A Difficult Week

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.

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Montana Open Way Sanghas Leadership Retreat

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.

This morning,
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
and prayed.

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
in symphony.

 

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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.

 

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!

 

One Day Soon

Pic taken of Mike and I the day before he left for Deer Park Monastery for a 3-month retreat stay

 

One day soon, the other side of the bed will be occupied by him once again, and I will no longer have to utilize the services of my heating blanket to keep warm at night.

At certain times over the past 3-months, I’ve used this solo time to imagine what a life led in his permanent absence would be like; as though he were gone for good and not only for a short stint. I’ve pondered how I would manage and carry on without him. I’ve gotten a tiny glimpse as to why a widow might keep herself in mourning for a lifetime.

When you’ve married your heart to another full throttle – after weaving your lives together for a spell – there is no such thing as time spent without their energetic impression accompanying you.

Mind you, I can hold my own. I’m steady on my own two aching feet and can joy it up with the best of em, all on my own accord. But I want to keep doing all of that with him close at hand.

One day soon, I’ll shift positions in the middle of the night and in place of the open sea, he’ll be there to catch me – and it will be the utmost of grand occasions.

Rituals

Immensely inspired by a video interview I watched this morning, as part of a free Wellness Summit happening online right now, entitled: How to Set Yourself Free From Pain & Misery, with Dr. Sean Stephenson, I was called to craft this post focused on my own personal daily rituals.

In Dr. Stephenson’s interview, he said: I have 16 rituals and if I don’t do at least 4 of them every day, my insecurities will eat me alive.

He said a lot more that’s worth mentioning – I took over 5 pages of notes during the 60-minute video! – but there is much greater value for you, my friends, in watching it yourself (click on link above). It is one of the very best mindfulness-based talks I have ever seen.

So rather than using this post to relay all of my notes, I will instead focus on sharing my daily rituals, which isn’t new for me to do here on my blog but has perhaps been a little while since last I did.

 

Nicole’s DAILY Rituals (for Self-Care and Cultivating Ease, Joy, and Solidity)

Waking up early enough to enjoy a period of time connecting with myself, amid the graces of quietude and slowness

Writing (if even only a little bit)

Sitting meditation

Gratitude practice (which I created myself and involves certain verses I say each morning, along with prostrations to the earth)

Saying a connection/gratitude verse before I eat each meal

Watering my seed of joy, with intentional skillful effort

Guarding well my sensory input (TV/films, music, books, magazines, conversations, social media, news…)

Resting (which for me typically comes in the form of taking a nap every day; even on the days I work, as soon as I get home around 4:00, the first thing I do is lay down to take a short nap before preparing dinner)

Maintain consistency with when I eat each meal: breakfast, lunch, and dinner

Wake up at the same time every day (5:00am) and go to bed around the same time each night (between 9-10pm)

 

Nicole’s WEEKLY Rituals (for Self-Care and Cultivating Ease, Joy, and Solidity)

Attend sangha every Monday night

Participate in my self-crafted Mindful Morning Saturday practice

Watch a Dharma talk and/or mindfulness-based teaching video online

Spend time dancing and exercising

Devoting one morning (usually Sundays) to Lazy Morning practice

 

Nicole’s YEARLY Rituals (for Self-Care and Cultivating Ease, Joy, and Solidity)

Attend our two locally held and organized mindfulness retreats with my extended Montana sangha family

Prioritize solo sojourns

Spend extended, concentrated time on personal retreat (or amid other practice-related spells of personal quietude)

Attend local days of mindfulness and special practice events hosted by our sister sanghas as much as possible

 

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Q & A Writing Prompt

As a Dharma-teacher-in-training, one of my weaknesses is knowing that I would not be much good at fielding Q & A sessions on the fly. I am not a quick thinker. I am a percolator. I need time to process – that’s why I’m a writer!

But as Q & A’s have a way of making their way into our retreat formats, I reckon I should muster up some skill in this regard. And by the way, it doesn’t help at all that for the most part, I tend to personally dislike Q & A sessions in general, simply as a member of the audience. So I see that my weakness on this front is operating at a further disadvantage because in truth, I have little interest in getting any better at it.

I’ve born witness to many a Q & A session while on retreats and it’s been rare that I’ve seen a truly well-crafted question being asked. And by well-crafted, I mean a question that isn’t looking for a quick-fix/straight-forward/tell-me-what-to-do-here sort of answer. No teacher can answer properly the sort of questions most people tend to ask. And by properly I mean in a way that the question asker feels a sense of satisfaction when all is said and done. It seems to me that the best hope one has as a teacher fielding the questions, is the chance to possibly benefit someone else in the audience with what they have to say. My sense is that Zen-based answers leave little to be desired for the people directly asking the questions.

Once in a while, a good question is presented. One that will benefit the whole of the community and isn’t vying for an answer to a question that only you yourself can unfold as you continue on the path of practice. Most questions simply speak to the newness of the practitioner doing the asking. I don’t mean to give new folks a hard time – and I’ve heard equally answerless-questions offered up by people who’ve been in the practice for a while, too – but I do wonder about the necessity of Q & A sessions during our retreats and how much benefit they offer our community.

It makes sense that new practitioners would have questions. But I think especially when we’re starting out, it might be better to simply invest our time and energy into doing the practice, verses talking about it.

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