Week 1 – Online Winter Retreat

Deer Park Monastery in California, in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, has started an online winter retreat that people can take part in either on their own or with their sangha.  They post readings, talks, and practices to do once a week for 12 weeks.  So far they have week one posted on their facebook page (www.facebook.com/deerparkmonastery, in their events section).  I thought I would follow along with the winter retreat through my blog, in hopes that it will inspire me to be diligent and stick with it.

Week One: Intention Setting and Focus

This weeks reading: The Busy Trap, from the New York Times June 30th.

Reflection Exercises:

1.) Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) has described four aspects of our spiritual life that we as practitioners can look into: Study, Practice, Work and Play.

You are invited to spend some time this week looking into these four areas and setting intentions for each one of them in the lead into the winter retreat, as described in the accompanying talk (see their facebook if you’re interested in checking it out).  Perhaps consider diagraming them out for reference.

Alree, Montana

My answer –

Study.  Well, I’d have to say this is the area out of the four that I do the less amount of work in.  I am not terribly interested in learning about sutras or reading commentaries about sutras – and that’s where my mind goes right away when I think of study.  I do, however, enjoy reading them from time to time and can appreciate their value in my practice and in this tradition.  And there are other things to study as well.  I may have to think more about this one and how I can apply study to this winter course.

Practice.  What I like most about this tradition is that everything is practice.  Sitting meditation and washing the dishes are not different.  Both provide the same opportunity to be present with what we’re doing while we’re doing it.  Both are moments to be alive and happy.  What comes up for me right away when I think of practice and setting an intention is my personal sitting practice.  Most days I do not practice sitting meditation on my own and I would very much like to.  So I would like to use this winter retreat to start a more regular sitting practice.  I think if I start out with the lofty goal of sitting everyday it will be too daunting.  So I’d like to start out smaller.  I sit with my sangha Be Here Now every Monday night – I would like to simply start out with once a week on my own I will practice some sitting.  So I will have my sangha sitting and at least one sit on my own.

Work.  When I think of work I think of the volunteer work I do.  I think of the sangha service I do both with Be Here Now and Open Way.  Creating community and bringing people together is a joy of mine and I do it often.  I don’t feel like I am needing to set an intention on this particular one at the moment.  But I will keep it simmering in case something springs to mind.

Play.  This is something I do a lot.  I have a strong practice in joy and playfulness :)  For me it  usually manifests in regards to music in some way.  If you see me driving around town I’ll be the one playing my music as loud as it will go, singing, smiling and dancing in my driver’s seat.  I also play music and write songs.  I love to play around and be silly.  So this one I also feel pretty confident in.  Brining play into my day is not only enjoyable but I have found it important to my mental, emotional and physical well being.  So my intention maybe could be to keep on doing what I’m doing!

2.) What are some simple practice commitments you would like to make with yourself?  What will you be exploring deeply?  How about together with your sangha?

My answer –

Right now I would like to make the commitment to sit on my own at least once a week. I am also greatly limiting what kinds of media I am consuming and would like to continue the commitment to monitor closely what I am watching.  I will be exploring deeply my personal sitting practice in order to see what my stumbling blocks are and how I can transform them.  I would also like to incorporate this deep looking into my personal sharing with my sangha.

3.) Further to the previous question, in looking at the upcoming winter retreat, and looking at your current situation, what are some of the things that unnecessarily occupy your time and attention – what do you normally get stuck in?  Are there areas that you might like to consider letting go of for these next 90 days?

My answer –

The first things that come up for me are watching my dvd’s of the Golden Girls (ya know, that show from the 80’s about 4 older women who live together) and eating sugar.  I get stuck in both of them.  And oftentimes they go together.  The thought of giving up sugar, or more specifically chocolate bars, is appealing and daunting.  Right now I’m on day 2 of a 10 day juice fast, so really this is the perfect time to set up an intention of giving up chocolate for 90 days since I’m rebooting my system anyway.  It is very clear to me that when we set up goals that are too big we set ourselves up for a fall so I am more inclined to set up a smaller intention.  Giving up chocolate for 2 weeks after my 10 day juice fast and then only eating it 2-3 times per week instead of everyday seems more tangible.  I will keep you all posted on how it goes.  I have a feeling that posting this online and blogging about this process will help to keep me focused and accountable to myself.  One moment at a time.

My gratitude to all of you who keep reading my blog.  Thanks for sticking around!


Just like the typical, “how are you?” question people ask, “are you keeping busy?”  And as often as we answer, “fine” or “good” in meaningless reference to how we’re doing we reply in the affirmative that our day to day lives are busy.  But busy with what?  Oftentimes when we say we’re busy we have the impression that this state of living is outside of our control, as if busyness we’re a stranger that wedged itself into our homes unwilling to leave.

What are we filing our days with?  What are our priorities?  There’s a quote that has stuck with me from a dharma teacher that came to Montana to lead one of our retreats a couple of years ago, “set up your life so the things that matter the most aren’t at the mercy of the things that matter the least.”

(I read a great article today entitled: The Busy Trap.  To read the full article go to: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/).

Making Friends With What Scares Us

At the Open Way Mindfulness Center here in town, where we have our sangha meetings and a host of other community classes, there lives a creepy homemade mannequin in the basement.  I assume it was a creative project of some sort made by the previous owner of the building.  For all the years that I’ve been around the center (10 to be exact) she has kept two creepy iridescent eyes on the cluttered basement.  For the first few years I frequented Open Way she stood right at the bottom of the steps to greet any who traversed downstairs.  Often I would take someone down there with me if I had to go into the basement at night.  She’s quite creepy.  Wild animal like hair drapes around her golden plastic mask face in tufts, showcasing bald patches here and there.  Two large iridescent marbles sit just inside the eye sockets of the mask.  It’s a combination of the golden skin, marble eyes and wild woman of the woods hairdo that creates the perfect blend of creepiness to insinuate that at night she slowly comes to life in the dark of the basement and whispers terrible chants and spells.

It was only after I became more immersed in the center, taking on the role of manager, that I moved her from the bottom of the steps to way back in the furnace room, where I hardly ever went.  So while I still knew she was down there I rarely saw her and that was a good thing.  Whenever I did have to go into the dark corner room that she presides over and grope around to pull down the string that turns on the exposed lightbulb I would say hello to her, and silently send a fervent plea that she not attack me.

My step-son Jaden and I have often joked about how one day we would unearth her from her basement dungeon and place her on the doorstep of one of our un-suspecting friends on the their birthday so she could frightfully (and comically) greet them.  And then just last week inspiration struck when I was thinking about plans for Jaden’s upcoming birthday (he turned 13 today!).  So yesterday I went to the center while Jaden was at school and descended the stairs to the dark furnace room to fetch the creepy mannequin.  She is quite the hodgepodge of materials and I never before inspected how she was constructed.  Under her marigold dress and lumpy foam body sat a four legged stool.  A wooden rod ran through the stool up through the top of her head and kept her standing erect, which accounted for the strange multicolored crepe paper plumage that rose from the top of her head (to cover the rod).  Ribbed plastic tubing lied underneath her fabric covered arms.  One of her hands was missing, which left the tube exposed causing her to look part robot.  Peacock feathers stuck out of each sleeve.  She was…strange, to say the least.

Figuring she’d be a little less creepy in the daylight I took her out to my car and gave her a once over.  She and I are about the same size, hovering around 5′ 2″.  No such luck.  On the creep-o-meter I would say maybe she went from a 10 to a 9.8.  When I got home I carried her to the garage where she would be cleverly hidden from view.  After Jaden went to bed last night I retrieved her and brought her into the kitchen.  I made a glittery happy birthday sign and attached it to a stick, stapled up her shirt so her robot tube arm stuck up and placed the stick in the tube.  She was ready!

This morning as Jaden got ready for school I stood in the kitchen with the creepy statue strategizing about when I should place her outside of his door.  Should I place her outside of his bedroom door or wait until he went to the bathroom and place her outside of that door?  I decided to choose his bedroom door.  I picked her up, went to the hallway and set her down just in time for him to open his door and see her.  He stumbled back a  few steps in alarm and smiled.  The trap had been set and it worked!  After all those solitary years in the basement the creepy mannequin was of great use in a comedic family skit helping to mark a momentous coming of age, Jaden’s 13th birthday!

I tend to name things.  From cars to personable inanimate objects.  The names come easily to me.  As she stood in our living room I tried to think of a name for her but nothing came to mind.  Jaden said, “her name is creepy mannequin,” and he was right.  We had referenced her as creepy mannequin for so many years that it was now permanently imprinted on her.  Now to any fortunate house guests that happen to drop by in the next couple of days we can introduce her by name.  “Welcome to our home dear friend, I’d like you to meet our exotic visitor Creepy Mannequin.”

We all have things that we’re afraid of on varying levels, things we’re uncomfortable with, things that maybe even creep us out.  What then do we do?  How do we respond?  Do we recoil or evade something or someone or someplace?  Do we let it hold power over us unreasonably?  Our practice can embrace these scary, uncomfortable, creepy things right alongside everything else.  The things that scare us are not separate from life, as we oftentimes think they are.  Everything, everything, everything is part of life.  From gangly spiders to public speaking, from mysterious strangers to creepy basement mannequins.  Making friends, or acquaintances, with what makes us uncomfortable can be a very powerful practice.

(You can click on the picture to make it bigger)

So, while I’m not looking to keep Creepy Mannequin in my house, being able to heft her around, see how she’s made, and use her in a birthday prank went a long ways to lessening her creep value.  Don’t get me wrong, she’s still a whole lot of creepiness but I’m no longer creeped out by her.  There’s a difference.  We have full sway over how we see things.  The things that go bump in the night, chances are it’s not a ghost.  The spider in the corner, chances are it’s not out for blood.  Public speaking, chances are the audience won’t boo and throw tomatoes.  The Creepy Mannequin, chances are she’s not going to spring to life and gobble me up.  We are the only condition that can transform the scary into the not so scary.  So let’s shine some light into our shadows and see what’s behind our self-constructed pretenses, chances are they’re made up of nothing more than sentiment.

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust” – Franklin D. Roosevelt