(Helpful Info & Terminology: This is part of a 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 two days 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 23rd, 2016
This morning, as the outdoor bell spread out with ease in the darkness, I watched as the moon set over the hills beside the meditation hall. It had grown cloudy since I had awoken at 3:30 and the moon was cast in a veil of clouds but I could still make its shape out and see its glow as it parted from view.
While there were some conflicting announcements made this morning about stick exercise, and who was welcome to attend them after the sitting meditation, I joined in with Brother Phap Dai, albeit with some trepidation. There were some others from Clarity who participated as well, along with a couple of women who are staying in Solidity. However, after our working meditation meeting it was confirmed in the reading of the Clarity Hamlet policies statement that we were in fact not welcome to attend the stick exercise led by Brother Phap Dai every morning. We are supposed to return to Clarity immediately following sitting meditation. I was of course very disappointed to hear this, as I very much enjoy doing them with the group and being led by the older Brother. While there’s part of me that wants to honor and respect this policy without questioning it I also do not understand the sentiment behind it in having it apply to the laywomen, especially since the laywomen of Solidity are allowed to join in and Brother Phap Dai has told me personally that all are welcome. But I don’t want to disobey a direct request so until further notice I will no longer be doing the stick exercises with the Brother, except for when we are all welcome to participate on days of mindfulness because our hamlets eat breakfast together.
This time of the winter retreat is a time of concentrated practice for the monastic community and certain policies and boundaries apply during this 3-month retreat that are not in affect during other parts of the year. Sometimes they are difficult to understand from the outside perspective.
I did however wind up talking to Sister Concentration about this during our working meditation in the bookshop storage room. I feel very comfortable with her, she’s very approachable and kind. I asked whether it might be possible to get special permission from the Sisters to attend the morning stick exercise. I explained that it was important to me to be respectful and I didn’t want to ask if that would in any way be inappropriate. She said that it was worth asking and suggested I talk with the Sister who’s job it is to care for the laywomen (I am forgetting her name now). It felt good to be able to bring it up to her, as I am usually quite tentative to talk with the Sisters normally, which is largely due to the language barrier. I don’t often have much to say in general but when I do have a question I find it much easier to talk with the Sisters that I know speak fluent English and will be able to fully understand me.
For the first time since we’ve been here Mike woke up early enough to join in the morning meditation in the big hall. When we practice sitting meditation here we sit in rows facing outwards with the men on one side of the hall and the women on the other side, which makes it so we don’t see the other side of the hall until after we stand and bow to each other after the sitting is over. But even though I was on the outside row of our side, and couldn’t see anyone else behind me, I knew Mike was there before I even saw him by the sounds he made in the clearing of his throat once or twice. It wasn’t loud or overly distinctive but as his wife I know his unique and subtle noises. It made me smile to know he was there behind me in the darkness. It’s nice to be in separate Hamlets and miss him. It’s nice to always look forward to seeing him and cherishing our time together, though in all honesty it is the same at home too. Every day I look forward to seeing him come home after work. And every day I am grateful for his companionship, love, and care. Truly.
There was another policy that was read this morning that spoke about how if we are to go up the fire road or down the driveway we are to either let someone know or write our name on the board in the kitchen and also go with another person. I’m hoping, however, that I misunderstood this and that we aren’t required to always walk with someone. I’m also hoping to continue skirting the need to tell someone or write my name on the board every time I should choose to take the short walk up the fire road, which is usually at least once, if not twice, a day. It seems unnecessary and very restrictive to me to always have to declare my whereabouts. If I am understanding it correctly the policy is effectively saying that any time we want to walk in pretty much any direction outside of our small hamlet we’d need to not only let someone know but we’d have to be accompanied as well, which I don’t like at all. I figure it is easier to continue as I have been in regards to the walks I take verses the stick exercise protocol. I guess you could say I am picking my battles.
During the last few mornings, when I go to sit in the dining hall and drink tea after waking up, I’ve been writing letters to a few friends, two of which are in different state prisons in Montana. I find it easy to write letters here, explaining all about Deer Park and the surrounding nature and my retreat experience. I love the art of writing letters and find it to be a lovely form of expression. Normally my regular pen pals consist of my grandmother, who recently moved to Arkansas, and my two friends in prison. In the leather bound journal that Mike made for me I keep a well done pen drawing that my friend Daniel sent to me in his last letter from the correctional facility in Shelby, MT. It’s a drawing of one of the prison buildings and guard tower surrounded by fencing. I keep it with me in my journal, along with a picture of Thay and a few other small paper items, to help me stay in touch with the suffering of all of those who are behind bars – and to remind me to be grateful for the freedom I am afforded, not just physically but also mentally and spiritually too.
Tomorrow is the often largely attended public day of mindfulness. I am looking forward to seeing Mike and spending the day with him. And tonight as I lay my head to rest I am looking forward to letting go of the little bit of tension and frustration that has lingered on my pallet today after having had the Clarity policies read aloud to us this morning.