb. But there’s no TV, no WiFi, not even a radio to disturb the quiet.
Guests, or hermits, have access to the private Alverna Chapel — where the fittings consist of a monumental stone altar and a single chair — and can walk through the monastery gardens. Written contemplation is encouraged: Each hermitage has a desk facing a window.
The low, distant rumble of traffic and trains doesn’t fully disappear during the day. But from the deck, civilization’s noise is displaced by birdsong and the rustle of the wind in the branches. Looking out the east-facing window at a grove of trees, just listening, will remind you that while you’re less than a mile from the Metro, you’re alone with your thoughts, books and a pen.
Around 1500 years ago, Benedict of Nursia wrote a set of rules governing monastic life, including the way monasteries were to treat visitors: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for He himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Today, St. Benedict’s rule continues to bring guests to St. Anselm’s Abbey, a 96-year-old community of Benedictine monks located near the D.C./Hyattsville border. The abbey doesn’t have separate accommodations for visitors, so those seeking peace stay among the brothers, joining them for meals and reflection. (The monks’ day begins with morning prayers in the Abbey Church at 5:20 a.m., but visitors aren’t required to get up that early.)
Abbot James Wiseman, who has been at St. Anselm’s since 1969, says he doesn’t know, or ask, about the faith of the visitors who come to St. Anselm’s. Some pray in the chapel with the monks several times a day, while some sit silently in the back, with their own thoughts. The dorm-style bedrooms are outfitted with a rocking chair and reading desk. In better weather, guests can wander through the woods behind the monastery, where they might spot deer leaping through the underbrush. A winding trail, which doubles as the Stations of the Cross, passes benches, outdoor rooms, and a small cemetery where monks are buried. The library is stuffed with religious books but also volumes on art, history and Shakespeare.
Helping keep the peace at St. Anselm’s: It is a silent community, where a communal lunch in the dining room is the only occasion for chitchat. At dinner, everyone eats silently while a selected book is read aloud.
Most visitors come for a night or two, Wiseman says, but some only come for a day, or part of a day. (He suggests potential guests call at least 24 hours ahead, to see if there is space available. Even if they’re not staying overnight, the monks like to set people up with a room as a “base of operations” for leaving coats and bags.) The sense of peace, and welcome, is palpable.
Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, 1400 Quincy St. NE. myfranciscan.org. $100 per night.
St. Anselm’s Abbey, 4501 South Dakota Ave. NE. stanselms.org. Visitors are asked to make a “freewill offering according to their means.” — F.H.