Going on Retreat

Pic: Me @ Deer Park Monastery, Jan. 2018

On Friday, Feb 7th, Mike and I will be jet-bound to southern California to spend some retreat time at Deer Park Monastery (DP), which is based in our Plum Village practice tradition.

If you’ve been following along here on this blog for a while, you might recall that this is typically an annual pilgrimage we both take together. Last year, however, we changed things up a bit and I stayed home, while Mike went to DP solo and stayed for 3-months. So the last time I was at DP was in January of 2018. This upcoming retreat stay will mark the 6th year for both of us going to DP for an extended period of personal retreat time (since I went solo w/o Mike when I went for the first year in 2014, and last year he went solo w/o me).

This time around, I’ll be there for just under 3-weeks and Mike will be staying for 2-months. Prior to having skipped my retreat stay at DP last year, I knew how valuable these personal, extended retreat stays were to my own practice and well-being, however, since the fall, I feel as though my understanding has been granted a more in depth look at the benefits I receive from going there.

In December, I had the chance to have a one-on-one consult visit with a lay Dharma teacher, who used to be a nun in our tradition, Barbara Newell. After sharing with her about how Mike and I were slated to go to DP in February, she commented about the great importance for laypeople – especially those of us in a leadership position – to make time for this type of extended, personal retreat time (where we’re not in charge or responsible for doing anything on the retreat organizational side of things). She said something along the lines of: it’s one of the most important things we as senior practitioners can do, and it’s something very few people make time for.

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He’s Leaving On A Jet Plane

pic taken on Jan. 23rd, 2019

He’s leaving on a jet plane tomorrow morning at 6am, with a plan to be gone for 3-months.

And while physically he’s going on alone, to our beloved extended sangha family at Deer Park Monastery in southern California, on retreat – where he and I have been venturing together every January for 2-4 weeks at a stretch for the past 5-years – and I’ll be staying home to hold down the fort, do not mourn for our marital separation. Rest instead, as we are, in the graces of our interbeing nature, knowing full well that wherever he goes, I go and wherever I am, he is. When he goes away on retreat he goes not only for or by himself alone. He goes for us both. He will not be there alone and I will not be here alone.

When either of us engage in a true act of self-care, we are automatically and simultaneously helping to care well for our counterpart. There is no separation.

Of course there is sadness in our physical parting. Of course we will miss each other. But do not think for one moment that this is our sole or dominating reality. Do not suffer from the false impression that I am sacrificing my own usual personal retreat time at Deer Park, for I am not giving anything up. Together, Mike and I are acting in the best interest with love and care for one another. For those who may have trouble understanding, falling victim to your own falsely held views, let this be heard, understood, resonate, and absorb.

Know too, in the wake of sorrow, there is nothing wrong or in need of fixing. Sorrow is part of life, not separate. We would do well to stop trying to make it go away or will it to be other than as it is or inflame it to some dramatic swell.

So if in the next few days and weeks you ask me how I am and I respond by saying that I am sad, please know that it’s okay and I’m okay. Being sad doesn’t automatically equate to falling apart. I’d rather not have to shield you from sharing my true state of heart in an effort to help you manage your own discomfort with sorrow. This is something I’ve been working on: not over-caretaking for other people’s experiences and feelings (which I have the great tendency to do). So this is me stepping into some discomfort, doing the work.

I’ve been reluctant to share this news on a variety of occasions since we made this decision 2-months ago, for a lack of knowing how to best field people’s common misunderstandings about why we’ve made this choice. Here are some of the impressions people have shared or eluded to:

  • Our marriage must be in trouble
  • Mike’s depression must be REALLY bad
  • My personal practice will suffer without my annual DP retreat sojourn
  • Mike and I must be consumed in sorrow at the prospect of our separation for 3-months
  • I am performing some great and noble act by “allowing” him this opportunity

And NONE of these are accurate or true.

Take comfort in the letting go of such false notions, if indeed you have them, dear friends.

Yes, Mike’s depression has kicked up and we were propelled into making this decision based on him needing some recharging and restoration time to help support his mental and emotional well-being. But we’re all good on the home front.

There is no crisis. No catastrophe taking place. No upheaval of our state of being.

Our feet are planted firmly on the path of practice – both as individuals and together as a paired couple – with love and ease, in the spirit of liberation.



Gosh it’s easy to misunderstand things

This morning, while reading the Discourse on Happiness from our Plum Village chanting book, it clicked. After reading the second sentence: “Late at night, a deva appeared whose light and beauty made the whole Jeta Grove shine radiantly,” I came to understand what Brother Phap De meant two years ago when I was at Deer Park.

He had just finished leading us in stick exercises one morning before breakfast when he asked us, in a light and friendly tone of voice: “Who was that diva dancing the polka in the parking lot yesterday? I think they should lead us all in a dance session!”

In that moment, my internal dialog went something like this: Oh man. That was me. I didn’t really think others were watching. Do I have to declare myself now in front of all these people?! I mean, I really REALLY do not want to lead a dance session, that’s for sure.

I sheepishly raised my hand, indicating that the diva he was inquiring about was me. Then, I raced the heck out of there and headed to breakfast.

Later, I pondered the terminology he has used: diva dancing the polka and felt a mixture of confusion (as I didn’t know exactly what the polka entailed but I was certain I wasn’t doing it), slight embarrassment, and feeling affronted. Did he call me a diva? I thought to myself on many occasions after that. I’m not sure I like that term. No, I KNOW I don’t like that term. Is that how others see me?! Oh dear.

Up until this morning, I thought he meant diva (with an i), as in someone who is a prima donna, as my paperback Webster’s defines it. (Then I looked up “prima donna” to make sure I understood that word correctly – which is listed as: an extremely sensitive, vain, or undisciplined person.) But now I realize he probably meant deva (with an e!), which is described as a Celestial being or angel in the glossary in the back of our chanting book.

Upon making this discovery this morning, my internal dialog went something like this:

This changes everything!


Thank goodness!

Brother Phap De

I’ve read the Discourse on Happiness a handful of times since Brother Phap De declared me the deva dancing the polka. But it wasn’t until just this morning that this insight arose, allowing for me to move into proper understanding.

The human experience is so incredibly fascinating, from a self-observation standpoint especially.

While it’s not worth giving it too much thought, I wonder: What changed? What allowed me to make this connection TODAY vs. some other day? I mean, I haven’t consciously thought about this instance with Brother Phap De in a long long time.

One of the guiding life sayings that I like to tell myself often is: Sometimes you don’t get to know why. Translation: This is a moment you would do well to practice just going with the flow of the river of life experience, Nicole. Stop trying to analyze things or come to some sort of neat conclusion that can fit in well with how you view the world, it’s a waste of time and energy.

Over the years since this encounter, even though I wasn’t a fan of being called a diva (with an i), I have dearly cherished this moment between us. He was genuinely interested in knowing who it had been that he had seen down in the parking lot. It was clear to me that he had been delighted in their joyful offering. And while I was mildly embarrassed that someone – especially a monk – had seen me dancing, I was also put at ease that he was able to sense my heartfelt enjoyment of dancing and appreciate it for what it was, vs. perhaps deeming it an inappropriate activity to do at a monastery (which was a back-of-the-mind concern of mine). And he was apparently so taken with my dancing that he even wanted me to instruct and lead others!

Brother Phap De passed away at age 82 (I think) in August of 2016. If memory serves, he made the “deva dancing the polka” comment in January of that same year, when Mike and I were there on retreat. It was an honor and privilege to get to know and spend time with Brother Phap De over the years that Mike and I have been visiting Deer Park, before he passed away. When I do stick exercises – which typically amounts to once a week – I think of him every time, as he was the one who would always lead them at Deer Park. Randomly during his instructions, he would prompt us all to smile – and when I lead them on our local retreats or at other times, I continue his memory and remind people of the same thing.

At the end of my stick exercise session each week, I do two standing bows in closing. The first bow is in dedication of Brother Phap De. And the second is in gratitude for the stick I use.

In conclusion:

Gosh it sure is easy to misunderstand things.

Now that I know what Brother Phap De actually meant, I am even more nourished from this encounter we shared. And now that I have been afforded the great gift of insight, it will allow me to carry forward this memory with more clarity, understanding, ease, and joy.

Sometimes – maybe even all the time – more understanding equates to more freedom. Freedom from what? you might wonder. To which the teachings in our tradition would say: Freedom from illusory notions and false views, which is ultimately what all of our suffering (large, small, or tiny) can be attributed to on a foundational level.

To read more about Brother Phap De’s life story, click here.


Deer Park Wrap Up

Tonight at my local sangha, Be Here Now, Mike and I, and a few of our sangha friends who recently spent time on retreat at Deer Park, will be offering a Deer Park (DP) retreat sharing panel as part of our format. There will be 5 of us on the panel and we’ll each share for 5 minutes or so about whatever is alive in our heart and our practice in regards to our time at DP. I plan on starting with a short intro and background about DP and then after the panel we’ll open up for Q & A. If there’s time, I also plan on showing a 10-minute DP video montage I put together from footage I took in January during our 3-week stay. And if there’s not time, then it’ll be an addendum after we close the group, for those wanting to stick around to watch it. I’m looking forward to this evening and hearing from my other friends about their retreat stay!

Here’s what I plan on saying for my sharing:

The importance of sangha practice is not new to me but I did delve deeper into this insight when I was at DP this last time. Being in close contact and interaction with my sangha – whether it’s my local home sangha, larger statewide Montana sangha, or the community at DP – is not an additional component of my mindfulness practice, like adding parmesan cheese to the top of a bowl of pasta. Sangha practice is equivalent to the tomatoes needed to make the sauce. It’s a necessary and critical ingredient.

Despite how strong and diligent my practice is with peppering in a variety of mindfulness tools and exercises throughout the day, if I were to stop attending sangha and stop attending retreats, my practice would eventually fall off and take a nose dive. Sangha practice is not just something nice to sprinkle in to my life when I have time or when I’m really craving connection, sangha practice is the center of the wooden wheel, which all the spokes splay out from.

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Deer Park Journal: Day 21, Departure Day

2018 Deer Park Daily Musings
Written during a retreat I attended from January 5th-26th, 2018

Background Info & Terminology: Deer Park Monastery is rooted in the mindfulness tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and is situated in Escondido, CA, north of San Diego.

Laypeople: Also called lay friends or laymen and laywomen; those of us who practice in this tradition 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.
Thay: Refers to Thich Nhat Hanh, meaning “teacher” in Vietnamese

Friday, January 26th 2018

Day 21: Departure Day


Early morning haiku:

The morning sky glints
like polished obsidian
singing in star dust


I wrote this in the Dining Hall this morning:

The coffee maker adds its voice to morning’s orchestra of sound: water boiling in the hot water dispenser, clattering of breakfast preparations from the kitchen, the rolling wheels of a cart over cold tiles, carrying all the daily fixin’s for oatmeal and toast. The clock ringing its 7am song.

We depart from here today, on a jet plane, unsure of when next we will return (who is it that sings about this? I can’t recall). How both strange and delightful it is to have so many feelings of home. When I arrived, although I had left my home to come here, I felt as though I was returning home. And now, as I prepare to go back home, I feel as though I’m leaving home, too!

Then there’s the home which remains a constant source of solidity and fluidity. My true home within myself, anchored in the here and now. Home really is where the heart is – literally and metaphorically! When the heart is open, home is everywhere!


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Deer Park Journal: Day 20

2018 Deer Park Daily Musings
Written during a retreat I attended from January 5th-26th, 2018

Background Info & Terminology: Deer Park Monastery is rooted in the mindfulness tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and is situated in Escondido, CA, north of San Diego.

Laypeople: Also called lay friends or laymen and laywomen; those of us who practice in this tradition 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.
Thay: Refers to Thich Nhat Hanh, meaning “teacher” in Vietnamese

Thursday, January 25th 2018

Day 20


Early morning haiku:

If I didn’t write,
how would I manage to speak
all that my heart learns?


On Thursdays (and Sundays too), we have breakfast at 7:00am instead of 7:30. And as I am among the first in line to dish up at mealtimes and also the first to exit the Dining Hall, here I am already typing!

Today is Lay Day once again, and I am feeling a particularly strong rebellion against attending the scheduled activities. At 9:00am we are set to gather in the campground for Tai Chi, followed by outdoor walking meditation. Then, according to the posted schedule, we are to have a tea ceremony at 10:15 in the Small Hall and dharma sharing at 11:15.

In knowing that we’ll be leaving around lunchtime tomorrow, part of me wants to simply depart right now, thereby skipping Lay Day and the dancing around to avoid social chatter like land-mines. Sidestepping Lazy Afternoon and Lazy Evening tonight and the Lazy Morning that follows in suit tomorrow. Other than meals – and lay day activities through until lunch
today – the only thing remaining is Working Meditation tomorrow at 9:00am. While part of me sees this as rather timely – a proper transition back to life outside of the monastery – another part of me does not want to let go of the periods of collective stillness and silence, which I so revel in here.

It’s almost 8:00am and I am still undecided about what to do for today. So often this question arises for me: How does one discern between the discomfort that arises from genuine lack of interest, or skilled ability to engage in a beneficial manner, and the discomfort that holds one back from acquiring the opportunity to practice in such a way that enables us to become free of the ties that bind us so fiercely? Part of the answer, I think, is to simply keep this question alive. To stay in continual contact with myself. The other part is to wait for a response to arrive from this space of inquiry and spaciousness. I’ve found that when I’m able to allow myself to settle into even just a modicum of spaciousness and stillness, my path forward tends to present itself pretty clearly.


Every morning after breakfast, I recite this verse (which I fashioned of my own accord, influenced by other renditions):

This bowl, now empty, was just filled with
wonderful, delicious, nutritious food.
May I take the energy and nourishment
it provides me and transform it into:
_____, ______, and ______
on my path of practice today.

I fill in the blanks with a varying assortment of words, depending on the day and my aspirations. Today, I used the words: deep looking, ease, and friendliness.

With this agitation stirring, I see that the practice of befriending is most important for me right now. To take good care of this agitation with loving kindness and gentleness. To smile upon it like a dear friend and not criticize or condemn these feelings, wishing they would go away or be some other way than as they are.

The ability to let go of a painful or uncomfortable feeling only develops after learning how to recognize, accept, and embrace those feelings as they are. If we try to skip those first parts and go directly to the practice of letting go, it doesn’t work. Attempting to skip the first parts equates to the practice we’re most familiar with: running away, covering over, or ignoring the pain or discomfort that has arisen.

Befriending is always the answer.


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Deer Park Journal: Day 19

2018 Deer Park Daily Musings
Written during a retreat I attended from January 5th-26th, 2018

Background Info & Terminology: Deer Park Monastery is rooted in the mindfulness tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and is situated in Escondido, CA, north of San Diego.

Laypeople: Also called lay friends or laymen and laywomen; those of us who practice in this tradition 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.
Thay: Refers to Thich Nhat Hanh, meaning “teacher” in Vietnamese

Wednesday, January 24th 2018

Day 19


Early morning haiku:

Small sounds of morning
the temple bell is calling
the cushion awaits


I got 8 hours of sleep last night by skipping evening meditation and “sleeping in” until 4:15am. It was splendid. When you need the rest and you receive it, it’s a marvelous thing. Upon laying down on my bed last night around 7:00pm, I knew from the deep sighs of relief I made when my body met the mattress, that I was not going to make it to the meditation session at 8:00pm. “Go on without me,” I quipped aloud to an empty room, “just leave me here – save yourself!”

Here’s something I wrote in my journal this morning before sitting:

I guard my silence here much like one guards a small, precious child when crossing a busy road. I cradle it in my arms with care, and become fierce if the situation should deem it necessary. It’s so rare, this thing called silence. Sometimes I feel it is in such short supply that I’d fight to the death to protect and defend its honor, lest it be be stolen and every ounce spent and gone forever.


Somehow I realized just this morning – during sitting meditation – that the presence of others here on retreat is a necessary ingredient for my practice and development of concentration. They aren’t an obstruction, as I have often been thinking. They are a vital component. They are as crucial an ingredient to my strengthening of concentration as tomatoes are to making pasta sauce.

The presence of others naturally enables me to boost my practice energy. I think we can all relate to this phenomenon. Let’s say we host a potluck at our house and there’s a sea of delicious food to choose from. Given that we’re amid our friends, we eat with a certain level of moderation. We don’t gorge ourselves on dessert, we only have a handful of chips, and so on. Then, at the end of the evening, after everyone has left and we’re left standing alone in our kitchen surrounded by all the leftovers, we release the hounds! We proceed to eat half a pie, 2 bowls of ice cream, and the rest of all the chips. And this isn’t something to give ourselves a hard time about – it’s human nature! I’d be a much lazier practitioner if I were left to my own devices, is what I’m saying.

So, where do we go from here? How do we reconcile with not using our mindfulness practice to try and fix or change ourselves when there are things about ourselves that we want to, well, fix and change? One of my new favorite quotes is from Carl Rogers, (the founder of the client-centered approach to modern psychiatry): The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” I love hearing this insight from a titan in the field of psychology, especially since it reaffirms what we are taught in this Buddhist practice tradition. Befriending is always the answer, when it comes to an inward struggle we’re having or any kind of pain we experience, whether physical, mental, or emotional. Befriending is always the remedy. What befriending allows us to do is to create spaciousness and ease. And when that happens, only then can we act from a place of understanding and love. And from this place, transformation is not only possible, it’s inevitable. Fighting against or with certain parts of ourselves that we’re not a big fan of, will never result in the outcome that we’re looking for. The more we recognize, accept, and embrace others as part of our path, and the more we recognize, accept, and embrace ourselves just as we are, the more able we are to grow in our practice of mindfulness, joyfulness, and liberation.

(Can you tell I’m working on a talk I’ll be giving at my home sangha next month? :)


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