(Helpful Info & Terminology: This is a 4-week long series of blog posts written during my recent retreat stay at Deer Park Monastery, located in southern California, in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. Due to not having had Internet access I will be posting one day’s worth of my writing each day from while I was there on retreat.
Laypeople: Also called lay friends or laymen and laywomen, are all of us who come here to practice but are not monks or nuns.
Monastics: The collective group of both monks and nuns.
Clarity Hamlet: Where the nuns, also called Sisters, reside. Laywomen stay here as well.
Solidity Hamlet: Where the monks, also called Brothers, reside. Laymen and couples/families stay here as well. (Clarity and Solidity are just a short 10-15 minute walk in distance from each other).
Thay: Refers to Thich Nhat Hanh, meaning teacher in Vietnamese)
Saturday January 16th, 2016
This morning, around 4:30am, I wrote this:
Awaking just before 4:00am I move slowly, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Each step, each reach of the hand deliberate so as not to send sometimes crashing to the ground startling my roommates from slumber. With bare feet I carefully make my way to the bathroom, with smooth gliding strokes across the cool faux wooden floor, where I get dressed, brush my teeth, and do my hair. Eyes fixing from the sharp influence of the bathroom light to the thick, quiet darkness of our one room hut I operate only by feel and the intermittent soft blue glow of my watch light. I gather my shoulder bag and hooded sweatshirt, turn the doorknob, hoping it doesn’t squeak too loudly, and step outside to put on my shoes and submerge myself in the clear waters of an early morning filled with stars. Sitting here now in the dining hall, sipping tea and writing, chilled air rolls in through an open window. I think to myself: I’m here on retreat for no other reason but to care well for myself, to be present with every action big or small, to slow down. I’m not here to become a better wife, stepmom, friend, daughter, or even a better mindfulness practitioner, although these things will happen too in some regard – I’m here to practice for myself, to practice being fully and splendidly awake with every here and now I am so generously afforded. The journey, my journey, has already begun.
It’s now just after dinner and I’ve returned to my hut. Last night we were offered an orientation, for those of us who’d just arrived yesterday, by Sister Concentration, a sweet, witty nun who I would guess is in her 30’s. Now that the Sisters have their new living quarters there is a bit more room to house laywomen here in Clarity Hamlet, which translated to there being perhaps the largest incoming group to lodge here with a total of 22 of us. A vast majority of our new arrivals have simply come for the weekend and will leave tomorrow. By my estimate perhaps only 4-5 laywomen will remain on after tomorrow, plus two or three who have been here perhaps from the start of the 3-month winter retreat which began in November.
At 5:00am this morning the large outdoor temple bell began to sound, along with the lovely chanting of one of the Sisters in her native French. Her melodic voice and reverberating sounds of the bell blended with the stars overhead forming a wonderful orchestration. We sat in meditation from 5:45-6:30am, followed by chanting. Breakfast was at 7:30 and our work meditation meeting was at 9:00. For working I helped one of the sisters do some sweeping. Then we moved a large pile of branches and large sticks, in multiple loads a short distance away, to the oak grove to dispose of them in the woods. We also bent, cut, and maneuvered a bunch of old sprinkler hose sections into a plastic trashcan in order to take them to the dumpster. There were dozens of black hoses pointing every which way sticking out of the trashcan at various heights and angels like some kind of crazy rubber spider we had conquered. Another laywoman who came to help us with the hoses endearingly called our final product: monastic sculpture. We worked for over 2 straight hours and ended with just enough time for me to wash up before our next activity of outdoor walking meditation, which started at 11:30. I thought about skipping the walk, on account of being all dirty and sweaty from working so laboriously, but after a quick hand washing and the splashing of some cool water on my face I decided I was up for it. We were led by one of the Sisters on a wide rutted dirt trail before we veered off onto a wooden path that led us to the spot where a standing Buddha statues resides. Our walk took us about 45 minutes and it was a lovely day for it. Sun shining, breeze blowing.
It was time for lunch when we got back from our walk and as I usually skip the noon meal while on retreats I adjourned to my bunk to take a nap. After waking up at 4:00am, doing work meditation, and going for a long slow walk I was super ready for heading to bed. I was tired and sore from so much time spent on my feet but I was also very content and at ease too. It wasn’t a bad thing to be so worn out and over exerted, it just meant it was time to rest.
Going backwards a bit to this morning: after sitting meditation our schedule allots time for personal exercise, which is simply done on our own if we so choose. One of the Brothers often leads stick exercise practice however it was only open to those staying in Solidity Hamlet. So I simply grabbed a stick from the pile and took it with me on my way back down to our hamlet. In the main large dirt parking lot I set to going through the exercises on my own. It had been a while since last I did them, on account of having had shoulder surgery this past summer, but I took to them rather well and was very happy to move through them with relative ease.
After breakfast I took a walk up the fire road which sits just off the main parking lot. I was so very much looking forward to the short but steep climb to the top, where a great vantage point of the monastery can be had in one direction and a sweeping view of Escondido can be had in the other. The first steep part of the fire road is paved, I imagine for quick access should a fire break out and need to be tended to, and is a good little work out to climb up. At the top of the hill the pavement ends, making way for a deeply rutted dirt trail maybe 8 feet wide. A little further past where the pavement ends sits one of my favorite places to visit here. A place I lovingly called “My Rock” in the journal entries I wrote from my stay here last January. It’s a spot that would go easily unnoticed when hiking by, which is part of its charm. After a little bit of weaving and scrambling around brambles and rocks there’s a wonderful overview of the valley when perched atop this large and most lovely whitened set of rounded boulders. The spot gets alighted when the sun crests over the mountains just after breakfast each day. It’s a warm and amazing spot. In the past I would venture there after breakfast most days, usually listening to my music while scanning the valley. Smiling to the newness of the day beginning. I have a special place in my heart for “My Rock” spot and I was as eager to visit it as I would be to see an old and dear friend.
We had a meeting scheduled at 3:00 with one of the Sisters who was offering a time for the short term laywomen to come together to ask questions and share a little bit about our stay here. While I’ve been practicing for a long while and have been to Deer Park before I find it valuable to attend these type of orientation/beginner groups. It’s nice to hear from others about their experience and listen to their questions and I especially like to observe how the Sisters lead groups and explain things, as it serves as good training for me as a meditation teacher and practice leader in this tradition. At 4:30 we had sitting meditation followed by chanting in our small dharma hall and then dinner was served at 5:30. Other than a few mishaps with my bunk bed that pretty much sums up the day my friends.
Tomorrow will be a free open public day of mindfulness from 9:00am-3:00pm and my sense is there will be a whole lot of people coming. It’s almost 8:00pm and now I am off to bed. 4:00am comes soon enough :)