In two weeks I’ll be traveling to southern California to spend four weeks on retreat at Deer Park Monastery (in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh). It will be my 3rd annual trip there, each time in January. The first year I went I spent four weeks and went by myself. The second year I went for two weeks and my husband Mike came along with me. This year Mike and I are going together but he’ll be flying home after spending two weeks while I stay on for another two more weeks. I’m very much looking forward to the trip and the retreat and consider it a great privilege to be able to attend.
For the past few weeks during my morning meditation sit I’ve been mentally and energetically transported to Deer Park in the folds of predawn’s silence. I close my eyes and the darkness of my living room becomes the darkness of the meditation hall at Deer Park. When I sing the morning chant it’s as if I’m singing it in the brothers small dharma hall in Solidity Hamlet (where the monks reside and practice at Deer Park) the same way I had done so last January for my fellow lay practitioners one morning. I can almost feel the cool chill of the ocean adjacent grounds of the monastery sifting through me, the wide, white tiles of the brothers dharma hall underneath me, and the sweet smile of the Buddha surrounding me (see pic above, from the brothers dharma hall).
One of my favorite quotes is from a Dharma teacher who came here to Montana to lead one of our local retreats a few years ago named Cheri Maples. She said, “Let the things that matter the most not be at the mercy of the things that matter the least.” I remember her saying that at the start of the new year one of the first things she does is block out the dates for the retreats she plans on attending over the course of the next 12 months. She makes sure to prioritize retreats in her schedule because she deems them to be one of the things that matter the most for her. I too can relate to this way of thinking. As a well organized person one of my most favorite and important items is my day planner. The first thing I write in my day planner are the birthdays of friends and family members. The second thing I write are retreat dates. Friends will often commend me for having such a good memory when I send them an email on their birthday or their kids birthday but it has nothing to do with memory. Really they should be commending me on having and using a day planner. If I don’t write something down in my day planner it probably won’t get done. I live by the pages of my planner and I’m pretty sure if the house were to suddenly alight in flames it would be one of the first things I would grab on my way out the door :)
Attending retreats is a priority for me. They are what I would consider a vital element in my ability to cultivate joy, ease, connection, mindfulness, and understanding. It’s very easy to think that life gets in the way of doing the things we’d like to prioritize and do but the truth is that it’s not life getting in the way, it’s us. We have a great deal of sway over how our lives play out. If we’re not happy with something chances are there’s something we can do about it – even if it’s simply a matter of adjusting our attitude (which is a very large component of our quality of life).
Sometimes when I tell folks about my upcoming trip to Deer Park they’ll comment about how lucky I am to go or how they’re a bit jealous. While I do consider myself fortunate to be able to go away for four weeks on retreat it’s not something others couldn’t do if they really wanted to. I save up for much of the year to be able to afford the plane ticket and retreat costs. I ask for the time off from work months ahead of time. I plan for weeks on how to keep everything covered on the home front and at the Open Way Mindfulness Center, where I serve as director, when I’m gone. And I try to spend as much time with my stepson as I can before I go. It’s not the easiest most convenient thing in the world for me to pick up and go on retreat for four weeks at a stretch. I put in the footwork to be able to go and I make certain sacrifices. I do it because I find incredible value and benefit in doing so. This isn’t to glorify my own actions here but to illustrate how we should try not to sell ourselves short of something we may want to prioritize but feel is outside of our influence. If we firmly set our intention towards a certain priority we may find that we have more control than we originally thought. There’s a lot we can do to affect a certain outcome, goal, or priority – especially if we plan ahead.
May we practice not to hold ourselves back and venture instead in the direction of that in which we deem to matter the most.