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Serving with Grace

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.

 

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Fun Zen Circle Project

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!

 

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2019 in Fun, Local Retreats

 

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Why I Practice

Why do I practice? And more specifically: Why do I practice in this Plum Village mindfulness tradition, in all the ways that I do?

Why I do see fit to attend retreats, spend time at Deer Park Monastery, sit for 30-minutes in meditation each morning, show up to my weekly sangha every Monday night, read sutras, chant, and spend hours each week tending to our local and statewide sanghas and mindfulness center’s business turnings? Why do I put so much attention, effort, care, and diligence into developing and strengthening the seeds of mindfulness, joy, ease, liberation, and heartfulness in my daily life?

For me, the spirit of these questions is worth while to to keep alive and answer periodically from time to time.

Right now, here in this moment, I am inspired to answer in two different ways: a practical way and a poetic way.

First, the practical way:

I practice because I feel nourished and supported by my teachers, the dharma, and the sangha. I practice because even when it’s hard, it feels like the right thing to be doing. I practice because I am able to see the fruits that develop and strengthen in my daily life as a result of my efforts, such as growing my capacity for being more kind, caring, present, connected, open, and understanding. I practice because I know life would be hell if I didn’t. I practice in the interest of life being precious and time being short. I practice because I want to help support and care well for others and I see clearly that in order to do that, my own well-being must be continuously maintained and protected. I practice because this tradition brings me to a vibrant, joyful, and grounded frame of mind, body, and heart, over and over again.

And now the poetic response:

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In Mourning

In loving memory of Alison Matthews, who passed away on July 3rd, 2017

and her husband David, who passed away last night on August 6th, 2017

 

A string of sangha friends have died in only one-month’s time – a period of mourning is at hand.

Breathing in, I see myself as a rain cloud.
Breathing out, I allow myself to grieve this sacred sorrow.

What am I to understand from all of this loss? 3 friends in the last month, gone. 2 friends this time last year, gone.

This life is extinguishable, yes.
Those I love will continue to die, yes.
Right now there is pain and heartache, yes.
At some point, this pain will pass, yes.
This life is precious, yes.
This day today is a gift, yes, most assuredly.

 

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Here’s an excerpt from a speech David gave last year:

“I have a very strong connection to Martin Luther King, Jr. He was the speaker at my commencement in 1965 at Oberlin College. I lived through that troubled time of the ‘60’s, and through all the years since, with Martin Luther King as a powerful guide…

This individual man who was called by God, opened himself fully to universal mind. Two months before his assassination in April of 1968, in a Sunday sermon, he spoke out the summary of his life, and what he knew to be important. It is the antithesis of despair, and the call to each of us to make a useful life.

He said:
Once in awhile I think about my own death and my own funeral, not in a morbid way, but I ask, “what would I want someone to say?” If any of you are here when it is my time to meet my end, don’t make it a long funeral. And if someone gives the eulogy, ask them not to make it too long. Ask them not to mention the Nobel Peace Prize – that’s not important. Ask them not to mention all the other awards, or where I went to school. Those things are not important. On that day I would like someone to mention that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life in the service of others. On that day I’d like someone to say I tried to love somebody, say that I tried to feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. I want someone to say Martin Luther King, Jr. was a drum major, a drum major for justice, a drum major for peace; say that I tried to be a drum major for righteousness. And all those other shallow things won’t matter. I won’t have anything to leave behind- no money, none of the fine things of life. But all I want to leave behind is a committed life. And that’s all I want someone to say.”

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Time

Last week I turned 38 years old. On the eve of my birthday, a sangha friend passed away. Alison Matthews, age 63.

63 is an age generally considered to be on the younger side of someone passing away. 63 is not old age. I am continually reminded about the preciousness of life, especially in the wake of others who have passed on. Earlier today, I was visiting with a hospice patient. During our weekly visits, I’ve taken to bringing a newspaper with me and reading aloud the news. As I was reading the Today In History section I came across this: In 1937, American composer and pianist George Gershwin died at a Los Angeles hospital of a brain tumor; he was 38.

One never knows when our time will expire. So often, we live as though we have a limitless supply of time. In reading world news and local obituaries, however, I routinely come across people who’ve died at all ages and stages in their life. For me, this serves as an important reminder: there’s no guarantee that we will see old age. And that applies to myself, as well as my beloved family and friends.

Being in touch with death and dying keeps me in close contact with my gratitude for life. Volunteering with hospice affords me the opportunity to train in the art of living life well, with however much time I have. And I am deeply touched and nourished by all of the patients I have the honor and privilege to meet with, who serve as my teachers in this regard.

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Posted by on July 11, 2017 in Everyday Practice

 

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Montana Open Way Sanghas Spring Family Retreat

Our 2017 Montana spring family retreat, in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, in pictures:

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Self-Care

7pointplan

To read in more detail about Ethan’s 7-Point Plan: http://www.ethannichtern.com/7-point-practice-plan-for-engaged-mindfulness-in-2017/

Yesterday was a long day of LOTS of sitting on a meditation cushion at our local mindfulness center, with very little active movement, which my physical body is not a huge fan of. And it was also lovely, too, as not only was I able to partake in an OI Day of Mindfulness (OI: Order of Interbeing), but it meant I was able to see our out of town sangha friends, of whom I only gather with 3-4 times a year.

Our Day of Mindfulness included: sitting meditation, indoor walking meditation, reciting the 14 Mindfulness Trainings, listening to short talks from three of our Montana and Wyoming area OI members, silent lunch, a dharma/personal check-in round, and closing remarks from our local Dharma teacher Rowan. It went from 9:30am-5:00pm. My husband and I left at 5:00pm, in order to return home to our son, while others stayed to have dinner together at the center. My nerve condition, and associating chronic pain, had been so aggravated by the hours spent mostly sitting that I darted out to our car quite rapidly after the final sound of the bell – whoosh, I was gone! What I’ve been appreciating reflecting on, since getting home last night, is how strong my practice of self-care is – which took me years of honing in, I might add, and is a continual practice. Now, when my pain levels rise and my mental energy plummets in unison, I know what I need to do and I do it.

A big part of my self-care routine is in understanding how physical pain, just like everything else, is of the nature to change. When my pain level rises, I practice to remember that by prioritizing rest, using a few simple aids (such as using a heating blanket and soaking my legs in a hot bath), and being attentive to my body mechanics, my pain will subside to a large degree, after a certain length of time. I no longer fight against the pain or my body, wishing they were other then they are. I’ve learned a different way of engaging with myself when pain arises, and it makes such an immense difference in my experience.

As Thay says: “The Buddha said that you shouldn’t amplify your pain by exaggerating the situation. He used the image of someone who has just been hit by an arrow. A few minutes later, a second arrow strikes him in exactly the same spot. When the second arrow hits, the pain is not just doubled; it is many times more painful and intense.

So when you experience pain, whether is physical or mental, you have to recognize  it just as it is and not exaggerate it. You can say to yourself, “Breathing in, I know this is only a minor physical pain. I can very well make friends and peace with it. I can still smile to it.”

If you recognize the pain as it is and don’t exaggerate it, then you can make peace with it, and you won’t suffer as much. But if you get angry and revolt against it, if you worry too much and imagine that you’re going to die very quickly, then the pain will be multiplied one hundred times. That is the second arrow, the extra suffering that comes from exaggeration. You should not allow it to arise. This is very important. It was recommended by the Buddha: Don’t exaggerate and amplify the pain.”

– From Shambhala Sun magazine (now known as Lion’s Roar), January 2012

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