Spring Retreat: The Middle Way

Flathead Lake view from the Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp in Lakeside, MT

Flathead Lake view from the Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp in Lakeside, MT

I just got back early yesterday evening from our local Open Way Sanghas spring retreat.  This was our second spring retreat that we held at the Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp (FLBC) in Lakeside, MT.  It is a lovely facility and quite a step up from what we’re used to :)  Our retreat started on Thursday May 2nd in the evening and ended on Sunday May 5th around 1:00pm.  We brought in visiting dharma teacher Michael Ciborski from the Morning Sun Mindfulness Community in New Hampshire to lead the retreat.  His wife Fern, also a dharma teacher in the same zen based tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, and their youngest child Fiana also came along.  The retreat was entitled: The Middle Way, A Path of Joy & Ease in the Present Moment.

This was my third retreat as retreat co-director.  We have two retreats a year with our Open Way Montana sanghas.  The local Missoula sanghas (Open Way & Be Here Now) direct the spring retreat and the Helena sangha (Flowing Mountains) directs the fall retreat.  It would be a lot of work to be in charge of two residential retreats a year.  Each retreat gathers about 60 people and lodging and food is provided so there are a lot of little details, logistics and individual questions to field.  And it’s work I really enjoy doing as well.  I’m grateful that I have the time to offer to the sangha in this capacity and I love caring for the community.

For the first time in many years this retreat welcomed families and kids.  We’ve been talking about doing a family retreat for the past 2-3 years and the time finally came where we had the facility, the extra help, and the desire from families to bring it together.  We opened up the retreat to all ages but asked that kids under 6 years of age have a parent accompany them to the kids program events.  We had volunteers facilitate a separate kids program during the adult based events such as the dharma talk, discussion groups, and the evening program.  We had six kids that were over the age of 6 years old, two toddlers, and one baby for a total of 9 kids in attendance.  Our oldest kid was 10 years old and the average age was 7.  So while this retreat was much less silent than past retreats the silence was filled in with joy and wonderful smiles!

One of our young friends overlooking the lake

One of our young friends overlooking the lake

On Thursday I left Missoula around 10:00am in order to get to the camp around noonish to set up and settle in.  Registration was between 5:00-6:30 and dinner was served starting at 5:30.  The camp staff did all of the cooking which was nice.  And while they don’t get a whole lot of vegetarian groups renting out the facility they were very open and willing to do so for us.  They were also very accommodating with our few vegan and gluten free folks.  I know I can speak for the whole sangha when I say that we feel very grateful for having found this great camp to hold our retreats at.  And it sits right on the Flathead Lake!

After dinner we had a welcome and intro circle including the kids and after the initial camp and retreat logistics were gone over the families went off to their own intro in order to meet the other parents and kids.  The FLBC has a great big main building called the Cockrell Center where we had our program events and meals, another building called Hagen Hall where the kids programs were held, which also housed four of the mommas and 5 kids, and many other lodging options scattered around the camp.  Outside of Hagen Hall and the teachers cabin most lodging options consisted of 4-5 bunk beds in each room as well as its own bathroom.  We had about 3-4 people per room and 60 people in total at the retreat.

The meditation space (zendo) located in the Cockrell Center

The meditation space (zendo) located in the Cockrell Center

Thursday evening ended around 8:30 for the kids and around 9:00 for the adults with a deep relaxation.  Friday morning’s sitting meditation started at 6:30am with the lake shrouded in a light gray fog.  After two rounds of sitting meditation with walking meditation in between we had our morning sutra service.  After reading the Opening Verse, the Heart Sutra, and Invoking the Bodhisattvas’ Names we read the Discourse on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone and closed with Sharing the Merit.  Breakfast followed the morning program and the kids and parents joined us to eat.  We then had a short break followed by outdoor walking meditation and the dharma talk.

In order to convene everyone after breaks we sound an outdoor bell to signify that a program starts in 10-15 minutes.  Usually we have our own bell that we hang outside in a tree but this camp is so spread out that we chose to use the bell they have there that sits on top of Hagen Hall.  It’s one of those neat old school house type bells.  Thinking that the kids would love to pull the big rope that attaches to the bell I put out a sign up sheet with the times listed and had the kids team up with their parents to take turns sounding the bell throughout the retreat.  The kids loved it!

The inaugural bell sounding

The inaugural bell sounding

Here are some of the notes I took during the first dharma talk on Friday:

We spend a lot of time worrying.  We miss touch with life when we are stuck in worrying.  Nothing is ever in perfect balance, everything is always changing.  There’s nothing wrong with being busy in and of itself – it’s how we go about things.  Are we being drained and worn out or are we being nourished?  What motivates us?  What pushes us on the inside?  What’s pushing us on the inside determines the outcome.  How do we use our time?  What is it that’s moving me right now?  Can I develop a relationship with myself in order to better understand myself?  Am I waiting for life to get better or am I engaging in life?

When the mind is wholesome and undefiled we can expect a happy destination.  When the mind is unwholesome we can expect an unhappy destination.  Unwholesome separates (me and you) – wholesome connects (we and us).

To stop being busy we need presence, we need to be clear and honest.  Let’s become the gardener of the garden in our hearts. Am I waiting for disaster to occur?  We have our comfort zones and there are times to retreat into them but it’s good to know when we are caught in comforts.  We need to bring more joy into our daily life, to be nourished instead of burdened.  We need to lighten the mind – this practice will help us through difficult situations.  If you give from love it is inexhaustible, if you give from yourself we can become overwhelmed and burnt out easily.

Can we generate happiness on our own or do we need others to be happy?  Breathing in I see myself as a flower, breathing out I feel fresh.  Can we actually get in touch with the flower inside of us?  Many of us have cultivated stress and worry for a long time – our flower may be very small.  We have to practice to grow our flower.  When we water the seeds they grow and become more readily available.  When we water seeds of stress and worry those will grow.  When we water flower elements within us they will grow.  We learn to turn to joy.

The basis of a spiritual practice, the fundamental platform is reverence.  We have to be open and genuinely care about what we’re doing.  Carve out the time for peace and peace building.  If we don’t, who will?  The Seven Factors of Awakening: mindfulness, investigation of the dharma (breaking out of our comfort zones), energy, joy, ease, concentration, and equanimity.

Glacier Lily

Glacier Lily

After the dharma talk came lunch, a couple hours of personal free time, discussion groups and then a ceremony of the Three Earth Touchings which was then followed by dinner.  Resting during the free time after lunch is really important for me health wise (in dealing with chronic pain) so I took that time to return to my cabin and take a nap.  Sometimes I wish I could rest in my daily life with as much ease as I am able to on retreat :)  It is often one of my favorite parts of attending retreats – to allow myself the enjoyment of napping!  The camp staff brought down some kayaks for folks to use during the free time and folks loved being able to take to the lake.  (I also enjoyed paddling around for a few minutes on Saturday – but only after I took a nap :)


After dinner on Friday we had a mindfulness training panel which consisted of five practitioners (myself included) who gave short 10-15 minute long talks on one of the five mindfulness trainings in the tradition of the Order of Interbeing.  We have these panels at each of our retreats and I find them to be very helpful in cultivating new perspectives about the trainings and learning about how others are working with them in their daily lives.  I spoke on the third mindfulness training entitled True Love which talks about sexual responsibility.  (To read the trainings click on my Mindfulness Instruction category on the right hand side of my blog).  Over the years I’ve spoken on each of the trainings more than once and I’ve enjoyed devoting the time to preparing for each of the talks.  It allows me the opportunity to work more deeply with the trainings.

After the panel I led some mindful movements during a short break and then we finished our day with a sitting meditation period.  The kids program for Friday had been led during the dharma talk, discussion group, and mindfulness training panel times and for all but the discussion group the kids started with the adults in the zendo before departing to their own event.  Sometimes we sang songs together and sometimes Michael would direct teachings towards the kids.  Having the children as part of the retreat was very joyful and brought an element of lightness to the energy and flow of the programs and meal times.

A fresh gentle rain had fallen for a short time on Friday and set the stage for a warm, bright sunny day on Saturday.  Our schedule was much the same as it was on Friday with the exception of an informal teacher tea after the discussion groups (where people could ask questions to Michael and Fern) and a community circle after dinner (where people could share poems, stories, songs, and the like).  Instead of listening to the dharma talk on Saturday I joined the children’s program event and spent time with Gina (who led the program) and the kids.  We made prayer flags relating to the Two Promises Ceremony that the kids would participate in before the community circle that night.  We also read a story called The Sun in My Belly, had a snack, and participated in a sharing and listening circle.  After that we went to the beautiful rocky shore of the lake for free play time where we spotted four adult geese with over 15 brand new fluffy yellow baby goslings in tow that looked to be just a day or two old.  We were all so excited to see them!  It was such a treasure.

The Two Promises:

I vow to develop understanding in order to live peacefully with people, animals, plants, and minerals.

I vow to develop my compassion in order to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.


Since I missed the dharma talk and we record each one on an ipod I was able to listen to the talk later on after the community circle before I went to bed.  Here are the notes I took while listening to the talk:

Love is not only something we get or give, it is something we become – it is a turning away from suffering.  We know the road of suffering, we know where it goes.  When we let go into love we yield to our raw potential.  When we turn away from our habit energies we first need to establish ourselves in our presence.  When we come home to ourselves we turn away from suffering.  We need faith in the beauty in ourselves, when we see it in ourselves, we see it in others. Allow the possibility of love, come home to yourself.

We can’t keep escalating our suffering, we have to let it go.  We exaggerate a lot!  We have to stop the story.  Breathe openness into your bodies.  When we calm down things become less urgent, our suffering becomes less urgent.  Don’t go back to the habit energy, find your new home in the present moment.  Love is very simple, very powerful.

When the turmoil is too much try belly breathing.  Bring the attention from the head (where the story resides) downwards into the belly.  We bring ourselves out of the storm of emotions down into the trunk and roots of the tree.  Every 1, 2 or 3 breaths that we can take we are turning away from the habit of suffering, the story.  Practice full acceptance of our suffering.  We’ve wanted to get rid of it for so long but hurting is OK, it is part of life too.  We cannot get away from it, we need to learn to move through it.  There’s a trust in life that we need to have.  Trust in the process of being alive, trust in impermanence.  80% of our suffering goes away when we practice to come home to ourselves, when we breathe deeply and calm down.  Our actual suffering may actually be quite small.

If you’re having strong emotions come up and they last for more than 15-20 seconds they’re old, it means you’re telling yourself a story.  It’s not grounded in reality.  What we tend to do is form an idea about what happened and we have feelings based in that idea and they get connected to another and another.  When we come home to the present moment we come home to the actuality of the experience.  When you slow the stories down the feeling sensation is so simple.  Feelings live between us and the world, they’re not ours.  They are a gateway into our interbeing nature.

So much of the suffering I have, whether it be a sense of aloneness or always having to struggle or strive to attain or get by, has so much to do with the ideas I’ve built up because I’ve separated myself off from life which is bountiful and happening in and around me all the time.  Our experience of a problem or challenge has to do with the seeds inside our own garden – and we are the gardener.  We do a lot of blaming – it is very damaging and makes us very weak, unable to manage our own suffering, unable to deal with the burdens in life and in the world.  No one out there is the cause of our suffering, we all participate in the story of life.  It’s a waste of time to point fingers.

We have a tendency to try to figure it all out.  We don’t really know and we’re not really going to know what happens.  Come inside and take care of what’s there, soften.  We’re moving from the world of signs and ideas and concepts to the world of nature and essence.


Sunday morning after the sitting and walking meditation we had a mindfulness training ceremony where people could formally receive the trainings if they so chose to.  Receiving the trainings essentially refers to the desire to walk in the direction of cultivating mindfulness, compassion, and understanding in our daily life and to engage in the practice of connecting with ourselves in the present moment.  It is an opportunity to get support and encouragement from the community in following a path of heart and intention.  Three people took part in the ceremony as the rising sun streamed in through the large windows overlooking the lake.

After the morning program we packed up and moved out of our rooms which was followed by brunch.  We then had a brief outdoor walking meditation before the final dharma talk.  Once again I joined the kids program during the talk where I took pictures of the kids meditating on rocks, shared about things we’ve enjoyed and were grateful for, and dipped our feet in the lake.  I haven’t had the time quite yet to listen to the recording of that last talk so I will include my notes in a later post in the next day or two.

We closed our retreat with a community circle where we expressed gratitudes and people were asked to write down one sentence about their retreat experience, aspiration or other closing statement they’d like to share.  Here are some of the things that were shared:


May we live and eat with the mindfulness of children at play

Nice people, pretty lake, cute birds

Aspire to walk in freedom

Breathing in trust, breathing out forgiveness

My heart is open

Taking time to breathe deeply

Trust in the process

From the kids: I’m grateful for my family.  I’m grateful for my friends.  I’m grateful for animals.  I’m grateful for my dog.

After everyone had shared what they had written down there was one last opportunity to say anything that needed saying and one of our young children spoke up saying, “I’m going to miss everyone here and it will be so sad to leave.”

Closing Circle

Closing Circle

To check out lots more pictures from the retreat go to: https://www.facebook.com/BeHereNowCommunity

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