The day after we got home from Deer Park my husband and I felt inspired to offer an informal evening of sharing about our retreat experience, at our local mindfulness center. We plan on teaching our sangha a couple of new songs we learned, offer some basic info and background about Deer Park, talk about our experience, show a short sildeshow of pictures, and then open up for Q & A. So in preparation for that, I thought I’d write out what I plan on saying, as it might prove helpful as a sort of summary here on my blog as well. (UPDATE: We had this evening of sharing last night and had around 10 people in attendance, it was a lovely evening :)
To offer a little bit of info and background: In the mindfulness tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh there are a small number of monasteries located around the world, and of those, most are considered practice centers as well, meaning that laypeople, like you and I, are welcome to visit and spend time there at various times throughout the year. There are three monasteries in the U.S and all are open to laypeople: Blue Cliff in New York, Magnolia Grove in Mississippi, and Deer Park in California. Deer Park is located in southern, CA about 1 hour north of San Diego and about 4 hours south of L.A. It’s situated on 400 acres surrounded by chaparral mountains and was established in the summer of 2000.
There are two hamlets, as they are called (meaning “small village”): Clarity Hamlet and Solidity Hamlet, which are a short 10-minute walk apart from one another. Clarity Hamlet is where the Sisters (or nuns) reside, and laywomen who come to stay. Solidity Hamlet is where the Brothers (or monks) reside, and laymen, couples, and families who come to stay. Both hamlets come together at certain times for meditation, programs, and meals, but during the 3-month winter retreat, much of the time, the hamlets operate independently of one another. Each one has its own dining hall and kitchen and also its own small meditation hall. The 3-month winter retreat, which goes from mid-November until mid-February, is designed especially for the monastics (monks and nuns) as a time for concentrated practice energy. During the winter retreat, travel outside of the monastery is very limited and there are also certain boundaries around the property that are instituted during this time frame as well, in order to help contain the energy and support the monastics.
Currently, at Deer Park, there are 18 Brothers residing there and 28 Sisters. And during our 3-weeks there, there were approximately 10 laywomen staying in Clarity at any given time and about 15 laymen and laywomen staying in Solidity. It used to be that people could go for just a weekend to Deer Park during the winter retreat but this year they adjusted their policy and the minimum length of stay is now a week, arriving on Friday afternoons and departing on either a Friday or a Sunday. Lay people can register to stay at Deer Park for up to 2 weeks and then any amount of time over 2 weeks you have to write a letter asking for permission to stay longer. Generally, as long as a practitioner is living in harmony with the community, they are accepted for longer periods of time when it’s requested. Some layfriends are there now for the whole duration of the 3-month retreat and there are a few layfriends there who are also year-long interns, as they call them. So there are different options available for people to go and stay there. Most lay folks, however, tend to stay for a week, so that’s the average length of stay. And despite there being so few lay people around there were a number of folks visiting from other countries and states during our stay there, which was neat to see.
This was my fourth year in a row going to Deer Park in January, and Mike’s third. And for the past three years that we’ve gone together, we’ve chosen to stay separately when we’re there, as we feel it offers us the best of both worlds: having time together and having time to develop our own individual practices as well. Typically during the winter retreat time that equates to our being able to spend time together 3 days a week, for a few hours. On the other 4 days a week, our schedule generally looked like this:
5:00am Wake Up
5:45am Sitting Meditation in the Big Hall
9:00am Circle Up for Announcements and Work Assignments
Guided Outdoor Walking Meditation
3:00pm Watch a DVD Dharma Talk or Dharma Sharing
4:30pm Sitting Meditation and Chanting in the Small Hall
I’ve found it interesting how often people have commented to me, both before going to Deer Park and while being there, about how lucky we are to be able to spend 3 weeks there on retreat – it’s interesting because while I realize not everyone can afford to go there for that length of time, many more people could do it if they really wanted to. While it’s true that we are indeed fortunate to be able to go to Deer Park, I think a lot of folks assume that Mike and I have some sort of magical circumstances that enable us to go there, which is not the case at all. We choose to make it a priority to go to Deer Park and spend the amount of time there that we do. It takes our saving up for the better part of the year to afford the plane tickets and cost of staying at the monastery (which was $315 a week), it requires us to shift our schedule with our son and his other household with his mom and stepdad, we have to take off from work, I have to do a fair amount of preparation ahead of time in order to be away from the sangha and the mindfulness center and keep things going on the social media/website/schedule/rental fronts, and we sacrifice a certain amount of other expenditures so that we can dedicate our money to going to Deer Park for the length of time we spend there. I thought it worth speaking about that a little bit, to help demystify the retreat experience and perhaps gently encourage people to think about going there themselves, especially if there is a desire to do so.
I go to Deer Park in order to concentrate my practice energy on coming back home to myself – to commune with myself – to water and strengthen my own seeds of sovereignty. I go not to get away or “retreat” from my daily life or to get a break from my responsibilities, but to engage more fully in life, to become more connected with the wonders that exist in every moment – to remember how precious and miraculous life really is. One of the biggest elements that allows me to get in touch with both myself and the flow of life’s bounty, is to take solace in silence. So, when I’m at Deer Park, I talk as little as possible, which amounts to very little, as I’ve found there’s not much of an actual need to talk very much. And while silence is a great joy for me – I often find that I yearn for it in my daily life – it also kicks up a little bit of tension as well. In avoiding social chatter with layfriends, and making myself largely unavailable communication wise, it can cause some confusion, judgements, and feelings of disconnection to arise in others at times. And I realize, too, that I can hold on too tightly to my silence, to the point of getting frustrated when it’s interrupted or when it becomes necessary for me to attempt to switch gears in order to verbally interact with others. I find it difficult to go back and forth between the energies of concentration and silence and the energies of social engagement and conversation. So I would often depart swiftly when certain events ended in order to steer clear of talking and socializing. I much prefer to connect with people on a different level – I love sharing silence with others in sitting meditation or during outdoor walking meditation and I enjoy dharma sharing groups where we practice deep listening and holding intentional space for folks to speak. But social chatter, small talk, and the like, does not interest me very much.
So it can be difficult sometimes, because I go to Deer Park to enjoy the depths of silence, which is not a huge element in this tradition. It may sound terribly rude and anti-sangha, but I don’t go to Deer Park to make friends with others – I go to make friends with myself, which is a little different than what draws most people to go there, it seems. Many people go there for community, to find and connect with like-minded folks. But I have that already here at home, so I go for other purposes. I go for silence, for stillness, for self-connection.
The highlights for me are: having such immediate access to nature and being outdoors so much, sitting meditation in the mornings, the sounds of the bell, the local wildlife and landscape, having a schedule that offers a good balance of activities and rest/personal time, having wonderful food cooked for me, and having the practice of mindfulness be my full-time job. Going to Deer Park affords me the concentrated time to practice, which benefits me more than anything else I can think of. Going to Deer Park helps me to fill up my energy tank and water the seeds of joy and happiness.