(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)
Friday February 12th, 2016
Here are a few things I wrote in my journal early this morning:
One never knows if and when our eyes and footfalls will meet a certain place again.
Of course, we like to think we’ll live forever, with countless chances to return, but the truth is:
things change, we change – and one just cannot say for sure what will come of tomorrow.
To be able to abandon laughter when it has ended,
and not mourn its passing,
is a mark of wisdom
For all things that arise
must also dissipate.
This is the nature of life,
what makes it possible for us to
survive, grow, love, and be
There is no tomorrow
without letting go of yesterday
There is no right now
without embodying the past
The future is born from this moment
Savoring these last moments but without lamenting over them or trying to hold on – there is no need to look back in sorrow, or in an attempt to freeze-frame something into the mind’s eye. As we flow ever onward our attention should be moving in the direction of our two feet, forward with purpose and ease.
While it’s true that I am returning home today it would be foolish to say I am leaving entirely. We really are arriving and departing in every moment – it’s not just a hollow theory or speculation. As one foot touches down in front of us, an imprint is left behind by the other.
It’s funny how quickly the mind can vacillate between contrasting sentiments. Yesterday I was missing the company of the community during morning sitting meditation and today, when it resumed, I was feeling subtle pangs of annoyance when any little sound arose; the sneezing, coughing, sniffling, blowing, shifting noises of being surrounded by human forms. But I was able to notice my wavering attitude right away and come back into my own form, rather than be swept away by another’s – progress.
For the last couple of days I’ve been practicing not to mentally depart, drifting far away on the sea of things to do when I get home: open registration for the spring retreat, tend to a zillion emails and a stack of postal mail, pay the mortgage, do the laundry, go food shopping, work on my book, spread the word about collecting items for our community yard sale fundraiser at the mindfulness center, train our three new sangha facilitators, prepare for our state wide sangha board meeting next weekend, become a ninja! Ok, well, at least I can drop that last one. Whew, one less thing to do!
Of course I have moments of success and moments of less success in regards to not being swept into the future, this is to be expected. One moment I might be listening intently to the call of a raven perched on a tree branch or telephone wire and the next I might be internally formulating a plan of attack as to which things will be more pressing to do right away when I get home and which things will be able to wait. This is how life goes. We swing back and forth and back and forth between this moment and some other moment. And sometimes the pendulum moves more slowly, affording us the ability to stay longer in the here and now.
As my leg is on the mend I’m feeling up to joining in for the outdoor walking meditation, which starts in 45 minutes. I had originally thought I’d also eat lunch before my shuttle van came but since I woke up at my usual 3:00am, and won’t be landing in Missoula until midnight, I decided I’d be better served by taking a nap instead – after all, food is easier to come by when traveling than good rest is. Since I don’t have the time to do both I’ll simply nap after the walking meditation and then prepare to shove off into the wild blue yonder.
Working meditation is happening currently and as it only took me about 25 minutes, when all was said and done, to gather my belongings and pack up, I am afforded the time to sit and write one last time before leaving. At our 9:00am meeting, before setting off to work assignments, we sang some songs as usual and then anyone who was slated to leave today was invited to say a few words of departure. Although a few of us were leaving today I was the only one among us who attended the meeting so I offered my gratitude, for having been cared for so well over these past few weeks, and spoke of how fortunate I am for having had the opportunity and ability to come here to practice. I also mentioned that I was very much looking forward to returning home to Montana and to my home sangha with feelings of lightness and ease. I concluded by saying that my husband and I hoped we’d be able to return again next January. While waiting for breakfast this morning I had mentally prepared what I would say during the meeting – I find that works well for me when I have the ability to do so. After the meeting one of the Sisters came up to me and said, “See you next year!”
I was grateful for the chance to say a personal farewell to Sister Concentration before she headed off to her work assignment in the book storage area in Solidity, where she and I had worked a couple of times together. I’m not sure if I already mentioned this or not but she’s here from Plum Village just for the winter retreat and will be heading back home at the end of March. She’s originally from this area of California and while often mistaken for being Vietnamese, is not. Her native language is English, which is very refreshing here among a vast majority of Vietnamese speakers. I say it’s refreshing only because it can be difficult to ascertain which Sisters will be able to understand you fully when approaching with a question or even when responding to something they ask of you. I like Sister Concentration a lot. She and I have spoken a bit here and there and I connected with her right away. She’s very grounded and also very relaxed and candid, which I appreciate. Her easy going nature and lightness was a joy to be around. Whenever I would see her I would feel just a little more at ease. When we said our farewells she gave me a hug and said, “This feels like a beginning, I’ll see you soon.” I plan on writing to her when I get home.
Here I am at the San Diego airport. My flight starts boarding in about 45 minutes. My mind is reeling with the details from my shuttle ride, which took just a little over an hour to land me here. While it was all so incredibly ordinary on one hand, on another it was overwhelmingly spectacular. As it turns out, when you have a proclivity for writing, and have just spent four weeks sequestered in a monastery, the world becomes a feast for the eyes!
After passing through the residential area at the bottom of Deer Park’s long driveway we found ourselves in the midst of an elementary school letting out. Scores of young people trailing behind their parents packed the sidewalks, one father nonchalantly carrying a Little Mermaid backpack slung over his shoulder. (Side note: I admire and silently congratulate men who seem not to mind carrying something super girly that obviously belongs to someone else). Before pulling away I looked up at the electronic sign at the corner of the school yard, it read: Be creative – Think Critically. “Hmm,” I thought to myself, “what does that mean?”
Once we turned a few street corners it seemed as though all of the young ones magically grew up in the blink of an eye. Escondido High School was also letting out: Home of the Cougars, as the spirited sign emblazoned on the building stated. A flood of teenagers clad with backpacks, cell phones, and the occasional Valentines Day themed balloon streamed down the street in a hurried procession, escaping towards freedom for the weekend.
Here I am in flight! Nothing but ocean and the spreading out of lights beneath us. If I were in the monastery, I’d be returning to my hut after dinner right about now and getting into my pajamas. There will be no getting to bed early tonight!
To continue with my shuttle ride account: After leaving the high schoolers behind we soon merged onto the interstate, skirting around slower moving traffic in the carpool lane, going a cool 80 mph past speed limit signs marked at 65 and the occasional warning about carpool lane violation fines, which sat at a minimum of $401. I remember thinking to myself, “Why $401 and not an even $400 I wonder?” Outside, palm trees dotted the nearby landscape as the hills undulated further behind in the distance, full of scrub trees and carved with curving fire roads. Clay plaster houses in warm earthen tones with tiled roofs lined the highway in well landscaped communities with lovely sounding spanish names. There were eucalyptus trees with peeling cream colored bark, eye grabbing signs for Sea World and the San Diego Zoo, a Tango dance studio, college students on skateboards around the UCSD (University of California, San Diego) campus, mommas with strollers by the water front, lone seagulls soaring amid the ocean breeze, sailboats lounging lazily in the harbor, and then the rise of tall glass and steel buildings in the heart of the city as we neared the airport. I could have been driven around all day for how much I was enjoying myself. I was a moving tourist enamored with ordinary, everyday life. On our way to exit the interstate we passed by a large inflatable rooftop gorilla, who was purple and wore sunglasses and polka dotted briefs, perched atop a costume shop with a clearance sale. If I caught the website address painted on the building correctly as we sped by, it said: gorillabreath.com. It made me smile and think, “Not all animal names would be well suited to precede that word: breath.” Somehow, oddly enough, I think gorilla works.
The orchestration of life; from small monasteries tucked into the hillsides to bustling suburbs and cities to the fortitude of airports, is alive with the music of being unabashedly human. There is no other way to be. All of us are on our way somewhere, having just left someplace else. All of us are sharing air, space, time, water, food, asphalt, and a collective humanity that bridges our seemingly stark disconnection into one complete present moment. A moment that sits unparalleled, spilling beautifully into the pool of the next one after that.