Last week, I attended our local fall retreat up on the Flathead Lake. (This “peace is every step” pumpkin was a pic I took at said retreat.) Part of me wants to offer my typical post-retreat accounting here on this blog. But a bigger part of me has little interest in doing so. And part of me wants to tell you why I don’t have interest in relaying my retreat field notes and part of me doesn’t.
Instead, I think I’ll say this: it’s been a hard week. The hardest I’ve had in a very long time.
Over the last few days, it’s been interesting relaying this truth to people who have casually asked: how’s it going? I am someone who is interested in not answering on auto pilot with such empty responses such as: fine and good when confronted with that how are you question. However, I’m also interested in being brief. It’s a challenge, to say the least. On the best of weeks I am at a loss for how best to answer this question in such a way that is honest and also quick and to the point.
When I’ve told people: this week has been hard or I am being really challenged this week it solicited a range of responses I did not care for being on the receiving end of. It puts me in touch with how poorly skilled we are as a human collective to listen deeply and to respond in the spirit of interbeing.
This past weekend, we had our first ever Montana Open Way Sanghas leadership and OI retreat (OI = order of interbeing, in the Plum Village Buddhist tradition). We also tried out a new retreat facility in Great Falls, Montana: the large and lovely Urseline Center, built in 1912.
Catholic in practice, the Urseline Center welcomes a variety of groups and programs into its space. We were very well taken care of. And what a treat to be surrounded by such history and craftsmanship. It was a treat to stay there and incredibly well-taken care of.
Here are a couple of things I penned in my journal early Saturday morning:
The quality of silence inside this elder building, is a sound I dearly savor and admire. Still, at 4:50am, a songbird’s morning trill penetrates the thick walls of brick and stone and reached with grace my countenance. Every bit of this place has been touched by someone’s faith or expression of God. And we, who dwell here for just a short sliver of time, are the ultimate and shining example.
If you listen carefully,
with full attention and full presence
and full breath,
the harmonious choir of religious views
can be heard, resounding
in the hearts of the people.
I walked slow, steady, and singing
around the pews of a 1912 Chapel.
In the third row,
I folded down the padded kneeling bench,
kneeled and joined my palms.
I connected with the church of my youth
I prayed to an energy
I neither understand or personally resonate
yet still find great and lovely movement in,
through those seeking guidance
on how to live well, with great kindness.
It was here, on my knees,
that I heard the ancient sound:
the harmonizing choir of all religious views,
lending their voices together
Last weekend, we enjoyed our local spring family retreat up on the Flathead Lake with our Montana sangha family. Twice a year, we organize local 3-day residential retreats: one in the spring and one in the fall. And each spring is a family retreat, where we invite children to attend alongside their parents. This year we had 59 adults and 25 young people, aged 3-15, for a total of 84 people.
Each spring, I serve as co-director on the retreat planning team. I also head up the children’s programming with my good friend Amy, so essentially I am on two different branches for organizing the retreat. We have one team for: managing all of the logistics with the camp facility we use, registration, and organizing the schedule for the adults and program elements with our visiting teacher(s) and another team for planning the kids programs that we offer.
Knowing I serve in this co-director capacity each spring, friends often ask me if these spring retreats are an actual retreat for me. My reply this year has been: Not in the classic sense of the word, no. These retreats for me are a rich opportunity to engage with work as spiritual and joyful practice.
I’ve recently started reading this book:
Serving with grace is a deep aspiration for me on the path of practice. And to speak to my full aspiration, I would add: serving with grace and kindness.
Supporting our young people and their parents to come on retreat; to be in touch with the nature and landscape of the lake and the surrounding woods; to be in touch with the Dharma and the Sangha is a great joy and a true calling for me. It’s also exhausting work too. But gosh, I have no qualms about getting worn out temporarily from undertaking such a lovely endeavor. Sometimes, putting all of our physical fuel into something can fill up the heart tank and gear us up for the next thing that comes along. The physical tank is easy to refill: food, rest, movement. But keeping the heart tank full, that’s where the real work happens.
In preparation for our upcoming spring family retreat with our Montana sangha family, in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh – for which I am serving as co-director – I worked on this fun project this morning. Ensos! An enso is a zen circle and is said to symbolize a number of different things: openness, awareness, strength, the universe. Enso’s can be created open or closed and are typically fashioned in one brush stroke.
Since our upcoming retreat will be a family retreat and we’ll have kids present, we thought it would be fun this year to create a small optional activity that we could simply leave out on a table in the main gathering area that all ages could engage in, if they so chose.
As I was brainstorming a simple community activity, I came across a post in my Twitter feed from the Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico that offered inspiration:
The tweet that accompanied this picture said something along the lines of having folks there at Upaya fill out an enso with their aspiration for their own practice during the retreat. So I took this idea and tweaked it a bit.
I made a total of 70 enso’s on small multi-colored squares of paper, using a calligraphy brush and some tempera paints I had on hand. Then I made a sample one posted with instructions that I’ll leave on the table, along with markers and some oil pastels:
This wound up being great fun to do this morning :)
I contemplated whether to put out paints and brushes for people to make their own enso’s but decided with the number of people we have attending and so many kids that it would best to keep the activity less involved/potentially messy. My plan is to collect all of the well wishes created and string them together in a collage for display. So stay tuned to see the final product!
Last week, I attended a weekend of mindfulness up on the Flathead Lake, hosted by our sister sangha Open Sky, entitled: Be Still and Heal. To help lead it, they brought in Dharma teacher Barbara Newell (formerly Sister Pine in our Plum Village tradition).
I thought I’d craft this post in order to share some pics and a few things I jotted down in my journal over the course of the weekend.
Dec 8th, Early morning journal entry:
Words can do only so much to incite action. Therefore, we should be advised as to when to put them down, in order to lift our gaze and set to the work of embodying their application in our life.
Words are nothing on a page. Words are empty of value when left to swirl around like a goldfish in the murky waters of our minds. And yet, words matter like the pulling of tides. They matter like thunder approaching warning us to weather coming. They can pierce our thickened armor as though it weren’t made of steel, penetrating our hearts like an assassin’s blade. And if I were told I would die tomorrow, I would cling to them for salvation, solace, and camaraderie.
Breathing in, I feel gratitude for the opportunities that I am so richly afforded, and the spiritual community of friends I get to share my practice with.
Breathing out, I feel refreshed and energized.
This past weekend, I had the great fortune of attending our Montana Open Way Sanghas fall retreat on the Flathead Lake, with visiting Dharma teacher Leslie Rawls. Each of our two annual retreats start on a Thursday evening and end on a Sunday afternoon. I feel so very grateful to have access to these opportunities twice a year, so close to home. Our local retreats are truly a gift.
Thursday, a northern drive which lulled my two travel companions to sleep, revealed a trusted tender sweetness I’d not shared with them before.
Friday, our first full day of the fall retreat revealed cohesion of the part of me that wanted to be somewhere else this weekend, with the part that wanted to be here.
Saturday, the water pitching and heaving under gray skies, revealed how similar the mind is to the lake’s surface and how quickly things can change.
Sunday, a 2-hour car ride with a friend, revealed another lovely layer of understanding and celebration for how other people’s experiences sculpt and enrich my life.
Written on Sunday June 18th, 2017
From my early morning journaling on sunrise patrol (hence pics above):
4:11am – A triangle of light glistens between two eastern peaks. 51 degrees.
4:22am – Outlines of each mountain are gathering distinction from their darkened counterpart above.
4:25am – A drop of light is tossed over to beckon through another soft dip in the ridge.
4:26am – An unassuming rain falls, almost as an afterthought. 51 degrees.
4:28am – Local bird residents become audible.
4:32am – An artistic rendering of budding light and swirling watercolor clouds paint the horizon in deep blues, black violet, and white turquoise.
4:41am – Pine tree silhouettes come into view, accenting the skyline with their bristled scruff tops.
4:45am – Dawn has penetrated the veil of night in every cardinal direction – no longer is coal the dominant hue of the sky. 51 degrees.
4:53am – The vertical ocean of clouds assumed a color scheme I associate somehow with the energy of dwindling hope.
5:01am – Almost all of the surrounding landscape is bathed in partial faded light.
5:08am – Foothills and fence-line reveal themselves anew, as though it were the first day of their creation.
5:17am – A sliver of brilliant golden rose appears right where the very first light penetrated the night sky.
5:28am – Sage, moss, and forest greens sip their first taste of the white-silver morning.
5:36am – Smokey pink-creme rays spiral up like tufts of steam into the soft din of low-hanging clouds.
5:39am – A lone cow elk cameos on scene. Still holding at 51 degrees.
6:08am – 50 degrees.
6:21am – 49 degrees. (Hmmm.)
8:31am – What I was waiting for to end this sequence has finally happened – 52 degrees!
Written on Saturday June 17th, 2017
A few years ago, a university student, who was sitting with our sangha at the time, asked if she could do a video project of me on the topic of meditation for a journalism class she was taking. One of the questions she prompted me with on camera was to fill in the blank: Meditation is like ______. I said: Meditation is like stepping out into the first light of spring. It was simply the first thing that came to mind. Well, today has felt this way, too. It has been the loveliest of days. I feel light, refreshed, nourished, peaceful, and contented. What great fruits this practice brings!
It’s worth mentioning that while I did come up with a schedule to serve as a foundation for this weekend, I also intended on going with the flow of the day and following my intuition. Here’s what today wound up looking like:
5:30am Wake up
5:30-7:00am Sip tea, write, watch the morning sky
7:00am Sitting meditation
7:30am Sutra service
8:00am Stick exercises
9:15-10:30am Dharma talk video
10:30-11:15am Outdoor walking
11:30-12:15pm Yoga (using guided video)
12:15-12:45pm Picnic lunch outside
2:00-4:00pm Sip tea, write, calligraphy, read
4:00pm Sitting meditation
4:30pm Sutra service
6:15-6:45pm Outdoor walking & sage picking
7:00-9:00pm Journal typing
Written on Friday June 16th, 2017
The idea of doing a solo retreat has been a brewing interest of mine for a little while now. Then, after going to Deer Park Monastery for three-weeks this past January, my percolating idea bubbled up with a newfound vigor. So I emailed a few well-chosen friends who I thought might have some ideas of a place to go where I could be relatively secluded, surrounded by nature, and left to my own devices.
I’ve long been wanting to stay in one of the handful of local fire towers that’ve been converted to a reservable getaway destination spot, but I soon found out that those are in high demand and already fully booked up for the season, which makes sense. (Note to self: book early for next year!)
A sangha friend generously offered me the use of her and her husband’s cabin about an hour from town, which is where I’ve landed and am currently typing from. I arrived here, amid spectacular rolling sage-covered foothills, around 4:30 this afternoon. After finding my way around the house and unpacking the car, I set to making dinner, which I intentionally kept simple: a pre-made salad and a bowl of vegetarian chili, made and sold by our local organic market The Good Food Store, which I picked up this morning.
Our 2017 Montana spring family retreat, in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, in pictures: