This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend our annual Open Way solstice celebration combined with a day of mindfulness up on the Flathead Lake in northwestern Montana, about a 2 hour drive from where I live in Missoula. Our sister sangha Open Sky, up north in Kalispell, hosted the weekend. My husband Mike and I drove up on Friday night and got back early this evening (Sunday).
It had just begun snowing when we left Missoula on Friday night to make the trek to Lakeside, Montana and the Deep Bay Retreat Center, where the day of mindfulness was being held. By 6:00 it was a black, dark night on the highway. The snow was coming down in large, beautiful wet flakes, one of our first snows of the season. As we headed north in our all wheel dive subaru we resolved to just take it easy – and if it took 3-4 hours to reach our destination that was just fine. There was no hurry.
I love being on the road, whether as a passenger or a driver. And while the drive was at some points stressful due to the lack of visibility and head on downpour of gleaming white snow we had a nice ride talking and listening to music. As is the case in many life situations the drive consisted of both challenging and wonderful moments happening at the very same time. We arrived at Deep Bay around 9:00 and our sangha friends, who were spending the night there as well, gave a sigh of relief to see us safe and sound.
The day of mindfulness started around 9:30am on Saturday morning and most of the attendants lived locally around the area. There were more folks from Missoula slated to attend but the weather kept them from making the venture. We had a nice turnout of around 30 people. The day started with introductions and logistics and then moved to the morning chant followed by sitting and walking meditation. We have few chanters in our larger Montana sangha midst and since I was the only one there who knew it and can sing I was nominated in the early planning stages. This is where I will provide a little bit of backstory and let you know that I love love love to sing and I, for the great majority of the time, sing solely in the presence of my car Matise or my house, and the cats if they’re around. I am very shy about playing and singing to other people. And it is something I am working on because I enjoy sharing this part of myself with people as well. So, while I was very nervous and my heart was thumping heavily inside of my chest as I began the morning chant bells, I stepped into the tension and embraced the chant in all of its beauty and reverence. I see clearly that expanding our comfort zone is not only an important practice but a necessary one for growth and transformation.
After the sitting and walking meditation we had a sutra service followed by a dharma talk by our local teacher Rowan Conrad. The theme of the day of mindfulness was: I have arrived, I am home. Rowan opened up his talk with a quote by Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh), “if you’re not experiencing gratitude, you are experiencing suffering,” (I hope I got that right). And I very much appreciated the simplicity and the depth of that statement. He then went on to say, “If we wait until we need the practice to practice it’s too late,” which was another quote by Thay. For visual clarity I compare this teaching to the thought that we don’t sit next to a clear clean spring and deprive ourselves to the point of utter dehydration before we take a drink from its cool fresh water. The practice is not in some other place at some appointed time in the future, the practice is here and now in everything that we do.
Rowan talked about how the fruits of our practice are to open the heart and make true connections. And while he did not go into detail I see clearly that it refers to opening my heart and making deep connections with myself, other people, life unfolding and my environment (oftentimes we leave our own selves out of things like offering loving kindness, compassion, and cultivating connection – please don’t make that unfortunate and harmful mistake). “Our great obstacle is our mind, our great vehicle is our body.” Rowan then added that our body is there to train our minds, using the breath, and that our body is always in the here and now. I had never thought about it quite like that before. When we come back to our breathing what we’re doing is coming back to our bodies, to the physical sensation of our our in breath and out breath. When we become grounded in our bodies it is directly related to becoming grounded in the here and now. And this is a quote from Rowan that I starred in my notes, “the body is the royal road to the present moment,” and I’m pretty sure that’s a direct quote and not one from someone else.
There is a famous quote from a great Zen master that Rowan shared that says, “if all you ever know is how to follow your breathing and steps it is enough.” We have the great capacity to overcomplicate things and to continuously grasp for the next best thing or teaching. When we can practice the profound teaching that we have more than enough conditions to be happy in the here and now, with the people and the surroundings we are presently surrounded by, we begin to cultivate just what it means to be a free person.
Rowan’s talk was inspiring and refreshing. The dharma sun shined brightly. They were not new teachings. Just like in Thay’s books and dharma talks I have heard the same guidance many times and while for the first few years I did not understand the reasoning behind such repetition, and in fact was bothered by it, I understand more fully now. It can be akin to learning to play the piano. You don’t consider yourself a piano player by simply buying a book of music, taking one lesson and playing a few notes. When you first begin the piano you learn simple songs and then you keep learning and playing and practicing. Just because you can read the music doesn’t mean you know how to play a grand concerto. Repetition is important. The more we practice what we practice the more we keep on practicing.
After the talk we had a short sitting period before our silent lunch of warm and delicious vegetarian soups, bread and cookies. Somehow we wound up an hour behind schedule but after a brief planners meeting in the loft above the kitchen we adjusted our afternoon program and kept swimming along as a joyful community. Once our bellies were full we had the option of doing a guided outdoor walking in the snow meditation or a deep relaxation, which I was to lead. I had a small handful of folks who chose to stay indoors and with our limited timeframe I wound up with only 20 minutes to facilitate a deep relaxation, which is not nearly long enough but it went just fine. I very much enjoy leading deep relaxations and I find them very restful for myself as well. It is not a labor for me to facilitate, it is a joy and a support to my practice.
Once we all reconvened we did some more sitting meditation followed by an open sharing circle. Most people call it a dharma discussion in this tradition, although for me that title does not make sense as it is not a discussion at all but more of a heartfelt offering to the group and to ourselves. We wrapped up our day with a closing circle and then had a free hour before the evening potluck. Many people took this as an opportunity to say their goodbyes and return home, leaving about 15 of us to stick around. It was a nurturing day in the arms of the sangha.
After our socializing potluck and more great food we returned once again to silence in the cocoon of our meditation circle. The evening was devoted to our annual solstice celebration called bringing back the light. In the middle of our circle of cushions and comfy couches a longish low lying table sat adorned with fresh pine boughs, bird and woodland animal figurines and a string of white christmas bulbs (the larger type that you can screw in and out). All of the lights in the lovingly arranged centerpiece were twisted just enough so that they were not turned on. The rest of the lights in the room were also turned off, save for one or two hall lights so people weren’t helplessly groping around in the dark. When someone was ready to share something, either a poem, personal story, song, dance or anything else, they would come forward and turn on one of the little lightbulbs amidst the fragrant pine and share whatever they had on their heart or mind. One by one the lightbulbs illuminated the faces around the circle. We were symbolically bringing back the light with each person and also experiencing how each person we encounter has something to offer.
Due to my chronic health condition and physical pain I turn into a pumpkin pretty early in the evening and so while I was reluctant to leave the glowing circle and rich sharing a little early, to retire to my bedroom downstairs, it was a necessary and important act. In the not too distant past I would’ve either just stuck it out and suffered silently or left and continued worrying about what people thought of my leaving early or given myself a hard time about the choice not to stay. But this time after I bowed out with apologies, and had given a short explanation as to why I was leaving, I went to bed not carrying any worry or regrets. As soon as I started descending the carpeted staircase I was free from any attachments to the present moment needing to be anything other than what it was.
After a chilly and fitful night’s “rest” I awoke early this morning. The large windows in our bedroom overlooked the darkened icy lake framed by snow covered pine trees just outside our room. The house was still. Today Rowan led an OI and OI (Order of Interbeing) aspirant training meeting, which is always open to anyone who wants to attend. There were about 10 of us all together and a few new people to the practice even which was great. After some sitting and walking meditation we had a check in round where people were invited to share about their practice over the last year or whatever they would like to share. Rowan opened the meeting by saying that the most important thing we can do is build sangha and be together. Our sharing circles are not meant as a formality or a surface interaction they are a deep and lovely practice of expression, dropping our masks and being fully human together. When we can share openly from the heart we encourage others to do the same. When we share our struggles it reminds us all that we are not alone. When we share our joys we water the seeds of joy in others. Our sharing time is not only important it is crucial to the well being of our sangha. To share in the full experience of being human is what this practice is founded on.
After our sharing circle, which was very powerful and moving, Rowan gave us some more teachings about the practice and mindfulness and coming back to the here and now. It was another day of mindfulness really and for that I am grateful.
Thay says that this practice is, “a clever way to enjoy life.” If I were asked how to sum this practice up I would say that it’s the path that brings me back to my true home.